Xan Augerot sees rivers as threads binding communities
Once upon a time, cutthroat trout swam thick in the Marys River.
“Old timers still talk about the big fish,” says Xan Augerot (pronounded zan ojero). She spreads her hands 18 inches apart so her listener can envision the size of those silvery behemoths. Not content to let the cutthroat remain only a ghostly memory, she took the helm of the Marys River Watershed Council three years ago. As executive director, her vision is to bring the river back to some approximation of the fish-rich days of the past.
“We can’t restore the watershed to its pristine state,” Augerot acknowledges. “But we can restore water quality and watershed function — and, perhaps, the cutthroat.”
Her style (idealism girded by pragmatism) and her methods (listening hard and interpreting carefully) have been a lifetime in the making. It started at the christening. No Suzy or Jane for Mr. and Mrs. Augerot, he a professor of Slavic languages and she a bilingual schoolteacher (who later got a Ph.D.). Rather, the couple named their first baby Xanthippe after the wife of one of the greatest thinkers of Western civilization, Socrates. Big shoes for such tiny feet.
From their home base in Seattle, the family traveled the world. Xan learned Russian and spent a year in the Soviet Union as a high school student. Later, she helped lead an eco-tour to the Soviet Union just weeks before the government collapsed.
It was only fitting that the well-traveled, bilingual young woman, after earning an economics degree from the University of Washington, would do something out of the ordinary. Going to sea on a Soviet fishing vessel is one of those jobs that really sets your resume apart. As a representative of the Seattle-based company Marine Resources International, which had a joint venture with the Russians trading Pacific whiting for Kamchatka king crab caught in Soviet waters, her job was to translate for the fishermen of both sides of the transactions.
Things got dicey at times. She remembers the fog that would shroud the “itty-bitty” trollers plying the Pacific for salmon amidst the 25- vessel trawl fleet. “It was very tense at times, trying to avoid collisions,” she recalls.
After two years at sea, she went back to Seattle pondering both the scientific and the sociological questions of sustainability while earning a degree in marine policy. Her cross-cultural experiences had taught her that the “truth” is culturally relative — and that culture can differ neighborhood to neighborhood. Reality can appear as different to next-door neighbors as it does to nations. “I saw how passionate the fishermen were about feeding people from the sea,” she says. “I saw their deep knowledge of the sea — the moods of the ocean — and also how their beliefs and practices can bring them into conflict with science. What is the truth? Things come in all shades of gray. It all depends on where you sit and where your bread’s buttered.”
Those lessons about perception have informed her work ever since, first at Washington Sea Grant, then at the Wild Salmon Center (an international conservation group she helped lead for seven years in Portland), and now at the Marys River Watershed Council. Sometimes, she says, a stream or a river is the only tangible thing connecting landowners to their neighbors. That watery thread can be the binding force that fosters a sense of community and stewardship for the shared landscape — if a skillful interpreter can guide the conversation.
“I really like the notion that we can bring people together in streamside neighborhoods to see how their land contributes to the ecological whole,” says Augerot, whose 14-year-old son Silas is a soccer fanatic and whose husband Josiah is a retired contractor. “Everyone values the land, but sometimes they value different aspects of the land. You have to deal with people where they are.”
“Old timers still talk about the big fish.”
Executive Director, MRWC