SpruceRoots Magazine - July, 1999

Illustration shows a bridge abuttment at Crabapple Creek.

By Ralph Nelson

We are civilized, we know, we say so. We are civilized because we agree on it. The uncivilized barbarians of the past were always those who disagreed.

We are now so civilized that we write everything down; the ardor and control of writing it is the authority by which the words and concepts became absolute. Referencing a book confirms or denies a truth. But, in this world, governing and controlling the written precept necessitates enforcers. We got cops and judges - part and parcel, and we got civilization. The tightness and completeness of our organization defines our first world-ness, others are considered third-world. We're organized, we agree, and we're "right" because we say so in writing.

There is an assumption in our "rightness" called natural law. This "rightness" is the basis for our judiciary system - we wrote it down and we called it a natural. Maybe we couldn't think of anything else. At that time we decided that natural law defined a basic justice without a formalized written law. After some time it followed that the necessity for law became another natural supposition: now we have a formalized written law. These days, it seems, we only argue the details of law, not the concept. We quibble, but we all basically agree that we need justice and cops, we know what is right, and we call ourselves civilized.

We also know it is just that some one be held responsible for matters that fall beyond the edge of the law - unless it is deemed an act of god. An act of god is sometimes what we call a mishap when it is inconvenient to look too hard at how we may have been responsible. For example: building a house on unstable terrain or in a flood plain - but we wanted the view! We pretend to be shy of acts of god, though we frequently take on the role.

Crabapple Creek was flooded with diesel. We know there were fish in the creek. We know because people put them there and you could easily see them swimming in the water. The creek had already been "enhanced."

The fish put there were salmon. Salmon are anadromous: they live in both fresh and salt water. Chum and coho salmon travel to Crabapple Creek and spawn there, the eggs incubate and hatch, and the alevins live in the gravel interstices and, later still, swim free. Chums migrate quickly to salt water and coho stay a year or so, until they smolt. That's when they're ready to live in the saline sea. Fish need oxygen and food. A burbling stream below a falls has plenty of oxygen, and vegetation along the banks ensures lots of insects and litter - the fish do all right - but not when there is a flood of diesel on the water. A drop of kerosene was once the prescription for the control of mosquitoes - killed the larvae. Bugs are tough, fish too, but not that tough: and more than a drop or two of refined hydrocarbons ended up in Crabapple Creek.

So, we people trot out the law. Investigate like a parody of Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant," level charges, and book a date at court. Much later, when the court date happens, we argue a bunch of words by procedure, point some fingers and bang the gavel.

I don't know who was specifically culpable in the Crabapple incident, or why. I don't know how many fish were killed, but I do know that at the end of town, there are piles of earth that have been contaminated. MacBlo had a maintenance shop on the banks of Crabapple Creek and they had a tank of diesel fuel nearby. My understanding is that their tank leaked fuel, and then ruptured and spilled the lot. I know there were fish in the creek, and I know some died. I know that years of effort to enhance the stream with salmon were compromised.

As I said, I do not know who specifically is culpable, and unless it comes clear in court only those responsible will ever know the truth. But I'll tell you who is responsible: we are, especially those of us who live here. We are responsible for allowing the scenario that happened. I know there were those who complained for years that something as wrong - that their water tasted bad, that the shop stunk of diesel - but that is not what I mean. I mean we allowed ourselves to believe that we are somehow divinely gifted to create our dominion and enforce our laws over the entire natural world. And now that things aren't going so well as we might have imagined, we point our fingers away from ourselves to the nearest person who might conceivably have a closer link to the hand that held the nozzle, that filled the tank that rusted and leaked and killed fish. Perhaps that is the truth: if the court case gets that far and is not thrown out on a technicality we'll probably point at MacBlo and assign a rating of guilt or not. And perhaps once that is done we'll sleep well in someone's bed tonight. Well we shouldn't. We are all responsible and we should all sleep under the stars on the banks of Crabapple Creek in the stink and hang our heads in shame, think about what we did, and not do it again.

It is true, accidents do happen, but an accident is a calculated statistical chance, and we took the chance on a creek and the creek lost. The creek may do all right - maybe as well as the some of the others that are recovering from our machinations. But it is important to realize that whatever we do disturbing watersheds, they cannot be exactly their former selves by our efforts. We can at best rearrange the countryside - rob Peter to pay Paul - bring in new gravel, mimic former meanders and replace stream structures, clean the contaminated earth, and isolate the pollution. We can assist - hopefully accelerate the natural process of stabilization and re-growth of riparian vegetation that is so important to salmon. But the creek, once disturbed stays disturbed for a very long time - much longer than our life spans. We cannot really rebuild a creek, it will never be the same, but it could be similar - enough to be home to fish again.

After a catastrophe to the natural world it is important to begin work right away, we need to study carefully the best way to preserve whatever life remains - and just start working on it. It isn't cheap to do these things: cheap is too not make the mistakes, and nobody likes those costs either. We have turned environmentalism into a cost, which is wrong: backward - we are the cost to the environment.

MacBLo has done nothing except for piling the contaminated gravel and earth to one side to promote bacterial digestion of the reek of hydrocarbons. Other than that, my understanding is that MacBlo has spent no money or visible effort, on Crabapple Creek - just their lawyers. I know there are individuals in the company who should not be tarred with the same brush as the company - that should be said. But it should also be said, that companies - especially large multinational companies - have no soul, they do not live, and they are not responsible, even to their employees who could make a difference. Had MacBlo spent money on the creek, it might have made them look good in court, and people might have felt better, but what do they care - the laws were writ by and for the status quo.

At Crabapple Creek the issue is life - the life of a stream ecosystem. Specifically salmon, and all the attendant and important pieces of the inter-dependence of all species. We do eat those salmon. At issue, is dealing with the creek in a timely fashion after a catastrophe. Making the best plan possible and again, just doing it - forget the politics and legal advice. It seems important to me to keep these matters out of the courts, whose object can only be punitive. Exhibits "A" through "Z" are all dead, and many of them are fish. We are civilized, we know because we say so. We agree, but it seems to me that we have forgotten the question - is justice done because we play by rules?

Read all about it, there will be a court decision - no doubt.

SpruceRoots Magazine - July, 1999