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Aikido’s water spirit

Michelle Keip’s students learn the links between dojo, Santa Rosa creeks


Michelle Keip came to the creeks through the children in her pre-Aikido class, known as Samurai Sprouts. She wanted public service to be part of her students’ development in the art of defending life, and she found her inspiration in the plants and animals of the watershed practically outside the dojo door.

 Volunteer Michelle Keip picks up trash in Spirit Creek in Santa Rosa as part of a creek cleanup earlier this month. (SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat)

Volunteer Michelle Keip picks up trash in Spirit Creek in Santa Rosa as part of a creek cleanup earlier this month. (SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat)

Over seven years of leading regular cleanup days on two local creeks through the city of Santa Rosa’s Creek Stewardship program, Keip says, she’s discovered that safeguarding neighborhood waterways is enriching and rewarding for people of all ages.

“Creek stewardship is like remembering that the water, the rocks, the air, the plants, the animals are our brothers and sisters,” Keip, 60, said recently. “Everything is sacred. And we can encourage each other and remember that together.”

Protecting the health of riparian areas is also a way to serve in community, building alliances and friendships among generations, she said.

Even young children can participate, with the proper safety orientation, she said. And it only takes one outing for folks to realize how much can be accomplished in a short time, Keip said. The city will even supply gloves, trash pickers and garbage bags to groups who want them.

“When people see how doable it is, they want to get going on their own,” Keip said.

Keip started by adopting a reach of Piner Creek near Coffey Lane and Piner Road, a short distance from the Movement Oasis studio that houses Well Springs Aikido, the school she and her husband run.

She also leads cleanups on Spirit Creek west of Stony Point Road near the Center for Spiritual Living, whose members are among her recruits.

“Michelle has done a lot and puts a lot of time into it, and is enthusiastic and real heartfelt about what she does,” said Alistair Bleifuss, a city environmental specialist who runs the program.

She currently organizes five events a year, though more than 100 others involved with the stewardship program offer help in a variety of different ways — from leading cleanup efforts, to reporting problem areas, to serving as the city’s eyes and ears in some other way, Bleifuss said.

“Just getting all the little stuff, like candy wrappers and bottle caps, cigarette butts, and all the things that can be mistaken for food by wildlife” is important, Bleifuss said.

With nearly 90 miles of creek running through the city, “we’re really reliant on people who let us know when they see a problem, because we’re not out there seeing the creeks everyday like people who are using them.”

Keip, a public health nurse by training, emphasizes education and reflection in her cleanup events. She usually starts with an orientation to the creek and safety instructions by environmental educator Stephanie Lennox before volunteers get down to work collecting trash.

Workers find everything from car batteries and open paint cans to discarded toys and the usual array of garbage.

“The creeks, historically, have kind of been like the landfill area,” Keip said. People used to look the other way and throw it over their backs into the creeks, and, unfortunately, that attitude, we still find it in our creeks in the kind of trash we find.”

But when many hands are at work collecting such refuse, it goes quickly, and is usually done in an about an hour, Keip said. After that, it’s time to talk and play and share food — pizza provided by nearby Round Table Pizza, when the work is focused on Spirit Creek.

Typical outings bring in 30 or more people, though she’s had as many as 80 turn out for Martin Luther King Day of Service events on Spirit Creek.

Keip said she’s particularly touched to see how readily children embrace the role of protecting wildlife along the creeks, with young kids sometimes showing still younger ones the ropes.

A woman came to her after a March 17 cleanup on Spirit Creek and described how her daughter “insisted that we come to this,” even though she’d never been to a creek cleanup before.

Another girl, about age 5, brought her mother and grandmother. “That cross-generational piece is so precious to me,” she said.

Keip’s next scheduled effort is from 1 to 4 p.m. April 21 on Piner Creek.

Anyone interested in participating can contact Keip at (707) 544-2673 or

More information on the creek stewardship program is available

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or