Plaster Creek Clean-Up: Photos

    Some of the best photos from our afternoon on the creek are stuck on an uncooperative digital camera, but here's what was left over:

    When I get the chance, I'll update this post with some thoughts and reflections on our experience.



    One of the first lessons that has been reinforced by what I've been learning is the depth of connections that flow between people and places in our various natural, built, and modified environments. I remember one experience I had almost four years ago, right after the conclusion of my first year at college: the dorms had shut down for the summer, and I had chosen to spend a week on my own, wandering between friends' houses by whatever means that presented themselves (I had left my trusty Chrysler at home for that school year). After a few days of drifting, I found myself sun-napping in the sand on the beach in Holland, MI, right along the confluence of the Grand River as it flows past the quaint and gaudy tourist spots out into the Lake Michigan blue. I read and slept and pondered how deep the waters might be, and whether those sorts of hidden, deep things even mattered: "What beauty and life is caught up down there in the flux of change, decay, and growth?"

    Resting and, eventually, standing on the beach that day ended up being one of the more bright and clear experiences I had during that sometimes rough "first-year" transition, and it has stuck with me——although, until recently, it seemed a sort of far-removed, otherworldly sort of memory. With what I've begun to discover, though, I now see the patterns that connect me where I am now with that distant day. And it's not just my own memory that circulates between then and now, but an actual body of water that runs between that watershed moment in my past and my current place in this world. Just a mile or so south of me, in fact, is the current that continues to pass from outside of the city to the confluence in Lake Michigan, where the sediment and trash and industrial waste-waters flow out towards the blue horizon of the lake.

    A few weeks ago, I had the chance to get together with some friends and do an introductory clean-up project along a small stretch of Plaster Creek. Although our numbers were modest, the half-dozen of us that could make it out our gorgeous Saturday afternoon received a warm, autumnal introduction to the creek and, as was our intention, managed to harvest a fair bit of trash: about 8 trash bags of general litter and waste, some empty buckets, a hose, shopping carts, and a few other more bizarre items. We found that .

    Another huge problem was the abundance of plastic bags that we found strung through the roots and grasses and branches along the banks, sometimes at knee-level or higher because of 1) the wind and 2) the creek's unhealthy propensity to flood with agricultural run-off (i.e., that E. coli stuff) and urban drainage. Nearly impossible to untangle, these synthetic pouches collect all sorts of secondary debris, disintegrate into even messier shreds, and stand out like tattered surrender flags where there should be plentiful riparian growth.


    Plaster Creek: A Portentous Portrait

    As part of my increased attempts at "doing things," I've begun to take advantage of some of the resources and opportunities on offer from the stream projects sponsored by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) and Calvin College's own Plater Creek Watershed Working Group. I've been learning some basics about the life of the stream and its interesting mesh of contexts (environmental, cultural, political, etc.). I've also been trying to get my feet wet, so to speak, in watershed issues as (I hope) a form of involvement that can continue and expand in the years to come, wherever I happen to be living.

    ---> click here for more maps

    Plaster Creek is a more relatively minor part of the Grand River watershed, which is itself a more major player (about 13%) in the Lake Michigan drainage basin, draining approximately 5,572 square miles of west and central Michigan. The creek is considered one of the unhealthiest in the region, a title that is not hard to believe after a few brief encounters with its sudsy, odorous water and its often ill-used banks. Due to high E. coli levels from agricultural run-off outside of the city, Plaster Creek has been labeled unsafe for even partial immersion or casual contact, although this is unbeknownst to the many kids who play in its waters in summertime (as kids are supposed to do). Passing on through suburban housing developments and their strip malls, run-off from the expansive green- and blacktop of lawns and parking lots further pollutes and also destabilizes the flow of the creek (contributing to its unhealthy flood cycles). Finally, in urban residential and industrial areas, more run-off, excessive amounts of litter, and industrial pollutants make their contributions before the creek merges with the Grand River and the rest of the Great Lakes Region's water supply.

    Wading through or walking along part of it, it stinks of all of the stuff about us and our so-called prosperity that we try to hide from ourselves. Many of the decisions that have effected the creek, dumping into it wherever convenient or adjusting it (with a backhoe) where it happens to be an inconvenience, make it a destructive force rather than a healthy source of dynamic creative and destruction. Piles of dead lawn topple into the mud as it undercuts its own reseeded and thus rootless banks. The water rises and falls at an unhealthy pace. The transformations that take place now lead to decreased carrying capacity and biodiversity. The Plaster Creek watershed, which includes both human and non-human forces, increasingly erodes and pollutes and degrades itself, which no one seems to mind as long as it stays hidden——tucked away from the subdivision by a landscaped barrier mound or behind a chain-link fence where only the homeless spend time.

    I'll admit that this a rather bleak description of things and fails to mention some of the most positive and exciting parts of Plaster Creek's life. But that other side of things will have to wait for another post. I recognize the potential for rhetoric such as I've just offered to become part of an unhealthy and potentially dishonest "discourse of catastrophe." There is the chance that I might be playing into the sort of ideological recuperation that is at work in some mainstream Green propaganda. And yet, I have yet to see other approaches that avoid either apathy or elitism (related to what Timothy Morton has been calling "Beautiful Soul Syndrome"). I would like to imagine a strategic contribution——a contamination, if you will——that we can make to the sleight-of-hand environmental initiatives and policy adjustments championed by corporate publicity stunts or those public officials with vested interests. Riffing on Morton's thesis about Hegel and environmentalism, I wonder if the attitudes that we encode in our ideas and social movements——humility and care, for example——could be part of the change that is happening, even if they are bound up in beliefs and methods and systems (self-righteously jumping around, waving our hands to get the attention of the rich and powerful) that seem less than ideal. After all, it is this sort of emergency-portrait which I think most needs to be disclosed, both personally and collectively, as the vision which demands our hasty and wide-ranging response.