BAASICS.4: Watershed – Field Trip #6: Making it Personal

J.R.W. Hitchcock

J.R.W. Hitchcock

Christopher and I headed to Oakland recently for a coffee and chat with Derek Hitchcock, an ecologist currently working with The Watershed Project on that organization’s Greening Urban Watersheds Initiative. Hitchcock’s background includes watershed management work in more exotic locations like the Okavango River Basin as well as projects on California’s Napa and Yuba rivers.

But it wasn’t the breadth of his experience that most tickled our fancy. Instead, it was the way he naturally incorporated words like “ritual” and “storytelling” into the same sentence as “salmon” and “hydraulic mining.” We can talk about flow charts and sediment until we are blue in the face, but if the general populace doesn’t “get it,” we will be lost in the end. Teaching a deep understanding of something as vast and complex as our watershed must include an element of, dare I say it, mysticism. The definition of mysticism I like best is the belief that apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect may be attained through contemplation. Embedded in most cultures is the practice of using ritual and storytelling to inspire contemplation of, and reverence for, the environment. Hitchcock’s attention to this kind of cognition is refreshing and inspired.

Hydraulic Mining - Eureka Claim

Hydraulic Mining – Eureka Claim

Committing his attention and efforts to the San Francisco Bay watershed wasn’t a difficult choice for Hitchcock, as his son Jasper (born just a couple of weeks ago!) represents the 7th generation of Californians on his father’s side. His great-great-great grandfather J.R.W. Hitchcock arrived in Jamestown, California, in 1849 and was one of the fortunate few to prosper during the Gold Rush.

Placer mining (1849-1854 era)

Placer mining (1849-1854 era)

This ancestral connection to the region has imparted a great sense of responsibility to Hitchcock, which brings us back to storytelling. Knowing the story of his family’s connection to the San Francisco Bay Area, and continuing to write that story in a way he feels proud of, enables a more profound connection to his work as an ecologist, and, more generally, as a human occupying space.

For BAASICS.4: Watershed, Hitchcock will be discussing how his personal history — both his professional ecological research and the Hitchcock family legacy — relate to the San Francisco Bay watershed, and how ecology and conservation, which he describes as “a whole lot of hard work and a whole lot of observation,” can be hitched to soul-nourishing practices and storytelling to help all of us who live in the watershed “become indigenous to the place.” “Watershed health is a cultural value,” Hitchcock told us near the end of our conversation, and we couldn’t agree more.

A few notes:
– In 1856, the state of California offered 25 cents for every Native American scalp. In 1860, the bounty was raised to $5.

– Four unique populations of Chinook salmon spawn in our waters, more than any other single watershed in the world (

– Check out the San Francisco Estuary Partnership’s The State of San Francisco Bay, perhaps the most official story of our watershed’s health that we have.

Image credits: uncredited, courtesy Derek Hitchcock

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  1. The Berkeley Science Review » Our Changing Watershed - January 13, 2014

    […] direct intervention and increasing public awareness. Watershed presenter and UC Berkeley alumnus Derek Hitchcock said in an interview with BAASICS, “Watershed health is a cultural […]

  2. Our Changing Watershed | The Berkeley Science Review - January 18, 2014

    […] direct intervention and increasing public awareness. Watershed presenter and UC Berkeley alumnus Derek Hitchcock said in an interview with BAASICS, “Watershed health is a cultural […]

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