“The ultimate question for a responsible person to ask is …how the coming generation is to live” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his cell in 1945, shortly before his death at the hands of the Nazis.
(This website introduction was written in 2009.)
Welcome to the Freeborn Reserve and its Bonhoeffer Botanical Gardens!
1945, sixty-five years ago, I sat within walking distance of these Gardens listening to my grandparents talk of “65 years ago.” Then the Thomsen farm (north end of English Grade Road) had a hay barn separated from a milk barn; between them was a cold, then seemingly ever-running creek (in which the milk was cooled). Most area barns/milk sheds were similarly situated; if still standing, most today would be next to dry gullies. The Snohomish River has 50% of the water it had 20 years ago, the Stillaguamish even less (Stanwood was once a seaport); think of the water here 130 years ago! Since then many streams have been piped, dried up, covered over; a latter example is the small creek that crosses 300th Street NW and runs through the cemetery. That small tributary was put beneath crushed rock in 1910; the Gardens’ larger creek, (west fork) Freeborn Church Creek, was rerouted to circumvent Exit 215 in 1973 in a last minute decision based on cost-cutting and deception.
The Gardens sit on land ravished by these builders of the Freeway and until lately, overrun with non-indigenous plants (none are now allowed). In discussing native flora with visitors, it’s strange that so many don’t grasp the concept that native animals require native plants for their nourishment; that Scotch Broom, Evergreen Blackberries, Dandelions, even the beloved Foxgloves are junk food for native insects, butterflies, and birds. Many of the former, butterflies, require a specific plant for their larva. Even the Pilchuck Tree Farm surrounding the Exit 215 Campus is a bit of a desert with its single plant species focus. It is a slow process, one that we don’t notice; every year more and more non-native plants invade. Every year there is less water, fewer native flowers, and the last birds sing.
And the fish disappear; the Gardens are a case study that the I-5 Freeway is the Northwest’s largest dam, that when it comes to streams, brooks, creeks, and rills, the rule is “Salmon to the West, No Salmon to the East.” Just south of the Gardens within a span of 300 yards you will find a small, dark, long pipe that drains our watershed across and under the freeway to the west, then 1/2 mile to the north, then back under the freeway again. Eleven miles of fish habitat could be immediately restored if the Government were to replace these lengthy 1 and 2’ diameter pipes (or allow the creek to stay on the east side of the freeway). Box culverts would restore 100s of miles of salmon habitat just on the I-5 north of Seattle. There were but a million people here in 1945, now we have 8x that amount. Forecasts are for 40 million people in the Puget Sound trough (Ashland to Vancouver BC) by 2045. A 10 cent gasoline tax could purchase every box culvert needed … and the evidence that the demand for automobile fuel is inelastic is obvious. In the meantime, the Federal, state, and county maps show the Exit 215 Campus without streams and that fish habitat is miles away to the north (water flows north here); just don’t tell that to the river otter you may see here in the Gardens (as cutthroat and rainbow trout have returned). Maps of Freeborn Church (west fork) Creek are purposeful misrepresentations, often misnamed; if you believe your government does not lie to you, look at the creek maps of this area. No other watershed in western Washington is so misleadingly mapped.
Northwest Snohomish County is a magic place: Pilchuck Tree Farm with its Tatoosh Water Company; Pilchuck Glass School alumni dominate this area (if in Washington DC, visit the Smithsonian’s Renwick Museum where PGS artists also dominate); even the 11 small Lutheran church buildings, just like our site’s, within a 10 mile radius, speak to the days when people walked to their store, restaurant, school and church. (Our red farmhouse by the Heritage Orchard was a restaurant and brothel, the name “Freeborn*” was that of the one room elementary school that sat a few yards to the north on 24th.) As boys, the sites’ caretaker (and I) played in Freeborn Church, Freedom, and Fisher Creeks, fished for trout, and watched the salmon run.
(*Freeborn as in C.S. Lewis’ Willing Slaves …,
“I believe a man is happier, and happier in a richer way, if he has the freeborn mind …”)
Like the roadrunner I left this area 50 years ago to have several freeborn careers. One was as the Senior Vice President of Planning for American Stores, then with 180,000 employees. I learned in acquiring or selling stores that there are 5 rules for retailing success: location, location, location, cost of goods, location. That lesson learned has been applied at Exit 215; take a good look at this wide freeway thoroughfare. Can anyone believe the I-5 will be relocated in the next 1,000 years? Exit 215 may have various (ad)ventures related to nonprofit enterprises; some may fail, some may evolve. What won’t change is Exit 215’s location. Like Europe’s Roman Roads, I-5’s exits will determine the shape of urban development for generations to come. Our goal is to have this site teach, by botanical and historical example, multitudes of next generations to be good stewards of this earth.
If you’ve read this far, I apologize for this much prose. I’ve found that one often communicates poorly with numbers (how I think), with the written word, and via conversations. The best way to communicate is “visually.” Our dreams for this Exit 215 campus: a heritage orchard, a botanical garden, handicap paths, the children’s conifer maze, the butterfly garden kiosk roofs, a restored salmon stream, the outdoor amphitheater, tradecraft cabins, a “Sunday school everyday” preschool, the native plants (in a zoo-like presentation), the restored old chapel, the rills and ponds, an old roses garden, even the cemetery – all now exist. It is for the next generation to perfect what has been saved.
Please visit to see. For a visual example of a visual example, find one of the Gardens’ larger charred “stumps.” When one drives from Medford to Vancouver, BC and if you venture west or east, right or left, for an hour of driving … you will not be able to find a conifer alive in 1870. Spruce live for 750, Douglas Fir for 1,500, and Cedar for more than 3,000 years. We humans have cut down every tree that was standing 130 years ago. We did not leave even one. Our gardens may soon host a 17′ diameter Douglas Fir Stump that was alive before Christ and a portion of its log once destined for the Chicago World’s Fair. Walk among the large Red Cedar stumps that may be as old as Moses. Note the blackened stumps, the “Big Burn” destroyed both loggers’ debris and plants that reseed slowly. Since then, we have learned to put petroleum on the ground, surround ourselves inside moving metal and plastic, turn on space age sound systems, and hurtle here and there without thinking. Thoughtlessly over time we have thrice terra transformed western Washington and Oregon (cutting all the big trees, fueling the Big Burn, and replanting foreign and singularly favored native species). With the coming population growth, our fourth reform will be covering it all with asphalt.
5 minutes a day, week, month, or year spent at Exit 215’s campus offers a reconnection to the earth, flowers, flowing water, wind and songs of nature that were here 4 generations ago. It’s a natural resting place and we hope you accept our invitation to contemplate a bit about life here now and then, then and now.
Because if there is a God (we are given the gift of dealing with that question individually), it is possible that evidence might be “shown” to us from time to time either in history or our lives. And if you believe in God, “some judgment” must be associated. But even if you don’t believe, there is a “judgment” coming. What will the next generation say standing on dry gravel hills with few native plants or life existent? (Delaware has but 1/2 its native plants, we are decreasing our inventory at twice their pace.) Show us other Yew, Hawthorne, Oak, White Pine, Ash, Arbutus that once covered these hills. Note the absence of birds; the total absence of salmon; the freeway purposely planted to minimize road kill. We are on our way to destroying it all. Our natural extinction will be a chosen judgment. It is not inevitable; we choose it by continue our killing ways, plants and individuals, singly and in groups. And one asks, “Why?”
We invite you to touch history, see the NW native flora (and fauna), and perhaps contemplate the meaning of our existence. Another 130 years will pass in the blink of an eye and the ultimate question for a responsible person to ask will remain Pastor Bonhoeffer’s:
… “how the coming generation is to live?”
Dr. David J. Thomsen, ASA
at what visitors call “the Freeborn Reserve“
President, Pilchuck (Stanwood Camano) Learning Center
and President, Freeborn (Lutheran) Church