Freeing the Waters

By Mary Oak

Published in LILIPOH, Issue 75, Volume 19, Spring 2014

Spring, 2004

In place of an ancient cranberry bog, a modern temple stands.  Rites of consumerism take place here daily amidst acres of asphalt: Northgate Mall, Seattle.  Built in the early nineteen-fifties, it served as a prototype of suburban shopping centers that have become ubiquitous in the U.S.  In the nineteen-sixties, when what was then referred to as “Miracle Mall” was first expanding, permits were issued to bury the headwaters of Thornton Creek “temporarily”.  To this day, the creek remains hidden underground.  In the last few years, a battle has raged between Simon Brothers, the largest shopping mall corporation in the U.S., which owns Northgate Mall, and a group of environmentally-concerned citizens.  The Thornton Creek Legal Defense Fund was founded in 1999 to counter the proposed redevelopment project seeking to double the size of the shopping center and entomb Thornton Creek in a two-thousand two hundred foot long culvert, covering it with parking garages, apartment complexes and a multiplex cinema.  In a hearing back then on the lack of an environmental impact statement, the examiner determined that, “When the creek was put into a culvert, it ceased to exist…” therefore, it had no need to be protected or restored.


In July of 2000, that ruling was appealed.  Simon Brothers was ordered to work with the creek activists to incorporate restoration as a part of the development. This meant “daylighting” it: redirecting the creek, from where it runs through a sixty-foot pipe, into a channel above the ground. Thus a legal precedent was set; one that mandates the protection of urban stream health and salmon habitat restoration. A few months later, Simon Brothers put the property up for sale. Years passed. Then a more sympathetic mayor and developer became part of the equation. Recently, a plan was approved by the Seattle City Council that is a compromise for both developers and activists: a decrease in building size and the day-lighted creek as prime landscaping feature, along with plans to handle storm water run-off.


Away from the throng of shoppers, two friends and I have come to the lot south of the mall that isdesignated for parking overflow. We have come to find a neglected spring. In another time such a source would have become a shrine, honored for its restorative gift of water. Now the spring itself needs to be restored. Obscured as it is in blacktop, one can still read stream bed in the sloping ground. Listen—beneath the flow of traffic from the nearby interstate, we can hear the sound of rushing water: a creek source piped below. In the scorching wasteland of the parking lot, we find a circular grate, a gateway of sorts. Iron bars criss-cross over an imprisoned water source. Subterranean waters gush and burble, a dark shimmering below.


Thornton Creek and its tributaries meander for eighteen miles through residential neighborhoods to empty into Lake Washington, one of the many bodies of water that characterize the Pacific Northwest. The three of us seek a way to pay homage to its origin here. Golden-maned Annie offers her warm devotion to the wild. Francie, with her short crest of hair, who creates garden guardian sculptures informed by sense of place, brings her enthusiasm.  I bear witness. Against the back-drop of heavy traffic, we stand in the stretch of barrenness above the water source. “I feel sadness” says Francie. We nod. Her simple words resonate.  We recall a Joni Mitchell song, this “paved paradise” — the cost of so-called progress. The rift of disruption interferes on so many levels, measurable and immeasurable.


These diminished waters once flowed and provided sustenance; this stream was home to salmon who returned here over eons until their way was obstructed. I tell the ancient story of the well-maidens[1]: How their lands flourished with pure flowing waters until a king, Amangons, betrayed the peace and raped a well-maiden. How when the king’s men carried off all the golden cups to serve the king, the service of the wells ceased and the land once lush was laid to waste: trees lost their leaves, meadows withered and plants died. How undertaking the plight of the well-maidens resulted in knights questing to find a far-off court of joy, with a wounded king upon whose healing the restoration of the land depended. How one known as “he who frees the waters” healed the Fisher King and all was made well.


But all is not well here in the acres of asphalt that surround the mall.  I can’t help but notice the King’s name: A-man-gone(s).  Man truly gone, cut off from any sense of wellspring, caught up in the desolation of soul that perpetuates the commerce taking place in this artifice, a far cry from the seasonal villages the native Duwamish people created to harvest the cranberries that once grew rampant here.  As appealing as the dream of return might be, it is not an option.


Still, the knights of the well-maidens’ story are not as outdated as they may appear.


No ground broken yet, we walk over the abandoned lot and cross the street, down to a wooded area where the stream emerges from the culvert.  This area was restored a few years ago by “Earth Corps,” a group of youth from the world over; a project for their annual gathering here in Seattle to learn about restoration.  The meander of stream is surrounded by lush vegetation that has grown a bit wild now.  A sign indicates volunteer work parties to come.  Three grand willows crown the area, morning glories twine around their swaying branches.  I have often seen them from my car in passing and am pleased to make their acquaintance closer up.  Seeing the waters free and flowing through this riparian corridor, I feel joy.


Images and associations cascade through me as strongly as the voice of waters beside us. Wasteland, wounding, the way of dominating kings against women and waters; the insatiability of materialism that blinds and binds us so.  But despair fully acknowledged becomes poignancy, which opens the ability to be present to this vibrant beauty, this stroke of wildness only a stone’s throw away from prime wasteland.  A glimmer of hope awakens.  The “Court of Joy” of the old story is not afar; indeed another translation for it is ‘body.’


Here in our bodies/ our lives, the oppression of well-maidens dwells.  Yet we will sing again, serving the waters.  Here in our bodies/our lives the Fisher King is sustained in injury, awaiting healing.  Here in our bodies/our lives the quest for reclamation takes place: to be reclaimed to wholeness and holiness in the Court of Joy—our own bodies fully present, aware of our embeddedness within the living cosmic earth.


Annie, Francie and I walk back across black macadam and return to the creek source.  We stand around the grate and hold hands in silence.  Taking turns, we each spontaneously offer our gratitude to the waters that gurgle below us.  Through our intention, we become a bridge, singing out and sounding.  As our voices find harmony and merge, I understand that the locus of restoration is our hearts, streaming now in love and envisioning.  Let the waters be free and the wasteland be transformed.  Let the salmon one day return.  Our voices merge and blend with the creek below us, waters that, however diminished, will soon be free once again.


November, 2013

Many years later, I return again to the spot across from Northgate Mall where Annie, Francie and I stood and sang.  Water bubbles up in the midst of the stream-bed and spreads in rivulets. For over fifty years, this creek flowed through a pipe.  Unseen.  Unheard.  Beneath concrete.  Now it glides in a shimmer of light—and flows on, freely.  On the bank by newly planted ferns, I witness this return, this freeing of the waters.  Impossible to revert to the original riparian zone, this is a revision—a new stream bed —a “bioswale” carefully engineered to filter storm water.  Cattails rise from the murmuring stream, alongside varied rushes and reeds. Native plants that once grew wild are tame here, carefully cultivated to purify the pollutants present in urban water.  A couple of yards from the source, water tumbles down a wall of stone—runoff from the streets.  The interstate roars nearby.  On average, one hundred and eighty thousand cars pass through this watershed every day.  We are surrounded by human habitation.  Hardscape.


For two years, this city block was off-limits. Often, I watched from afar, through a chain-link fence, the crews busy with the clatter and clang of various stages of construction.  Mighty earth-movers dug down with a heavy rumble.  Huge cranes lifted beams and framing, building up.  Trucks were everywhere.


Now the stream is a central feature of the hundreds of residential units packed together here: “Thronton Place” condos and apartment units on one side; “Aljoya”, upscale “retirement living” on the other. When these new residences opened in 2009, just as the housing market tanked, they remained empty for over a year. Now habitation is dense.


In the plaza outside the towering multiplex movie theater, I wait to meet Melanie. She’s a landscape designer whose firm was contracted by Seattle Public Utilities to work on the restoration project. We walk down to the creek and she points out diversion channels, where a killdeer nested, how invasive the cannera grass is. Her eyes light up as she introduces me to her elements of composition, the plants: sagittaria, carex, scripus, sparganium. She tells me how the wall of stone behind the cascade of water is made from old granite curbstones from Seattle’s streets. She explains how many species of plants were introduced; how some made it and naturalized and others didn’t, depending on the water cycle and other factors. Together we ponder how success can be measured: as defined by whom? Yes, humans are benefitting from the high density LEED-certified units touted for proximity to a transit center, bike parking, energy and water efficiency, extra insulation, low VOC interiors. Residents enjoy walking their dogs here.


But: the stream is polluted, no salmon have returned as was hoped. Melanie informs me that this past summer human fecal matter was found in the creek downstream of this spot. Seattle residents have been warned not to touch the water. She mentions that the contamination is thought to be a result of homeless folks living in cardboard boxes in the woods nearby. Meanwhile, the mall looms across the street, recently expanded with more retail shops. I shudder at the contrast of opulence and squalor.


Long before cardboard boxes, the first people who lived here were the Duwamish. Salmon and cedar served as sacred resources for them. They used cedar bark to make bedding, mats, tinder, torches, nets, sails, bandages, hats, clothing, imbricated baskets and boxes.  They used limbs of cedar to scour fishnets and their dead.  They cut planks for longhouses and carved it into masks, totem poles, paddles. There were enough salmon and berries to provide food all year. Indigenous sufficiency has been replaced with consumptive consumerism. Now the Shopping Center serves as source of provisions, of commodities, replacing cedar and salmon.


Across town, to the west, Pipers Creek flows directly into Puget Sound. In the restored urban stream at Carkeek Park, salmon are returning from the sea to spawn. From toddlers to the elderly, all ages come to watch the ripple of fish fin, the undulations of coho or chum swimming against the current with the last of their strength, the occasional jump upstream, the circling to lay eggs, the dead flesh beginning to rot. New celebrations are created as modern folks celebrate this cyclic event. “Salmon Stewards” are trained to docent the occasion. They interpret what is taking place in the living waters, as they tell stories and share facts about the seafarers’ return and the challenges of restoration.


After Melanie leaves, I walk in a light drizzle, back to where the stream source bubbles up. In this place of reparation and compromise, a song arises in me.  I sing for the cedar and sedges taking root here. I sing in hopes that all humans will be housed and that we will know what is enough. I sing for the waters running clean and for the salmon’s return here.  I sing in wild hope that this project will serve as a prototype, the way the mall did over half a century ago.  May restoration become intrinsic in urban renewal.  May the day-lighted creek flowing here be the first of many waters to be set free.




In ancient times, the country of Logres flourished, with well springs of purely flowing waters, each with its guardian maiden, who—with golden cups, offered sustenance to wayfarers. And so it was for generations until a king, Amangons, betrayed the peace and raped a well-maiden and the king’s men carried off all the golden cups to serve the king. In response, the service of the wells ceased. The land once lush was laid to waste: trees lost their leaves, meadows withered and plants died.

 Hearing of the devastation in the neighboring kingdom, a company of knights vowed to recover the wells. When they arrived in Logres, they found that the wells were dry and they could not find a single well-maiden. A quest was set before the knights: to seek the court of the Fisher King, who was grievously wounded.

Many sought but only a few found this court, removed from this world, magnificent in splendor. There they witnessed the procession of the grail bearers, who, in the same manner as the original well-maidens, offered whatever sustenance was needed by the seeker. But time and again, no inquiry was made as to the wound that the Fisher King bore, and so the Grail Castle disappeared as if it were a dream, locked within another realm.

But eventually a seeker returned after a lifetime’s journeying and he became the grail- winner, known as “he who frees the waters.” He asked the wounded king the simple, healing question, “What ails thee?” and all was redeemed. The waters flowed once again; fountains that had dried up ran into the meadows; fields were green; the trees bore fruit; gardens prospered and forests flourished. The court of joy was reclaimed once more in the world, no longer separate.


This anonymous French text known as the Elucidation is a prequel to Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval (13th c. CE, France).





[1] SEE SIDEBAR at end of document