Joel Sisolak is executive director of Friends of the Cedar River Watershed in Seattle, Wash.

Monday, 14 Apr 2003


This past weekend was relatively quiet. I had time to avoid my spring cleaning, relax with a book, and play ultimate Frisbee. I did make one trip out to North Bend, Wash., to speak to the new volunteer docents at the Cedar River Watershed Education Center. They were “graduating” after several weeks of training on things like wildlife interpretation, cash register operation for the Center gift shop, and how to deal with an unruly seven-year-old who insists on manhandling the rain-drum installation or fording the small stream on campus.

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I wanted to welcome and thank these newest volunteers, to let them know how critical they are to protecting the watershed and educating the wider public about our region’s primary source of drinking water. And I wanted to share with them a story that expresses the significance of the Center.

Last year, I traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, with a delegation from my church. During our 10-day visit, we made several trips deep into the countryside, riding on bone-jarring roads in the back of pickup trucks, building relationships with the indigenous people living just north of Guatemala.

Nuevo Progreso is like many small Tseltal villages in the hills of southern Mexico. The primary industry is agriculture. The primary crop is coffee, destined for foreign markets. But there is a difference evident as one walks out into the groves surrounding the village. A lushness abounds, a spring green rapidly disappearing from many coffee regions in Latin America. Nuevo Progreso is transitioning back to organic methods of coffee production.

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A cieba tree grows in Mexico.

Photo: Science Museum of Minnesota.

After touring through the coffee groves and asking many questions about shade-grown coffee and fair-trade pricing, we returned to the village for lunch, finding shade under an ancient ceiba tree. Our host explained that the Maya, from whom the Tseltales descended, revered the ceiba tree, or Yaxche.

The Tree of Life is a symbol common to many cultures. For the Maya it represented the axis mundi — like the line of balance through a spinning top — that united the underworld, earth, and heavens. The ceiba tree under which we enjoyed our Fanta sodas and warm cheese sandwiches is especially sacred to the residents of Nuevo Progreso. From beneath its roots wells a spring of clear, clean water from a deep aquifer. This spring, or ojo de agua (eye of water), supplies the whole village of 22 families with its drinking water. Next to the ceiba tree stands a simple wooden cross carved with a date: April 18, 1978. It’s the date the village founders discovered the spring and established Nuevo Progreso.

Every April 18, Nuevo Progreso suspends all work in its coffee groves. Every villager, old and young, turns out to celebrate the town’s water source with singing, dancing, firecrackers, offerings to their patron saint, and a feast of whatever bounty they can afford to bring to the biggest fiesta of the year.

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The Cedar River Watershed is rarely celebrated with such fervor. Why not? It serves a much bigger community than does Nuevo Progreso’s ojo de agua. More than a million residents of the greater Seattle area depend on the Cedar for water to drink, bathe in, and brew our famous coffee. Nearly 150 million gallons per day are piped into our homes and businesses, yet few people know that our water comes from a protected watershed, and that the protection of its lands and resident species directly relates to the quality of our water.

The Cedar River Watershed Education Center opened in October of 2001 to teach regional residents and visitors about the watershed. I told the docent class of 2003 that the Center is akin to the wooden cross that stands by the ancient ceiba tree in Nuevo Progreso, a marker to encourage all who visit to understand that our water source is sacred and protected. I commissioned the docents priests and priestesses of the watershed.

As I drove home from North Bend, it occurred to me that April 18 is this coming Friday. My thoughts turned to the party about to happen far away in Nuevo Progreso. I could almost hear the guitars and taste the tamales.

Tuesday, 15 Apr 2003


FDR called taxes “the dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.” I tend to agree.

I believe in strong government, with the burden of its funding justly distributed among citizens. I believe in taxation as a vehicle for building good schools, serving the poor, and protecting the environment. I believe in health care for every citizen, including veterans. I believe in foreign aid as the greatest measure we can take to improve homeland security.

I don’t believe in a huge (and growing) military budget or in preemptive wars. Unfortunately, the Bush administration doesn’t share my priorities.

Today, the U.S. generals said that the war on Iraq is at a “transition point,” and that “organized resistance is nonexistent.” I noticed they didn’t say, “We’ve won.” I’m grateful for this small nod toward the truth. There can be no claim to victory with so many lives lost and many more Iraqi civilians likely to die in the coming months.

It didn’t require Nostradamus to predict the water crisis that now, after a month of war, rages in southern Iraq. Most of the country’s water systems and other infrastructure were already in bad shape after decades of conflict and crippling economic sanctions. And the worst may lie ahead.

On April 9, the Baltimore Sun reported that people in southern Iraq were drinking untreated water from drainage ditches, and humanitarian aid workers warned that “the worst for civilians could be yet to come.”

From the Sun: “Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water are needed in the south of Iraq, from the port city of Umm Qasr, where water is beginning to trickle in, to the chaotic city of Basra, where it is not. If the electricity needed for purifying water in the north remains cut, the problems for people in Baghdad and its environs could become even more severe.”

Water is our most important nutrient, constituting 70 percent of our bodies. We drink it, bathe in it, cook with it, and use it to grow food. People living in communities without clean water cannot combat hunger, resist disease, or learn. Waterborne diseases and parasites rob children of educational opportunities while they cause adults to lose their ability to work. Livestock and crops become contaminated and inedible, leading to famine. Simply put, without clean water there is no quality of life.

Access to clean water is a basic human right. I hope the U.S. government and its allies at least will have the decency to restore this right to every Iraqi citizen before any victory is claimed. There is only one kind of liberation for a people without water.

Thank God we have access to clean water in the U.S. For now. As we prepare our 1040s and Schedule Cs we should ask, so what is happening to our environs as the war is taking its toll on Iraqis? How are our tax dollars affecting the environment here at home?

The Natural Resources Defense Council, in an alliteratively titled brief, There He Goes Again: Bush Budget Bashes the Environment, outlines how the Bush administration’s proposed budget will hurt water and air quality with cuts to the EPA, and will underserve national parks and forests, fish and other wildlife, and clean energy development. Bottom line, the Bush budget for the environment is down $1.6 billion from 2002. When inflation is factored in, the gap widens to $2.2 billion. Meanwhile, the Pentagon would receive an increase of $13.6 billion. This doesn’t include the cost of the war.

Taxation without representation is tyranny. And as Gerald Barzan said, “Taxation WITH representation ain’t so hot either.” I’m often deeply frustrated with how my membership dues in this society get expended and don’t get expended. There are good federal programs worthy of renewed and perhaps increased funding. For example, within the Cedar River watershed the City of Seattle maintains constructive relationships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to restore habitat for endangered species, as well as a collaborative relationship with the U.S. Forest Service to restore additional protected lands. And I hope the Pacific Northwest will continue to receive federal appropriations dollars for protecting more land. All of these programs preserve or improve the health of our region.

I can certainly get behind expending money on health and restoration, and I’m thinking of that today as I mail in my tax return.

Wednesday, 16 Apr 2003


God, I miss pizza and beer.

Three weeks ago, I began a detoxification diet recommended by my doctor. No dairy, no wheat, no alcohol, no caffeine, no refined sugar, no corn, no tomatoes, no peanuts … no fun. The doctor informed me that for 32 years, my body has been absorbing toxins from the environment and from my rich American diet, and that three weeks of restricted food intake was the least I could do for my liver and colon.

During the past three weeks, I’ve eaten brown rice, red rice, and basmati rice. I’ve discovered quinoa, organic spelt rotini, and cashew butter, and have consumed more apple juice than 50 sippy-cup-wielding kindergartners at snack time.

My morning “smoothie” is green, loaded with “antioxidants.” I dutifully choke it down, followed by a breakfast of rice puffs and rice milk. Throughout the day, I pop various vitamins and supplements including milk thistle (a non-dairy liver support) and a little capsule with the less-than-subtle name “Fiber Flow.” I drink lots and lots of water.

The doctor in question is a naturopath and my primary care provider of two months. I found her North Seattle clinic via the woman I’m dating, a medical student in the naturopathy program at Bastyr University. “Ah ha!” you might say. “Your girlfriend put you up to this!” And you’d be partially right. But it’s the philosophy behind naturopathy that converted me.

As the name implies, naturopathy is a distinctly natural approach to health and healing. It seeks to treat the whole patient, including care for his or her spiritual and emotional health. Here are some of naturopathy’s other tenets:

  • Vis medicatrix naturae. The body has the inherent ability to restore and maintain health, given proper support.
  • Primum no nocere. First do no harm.
  • Tolle causam. Identify and treat the cause of disease, not merely its symptoms.

Naturopathy makes sense for treating the “ecosystem” that is a human being. In fact, it makes good ecological sense, period. The above tenets can easily be applied to sound salmon- and wildlife-recovery practices.

In 1999, Seattle adopted a holistic treatment plan for restoring health to the Cedar River Watershed. The Cedar River Watershed Habitat Conservation Plan is a 50-year commitment to protecting and restoring the 90,500-acre headwaters of the watershed. Based on 10 years of scientific research, the HCP commits more than $90 million to improving conditions for 83 species of fish and wildlife.

The Cedar River Watershed is far from pristine. Eighty-five percent of it has been logged, sometimes repeatedly over the past 150 years, and hundreds of miles of deteriorating logging roads cut back and forth across its diverse and sensitive ecosystems. Mining and homesteading also have left their mark. The watershed is a badly wounded patient needing care — or at least proper support so that it can recover.

Vis medicatrix naturae. Nature possesses the ability to heal itself, given time and proper support. The HCP is based on the idea that restoring (or at least mimicking) pre-logging and homesteading conditions is the best way to help the watershed’s wild residents. The plan also recognizes that we can support the watershed’s recovery by such methods as thinning monocultural tree stands, but the recovery will not be quick. Nature determines its own pace.

Primum no nocere. Restoring the watershed is a thoughtful process, with each action carefully weighed prior to implementation. Natural systems are complicated things, and every step must be preceded by thorough study of historical conditions, and coupled with careful monitoring.

Tolle causam. Human beings caused the degradation of the Cedar River Watershed. Only education will prevent a relapse to such poor judgment. This is a primary focus of the Friends of the Cedar River Watershed, and was a major impetus behind the construction of the Cedar River Watershed Education Center.

My three-week detoxification ends tomorrow. Truthfully, all I can think about is resuming my old bad habits. Let’s hope that in 50 years, Seattleites can resist the temptation to resume logging in the Cedar River Watershed. Friends of the Cedar River Watershed plans to discourage that temptation by educating future stewards about the watershed’s ecological and cultural value.

Thursday, 17 Apr 2003


My email box is full. I skip over the unsolicited ads and barrage of listserv arguments, scrolling down to a message from Roz, a longtime member of the Friends of the Cedar River Watershed board of directors. The subject line reads: “Mission Statement.”

At our last board meeting, after dispensing with the usual business of reviewing financial statements and approving minutes, we had a good discussion about our organizational identity, how we’ve evolved in the past year and a half, and whether our mission statement still reflects our reason for existing. It’s a good conversation for us to have. We have several new board members this year. Plus, we recently transitioned from a capital-campaign focus to a program focus.

In 1996, Friends of the Cedar River Watershed existed primarily to raise funds to build the Cedar River Watershed Education Center. The center opened to the public in October 2001 to much acclaim for its beauty, its sustainable design, and especially for the role it would play in educating the community about the value of the Cedar and other watersheds. We are grateful for the support the capital campaign received from the community; anyone visiting the center will testify that it was money well spent.

A month after the center’s opening, the board of directors met at the new facility to celebrate the completion of the organization’s founding purpose. We also faced a question that every nonprofit should have to answer occasionally: Should we continue to exist?

Appropriately, that conversation began with the Friends’ mission statement:

The Friends of the Cedar River Watershed are dedicated to the protection and enhancement of the Cedar River Watershed.

At the time of that meeting, Friends of the Cedar River Watershed was the only community organization specifically dedicated to the Cedar, arguably the region’s most precious resource. The city of Seattle does a pretty good job managing the upper watershed where we get our drinking water, and King County and other municipalities manage the lower, but government management priorities can shift at the whim of elected officials. To insure the watershed’s continued protection would require a growing private constituency that deeply valued the watershed and participated in its protection.

The board of directors agreed that the organization should continue to exist as long as there are greater Seattle area residents who are unaware of the watershed and the role it plays in their everyday lives.

A year and a half later, we remain the only organization dedicated to the Cedar. We’ve helped launch a 2003 catalog of more than a dozen programs at the CRW Education Center. We’ve recruited volunteers to serve as 2003 docents and scheduled a bunch of tree plantings and other restoration events and tours; we publish two newsletters (printed and electronic); and we’re building partnerships with other environmental groups to aid in and expand our efforts.

Now, we are renewing our mission statement, which hasn’t changed since the Friends’ inception. Does “protection and enhancement” still describe our commitment and direct us forward?

Personally, I’d like to replace the word “enhancement.” In this context, “enhancement” sounds like hubris. When I think about “enhancement,” I think of cosmetic surgery and prettifying. I don’t think of serving nature, which can hardly be enhanced by us feeble humans.

I’m inclined to replace “enhancement” with “restoration.” But I also recognize that the watershed will never return to how Europeans Americans found it in the nineteenth century. Nature is too dynamic to shove back into an historic box, and people will continue to need drinking water from the watershed. We can only hope to help restore the watershed to approximate its once-pristine state. And we should — for the watershed’s own sake and for the sake of the many human and non-human creatures that depend on it.

Roz’s email includes other possible revisions. She suggests emphasizing our commitment to changing behaviors via education. She makes a valid point. I’m grateful for her thoughtfulness, and that of the entire board in this exercise. Input from the wider community is also welcome.

The mission statement is important. As Casey Stengel once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re bound to end up someplace else.”

Friday, 18 Apr 2003


Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper” shows Jesus and his followers at the table. Da Vinci doesn’t depict what happened after dinner. In Jesus’s time, like today, the Middle East was hot and dusty, and sandals were the all the rage when it came to foot fashion. Feet got dirty, and washing them was the task of servants and slaves.

After the last supper, the Bible says, Jesus surprised his disciples by rising from the table and commencing to wash their feet. When he was finished, Jesus said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? As I have done, so you must do.”

Since ancient times in the Catholic Church, the pedilavium (washing of the feet) has been commemorated on Holy Thursday. Water and washing are recurrent themes in Catholic theology and practice. Later today, I’ll fly to Montana to witness the baptism of my little niece and nephew, Jacob and Sarah, my brother’s twins.

In the Catholic tradition, baptism is a symbolic cleansing. In the Rite of the Christian Initiation of Adults (the Catholic playbook for baptizing) there is this general instruction: “the water should be true water, and, both for the sake of authentic symbolism and for hygienic reasons, [it] should be pure and clean.”

I am confident that the water Jacob and Sarah get dunked into on Easter Sunday will be pure and clean. This is no small blessing, and not something I take for granted.

Three years ago, I traveled to Thailand to teach English at a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok. Every morning I rode a motorcycle taxi to work. In the afternoons, I explored the city.

The longtail boats on the Chao Praya River are long and fast, driven by small propellers hooked to airplane engines. They’re a great way to get to and from various sites in Bangkok. When the driver lowers the propeller into the river, the boat jumps quickly to 20 or 30 miles per hour.

Before my first longtail ride, my ex-pat companion warned me to keep my mouth closed while on the water. He told me that the Chao Praya was so polluted that passengers had been known to get sick from the spray off the prow of the boats. I pressed my lips together and clambered aboard.

About 20 minutes into our ride, we slowed and approached a dock to pick up more passengers. Near the dock were several shanty houses, home to some of Bangkok’s many poor. These loosely constructed shacks line the Chao Praya for miles, tiny homes with no running water or sewers but the river itself.

Beside the boat dock, two small boys, only six or seven years old, were bathing in the fetid water. As I watched them, my mouth still closed against the river’s pathogens, I was filled with sadness. I wondered how long the boys’ fragile bodies would survive alongside the Chao Praya. The image of them laughing and playing in the filthy river has stuck with me since I returned to the U.S.

When I think of the pedilavium and how I might humbly serve my community, I am grateful for the opportunity provided by my job. The Friends of the Cedar River Watershed staff, dedicated volunteers, and a growing community of supporters serve the community by helping to maintain a pure and clean water source for our children. In that way, they help these same children grow up to travel, to learn about the many other creatures that depend on clean water, and maybe even to be inspired to participate in their own watersheds’ protection and restoration. I plan to mention it to my niece and nephew when they’re older.