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Restoration by Gary Hawk

A reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus restored people to health, to their better selves, and as often as possible to their communities. He restored a daughter to her father, a son to his mother, a brother to his sisters, the shame-bound to a recovery of their freedom, the lost to a sense of belonging. On the evening of June 23, and during the day on June 24, 2017, friends and members of UCC engaged in restoration of another kind—the restoration of a landscape deeply damaged by a long legacy of gold mining.

On Friday evening Heather Brighton, our multi-talented administrator, led eight of us up the Nine Mile drainage west of Missoula to learn about how Trout Unlimited, the Lolo National Forest, and other partners took on the challenge of beginning to restore the land to health. She described the process of stripping away long rows of dredge piles that separated tributaries from the main stem of the river, the re-creation of stream channels, and how she and her team secured the banks with root wads, willows, and fabric known as coir. We first walked the length of a roughened landscape covered with woody debris that slows the velocity of high spring flows. But even after giving the land only six months to begin its own power of recovery we could see signs of restoration. Little larch, spruce, willow and dogwood were beginning to take hold. Puffs of cottonwood seeds drifted over bare mineral soil and would soon generate and send down their roots. As we watched water restored to a well-designed channel descend through riffle, run and glide, trout rose to caddis in the pools below. Only the birds awaited more vegetation before returning to their streamside habitats.

Then on Saturday morning nine of us gathered at the church to carpool our way up to the same site for a day of weeding this disturbed landscape. After spilling out of our dusty vehicles, Laura Folkwein, our small groups minister, called us into a circle of introduction where we learned what motivated each of us to engage in this work. Armed with tools and water bottles we descended through the shadows of spruce, cedar, and white fir to a tributary of the Nine Mile named “Mattie V.” Here we worked to free native plants from the choking effect of knapweed, mullein, ox-eye daisy, Canada thistle, and other invasive plants, including satisfying salsify, that continue to threaten the work of recovery. As we plunged our tools into the rocky soil and pulled at the roots, we entertained each other with bits of conversation, the humming of tunes, and discussion about the definition of hell (Is it a hot sunny slope covered with knapweed, or, an unwillingness to pull our own weeds?). We also gave Tom King a chance to deliver a vast hound’s tongue bouquet to the vase of his choosing back home. When we began to tire we retreated to the shade and learned more about each other and things we hold in common.

If the work of the church is partly about feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and defending the hapless and hurting, it may, in our era also be about restoring the land. Very much a community, the land cries out to be restored, cries out to be freed of the overburden of an abusive history, cries out to be stripped clean so it can begin anew and let its considerable energies flow in new channels. Around the summer Solstice the people of UCC heard this cry and answered it with enthusiastic labor, song, and appreciation for the opportunity to take part in the work of restoration. It felt rewarding to come together in this common cause, to work for good rather than complain about what is wrong, and to assemble as friends and allies of the land and spirit that sustain us.

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