The Ripple: Your Local River is Alive…and Waiting

Touch the River and It’ll Touch You

The Connecticut River is the lifeblood of the Pioneer Valley.

Thinking of how important it is for nature-lovers to spend time “being in” nature, the conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”

Ethics involve what we judge to be right or wrong; and Leopold is correct: if we are to be ethical—if we are to wisely judge the rightness or wrongness of a thing—we need to have a direct experience of it. It’s easy to forget that a river is alive, and has a life that is valuable unless, from time to time, you touch it. Unless we touch the river, we can’t understand enough about it to be ethical towards it.

Rivers have always provided humans with perfect places to live, whether it be the nhà sông of Vietnam, the chickee hut of the Mississippi shrimp catcher, or the highrise of a hedgefund manager towering over the Hudson. We’ve always been attracted to rivers because they, of all landscape features, are the most alive: kinetic in movement and full of creatures. There is a big difference between viewing a river, though, and touching it. I want you to touch a river this month if you haven’t lately—and let that river be the Connecticut, which flows for over 400 miles from just over the Canadian border to Long Island Sound.

One way to touch the Connecticut River is to volunteer to assist the Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Source to Sea Clean-up, scheduled for Saturday, September 26 and Sunday, September 27, 2014. Read the rest of this entry »

Source to Sea Clean Up: Community Service Opportunity for Families & CT River Watershed

Join Up for a Day of River Care, and Empower Your Family to Create Community Impact

Families can show their love and appreciation for the river by participating in the Connecticut River Watershed Council’s annual Source to Sea Clean Up, an event that mobilizes volunteers from all over the Connecticut River watershed for a day of cleaning and caring for the river.

The Connecticut River dictates the landscape of much of western New England. Western Massachusetts’ hills and mountains provide a river- and stream-filled frame for the Connecticut River as it flows through towards Connecticut and, eventually, into the Atlantic Ocean. The Pioneer Valley’s rich farmland is a gift from the river, and delicious local food is grown and raised on the valley’s river banks. The Connecticut River is the lifeblood of our local landscape, and we depend on the many different natural features that make up its watershed for everything from swimming and hiking to healthy food and fresh water. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Setting our Watches to the Geological View of Time

There’s Gold in Our Hills!

Gold in Mt. Tom anyone?

I met a person who was panning for gold in one of our hilltown brooks this summer who knew a lot about geology—at least enough to know that gold is produced by volcanic activity. We don’t think of our biome as having volcanic bones; Iceland, Hawaii, and the Pacific Rim come to mind, but Huntington?

Look closely, though, and you’ll find evidence of igneous geology all over the place: from Mounts Holyoke and Tom which were bubbling lava when hungry raptorsauri ran wild here 200,000,000 years ago, to the weirdly eroded lava ash boulders people place out by their driveways in Goshen, to the cocoa puff pumice balls that float in eddies just downriver from the Turners Falls dams. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Squelching through Wetlands Reveals Nature at its Most Natural

The Beauty and Ickyness of Upland Wetlands

Thanks to wetlands, mountain rivers should be clear while valley rivers like the Connecticut can resemble a river of milk chocolate.

Last week, I stood by the side of the East Branch of the Westfield River in Chesterfield with a group of intrepid explorers, astonished by the gasp and growl of its raging flood waters. “Where’s Augustus Gloop?” I heard someone ask; “He would love all this hot chocolate!”

Laden with brown soils that had eroded from roadsides, construction sites and fields upstream, the river did look like it was made by Willy Wonka. A wild and scenic river like the East Branch of the Westfield should not look like hot chocolate because of its federally-registered conservation status, and the fact that there is little development in the hilltowns. And yet here was unmistakable proof that torrential rain on vegetation-less lands was causing extensive erosion. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Lifeline Waterways

River Trees

Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

Imagine—by float, boat or walking, you’re in the river as it wends past farmland, backyards and woods, through plains, valleys and gorges. After an hour, the initial thrill of united movement, of flesh and water and flow, has passed, and so have the conversations. The river begins to insinuate your skin and re-network your synapses; you start thinking like a river. Feel the expansion.

Hear the river sound; its voice (like ours) combines the everything it passes through, and that passes through it (for it breathes and eats with its mouth open): the more obstructions, the more turbulence; the more turbulence, the louder the growl. Read the rest of this entry »

We (heart) the Deerfield River: A Hilltown Families’ Family Community Service Night

Art Garden Event: River Fest Parade

Hilltown Families and The Art Garden partner for a final community-service art-making event for the season

Our watersheds are vital and important ecosystems for animal and plant species. Celebrate the Deerfield River Watershed with friends, family, Hilltown Families and The Art Garden on Friday, June 6th, from 4-7pm in Shelburne Falls for our final community-service art-making event for the season.

At this event we will be focusing on what we love about the Deerfield River Watershed and preparing for the annual Deerfield RiverFest’s Frog and Flower parade on June 7. Be a part of creating large cardboard fish, frogs and flowers for the parade, as well as individual processional artworks. All ages can participate! Materials provided. Takes place at The Art Garden.

Engaging your family in community service teaches kids positive values while opening up channels of communication between parent and child, and can increase their participation as future volunteers. Join us for an evening of community service art-making on Friday, June 6th from 4-7pm at The Art Garden in Shelburne Falls, MA, for We (heart) the Deerfield River, the final event in a series of five free family community service nights!

The Art Garden is located at 14 Depot Street in Shelburne Falls, MA (in the Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum building.) SEE MAP. Questions? Email Sienna at swildfield@hilltownfamilies.org.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: When I Jump into Your Flow

When I Jump into Your Flow

When I jump into your flow
You’ll take me wherever you go
ever you go, ever you go
You’ll take me wherever you go

Flow.

We’re in one, and sucked into bigger flows that swept into bigger flows. And on and on. Minnows circling in eddies. In white water, stonefly nymphs cling to stone. Anadromous fish are making their way up whatever tributaries aren’t dammed, and being watched and counted at Holyoke and Turners Falls dams. Visit them, because their populations are declining and might soon vanish—just 397 Blueback Herring, for example, have passed Holyoke Dam as of May 21st.

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Wild & Scenic Saturdays Offer Experiential Learning Along the Westfield River

Wild and Scenic Saturdays on the Westfield River
April through October, 2014

Click to view larger image.

Wild and Scenic Saturdays cover a wide range of topics and include activities that cater to families with children of all ages. Additionally, the learning embedded in each and every one of the events will help children not only to better understand the river ecosystem, but will allow them to connect the things that they experience in the watershed to concepts that they’ve learned and home and school.

For over twenty years, the Westfield River has been distinguished as a National Wild and Scenic River. The river and its watershed provide critical habitat for a great many plant and animal species (rare ones included!), serve as a source of clean drinking water for humans, and offer us a place to commune with nature and enjoy activities like kayaking, fishing, and hiking.  Treat yourself each month to Kurt’s column, The Ripple: Stories About Western MA Rivers. This month he features the Westfield River in his post, “The Cure for All Things Pavement.”

During the coming months, the Westfield River Committee is offering a series of Saturday workshops, work days, guided explorations, and other events in order to engage the community in a process of learning about and how to care for the river and its watershed. The Wild and Scenic Saturdays offer a mix of educational activities, opportunities to engage in community service, and adventures into the watershed’s fascinating wilderness. Read the rest of this entry »

Lifecycle Studies: Hatching Frog Eggs

Lifecycle Studies: Hatching Frog Eggs

Here in western Massachusetts, one of Mother Nature’s first ways of letting us know that spring has arrived is the chorus that comes during the evening. Peepers and wood frogs add natural music to the wet, muddy, spring landscape, letting everyone and everything within earshot know that winter is finally over. And soon after the evenings get noisy, amphibians get busy! Not long after emerging, ponds and vernal pools become home to hundreds of eggs.

Springtime outdoor exploration with kids is sure to lead to discoveries of egg masses if you live near still or slow-moving water. There’s a lot to be learned just from examining the egg masses themselves, but there’s even more to be learned by watching the eggs hatch, develop, and grow from a gelatinous cluster into full-sized frogs! Families can schedule regular visits to a pond or vernal pool to watch these future-frogs grow, but it’s much easier to see the small daily changes that occur if the eggs are right inside your home or classroom.

Before bringing home an egg mass, do some research and learn to identify the egg masses you’ve found. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: The Cure For All Things Pavement

The Cure for All Things Pavement

Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you! Tuning into this “wheel of time” is one way that we leave our pavement-based perception of place. If you are lucky, you’ll get to see mergansers, a sort of river loon, as they hunt for the same trout that are hunting the invertebrates.

Before there were roads, there were trails and before there were trails, there were rivers. The Nile and the Mississippi—can you see Cleopatra and Huck & Jim making their ways on these liquid highways? Have you heard the tale (more or less true) of how Native Americans followed the paths of deer that traveled up and down food-rich riparian corridors; and that Routes 5 & 7 were laid over such paths?

Once upon a time, people knew their places from the perspective of the river; and what is so wonderful is that this perspective is still available to those who pine for a way of seeing, and being, that is not pavement-based. This summer, you could float down the Deerfield or Connecticut Rivers—and you ought to!—but floating down means that you’ve already driven up it. Nothing wrong with that; in fact it can’t be avoided given our moment in time; but the proper way to get the feeling and the vision of being placed in a biome is to head upstream, like the Atlantic Shad are doing right now. (Reminder: the operators of the Holyoke and Turner’s Falls dams open their anadromous fish viewing stations around Mother’s Day, and—despite the fact that both dams are causing extinctions—they are worth visiting.)

If you want to change the way you and your family view your “place” by leaving the pavement and making your way up a river valley, you are lucky! Read the rest of this entry »

Vernal Pools in Western MA

Vernal Pools: Community Resources & Events Supplement Interests & Education

Studies of vernal pools support learning in many areas of interest, and a close look at amphibian reproduction can help to spark children’s curiosity about other aspects of amphibian life. Find out what’s happening in Western MA this spring!

Along with the greenery of spring comes a reawakening of wildlife, and some of western Massachusetts smallest and most fascinating creatures make their debut as soon as the snow melts! One sure sign of the change of seasons is the sound of peepers – noisy wood frogs who have made their way from their winter residences to the vernal pools that have filled with fish-free water thanks to the melting snow. Vernal pools aren’t just home to wood frogs, though. Their amphibious neighbors include salamanders, fairy shrimp, and tiny mussels, making vernal pools a fascinating (and usually temporary) incubator for many species.

Vernal pools truly come alive at a very specific time during the spring. On the first rainy night when the temperature stays above 40 degrees, frogs and salamanders migrate from their winter homes to their annual breeding grounds, filling the pools with the sounds of mating and an abundance of eggs. While it can be tempting for rainboot-clad kiddos to stomp right on into a big, shallow puddle in the woods, it’s important to know whether or not they’re romping about in a vernal pool. Such pools house the eggs of many species of frogs and salamanders, and humans’ springtime frolicking can easily disturb these eggs and negatively affect populations. However, spending an afternoon exploring along the edges of a vernal pools is nature’s classroom at its best! Families can learn to identify commonly found species, and can watch a vernal pool over the course of the spring, summer, and fall (and maybe even winter) to see how it changes… Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Celebrate the Shortnose Sturgeon!

Our Friend, the Shortnose Sturgeon

Short-nosed sturgeon

Since the Atlantic Salmon was declared extinct in the Connecticut River two years ago, I have wandered the river banks with students, wondering what a healthy living river is like. That the Shortnose has survived under such duress, with such poor assistance provided by humans, made us love it—because it expresses the brisk vitality that remains in that 400 mile waterbody. The Shortnose does not give up, and neither should we. Before we lose this last clan entirely, let us try to assist it, and raise the Shortnose’s image and story to the forefront of our biocultural awareness. Let this environmental-adapter epitomize us and our still beautiful Nonotuck biome, at this moment of epochal transition.


Spring equinox has passed and the great thaw is underway, turning greys into green and silence to chansons. Have you enjoyed the cold (as much as the otters, who fished the icy pools)? The ice it brought let us walk rivers and tributaries as if they were sidewalks, and grand boulevards. What a wonderful feeling!

The perspective gained by walking above the river was as rare as the record-breaking weather that enabled it. Seeing the way trees lower, extend and up-curl their limbs over the water, to catch the sun on each yearning pinkytip; and noticing deep punctures of buck hoof puzzled over by bobcat pads as wide, soft and light as hamburger buns—such perceptions awaken dormant parts of human being, sparking awareness of how lucky we are when we find time to unplug. Despite the best attempts of technologists to rewire us, we’re wild; and, when we step into places without signs or brands or passwords, a brisk vivacity and slight confusion welcomes us, and matches our character, as Shakespeare made plain in this description of some dukes chillin’ in the forest of Arden: Read the rest of this entry »

Environmental Film Festival in the Berkshires

Project Native 4th Annual Environmental Film Festival
March 29 & 30, 2014
Great Barrington, MA

For the past three years, Project Native has hosted a successful day-long environmental film festival. This year they are expanding the festival to include an evening screening at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA, on Saturday, March 29th in addition to the festival on Sunday, March 30th at the Triplex Cinema.

The festival will kick off Saturday, March 29th at 7pm with a special screening of Revolution, an award-winning film by Rob Stewart, director of Sharkwater at the  Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA. Startling, beautiful, and provocative, Revolution has already won awards at international film festivals. Revolution is not just about the environment—it’s a film about hope and inspiration. It is an urgent call-to-action with an uplifting message that tells us it’s possible to alleviate the damage already done. While creating this film, Stewart met with experts in their fields to investigate the important issues affecting our lives. In an effort to uncover the secrets to a safer world, Stewart goes on an adventure filled with action and drama that will leave audiences around the world, at any age, inspired about how they can get involved in the fight to save our planet.

“Our goal is to not only show the problems facing our world, but to also inspire action for positive change,” says Karen Lyness LeBlanc, Education & Outreach Coordinator for Project Native. Project Native is encouraging middle, high school and college students in the area to attend and bring their friends. This event is FREE, thanks to support from the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation. A panel discussion will follow the film.

Then on Sunday, March 30th, screening at the Triplex Cinema…

The Ripple: The River Will Rise

The River Will Rise

Bridge remains at Chesterfield Gorge. (Photo credit (c) Sienna Wildfield)

This shivery month of melt, please bring your family to the upper neck of the Chesterfield Gorge and look across the Westfield River. You’ll see a twenty-foot tall stone wall tower— the remains of an old colonial bridge, a massive abutment built in 1769 by meticulous stackers of dark granite schist.

I remember looking at it a few years ago, marveling at the brawn and artistry of the backwoods engineers who made it. They must have believed their incredible backaches were worth it, that their bridge would stand for centuries, and they and their progeny would make a living collecting tolls where hemlocks now cluster and choke.

Over two hundred years have gone by, the bridge is long gone and the road it extended is a deer and porcupine highway. Another two more centuries will go by, I imagined then, and the abutment will remain unstaggered, a gratifying, even beautiful, example of our manipulation of the biome to achieve economic goals. And aside from this, I thought, the imperturbability of the stacked stone next to the swift and crashing rapids is, itself, a story that offers a lesson… Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: How Rivers Still Flow When It’s Way Below

Ice-Walking Bugs, and the Lessons They Teach Us

(Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield)

For the next two months or so, if the weather isn’t too bizarre, we’ll be knee deep in snow, and our rivers and streams will be flowing beneath their softest, whitest blankets, like restless kids dreaming of bodysurfing at the beach. When it’s really really cold outside, the river becomes the warmest part of the biome—kinda like our beds become the warmest part of the house when the frost creeps over the windows.

A few weeks ago, when the temp was in single digits, I saw bathtub steam rising off the Westfield River. In the squeaky-snow brilliance of the unclouded morning, more vitality in a deep breath than a whole pot of coffee, I had a flashback of some Rocky Mountain hotsprings, arrived at after two days of backcountry snowshoeing and skiing. Like a chrome grasshopper off the top of an ear, a gleaming sliver of myself leapt to that river steam, magnetized by the delicious feeling drifting in the wavering mist: of the coincidence of opposites, wet/dry hot/cold, manifesting as a high country hottub, as exclusive and elegant as they come. I wanted to jump into this fantasy, but didn’t—because I knew that water was so cold that it burns… Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Gifts Under the Hemlock

Gift to Receive by Being Present

Our hills are gemmed with gifts—receive them by being present!For the next few months, the deep chills of winter will freeze our higher elevation watercourses—and invite us to wander in a winter wonderland.

Few places are more “Christmas-y” than our snow-laden hemlock forests; and since hemlocks love shallow wet soils and grow near bouldery brooks and streams, they beckon us, who yearn to be present when and where our biome most clearly expresses its unique vivacity. Snow settles on their dark green needles, very “zen” if you see it that way, and Currier and Ives, if that’s what you’re looking for. Snow settles on needles anyway it wants, of course—and being with those we love when the crow lands and shakes the hemlock and spills the sprinkles that glisten in sun above the brook is magical. Most of the holiday advertising we are deluged by tries to convey what is freely offered by our own hills—receive the gift, by wrapping up and presenting yourself to the hemlocks and their hidden icy grottoes… Read the rest of this entry »

Local Christmas Tree Farms: A Lens Into Environmental Science

Do You Know Where Your Christmas Tree Comes From?

An examination of evergreen tree farming can help children learn about a non-food related form of sustainable farming. Tree farming contributes to oxygen production, provides food and habitat for variety of animal species, and doesn’t have a huge impact on the location in which it takes place.

As the weather gets colder and snow starts to enter the forecast, the holiday season is filled with opportunities for learning about all kinds of topics. The change of weather can support learning with activities like searching for nests and animal tracks in the snow, and participating as citizen scientists counting raptors and song birds.

Families can also explore the cultural roots of winter holidays, like Santa Lucia Day during Welcome Yule or reading about Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa while snuggled up before a long winter’s nap!

Most holiday-related learning has to do with history, culture, religion, literature, art, and music. Math can even be integrated with some creativity, but it’s harder to find a natural connection between the holidays and science – especially environmental science.

There is a link between the holidays and environmental science, though – and it’s a good one! Do your children know where your Christmas tree comes from? Here in rural Western MA, it’s possible that one of your annual holiday traditions involves a tromp out into your own woodlot to chop down a vaguely Charlie Brown-ish trunk to add to your living room, but it’s more likely that your tree came from a tree farm. Whether that farm was nearby or far away, a look at how your tree was grown provides a myriad of learning opportunities!

Read on to discover more…

The Ripple: Rivers and Experiential Learning

Biophilia: Love of Life

When I walked with my children along and in Stonehouse Brook, I let them play, for it was crucial that they engage the brook at their own pace and comfort level. My job was simply to ensure they didn’t get hurt—but I let them slip and fall in, so they would learn how not to do that. I let them wade a little too deep so they could feel the muscular strength of water flow, and allowed them to get carried away so they would learn how to recover their feet, balance and stance.

When my daughters (now 15 and 17) were little, their most magical place was Stonehouse Brook, a lively watercourse that tumbled down from pine and oak headlands. From the age they could walk by themselves until the era of afterschool sports, they were all mine and I used our time together to live halfway indoors and halfway outdoors. I, and my wife, did this because we were concerned that their cognitive development would be shunted if their senses and their consciousness were not stimulated and challenged. For this purpose, Stonehouse Brook was perfect; it was intimate and not overwhelming, and it was very alive.

Biophilia is a word that means love of life and the person who coined it, evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, did so because he noticed that we have an innate attraction to other living beings… Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: River Therapy

Take Me To The River

(Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

I really love looking at pictures of people enjoying rivers. Lakes, ponds, pools and the ocean: these are great, but (with the exceptions of oceans) they are stagnant. I do love oceans, yet they’re too big to get a handle on and—dare I say it—beaches get boring.

Rivers, on the other hand, are dynamic and have tons of personality (Our rapid biotic assessments show us how different they are.). When we get near them after escaping buildings and cars, we experience a liberating emotional release—as Ray Davies so perfectly captures in the song, “Sitting by the Riverside” by The Kinks.

Whether it’s a leap of joy and dash to the edge, or a stoical surrender of complex thoughts to the onward round-the-bend flow, or a bright flash of sensory expansion as one is enveloped in a fresh kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells…People like to take pictures of themselves and their friends when they are next to rivers, and these kinds of emotional states are recorded…

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The Ripple: Engaging as Citizen Scientists Along the River

Hilltown Families Citizen Scientists
4th Annual Assessment of the Westfield River

A few days ago a friend of mine, the talented Northfield potter Tom White, posted a Facebook picture of himself holding a wild King Salmon he caught in Pulaski, NY, on the Salmon River near Lake Erie.

That’s what 30 pounds of pure aquatic vitality looks like—and once upon a time our CT, Westfield and Deerfield rivers were teeming with their cousins, the Atlantic Salmon, that were declared extinct last year by the National Fish and Wildlife Service.

This past Friday, Hilltown Families Founder, Sienna Wildfield, and an energetic group of Hilltown Families citizen scientists and I conducted our fourth annual rapid biotic assessment of the Westfield River in West Chesterfield, and we marveled at how alive this beautiful watercourse is! Consistent with the two assessments we’ve done since hurricane Irene, we found that the populations of crab-like bugs has shrunken while the worm-types have increased (Compare assessments: 2011 & 2013).

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Though we would like to find a wide variety of river bugs, because biodiversity is a sure sign of ecological health, we did catch five types of the “most wanted” cold-water oxygen-loving bugs. They signaled that the Westfield River continues to enjoy “exceptional water quality,” the highest of EPA rankings. YAY!

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The Ripple: Stewards of Our Rivers!

Rivers as Circulatory Systems

Be a steward of the river! Join Hilltown Families and Biocitizen as we do our 4th annual rivers health check-ups, through the EPA approved method called Rapid Biotic Assessment or “RBA.”

It might sound like a stretch to say that rivers are the blood vessels of the earth, but ecologists (who understand that even empirical descriptions of nature are metaphorical) have no difficulty viewing rivers as circulatory systems. Start with the rain cycle, for example: the science of which tells us that there is a finite amount of water on earth that gets pumped around, over and over again—and, it’s the exact same water the dinosaurs drank and swam in!  Move on to the fact that every dawning civilization began by developing agriculture in valleys, whose soils were annually replenished by spring floods—which means that even the letters I use to write this, first invented in the “fertile crescent,” are brought to us by the charitable trust and generous sponsorship of flowing waters.

Next, enjoy this exercise of your imagination, if you will: even now your own warm blood consists of water that, at one point or another, tumbled down mountains, splashed over rocks and spilled into basins. That connection is actual. What you are imagining is real. Not some new age fluff or sci-fi gobbedygook…

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The Ripple: River Walking

This Land is Your Land

Check out these 5 pointers below on how to river walk, preventing a wipe out due to slippery rocks and strong currents.

Our floods are over for the time being, and the furnace heat of July is driving us to the water where we can find some relief from the breath of fire that surrounds us. We are such sensitive creatures, aren’t we? Below 60 and above 80 degrees, our life patterns get deranged—20 degrees is not a very wide spectrum of temperature, is it? Heat waves provide us with the best evidence that the maxim of classical environmentalism is true: where you are is who you are.

So get thee to a river! This is the best time of year to explore the river bed and the lush riparian growth that flourishes beside it.

The common law of the USA states that river courses are the property of all citizens. I say common law, because right to river access is considered to be an ancient and inherent right—but, depending on where you go, you might find this common law more or less respected.

You might find the history and reality of our common law right to access rivers to be interesting, so here’s a portion of the explanation that National Organization of Rivers provides us:

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The Ripple: Lessons in Floods

An Invitation to Think Outside about Floods

Floods, like weeds, are problems. Occupying places we don’t want them to, they ruin things we are growing.

Weeds are plants in the wrong place. And what’s a wrong place, we decide.

Floods are the return of ocean to mountain. They decide with the objectivity we (would) laud in our courts of justice. They’re not elitist; they are levelers.

Floods would not be a problem if we didn’t take more than we are given, placing things in flood plains like cities, farms and vacation homes. Everybody likes a water view, and to build structures as close as possible to them. The closer you build, the more likely to get leveled…

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The Ripple: Insects of Spring

Before May Flies, Meet the Mayfly

Every September, just after the leaves start to fall, I go out with Sienna and Hilltown Families citizen scientists to do a Rapid Biotic Assessment (RBA) of the East Branch of the Westfield River downstream from the RT 143 bridge in West Chesterfield, MA. Returning to the same site as the year before, we collect aquatic bugs—including mayfly nymphs—and, based on what we’ve gathered, we can tell how healthy the river is. If a river has a lot of mayflies, it is a healthy river—with lots of big and healthy trout in it (We’ll invite you to help us; so be on the lookout for our invitation!).

Imagine never getting swarmed and bit by mayflies as you revel in the vivacities unleashed by the ubiquitous green fountain of spring. Imagine gardening, or hiking, or simply sitting on a park bench without having to constantly swat and flinch and keep from going mad as the mayflies crawl on your neck and arms and ears, looking for a sweetspot to slice skin and lap blood. Now, imagine your dream of never getting bit again by mayflies comes true, right now as you read this! Because mayflies don’t bite.

Blackflies: they’re the little flying vampires that mob us in spring—not mayflies. Here is a picture of a mayfly. Notice its two long tails (though some have three), and large transparent wings. Most are an inch or longer.

Here is a picture of a blackfly

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The Ripple: The Magic of Spring Peepers. The Science of Vernal Pools

How do spring peepers know when to start singing?

Vernal pools contain creatures (amphibians and bugs) that can only breed where there are no hungry fish. Citizen scientists are needed to find and report vernal pools in the Hilltowns. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

How do spring peepers know when to start singing?

They don’t have weather reports, or the ability to see the buds forming on trees, the snow melting, or teens walking around in shorts and T’s when it’s 40 degrees and climbing.

Certainly, there are scientific reasons that explain how peepers know when to announce the return of the sun and the warmth; but there’s a simpler reason that is worth considering and appreciating. The peepers feel the right moment to sing.

Peepers are a special family of frogs, and frogs have a unique physiology—a evapotranspirative skin that makes them especially sensitive to the slightest changes in temperature, humidity, chemistry and other things we don’t have words for including that feeling that we also get when spring arrives. There is, for example, a new kind of sunlight that appears out of the grey, slush and slog of the late winter months that Emily Dickinson noticed, and maybe you and the peepers notice too.

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The Ripple: Hunting for Springs in Western MA

Spring Hunting

Spring has a leap of the leprechaun in it; who can deny that?—but spring’s called spring not because of its leapiness.  Spring’s called spring because of the upwelling waters that appear as the frozen earth thaws.

Right now is the best time to hunt for springs. We had a great ice winter, a record snow and some flood-causing rains, so the conditions are approaching perfect for finding the little springs that make Spring spring.

Why would parent and child hunt springs? Well—we’re pasty from sitting indoors for five months and, no matter the age, cobwebbed and crotchety.  A good hard bushwack, a mucky hill scramble is therapeutic. When the sun pours through the grey tree limbs, you can almost feel them swell like you swell, soaking the glow, craning for warmth, more heat, more nourishing radiation.

The trick to hunting springs is: you can only hunt springs that you don’t yet know about. If you know about them, it not possible to hunt them.

So, you have to enter a place, a terrain, a topography that is a mystery, and that draws you to it. It can be your backyard, or a town park, or wherever there isn’t too much pavement to occlude the upwelling waters. The best places are the ones where few things have been constructed—the deep woods, the sides of mountains, the banks of rivers. I suggest, though, that you start by trying to find a spring w/in a five or ten walk from your front door.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: River Otters in Western MA

Winter Otters

When winter is most wintery, the otter is most active. It is hungry, of course, and it is also very smart. The ice that forms in and above the streams shrinks the size of the stream, making it harder for fish and crayfish to hide. Not only that, the otter—of the weasel family (i.e., a mountain lion crossed with a squirrel)—is in summer a nocturnal feeder, but changes that habit in the winter, and feeds during the day. In the harshest and barrenest of late winter, the otter finds a feast. (Photo credit: Kurt Heidinger)

It’s the end of winter (almost), when months of frigid winds have whipped the bare hills and leafless trees into a freeze-dried state. The best loggers cut trees for firewood now, just before the March thaws, because the ground is frozen and the green wood is at its driest, all the sap stored underground (Think maple syrup!). How wonderful and wise and tough are the trees, an example for us all of character and of presence (A friend of mine, a Chilean ethnobotanist, once said, “Always live in the trees. Humans go crazy without them.” I still wonder if she’s correct—and I tend to agree.).

The creatures who live in our forests are likewise in their stiffest winter state, hungry and cold, their food supply growing ever more meager. The deep hard snow will soon be gone, but while it lasts, life gets dearer for all us living beings. Dessicated, shrunken, and gnarled, the bios—the shared life expressed by biodiversity —is ready to spring.

Before it does, get out of the house! As harsh as late winter is, it is an ephemeral world of austere beauty. Everybody wants summer right now, all my friends off last week in Florida, posting Facebook photos and saying nananabooboo—but what is summer anyway, if it is not earned by gritting through the iciest and bluest and shiveriest months of cold? Living four seasons deeply is what chisels the Yankee character. For each season, we have a way of living and that—our environmentally-determined multifaceted  character—makes us culturally unique and vibrant. Spring is not so incredible and sweet and exuberant unless it follows the kind of winter we’re having, and that makes the winter we’re having a perfect one.

SO: Grab some snowshoes and ski poles and take risk (I guess I should place a disclaimer here: what I will now suggest is somewhat dangerous, so be very careful and don’t over do it.)… put on those snowshoes and, preferably with a friend or two also on snowshoes, walk a stream bed…while you still can!  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Rivers in the Sky

Clouds are Rivers

The next time the western wind blows strongly, hurtling great grey masses of clouds over our towns—long cirrus strips with ribbons of blue between them—imagine you are a fish looking up at the river’s surface. Because, in the wider scheme, you are!

Rains become rivers, so—if we think of the whole instead of the parts—clouds are rivers.

How very unscientific is such a thought! If everybody thought clouds are rivers, how would we distinguish between them? Wouldn’t reality become an un-focus-able blur?

Maybe! That could be a very healthy development, if it allowed us to reboot our way of categorizing, and comprehending, the parts that make up the whole of our biosphere.

All too often we are forced by training and circumstances to have a tunnel-vision view of things; we are so driven to achieve personal goals, for example, that we block out anything that is beside-the-point. All we see or care about is that carrot dangling in front of us, and so we lose the wider perspective, which (also) provides the place for our performance, the stage where we display our role not as a soliloquy-er, but as a high-kicking member of a chorus line. Even when we have the spotlight upon us, we perform in a wider scheme. I have nothing against achieving personal goals or ignoring extraneous information, as long as I have, from time to time, the space—a wider scheme—within which to place my activities.

We live and act not as isolated island universes, but in a biotic mandala (that is itself part of other mandalas), and to the extent that we join things together and perceive reality holistically, the more we assume in thought and deed the design of our mandala: and there is soft power and beauty aplenty in such magnification.

So, clouds are rivers.

You saw it a few weeks ago when dense fog exhaled out of the snow and blanketed both our white hills and heavy dark waters. Science explains that, because the air was listless and warmer than the frozen ground, water molecules condensed (like tears on the side of an ice-water glass) in the atmosphere—giving us fog: an un-focus-able blur. Science explains, too, that the water molecules are essentially the same, whether they float in the sky or flow over the earth. What science doesn’t explain is how fog feels.

We feel fog. It’s clammy on our skin. It occludes our vision, and because sight is our primary sense, it frustrates us. Drivers—and downhill skiers—don’t like fog, and people walking on the side of the road worry more when they walk in it. It makes us turn our lights on in the middle of the day. In some psychosomatic way, the day never begins when it starts in the fog, and—yawn some more coffee please—the night never ends. When you walk in the woods in a dense fog, a subtle rain falls—each crooked finger of branch-tip collecting H2O atoms until the drip is formed and drops on your head. If you aren’t prepared, and walk long enough, you get soaked.

When the sun breaks through again, blue and gold and making us squint, we feel relief, as if a burden and gloom has lifted off our thoughts and shoulders. Our eyes resume command over things, feeding our brains the information of parts, distinguishing between this and that, and giving us the power and freedom to choose what we will focus on. We like that; it is the realm we have been trained to operate in, where everything has its place and is in position where it is supposed to be.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Winter Wetlands

When Our Wetlands Become Icelands

“Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” – Thoreau

Perhaps you love to walk in the woods in winter because, when the leaves are down, the shape (or “geomorphic character”) of our biome is exposed. I do, too!

Winter is possibly the most perfect time to get to know where you are. When you look up at the hills from down in the valley, or from hills to other hills, there is more to see of the “body” of the “superorganism” we are, like lichen, affixed to and dependent on. What appear in summer to be solid monolithic mountains are seen, in winter, to be made of monticellos, stacked in front of each other, leapfrogging up to the highest point.

Summer leaves keep sunlight from touching the forest floors, and cover the giant wrinkles—the cracks, rifts and ravines—that separate the monticellos. In those wrinkles are cascading streams that, when it gets really cold, freeze and form ice-falls. Icefalls are always magical places, and by that I mean they are places that “recreate” you: make you feel different, by awakening your imagination and sense-of-beauty, by catalyzing surges of joy and delight. May an icefall appear before you this holiday season (If you can’t find one nearby, try Chapel Falls in Ashfield.)!

And, may we get some seriously cold weather between now and March to wipe out the ticks in the fields and the adelgids in the hemlocks—and so we can roam one particular kind of micro-biome that is off-limits when it is warm. I speak here of the murky soggy mucky source of rivers and streams: wetlands!

Wetlands have been considered the “worse” kind of real estate because you can’t build foundations or septic systems in them, and were typically used in the past as garbage cans. From a biotic perspective, however, wetlands are extremely vital (i.e., a lot of creatures live there) and from a public health perspective, they store lots water and prevent floods. Thoreau’s description of the existential value of wetlands always makes me smile: “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”

Of all the microbiomes we neighbor, wetlands are the most mysterious. It is hard to know what they are because they are so difficult to access. Thoreau liked to sink to his waist in swampmud, or at least he wrote he did; but in real life, for most folks, swampmud is not enjoyable. Often it reeks with the bubbling bodies of things once green, and unlike other muds it is capable of staining clothes. Add to this the unpleasant feeling of stepping into tannin-dark gruel populated by exuberant worms and bugs and snakes and leeches—that feels like it has no bottom, yet is too shallow to swim in. Like me, you might wait until those waters freeze, and skate atop them.

Winter is the best time to explore these upland sources of all streams & rivers, these mysterious wetlands. What a joy it is to skirt the prickers and brambles and ivies that grow rife in the summer, and to avoid the spiderwebs, mosquitoes and deerfly, and also the creepy decaying Edgar Allen Poe vibe even the sprightliest wetlands exude. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Listening to a River Speak

What We Can Give to Our Rivers

The lesson of Kerouac at Big Sur is, first, nature doesn’t use words to communicate what it is conveying, and second, that to “hear” what it is “speaking” requires us to “give” and not “take.

This summer I was lucky enough to visit the West Coast, and spent two days in Big Sur, that rugged part of the California coast where cliff and ocean try to work things out. The history of Jack Kerouac, the Beatniks and the Hippies, and of the collective yearning for freedom and spirituality and ecstasy that begins centuries earlier in Europe and in Plymouth and Concord, haunt the vertical redwood forests, the tiny artsy enclaves and the kelp-strewn beaches that lace our continent’s edge. One of the things I contemplated there was Kerouac’s attempt to record the language of the Pacific ocean, and to translate its message. I’ve asked you to listen to our rivers, and I was interested to see how he’d approached the task; if worthy, his strategy might be employed by us all.

What I learned is that Kerouac would go down to a beach and listen for words in the surf. You’ve listened to a river, and you know that when it speaks it doesn’t use words (if it did it would be writing its own column). His disappointment crushed him, as he confessed in the poem, “Sea,” that he wrote about his travail. The experience was for him so traumatic it ended his career as a writer as he, and many a biographer have, explained.

Nature does not speak to us in the language we write with, obviously. I’m not sure why Kerouac wasn’t aware of this, but if somebody had clued him, he would not have been so disappointed and his poem would have been happy. Often enough, the language we write with actually gets in the way of our apprehending what nature is communicating.

“Listening to a river speak” actually requires us to “listen” with all of our senses. It “speaks” synaesthetically—casting vapors that, by sweetness or mustiness or both, tell us what it conveys; a river in spring smells different than it does in the fall. It “speaks” through its vigor, which we see because it is incapable of hiding; through white water it conveys the gravity and burden of clouds; in trickle, it conveys the persistence of the same great circling masses which, having departed, do return. In ice, the river “speaks” the continuity of essence through all permutations—for ice is fog clothed in the same (just colder) air. By its sounds, a river conveys either a welcome or a warning; its welcome sounds like children just out of eyeshot playing in the back yard; its warning sounds like an engine, woodchipper or airplane, exhaling. If you have to yell to be heard as you stand by a river, listen up, for you are being told to remain ashore.

To hear a river “speak,” though, you must immerse yourself and give into it, let it carry you. Of course, this is a summer activity—but even in summer courses the winter river; there’s always a wintery spot in the river where the native brook trout gather and ride out the heat wave. Next summer, immerse yourself in the rapids and hear the clangor and tumult that rubs rocks round; then sink into an eddy or deep, and hear the soft pulse of your own heart steeping into the bios itself—from water to water, and not “ashes to ashes?” Immersion brings new sounds to us, who too often do not “give into,” but instead—like poor Jack Kerouac—”take from.”

The lesson of Kerouac at Big Sur is, first, nature doesn’t use words to communicate what it is conveying, and second, that to “hear” what it is “speaking” requires us to “give” and not “take.” What we have taken from our rivers I have written about—the Atlantic Salmon, for starters. What terrified Kerouac is what terrifies those who take too much: by projecting our desires, our hungers, our urge to absorb and possess, upon nature, we lose nature and end up with only the projection, which we invented and has no life of its own. At Big Sur, Kerouac was consumed not by a terror caused or communicated by the ocean; he was consumed by his own thoughts and words. His story is as ancient and as instructive as Icarus’s, who was not killed by the sun, but by his desire to absorb it. “Beware the urge to consume, lest it consume thee.”

What we can give our rivers are our senses. Only two hundred years ago, every stream and river we live next to harbored life beyond our present imagining. They still do. There is no reason our rivers cannot one day again return to their former vivacity—except that we are not “listening” to them and all that they convey. A way to start, an opening exercise—don’t think of “rivers”; think of “blood vessels.” Soon enough, I promise, among many other things you’ll hear it say “you’re much more than you have ever been taught that you are.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

[Photo credit: (ccl) Ed Yourdon]

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