Watershed Redemption: A Journey in Time on Five U.S. Watersheds
by Diana Hartel

Madrona Arts Press, 2018



Diana Hartel’s Watershed Redemption is a braided river of a book, blending the story of her family’s life with stories of the deep and human history of the five watersheds she and her family have lived beside, along with profiles of the people working to restore them. Hartel is a scientist, activist, and founder of a number of environmental justice nonprofits, and an artist and writer. She brings these varied experiences beautifully together in Watershed Redemption, a humane, thoroughly researched chronicle of the Klamath, Upper Mississippi, Lower Hudson, Chattahoochee, and Rio Grande/Rio Bravo watersheds. 

In the first chapter, Hartel states, “The intention of this book is to plant seeds of inspiration to grow into watershed environmental actions.” While she often writes lyrically about the natural world, her book is first and foremost a call to action and a tribute to the efforts many are making to redeem the damaged watersheds she visits. As she makes clear throughout the book, when it comes to the health of watersheds, things look bad, desperate even, but Hartel has chosen to write a manifesto instead of an elegy.

Her academic training as an epidemiologist naturally leads Hartel to focus strongly on the threats that polluted and degraded watersheds pose to human health. Given the ever-increasing number of people on the planet and the earth’s changing climate, Hartel argues for what she calls “intelligent adaptability” as a way to address the question of how humans live on a changing planet. As she writes, “We are a debtor species with our environmental debt going beyond the capacity of the earth to carry us every year.” Intelligent adaptability, as she works the idea out in her book and illustrates it in her profiles of activists, involves scientifically studying problems such as toxic chemicals in waterways, loss of wetlands, or environmental racism; once this knowledge is sufficient, the next step is taking action in the form of crafting policy or simply insisting that existing laws be enforced. This approach, in colder minds, could easily lead to abstraction and wonkishness. But Hartel proceeds from love, coupling intellect and reason with affection and empathy. 

Hartel’s research for the book required six trips over the course of eight years to interview activists and historians and to experience the rivers themselves. One of the book’s most memorable passages describes her visit to the Standing Rock camp in September 2016, during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. She includes fifty-nine pages of notes on her sources at the end. 

Watershed Redemption is also Hartel’s personal story of her life alongside the rivers. After arriving in the US in the early 1800s, Hartel’s family on her mother’s side settled for a time in the Upper Mississippi watershed, in Minnesota and then North Dakota, before heading west, first to Leadville, Colorado, then to California. Hartel’s great-grandmother came to California in the 1870s. After growing up in California, Hartel arrived in New York City in the Lower Hudson watershed. Graduating from Columbia University with a doctorate in epidemiology, Hartel began working in New York City as an HIV/AIDS researcher, tracking the spread of the disease at the epidemic’s beginning. Her work with the National Institutes of Health brought her frequently to the Chattahoochee watershed. 

In 1993, while continuing her work as an epidemiologist, Hartel created Bronx Community Works, a nonprofit devoted to social and environmental justice. Eventually she spent three years at Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskills. After leaving the monastery, she founded Madrona Arts, an arts and ecology nonprofit in Oregon. Through her work with Madrona Arts, Hartel began to focus closely on the crisis facing watersheds. Hartel moved back to the Klamath watershed in the spring of 2003 to help her aging parents after almost thirty years of living elsewhere. There, she finds a kind of wounded solace in the Klamath: “My store of family trauma and heartbreak found resonance and kinship in the river, in its losses of old growth forests, indigenous homelands, the endangered lamprey and green sturgeon, short-nosed suckers, and the vanishing salmon.” 

The zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Even if our parents have done something regrettable, even if our ancestors have done something regrettable, the past is still there, and we continue to suffer, and our ancestors continue in us to suffer. So with the Dharma, with the practice, we sit down and we embrace that, and produce the kind of thought, of compassion, understanding, that can neutralize what was wrong, wrongly done in the past. It is possible. It liberates us, and liberates our parents and ancestors. . . . It is nice to encounter the teaching and the practice, and with that practice, we can change the past. And of course, change the future.” Diana Hartel’s book represents an effort to do just that: she and the people she chronicles are telling the stories of the rivers, restoring ecosystems, crafting public policy, taking political action, and celebrating the Klamath, Upper Mississippi, Lower Hudson, Chattahoochee, and Rio Grande/Rio Bravo to redeem the past and the harm that they, their ancestors, and all of us have done. 

Through her words and her own example and through the lives she profiles, Hartel provides those who live in what Aldo Leopold calls “a world of wounds” with a guide on how to grieve for what has been lost or is nearly lost, and how to wisely fight and celebrate what remains and what can be restored and renewed. “We proceed through our love of the land and water,” she writes, “pained by its damage, testing the ground, correcting course with what knowledge we gain. It can be a slow process when we work to generate a new earth in which human needs do not dominate but have a place in the web of all living beings.”

This generation of a new earth, as Hartel illustrates throughout the book, requires a marriage of science, intuition, respect, empathy, love, and action, with the awareness that all life on earth is profoundly, inextricably, and beautifully interconnected: “We need the rain of justice to turn around the collective ignorance that harms wild beings, forests, meadows, rocks, soil and water, and our own health. Redemption occurs together in one interconnected body, each action rippling through the whole.”


Stephen Black

Stephen Black is a poet and writer of narratives, fictional and otherwise. He grew up in rural Gibson County, Tennessee, and now lives in Memphis, where he teaches yoga and writing. He has participated in the Wildbranch Writing Workshop and is working on a bioregional history of West Tennessee.