Straining Our Eyes

By David Warners, Professor of Biology, Calvin College

Background:  Plaster Creek is recognized as the most polluted stream in West Michigan, yet its 58-square mile watershed is home to over 100 churches, the Christian Reformed Church of America denominational headquarters, as well as Calvin College.  In 2009 a grass roots organization called Plaster Creek Stewards emerged from Calvin College, focused on engaging the faith community in the watershed to bring healing and restoration to the creek.  You can learn more about Plaster Creek Stewards at  The following story is excerpted from their Fall 2013 Newsletter:

“Don’t strain your eyes!” came a gruff voice from a van that had pulled up alongside a low-lying lawn area where Mike and I were scheming for a rain garden.  We had stopped by one of the churches in the watershed that is becoming involved in Plaster Creek Stewards, and were down in this low area checking things out, wondering about replacing the lawn with native wetland plants.

I wasn’t quite sure I heard the man correctly, so I walked upslope toward his van and said, “Excuse me, what was that you said?”  “Don’t strain your eyes!” he yelled out at us again, followed by, “And what are you doing down there anyways?”

What ensued was one of the more interesting watershed conversations we’ve had in quite some time.  After explaining who we were and what Plaster Creek Stewards is trying to do he told us “Aw, that creek is way too messed up for anyone to do any good to it . . . if you think you can actually help that creek, you’re wasting your time.” I explained that we know it will take a long time but even if I don’t see improvement in the creek in my lifetime, I think it’s the right thing to do and in any case trying to help the creek is better than not doing anything at all.  He disagreed, saying it was better not to waste time than it is to waste time.  And when Mike offered that it’s something we should do for our children and for future generations, he said he doesn’t care about that creek and his kids don’t care about it either.

This man’s strong impression was that our efforts are futile.  But the longer we engage in this work, the more convinced we have become that this work is indeed worthwhile, necessary and critical.  Instead of not straining our eyes, as this man implored, straining our eyes is precisely what is needed – straining our eyes to envision communities working together to help make a very sick creek well again; straining our eyes to see beauty returning to the watershed – beauty and biodiversity and children once again splashing in the water; straining our eyes to see a growing affection for this much-maligned creek and a growing sense that because watershed residents have inflicted such harm, we are precisely the ones who need to bring restoration.

None of us involved in this work is pretending that a quick fix is available, or that we won’t experience times of frustration or discouragement.  But Plaster Creek Stewards is committed to working in this watershed for a long time and we are hopeful that one day the visions that require eye straining today will become joyfully apparent close up, for all to see – even the most skeptical.

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