When Michael Smith was struggling through a divorce in early 2018, he wasn’t sure where to turn for solace.
So, he went back to a place that had always brought him peace: the river.
Smith poured his time into improving a stretch of the Santa Fe River, pulling weeds, clearing out trash, trimming trees and cutting down invasive Siberian elms. The work cleared his head and gave him purpose.
“The river healed me,” said Smith, 65, who can be found most days along the waterway, between Delgado Street and a small footbridge spanning the river not far from the intersection of East Alameda Street and Palace Avenue.
Pausing from a raking job on a recent sunny afternoon, he said he sees his work as that of an archaeologist uncovering a hidden treasure, one that can be easy to miss if too much vegetation overtakes it.
He calls it the river of life — the life of the city and his own life.
The California native, who has lived in Santa Fe on and off since the early 1990s, started the nonprofit Friends of the Santa Fe River to supplement his efforts to not only clear the river of garbage and debris but also give native species a chance to thrive along the banks. Smith’s nonprofit has a renewable, one-year contract with the city of Santa Fe, which gives him specific guidelines — right down to the diameter of tree trunks he is allowed to cut — on how to proceed when it comes to thinning vegetation, removing intrusive trees and shrubs, and cleaning out trash.
“Michael likes to do the detail work that our staff doesn’t have as much time to do,” said Melissa McDonald, the city’s river watershed coordinator. “He has a passion for the river; he feels it is the lifeblood of the community.”
Smith fostered an early love of gardening and a penchant for collecting Native American art and antiquities as a teen in Southern California’s Laguna Beach, where he was raised. After working for a landscape architect there, he moved to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where he worked as a gardener.
After visiting Santa Fe sometime in the 1980s, he said to himself, “I like it here. I could live here.”
He would later open and operate the Michael Smith Gallery on Canyon Road for 12 years, and he also sold Native American art on his own — which he still does part-time to pay the bills.
God and fate gave him gifts along the way, he said: beautiful places to live, the ability to work with his hands, a loving daughter, loyal friends, good clients in both the gardening and art worlds — ranging from Harriet Nelson from the 1950s and ’60s TV sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet to actor Tommy Lee Jones.
Though Smith loved living in Hawaii, he found it tougher to make a living there and felt Santa Fe was calling him. He moved here in 1993. Sometime in the late 1990s, upset with how the Santa Fe River near his home in the Guadalupe District was being overrun with trash and Siberian elms, he began cleaning up the river and hacking away at the elms.
Whatever progress he made was set back by his return to Hawaii, where he again lived for a few years. Upon his return to Santa Fe, he discovered no one else had followed in his footsteps to clean and clear the river.
He began working on his own as a volunteer again in 2014, clearing away the elms, which led to calls of both support and protest to the city, according to media stories at the time.
Smith is unapologetic about his dislike of the elms: “Every time I cut down an elm tree, something better comes up behind it.”
Not everyone is happy with that approach.
Melissa Savage, a retired forest ecologist from the University of California, Los Angeles, said some invasive species can have a “neutral or beneficial influence on ecosystems” and play a role in providing “a pleasant and shady canopy.”
She also said “a well-vegetated Santa Fe River does provide a good corridor for birds” and that clearing away too much brush can impact that.
In a counterargument, Smith points to a number of willows, cottonwoods and ash trees that have taken root along the area where he eradicated the elms as proof that “anywhere I take out an invasive species, native plants grow.”
Elm trees or no elm trees, he said, he does not see many birds except for woodpeckers and crows along the river, and he believes once the native species take fuller root, the birds will return.
McDonald received comments about the elm removals, saying it’s “about 50-50 in terms of support and opposition.”
“We have to be measured in how we approach it,” she said, “but we typically try to remove elms that are next to native vegetation that is growing. We want natural species to create a natural canopy.”
She said Smith is “doing a good job. It’s useful for us to have that extra eye out there.”
His contract requires him to clear all work with her before he acts, she added.
Smith’s nonprofit is one of several organizations that work to maintain the Santa Fe River under the city’s Adopt-the-River program, McDonald said. Others include the Sierra Club, Keep Santa Fe Beautiful, Youthworks and the Santa Fe Watershed Association.
Smith said he can afford to work for free to improve the river because he still sells art, but he wants to raise funding for the nonprofit so he can pay others to help him.
His contract is up for renewal in December, and McDonald said she expects the city to approve it.
Then, Smith said, he’ll begin working east of the foot bridge and up toward the intersection of Palace Avenue and East Alameda Street.
Mike Schmidt, a Santa Fe resident who has walked along the river for 20 years, said he likes what Smith has done with it. “It’s never looked this good,” Schmidt said. “He’s turned the riverside around. It’s open, it’s safe, it’s comfortable — it just looks nicer.”
Smith — who took time out from raking and gathering debris to replace some rotting boards on the small foot bridge fording the river one recent November day — said he sees the river as something as sacred as a church.
Which is why it tears him up to see people throwing trash into it.
“How could you throw trash in a church?” he said.