Cottonwoods in Concrete: A Call for Collaborative Survival among Ruins

A common merganser floated on Mill Creek, steadying herself in place with strokes of her submerged feet. If she were to dive, she would find impermeable concrete below and to both sides, no river-bottom muck or pondweed pulled by the current. She might encounter a hatchery salmon, but wild Chinook made their last appearance a decade before the channelization project of 1942. The creek, which drains a watershed of wheat fields and vineyards in southeastern Washington State, is metered into sixty-foot segments by concrete weirs over which smooth waterfalls pour.

I turned my back to examine the saturated levee. Soupy mud revealed tracks left by a fleet of yellow earthmovers. A steel-drum compactor, four loaders, a bulldozer, and an excavator rested in puddles of their own making. Raw ground stretched thirty feet from the river, like chocolate lipstick on either side of Mill Creek’s watery mouth. Looking around, it was hard to see anything worth celebrating about these mauled strips of earth, this contained and sterile river.

Yellow earthmovers sit in puddles of their own making in a makeshift parking lot on Mill Creek. Photo by the author.

Yellow earthmovers sit in puddles of their own making in a makeshift parking lot on Mill Creek. Photo by the author.

A man in soaked jeans and a raincoat walked into view on the ruler-straight Levee Trail. We smiled in acknowledgement of our unorthodox choice of strolling weather.

“Excuse me, do you know anything about the Levee Project?” I asked just before he passed. The silver scruff on his jaw suggested middle-age; his eyes held a challenge. I would later learn that his name is Jerry, and he walks this trail every day.

“Sure, a little something,” Jerry replied. “That side’s finished. This side’s about half there.” The Mill Creek Levee Maintenance Project is designed to repair levees that have protected the town of Walla Walla, Washington from flooding since the early 1900s. Phase One broke ground in October of 2015, when the Army Corps of Engineers felled 300 trees, mostly black cottonwoods, and cleared six acres of vegetation along the river with funds stemming from Hurricane Katrina. Now, in Phase Two, the Corps is grinding down and rebuilding the levees to prevent rotting roots from compromising their integrity.

“Are you in favor of the project?” I asked. It was a contentious question. The Blue Mountain Audubon Society and Walla Walla residents have contested the project through pickets, open letters, and a symbolic display of tree-spiking—actions that were denounced as extremism by the Corps.

Jerry glanced sideways before answering, sending a shower of raindrops onto the asphalt.

“Well, no,” he admitted. “I guess it cleans it up, but all the critters that beeped and squeaked used to hide in this brush, and they’d come to eat out of your hand.” He told me about a great-horned owl nest, lodged between two snapped branches of a cottonwood, that has been abandoned since construction began. He described a flock of cedar waxwing—he pronounced it “waxling”—that get drunk off the creek-side cherry orchard, and a rookery of great blue heron—pronounced “herring”—that have forced the Corps to postpone work until breeding season ends. Jerry recalled watching a heron—“bright blue, so I knew he was male”—pick off a mallard duckling and swallow it whole not far from where we stood talking. “The mom duck chased that heron to the edge of sight, but then she remembered the rest of her ducklings were still out bobbing in the open, vulnerable, so she came flying back.”

Mill Creek before the trees were cut. Photo by Judy Treman.

Mill Creek before the trees were cut. Photo by Judy Treman.

Jerry pointed to the riprap that has replaced eddies and willows at the water’s edge. In the 1930s, his grandfather was a Corps engineer installing the original release pipes within the levee. As a teenager, when the path was still loose gravel—“a real calf-burner”—and the creek ran dry in summer, Jerry used to ride his dirt bike through the bowels of channel below Downtown. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” he confessed, “but we drove the cops mad.” Jerry spoke of a high-school classmate who nearly drowned in the current and was rescued at the end of Ninth Street, where Mill Creek emerges from its concrete case.

After shaking my hand and scolding me to warm my clammy skin, Jerry continued walking. He left me with his memories of brave mice and blue feathers, near-arrests and near-deaths, drunken avian parties and bereaved duck mothers. This riverbank has been a blasted landscape for over a century, a strip of weeds growing on abandoned dirt between crops and concrete. Yet, this creek and its cottonwoods overflow with meaning. When I asked local birdwatching legend Mike Denny about Mill Creek’s cottonwoods, he described them with the same language one might use for the primordial rainforest of Olympic National Park: “a superb, beautiful, old-growth, functional, riparian buffer.”

Wild cherries bloom near Mill Creek. Photo by the author.

Wild cherries bloom near Mill Creek. Photo by the author.

I descended the levee’s treacherous mud, curious to understand Jerry and Mike’s fondness for this marginal place. Extruding a handful between my fingers, I noticed it was slippery clay. The air smelled sweet and green. Beyond the edge of the maintenance project, a dense thicket of cherries bloomed. Each blossom’s five white petals cupped a dozen stamens and a single pistil, like an explosion of sparks. Cottonwoods that were saplings in Jerry’s youth towered overhead. Their fissured bark appeared to rust under orange crustose lichen.

The earth abounds with blasted landscapes, and anthropologist Anna Tsing reminds us that “these ruins can be lively despite announcements of their death.”  Tsing suggests that ruins—lands damaged by the exploits of capitalism—hold meaning. Here, feral cherries and fermenting bacteria flourish together to enable drunken waxwing gatherings, and mice confront their terror of open space to accept crumbs offered by generous fingers. These happenings deserve our notice. We look to ruins not merely to appreciate the antics of wildlife, but as examples of how we might flourish together with other species in a world where the goals of precise quantification and control no longer make sense.

We look to ruins not merely to appreciate the antics of wildlife, but as examples of how we might flourish together with other species in a world where the goals of precise quantification and control no longer make sense.

Absently, I crushed cherry petals in my palm. A narrative is being enacted here, one in which progress depends on the quantification and control of nature, on measurement and efficiency. That narrative does not celebrate the life in this ruin. It dismisses Mill Creek as a sacrifice zone, a place where the ecosystem is altered beyond recognition and therefore expendable. It classifies these cottonwoods and cherries as “non-compliant vegetation,” unacceptable disorder made manifest in lignin and cellulose. A press release explains that while the Army Corps would have liked to preserve the aesthetic quality of the trails, it simply “can’t have trees, brush, or other encroachments preventing access to our levees.” If this place were labeled as pristine nature, perhaps a National Park or Wilderness Area, environmental regulations would limit damage to riparian habitat, forcing the Corps to explore alternative maintenance techniques. But because Mill Creek is characterized as a sacrifice zone, the Corps cuts trees and moves earth with little restriction. Here, on land considered damaged beyond repair, no motivation to explore alternatives exists.

An embrace of precarity, the vulnerability of living things to each other, helps provide that motivation. Once we notice the microbial ecosystems in our intestines and the biotic carbon cycles of our planet, we cannot deny that organisms, including humans, are vulnerable to one another. Precarity can be frightening, but it opens space for the radical collaboration that makes life possible.

Concrete weirs meter the channelized portion of Mill Creek into sixty-foot segments. Photo by the author.

Concrete weirs meter the channelized portion of Mill Creek into sixty-foot segments. Photo by the author.

With the tagline “Building Strong,” the Army Corps would find this call to embrace precarity challenging, to say the least. Here in Walla Walla, the Corps has been fighting precarity since the early 1900s, when public concern about flash flooding attracted federal support for construction of the levee system. “If one of our levees near the diversion dam was to fail during a flood event,” a Corps engineer narrates over black-and-white footage of raging water, “Downtown would probably look a lot like the Great Flood of 1931.” A narrative founded on the quantification of nature deems mechanized inspection and engineered reinforcements the only tools adequate for flood management. This narrow vision creates false dichotomies. The cottonwood forest is pitted against safety of life and property, and wild, romantic Nature against strong, individualist Man.

It is time to poke around in the unruly weeds that grow between Nature and Man, the boundary regions where human control and pristine wilderness are contaminated by one another. Once we look, we realize these regions make up the majority of our planet. The heterogeneous patches of Mill Creek that are obvious to Jerry and Mike, and to me when I open my senses, are hidden by a worldview that treasures calculation and containment. Yet, as Anthropocene concerns of climate change, mass extinction, and biosphere destabilization threaten daily life, this dichotomy between ecological integrity and flood control begins to seem less convincing. We can no longer afford to choose between the two. What value remains in a well-inspected levee, designed precisely to withstand the Great Flood of 1931, when a disturbed atmosphere throws our notion of predictable runoff into chaos?

I am not suggesting the Army Corps abandon its mission of mitigating floods. Uncontrolled flows would inundate Downtown, forcing families to abandon their homes, or elevate them on stilts and paddle between porches. Embracing precarity is not an act of self-sacrifice, but one of collaborative survival.

What might this multispecies collaboration look like? For one, the Army Corps could encourage cottonwoods to live long lives rather than cutting their trunks and grinding out their roots. Living roots reinforce a levee; dead roots undermine its strength. Another collaboration might be to foster Douglas fir and ponderosa pine forests throughout the Mill Creek watershed to maximize the absorptive capacity of soils and prevent floods at their source. A third would be to allow engineers to inspect by foot rather than requiring a denuded surface for machinery. Potential for multispecies collaboration abounds, if only we are motivated to seek it.

An Army Corps of Engineers stake marks the beginning of the Mill Creek Levee Maintenance Project, a six-acre zone of denuded riverbank. Photo by the author.

An Army Corps of Engineers stake marks the beginning of the Mill Creek Levee Maintenance Project, a six-acre zone of denuded riverbank. Photo by the author.

Collaboration is familiar territory for management agencies, who regularly contract with private construction firms, work with local governments, and engage the public. Missing from these efforts is an appreciation of precarity, our mutual vulnerability to one another across species. The history of Mill Creek is often told with humans as the protagonists, but we are not the only organisms to move earth and water. Cottonwoods and mergansers make my world as much as I make theirs. To build multispecies alliances at Mill Creek, the Corps could extend its policy of collaboration to long-lived cottonwood roots, absorptive forest soils, and upstream stands of pine and fir. If we imagine a new narrative in which the landscape is the protagonist and humans are but one kind of character, we will need multispecies collaborators, and the best places to look for them are the blasted landscapes where beings have become dependent on one another to reclaim and coexist. These landscapes are not hard to find. The hard part is retraining our eyes to see them not as sacrifice zones, but as fertile ground for multispecies flourishing and models of the collaborative survival we need.

By now, the cherry petals in my hand were a fragrant brown mash. Rain carved runnels in the levee, remolding it to reflect flow and erosion. My fingernails added texture to slick clay as I climbed back to the asphalt path. Out on Mill Creek, the merganser floated. A raindrop gathered on the tip of her bill. In a sudden, irritated motion, she wiped it off with a cherry-red foot. Her crimson skin burst from grey dampness like the flare of a match, silent and temporary. I caught a glimpse of toenails on long, webbed digits before the foot slipped again beneath flat water.

The merganser reminded me to use my senses and savor the deliciousness of life nestled amidst precarity. She reminded me of resilience, of coexistence within disturbance. She reminded me that cottonwood saplings will erupt from mud as soon as levee maintenance funds run dry, great blue heron will nest in their branches, ducklings will become food for heron chicks, and Jerry will notice these happenings on the daily walks he will continue to take, no matter how blasted his landscape becomes. But this resilience is not an excuse for further damage. Rather, it is an imperative to protect the ability of life to flourish not only in pristine settings, but also in weedy patches, for it is within the unexpected collaborations of blasted landscapes that we glimpse the possibility of our own survival among ruins.

Featured image: An adult female common merganser below Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River, Walla Walla County, WA. Winter 2016. Photo by Mike Denny.

Nina Finley graduated from Whitman College with a B.A. in biology-environmental studies. Her passion for emerging wildlife diseases has led her to lemur viruses, sea star wasting disease, coral bleaching, and beyond. As a Watson Fellow, she collects stories of humans surviving collaboratively with microbes. This year, Nina will travel to Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Arctic. Her writing has appeared in Camas Magazine and Arminda. Website. Contact

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4 Comments

  1. Maybe next time, thanks to articles like these, they will leave the cottonwoods in place.

  2. Eunice Blavascunas

    Thanks Nina for helping those of us in Walla Walla better see and reflect on the place we live in!

  3. Suzanne Knapp

    What a well written article. I wonder what a truly collaborative solution would look like? The calamitous nature of floods make the government want to go overboard to prevent them. The flood I remember is 1996 where the frozen ground couldn’t absorb over two feet of quick melting snow. Was the current design the reason why downtown didn’t suffer traumatic damage?

  4. Bob Carson

    Nina, well done! You got it right: one-size-fits-all for levees according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Damn the shade, damn the wildlife, damn the aesthetics. (Damn the fish; don’t breach the Snake River dams.)The Army has the same attitude about military cemeteries: they all have to look like Arlington, so cut down all the trees (example, Fort Stevens near Astoria, Oregon).

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