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Restoring Nature, Restoring Yourself

Given months to live and told to find a hobby, a disabled Vietnam veteran turned to restoring the polluted creek behind his house. The effort saved his life.

For a man broken by war, John Beal found himself an unlikely place of refuge. Hamm Creek was an open sewer, plugged up with garbage.

Photo by Joel Sackett

The disabled Vietnam veteran hadn't known where to turn. Told that he had less than four months to live and advised by his doctor to find a hobby to take his mind off his pain and suffering, he wandered down to the stream behind his house to contemplate his future. He stood on the shores of a backwater tributary of the Duwamish River, a dredged shipping channel on the outskirts of Seattle, edged by concrete factories and laced with toxic waste.

He was still recovering from bullet wounds and haunted by flashbacks. Besides suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he had gone through three heart attacks, followed by a serious motorcycle accident.

"I went down to the stream behind my house and just cried, wondering how I'd care for my wife and four kids," says Beal. "Then the idea came to me: If you're going to check out, so to speak, try to leave this place better than it was when you found it. I looked at this wreck of a stream, filled with refrigerators, computers, old tires, torn garbage bags, broken swing sets, and stinking carpets, and all I wanted to do was clean it up."

Maybe it was a way of processing his memories of the wreckage of war, he admits. Maybe it was survivor's guilt. Or maybe his doctor's advice propelled him. Instead of despairing, he started simply pulling out the garbage. "When I yanked out this huge refrigerator, I thought it would surely kill me. Instead I felt better."

Since that day 23 years ago, Beal has directed all of his energies to cleaning up and restoring this polluted stream flowing out of Seattle's industrial south end. During the last ten years he has moved on to restoring the entire watershed of which it is a part.

"John really deserves credit for realizing that the Duwamish River and its estuaries could be restored to health, at a time when many people had written off the urbanized Duwamish as a lost cause," says Kathy Fletcher, executive director of The People for Puget Sound, a citizen's organization that involves local citizens in protecting and restoring local streams.

Beal has recruited hundreds of crews to clean up and replant around the streams and has now established a network of volunteer groups living in the area, as well as drawing the support and interest of the local Duwamish tribe.

Through sheer persistence, and with the help of groups like People for Puget Sound, Beal eventually raised enough public awareness and pressure to persuade the local utility to allow Hamm Creek, which had been channelized and paved into a culvert, to be daylighted and rerouted over its property.

"The most dramatic thing is how quickly the creek began reviving," Fletcher says, adding that within days of a huge effort to daylight and replant the area little salmonids began appearing. What was once a culvert dripping with waste is now a beautifully recontoured and replanted stream brimming with beaver, salmon, and other fish.

For Beal, the impulse to do environmental restoration is itself restorative: "It has empowered me and kept me alive." That same impulse has spurred the energies of thousands of volunteers. "I've seen remarkable things happen to people who connect with Mother Earth," he concludes, describing dozens of cases of people disabled physically or psychologically who benefit from the exercise and feeling of accomplishment. "They see a light go on when they get here."

"I remember watching a young man who had been in a wheelchair for eight years come out to help us weed and plant," he says. "After two years, he's almost able to walk." At first, the disabled man would fall out of his wheelchair, Beal recalls. But now, he says, the man is able to clamber down the slope of the shore, willing himself through. "He was out there every single day. And lately he's saying, ‘Now I've got a mission in life.'"

No matter how stressed, angry, depressed or troubled they are, whether it's a jail crew sent to clean up litter for the day or a class of disabled students, they seem to derive pleasure from the activity, says the riverkeeper.

The redemptive feelings Beal describes are echoed by thousands of visitors and volunteers who have come to his restored creeksite. They are also confirmed by an emerging movement loosely called "ecopsychology," the study of nature's therapeutic benefits.

Look around, says Michael Cohen, founder of a hands-on wilderness therapy course called Project Nature Connect. People long to be put back into nature, crave having their lives fit into some ancient order. For evidence, one need look no further than the widespread reaction of Americans in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, he notes. Compelled to go to a place that would ease their shock and sadness, many instinctively flocked to city parks, flower gardens, overlooks, and other natural areas.

Nothing could have been less surprising to John Beal. After the September 11 attacks, he recalls turning to his wife and saying, "Hamm Creek's going to be a lot busier now. The entire US will be going through post-traumatic stress disorder."

In the last decade, hundreds of studies have begun documenting what many people know intuitively about the healing power of nature. "Nature is in some fundamental way important for the human psyche, and as such it is really central to public health," says Roger Ulrich, director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University. A pioneer in the field, Ulrich has tested these theories on patients recovering from cardiac and abdominal surgery. He found that patients whose hospital rooms overlooked trees required less pain medication and recovered more quickly than those whose rooms overlooked brick walls.

John Beal, like the ecopsychologists, believes that the impulse toward environmental restoration is about the need for connection and purpose in a world increasingly disassociated from nature. "It's the connection to something larger than yourself," says Beal. "When you are so overwhelmed by your depression, or anxiety or sense of illness, it takes away that worry; it calms that fear."

Francesca Lyman writes the Your Environment column for MSNBC online, recently awarded the Society of Environmental Journalists' first prize for online reportage Email Signup
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