Reclamation: To Take Back, To Make Right, To Make Useful

Should we return areas to their natural state, or make them more accessible for human use? A difficult dilemma for those who strive to interact positively with the natural world.

  • Reclaimed wetlands
    Thousands of acres of land have been reclaimed in an attempt to make areas more useful in the eyes of humans. Now, efforts are being made to reclaim lands not for profit or industry, but to save and honor the sacred history and relationships tied to them.
  • Reclaimers book cover
    "Reclaimers" by Ana Maria Spagna focuses on the complicated issue of land reclamation. She discusses the competing interests that drive our unstoppable instinct to change nature, and shares stories from those actively working to heal our relationship with the environment.
    Cover courtesy University of Washington Press

  • Reclaimed wetlands
  • Reclaimers book cover

In Reclaimers (University of Washington Press, 2015), Ana Maria Spagna discusses the current struggles that many individuals face regarding land reclamation. As she travels along the West Coast, she meets dedicated people who are making extraordinary efforts to save sacred lands and heal our relationship with nature. The following excerpt, from the prologue, presents a powerful introduction, discussing the emotional triumphs and defeats associated with this passionate work.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

The Low Ground

The two-acre property my wife, Laurie, and I own in Stehekin, a very small mountain town, divides cleanly in two: the high ground where we live now, atop an ancient moraine, and the low ground, where we lived years ago. In many ways, the halves are the same. Same trees. Same gravel road perimeter. Same mossy rocks. But while the high ground, these days, appears well-groomed — native shrubs line the driveway, high-limbed firs filter sunlight, a fourteen-hundred-square-foot cabin stretches the definition — the low ground has gone feral: crisscrossed with downed cottonwoods, littered with flood-strewn lumber, silty and splintered, discarded skis, rock rubble, and for a time, an unclaimed motorcycle helmet perched on a stump. No dwellings. Not anymore. One lone structure, a ramshackle garage half-sided and rat-infested, remains at the far end of the plat. We still use it for storage, so to retrieve our winter boots or a blow-up boat or a coffee can of lag screws, we must head down. But for a long time, I avoided the chore at all costs: procrastinating, excuse-making, dreading the sight of ground, supposedly our own, flushed, scoured, trashed, abandoned.

Truth is, the low ground was never much to brag about. When Laurie’s mother first saw the place, she wept. For good reason. A rusted off-kilter swing set lay in the yard alongside hardened bags of mortar, stockpiles of broken brick, and several untended outbuildings. Brush filled in the gaps: thimbleberries and Oregon grape and fireweed, all of it brown with road dust. The former owners, a family of seven, had lived in a small unfinished house sided with T1-11, and they’d made a hard go of it: a woodshed, a garden, a smokehouse, and a hog pen. They fled when a November flood brought the river charging to the doorstep, seeping through floorboards. They were rescued in the bucket of a front-end loader, and soon put the place on the market. And we, knowing all this, spent our life savings to buy it.

We had reason to weep, but we never did. We worked instead, the way only earnest new landowners can. We were used to manual labor — both Laurie and I had worked for years, by then, on backcountry trail crews for the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, and Laurie still worked for the Park Service maintaining a historic apple orchard in the valley — and we were enamored, despite our left-leaning politics and our meager means, of the American Dream. We planned, eventually, to move to high ground, safely away from the danger of floods, but in the meantime we tore out moldy carpet and started anew: plumbing, insulating, stacking wood. We even planted a garden or, I should say, replanted the one that had washed to rubble in that November flood, then gone to weeds in one fallow summer. Reclaimed it, you might say.

We dug in cedar posts and spent $300 — a small fortune at the time — on concrete mesh, strung it eight feet high to keep the deer and bear out, and added compost and minerals to the rocky soil. One day when I was preparing to plant potatoes, the neighbor’s cat, Daisy, nudged up beside me, reared up on her hind paws, and began to dig full bore. With no idea what the purpose was, she threw herself at the task. I’m telling you: she was one of us, this cat.

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