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.

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.

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.

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.