Finding Hope Up a Creek
For a man broken by war, John Beal found himself an unlikely place of refuge.
Told that he had less than four months to live, the disabled Vietnam veteran wandered down to the stream behind his house to contemplate his future. Hamm Creek was an open sewer, plugged up with garbage. Beal 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 when you found it. I looked at this wreck of a stream, filled with refrigerators, old tires, torn garbage bags, broken swings 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 reflects. Or maybe it was survivor's guilt. Instead of despairing, he started 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 restoring this polluted Seattle, Wash. stream. During the last 10 years he has moved on to restoring the entire watershed. 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, 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. As a result, 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.
"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 young man would fall out of his wheelchair, Beal recalls. But now, he says, he 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 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.
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.
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 dissociated 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."