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Silent Streams

The Donaldson Run Civic Association was sufficiently convinced that it allocated the entire $25,000 of its county-funded capital improvement money to the project. But, like surgery, the process can be hard to watch.

"It is a little shocking," citizen stream monitor Lucy Spencer admitted, standing by the upper reach of the stream's main tributary. Bulldozers had carved a new S-shaped course, a giant slalom, into the formerly straight streambed. (The sinews were designed to slow down storm water in the way a twisting luge run can slow down a sled.) About 30 large trees, most of them already severely undermined by erosion, had been razed. The streambed itself had been built up and was now three feet higher than before. New, gently sloping banks were still bare but had been battened down with biodegradable netting, through which new grasses and shrubs would eventually sprout. The work was only partially completed, but already the stream looked radically different -- sunnier, sweeter and far more accessible. The weedy ravine it had once resembled was a memory.

At 26 square miles, Arlington is the smallest county in America, but even so, even though the Donaldson Run monitors live within a few blocks of one another, they agree that if they hadn't decided to take up stream monitoring, most of them might never have met. They certainly wouldn't have worked alongside one another, gotten to know one another's foibles and talents, and most certainly wouldn't have done so at a weekend hour when most people are happy to have done nothing more strenuous than creep out of the house to collect the morning paper.

The group's monitoring session this July was typical. The songbirds were trilling, and the Asian tiger mosquitoes weren't too annoying yet, everyone noted with relief. The monitors had gathered early to beat the heat. By 10 a.m., bank stability, water temperature, overhead leaf cover and silt content had been measured and debated, and the consensus entered into the field book.

"Okay, folks," team leader Anita Marx called out, her head bent over the field book. "Dominant vegetation -- what have we got?"

"Well," said Helen Lane, "I see stilt grass, I see daylilies --"

"We don't need that detail," Marx said quickly. A PhD candidate in stream science and not a morning person, Marx was the team leader. It was her job to keep the group from falling into pleasant but distracting, rambling conversations about hummingbird sightings and bridge repair.

"I see weeds, like wineberry," Lucy Spencer, a sculptor and gardener, volunteered. She raised her head and sniffed.

"I think there's a dead animal in the woods this morning," she said to the group. "Can you smell it?"

Marx interrupted again. "Okay, so do we have much in the way of shrubs?" she said, sounding a little pained. With her short hair, cargo shorts, T-shirt and black rubber kayaking shoes, Marx looked at least a decade younger than her 49 years, but she was more bleary-eyed than anyone else on the team. For months she had been working days and staying up until 3 a.m. writing her dissertation. Except for when it was strictly necessary, she generally tried not to interact with the world until after noon. Marx had studied science in college and then drifted into a computer science career but came back to the natural world, and to graduate school, a few years ago. "I decided life was more interesting than computers," she said.

Marx grew up in Arlington in the 1960s and '70s, and her subdivision's creek, she said, "was the only interesting thing in the neighborhood." Her street drained into Little Pimmit Run. More than half of the stream had already been buried by the '70s. But the stretch still above ground was full of minnows and tadpoles.

"I think the world would be awfully lonely without other creatures," she said. "It's partly because they're mysterious. They're something we didn't create. Cars and computers aren't mysterious; they're useful, but not mysterious. But these creatures are."

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