Susan Leopold and Scott Freeman met over a breakfast of sourdough pancakes cooked on an open fire in a renovated chicken coop.
She was on a Wisconsin farm with her family – just back from art school in Chicago. He was there on an education and outreach fellowship. The farm belonged to Susan’s grandfather, conversationalist, ecologist and “Sand County Almanac” author Aldo Leopold.
That summer, Scott and Susan dedicated themselves to the land – and to each other.
Three decades later in 2004, the couple, now based on the West Coast, purchased a 17-acre plot of land in the Tarboo Valley and, along with their two sons, started a conservation journey of their own. The family worked tirelessly to restore the salmon creek bisecting its property, which had been damaged by human alterations. In the process they were helping to further a larger project to restore the entire Tarboo watershed.
Another decade later, and the couple has collaborated on a new project – a book about their quest to heal the land. Scott wrote it, Susan illustrated it.
“Saving Tarboo Creek” was published in January. The Freemans are set to talk about the story behind the book on Sunday, Feb. 25 at Finnriver Cider Garden.
“Saving Tarboo Creek” details the story of how the Freemans acquired the land by connecting with Jefferson Land Trust and the Northwest Watershed Institute, and then began to restore the 17-acre plot, which cradled the most damaged part of Tarboo Creek. “We were really excited about being part of a much bigger project that the community was working on,” said Scott.
Their property was the site of the very first Plant-A-Thon in 2005. Since then, the Northwest Watershed Institute has led the planting of about 40,000 trees in the Tarboo watershed with the long-term goal of restoring the salmon stream, and nearly 400 acres of land have been protected. “It’s considered a national model for private-public partnership at the scale of a watershed,” said Scott. “What’s going on in Tarboo Creek is just amazing.”
Scott and Susan live and work in Seattle during the week: He teaches biology at the University of Washington; she paints, teaches piano, and creates mosaics and fabric art. On weekends, they visit the creek “and work even harder,” said Susan, adding, “We don’t feel it’s really work – it’s what we want to be doing.” Susan has fond memories of planting trees as a child. “My favorite thing on the weekend was to go out with my dad and work in the woods.”
The chapters in “Saving Tarboo Creek” each address a stage in restoring the creek, harnessing a “think locally, act globally” approach.
“I’ll talk about what we did, and also what’s going on in the world,” Scott said. He has written a chapter about planting trees, addressing deforestation rates in the U.S. He writes about salmon, offering the history of salmon exploitation around the world.
“I loved how it connected to the bigger world,” Susan said. Susan didn’t read “Saving Tarboo Creek” until Scott had finished it. She’s not sure why, but she was a bit reluctant to start. “Once I started it, I just got hooked.
Within the Tarboo Creek narrative, Scott weaves in family stories and history – stories about his uncle, and Susan’s grandfather Leopold, whose conservation legacy they’re carrying on.
“I like to say that part of the book is about what we’re doing,” Scott said. “But the most important part of the book is about why we’re doing it – that’s what the last chapter is about.”
Scott shares his favorite quote of Leopold’s: “There are two things that interest me – the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.”
“When we work on our connection to each other and work on a project like this that builds our connection to land,” Scott commented, “we get better as human beings.”
Susan echos Scott’s philosophy of connecting to the land. “When you’re feeling that the world is going in a difficult direction, you can go out and plant trees, and look at the sunshine coming through the leaves,” she said. “It just gives you hope.”
Another element of the book is its art. “Saving Tarboo Creek” is scattered throughout with Susan’s water-washed pen-and-ink drawings.
“Scott wanted me to make illustrations for the book,” said Susan, whose art background is in pastels and oils and “things with a lot of color.”
When she first looked at the list of what Scott wanted her to illustrate, she didn’t feel quite motivated to begin. “They weren’t things I felt like I knew how to do,” she said. “She tried, and said, ‘Oh my God, this is terrible!’” Scott recalled.
They met with the publisher, who said, “Well, why don’t you just draw things that you love?”
“That kind of opened the door for me,” she recalled. She started going outside and drawing what she was drawn to – images of maple keys, pine cones and trees, kettles, wood-burning stoves and leather boots.
Scott said that when he teaches biology to freshmen at the University of Washington, he doesn’t preach to his students, but lays out the facts: that human population is set to double in his students’ lifetimes, if not their children’s and grandchildren’s. That climate change could turn Seattle into the Bay Area.
“This is the world you’re walking into,” he tells his students.
When talking about his new book on the radio, he likes to say, “Everyone has a Tarboo Creek somewhere in their neighborhood.”
Scott hopes the book will inspire readers to find that place where they can make a difference and connect more deeply to the natural world around them.
“If we start working on this – if we get together and make a commitment, roll up our sleeves and are willing to get a little muddy – we can do some beautiful things.”