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 »

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 »

Rainforest Adventure in Western MA

Rainforest Adventure in Western MA
Springfield Museums: Jan 25-May 11, 2014

Rainforest Adventure is a multi-sensory exploration of one of our planet’s most precious resources. Through a variety of interactive experiences and hands on displays, visitors will learn about the amazing diversity of life in rainforests and the many challenges they face today. Using vests, flashlights, and binoculars provided, young visitors can explore a gorilla nest, climb a kapok tree, and identify endangered species they find along the way. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Rainforest Adventure is that it is designed for both children and adults, allowing families to share in the enjoyment of learning together.

Craving an outdoor adventure that doesn’t involve icicles, snow banks, and layers of cold weather gear? If you can’t flee to a warmer corner of the globe anytime soon, enjoy an indoor version of such an adventure at the Springfield Museums! From January 25th through May 11th, 2014, the museums will be home to an exciting new exhibit – Rainforest Adventure.

True to its name, the exhibit brings real excitement to the museums and offers families a rainforest adventure without the travel. While exploring a gorilla nest or climbing a kapok tree, families will be able to learn about the amazing species diversity found in our planet’s rainforest and will work to identify endangered rainforest species. Backpacks, flashlights, and special adventure vests will be provided for intrepid explorers to use while adventuring on a multisensory expedition through the exhibit, and kids and adults alike will enjoy the experience and the useful information gained by visiting… 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 »

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: 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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Citizen Scientists Opportunity: School of Ants

Western MA Families Can Help Scientists Learn About Diversity of Ants Across the United States While Discovering Local Ecology

Adventurous, bug-loving families can help to contribute to ongoing ant research and identification of species by participating in a project called School of Ants. Families are asked to collect ant samples from at least two locations near their home and mail their specimens to an entomology research center.

Ants are amazing…. and sometimes a nuisance – they’re attracted to food when you snack outside, they crawl on your feet when you sit in the grass, and sometimes they’re so brazen as to venture into our homes, snagging sweet treats from our floors, counters, and cupboards. Nuisance though they can be, ants are also fascinating: they can lift enormous amounts of weight, they create a very intricate social structure, and they can live in the most unlikely of places, like cracks in busy city sidewalks.

Ants are one of the least understood crawly critters found around us. There are numerous species of ants found all over North America (and the world!), yet the habits of many of these species have not been extensively researched. Of particular interest to researchers are invasive species of ants – types that have been brought in from other parts of the world and are adversely affecting other populations that they now share an environment with…

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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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Crash Course: 100+ Episodes in 6 Online Courses

Crash Course: 6 Courses. 112 Episodes.

Crash Course… six courses in one channel with 112 episodes! John Green teaches you US History and Hank Green teaches you Chemistry. Check out the playlists for past courses in World History, Biology, Literature, and Ecology too!

Research has shown that students can lose two months (or more!) worth of their learning in mathematics and language arts during the summer if they aren’t exposed to meaningful and enriching learning activities while they’re out of school. Of course, informal learning can take place for students in almost any situation where they have a little bit of freedom. They’ll learn while climbing a tree, they’ll learn while watching cars you pass on the highway during summer travel, and they can even learn while watching food cook on the grill at your 4th of July party. But when (and how) will they get to learn about things that they won’t or can’t experience? Perhaps they’ll read a book about a time in history or a scientific concept that interests them, but the knowledge that they can gain from reading is limited by their reading level and the accessibility of such materials.

This summer, try supplementing your child’s informal summer learning with some educational videos online. YouTube channel Crash Course! offers a plethora of educational videos focused on U.S. & World History, Biology, Ecology, English Literature, and Chemistry.  Created using fun and funky graphics, bright colors, scientific charts, and historical photographs paired with fast-paced, high-energy narration, the videos are dense but exciting. Viewers are exposed to a huge amount of information fairly quickly (hence the name!), and may need to watch the video again in order to fully absorb all of it. However, kids watching the videos just out of curiosity will retain basic information about the War of 1812, stoichiometry, entropy, and the emergence of political parties in the United States…

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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 »

Federal Fish and Wildlife Services’ Junior Duck Stamp Program

Supplement Habitat Studies with the Junior Duck Stamp Program

The Junior Duck Stamp Program offers an educational arts and science curriculum which educators can use for incorporating science, art, math and technology into habitat conservation studies. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Western Massachusetts is home to a wide variety of duck species.  These beautiful birds make their homes in wetland areas, a habitat in need of conservation.  Students can learn about duck species and help to promote wetland conservation by participating in the Federal Fish and Wildlife Services’ Junior Duck Stamp Program!  This contest calls for students to create their own stamps, featuring a specific duck species portrayed in its habitat.  Students should learn about their species of choice, so as to make the best and most accurate depiction possible!  Their design should reflect the group’s goal in creating the stamp – to share the beauty and importance of the species of the duck depicted.

Students should learn to understand the relationship between the duck and its specific environment, and should understand why the duck has such specific habitat requirements.  Students can also study other stamp designs to learn what makes a good stamp!

Entries in the contest will be judged in four different age groups, and the winning entry will be made into a stamp and released in June.  The contest is an opportunity for students to learn about local biodiversity, and to work on their understanding of the interrelatedness of species and their habitat.  Students can also work on their art skills, working carefully to clearly portray their duck.  The contest deadline is March 15th. For more information visit www.fws.gov/juniorduck.

Online resources for educators:

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: Families Work as Citizen Scientists for the Westfield River

Families Learn about the Relationship Between
Benthic Invertebrates and River Ecology
with Hilltown Families & Biocitizen

Halloween’s upon us and the leaves are almost down—and for river lovers that means it’s time to do Rapid Biotic Assessments (RBA), which involves capturing and cataloging the bugs—benthic invertebrates —that live on the riverbed. Certain bugs like stonefly-nymphs need lots of oxygen to survive, and when you find a bunch of them, it’s a sign that the river water is fresh and clean and that aquatic habitat is unimpaired. Given that in the last two years we’ve endured the yin and yang of weather extremes—hurricane last year, drought this year—we’ve been especially concerned that our river bugs are reeling from the stress.

A few days ago, on a lucky afternoon when the clouds parted and the sun warmed our shoulders, Hilltown Families conducted its yearly RBA in West Chesterfield. We forged into the bracing current of the East Branch of the Westfield River and at 3 sites where the water churned white we reached down into the numbing cold and scrubbed bugs off rocks and the riverbed; dislodged, they floated into our EPA approved net. On shore, we emptied the nets into basins and “oohed” and “ahhed” at the first signs of buggy abundance. I could see after our 1st sampling that the river was healthy; the drought had not decimated the bugs.

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Volunteer as a Citizen Scientist on the Westfield River with Hilltown Families

Hilltown Families Event
Volunteer Opportunity: Citizen Scientist
Wednesday, October 17th @ 3:30pm
West Branch of the Westfield River

“Giving families a hands-on opportunity to be engaged in the study of their local ecosystem, can stimulate an interest in science in children and an investment in their local environment,”  says Sienna Wildfield, Executive Director of Hilltown Families. “By offering field experiences that supplement the education of our children, we can help foster a connection and investment in local community.” (Collecting samples from the Westfield River last year. Photo Credit: Sienna Wildfield.)

For the third year in a row, Hilltown Families will be partnering with Biocitizen in collaboration with the MA DEP in our long-term commitment to their stream monitoring project.  Families with kids interested in science, including biology and ecology, are invited to join us on the banks of the Westfield River on Wednesday, October 17th at 3:30pm (rain date: 10/21).  We will be collecting and inventorying benthic invertebrates (water bugs) using the rapid biotic assessment (RBA) technique. The type of bugs found in our collection will give us a gauge of the river’s health.

“How many times have you looked at a river thinking, how beautiful—and pulled out your camera to capture the swells of whitewater, a striking blue heron, or blazing maple tree in the autumn overhanging its banks?” says Kurt Heidinger, Executive Director of Biocitizen School of Westhampton, MA.  “A river is not just beautiful, though; it’s alive, and those who witness this life, this bios, never look at or appreciate a river the same way again,”

Stonefly nymphs are a bug we want to catch,” shares Heidinger. “They are a primary food source for brook trout and, like trout, require clear, clean, cold oxygen-rich water. If there is too much nitrogen or potassium (from fertilizer run off) in the water, algae will bloom and suck the oxygen out of the river. You won’t find many stonefly nymphs—and therefore trout.”

Sorting though collected samples. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

By doing a Rapid Bioassessment, we will continue to monitor a section of the West Branch of the Westfield River by netting benthic macro invertebrates (underwater bugs) and inventorying them. The percentage of certain insects we collect will quickly allow us to assess the quality of the river.

Last year in the wake of Hurricane Irene, samples collected were missing the large stoneflies and teeming samples of writhing, boisterous bugs found the year before. This year we’re looking forward to samples that speak of how the river is a superorganism whose health changes in respond to climatic influences.

“Giving families a hands-on opportunity to be engaged in the study of their local ecosystem, can stimulate an interest in science in children and an investment in their local environment,”  says Sienna Wildfield, Executive Director of Hilltown Families. “By offering field experiences that supplement the education of our children, we can help foster a connection and investment in local community.”

This is a free volunteer opportunity, however, space is limited. Appropriate for kids 7yo and older. Directions will be given following sign up. Families interested in participating in this citizen scientist opportunity, or similar opportunities in the area, can contact us here:

The Ripple: Finding the Heart of the Watershed

Thinking Like A Watershed

Have you ever thrilled at a sunset—tried to take pictures of it so you could later return to the expansive glowing feeling-thoughts that came with it? Your identity magnified, your experience of life  intensified, a part of a larger magnificence… The fractal-ness of that experience of being a tiny shiny diamond in a vast galaxy of larger shiny diamonds, or of being a raindrop that becomes the ocean the moment it touches it, is also evident when we think like a watershed.

One of the funnier thoughts I’ve heard goes like this: “I want to be one with nature.” You might have heard of this thought, or a variation of it, too. The reason I find it funny is that it’s actually impossible not to be “one with nature,” if being “one” means directly, physically and existentially connected to the vital sources of being.

If, by any chance, you are worried you aren’t one with nature, here’s a simple way to find out: don’t take another breath. If you can do that, then perhaps you aren’t one with nature (or, you’re dead, and the issue is no longer of consequence). If, on the other hand, you hold your breath & feel that growing discomfort that finally consumes all other thoughts, and gasp and open your mouth and vacuum the atmosphere deep into your lungs, then you have empirical proof that you are air. For, without it, you are not you.

If you and I and our friends and family are air, then why does this fact—”Hi! I am an amalgam of air named Kurt”—seem so weird? Why isn’t the airy-ness of every moment as much a part of our surface consciousness as our cellphone # is? The answer: we take for granted, and then forget, that we are air because there are so many other things we are forced, or want, to think about. It’s these other business/family/social/daydream thoughts that remove our attention from what actually is (i.e., that we are always “one with nature”). We (over)emphasize these kinds of thoughts and they become the construction materials we hammer together to create that cell phone #-side of ourselves, that gets all the attention. Our airy side gets forgotten.This funny thought of wanting to be “one with nature” is caused by a way of thinking that presumes we are not already natural. My job (here at The Ripple) is to help you, and your family, emphasize the ways that you are perfectly “one with nature.” And one of my favorite ways to do this is to stimulate our imaginations by thinking like a watershed.

Before I do that, though, allow me to suggest a great read for Fall: The Sand County Almanac. It is one of the foundational statements of ecological philosophy, and it is written in a folksy, grandpa-ish style that camoflages its profoundly passionate explanations of how we are “one with nature.” There is a chapter in it entitled, Thinking Like a Mountain that changed, and continues to change, my life for the better. What is so wonderful about the chapter is that it explains that humans are gifted with an ability to think non-human thoughts; for example, through observation and deduction, we can think like the sky—which is another way of saying that we can forecast the weather. What is even more amazing is that thinking like the sky has a practical value (ask any farmer, sailor or pilot) but it also has other values, including aesthetic. Have you ever thrilled at a sunset—tried to take pictures of it so you could later return to the expansive glowing feeling-thoughts that came with it? What happened was your identity was magnified, your experience of life was intensified in a wonderful and glorious way not just by the image you beheld, but also by the fact that you—by witnessing and thinking it—real-ized you are part of a larger magnificence.

The fractal-ness of the experience of glorying in a gorgeous sunset, that feeling of being a tiny shiny diamond in a vast galaxy of larger shiny diamonds, or of being a raindrop that becomes the ocean the moment it touches it, is also evident when we think like a watershed (A fractal is form like a circle that retains its identity whether it is perceived on micro- or macro- scopic level.).

A watershed is a geological form that looks like, and is often called, a basin, the rim of which is defined by ridge tops. All rain that falls within the basin is pulled by gravity to the lowest altitudes, where it coalesces to form streams and rivers. Many Hilltown Families readers live in or near the Connecticut River watershed, which is one of the largest in the eastern USA.

As you can see from the map on the Connecticut River Watershed Council website, the CT River watershed is an amalgam of many smaller watersheds. Here is an example of the fractal-ness of nature—of the tiny worlds within bigger worlds within even bigger worlds reality that makes nature so fascinating and resilient. The Westfield River watershed is comprised of (at least) three smaller watersheds, all nested within the whole; and this whole is one of many smaller watersheds that make up the CT River watershed.

Notice, too, that the watershed form resembles a leaf. The streams are leaf veins, and they lead to the midrib which is a brook. The midrib leads to tree branch, in the same way a brook leads to a river; and a river, like the Westfield, leads to a larger river, like the CT, the way a branch leads to a tree trunk. From there, it flows back to the ocean from whence it came; like the trunk that returns to the roots and the earth, from whence it emerged. Aren’t fractals fun?  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Adopt Your Local Stream or River

Adopt Your Local Stream or River

If you and your family love streams and rivers, and would like to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with them, this is what I invite you to do: Adopt your local stream or river; make a commitment to care for and watch over it like a parent cares for a child.

Rivers and streams are beautiful. That’s why we are drawn to them, deeply and elementally. The first colonists in Western Massachusetts hugged close to the rivers because of the abundance of life that issued from and through them, and our (or at least my) favorite town of all—Northampton—still retains much of the vibrancy of its original biocultural character: an idealistic, community-oriented and caring character generated by the serendipitous confluence of river, fertile alluvial fields and small but striking volcanic mountains. Take away the river, and there would be no “Paradise City.”

Rivers and streams are creative. They speak to us of permanence amidst ceaseless change, and when we feel drained of energy and crazed by the myriad burdens of these crazy days, a trip to the river can ease our bodies, minds and souls. “In the woods is perpetual youth,” said the sage of Concord, and there are few other places adults can go in this world, and in our woods, to reflect upon existence and to return to the simplicities and sufficiencies that delight the child, both real (as in our kids) and metaphorical (as in that sacred part of us that never gets jaded).

Rivers and streams, our rivers and streams of the Connecticut and Westfield watersheds, are alive—and once you are initiated into the ways of perceiving that life (also known as biome), you pass through the portals of knowing them as “scenic” and begin to develop a relationship with them as intimate and fulfilling as that of a child to a parent. For they are actually the circulatory system of an otherwise listless geology; (ask any desert, and you’ll find they agree). Mid to late summer is the perfect time, for example, to see and touch the wild flowering plants such as Cardinal Flower and Joe Pye Weed our rivers “express.” Go—find some! Compare them, their supple composure and light presence, to the rowdy new “invasives” called Japanese Knot Weed and Purple Loosestrife that spread like the common cold and cram together along the banks, choking off all other knee-high plant life. What we see in the spread of invasives is the changing of our riparian landscapes from ancient reciprocal patterns of native plants and the creatures that depend upon them to a new and flashy pattern of chaos that starves and exiles our native creatures. Wherever Loosestrife takes over, Cardinal Flowers disappear—and that’s why Mass DEP recommends eradicating invasives wherever you find them .

Rivers and streams need us to love them, and it is actually possible to do this, out of gratitude (for the life, health and beauty they generously share) and out of concern (that their integrity is disrupted by our present way of living).

If you and your family love streams and rivers, and would like to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with them, this is what I invite you to do. Adopt your local stream or river; make a commitment to care for and watch over it like a parent cares for a child. To care for it, you have to know it, and to know it you have to look deeply into it and understand how it works—where comes from, where it goes, what it’s connect to, whose water supply is derived from it, what kinds of specific creatures depend upon its living waters.

One of the best ways to perceive, and care for, the life of our rivers is to participate in the annual “citizen scientist” activity of Rapid Biotic Assessment (RBA). A RBA is done in the early Fall, takes about 2 or 3 hours to do, and involves collecting the bugs (called benthic invertebrates) that live in the stream bed. The health of the river can be understood by the amount, and type, of bugs that you collect. A RBA is an annual health check up, actually, and when done year after year, you can find out if your river is getting healthier or sicker.

Biocitizen, the non-profit school I work for, has been setting up an RBA program that “cares for” the rivers and streams in the Hilltown Families region; in fact, Hilltown Families has been conducting RBAs of the Westfield River in West Chesterfield for the past 2 years with us. I invite you to contact me at info@biocitizen.org if you would like to participate in our initiative, either by joining in an established RBA, or developing a program for your local stream or river. You can also log onto biocitizen.org, where I’ll be posting RBA events in coming weeks.


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) Steve Guttman]

5 Hikes for Families in Western MA State Forests and Parks

Take a Hike!
Explore the State Forests and Parks of Western MA

Outdoor explorations can also supplement students’ studies of local ecology – bring a field guide and learn to identify the many different trees, flowers, etc. that you discover.  (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Explore the hills of Western Massachusetts – spend an afternoon hiking at one of the many local state forests and parks!  The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) offers families an outline of hikes at numerous locations all over the Hilltowns and Berkshires, including the DAR State Forest (Goshen, MA), Western Gateway Heritage State Park (North Adams, MA), Pittsfield State Forest (Pittsfield, MA), Mohawk Trail State Forest (Charlemont, MA), and the Tolland State Forest (Otis, MA).

Their guide, Take a Hike! Explore the State Forests and Parks of Western MA,  shares information on finding and following trails, as well as length of hike, difficulty, and interesting highlights that families can see, explore, and learn about on each trail.  Hikes make a great summer adventure for families, but are also great through the fall (until it snows, then break out the snowshoes!) and in spring, as leaves begin to appear.  Explore the many different hikes suggested, and find a family favorite!

Outdoor explorations can also supplement students’ studies of local ecology – bring a field guide and learn to identify the many different trees, flowers, etc. that you discover.  To check out the hikes, download their guide,  Take a Hike! Explore the State Forests and Parks of Western MA.

RECOMMENDED GUIDES FOR BEGINNERS:

Golden Guides from St. Martin’s Press are beginner field guides that offer an introduction to different outdoor classifications that are easy to used for any family just starting their outdoor explorations together. Pick up a guide on a particular topic your kids are interested in exploring while hiking our local state forests and parks, and go on a quest together to find and identify parts of our natural habitats:

The Ripple: A Call for Biotic Citizens!

What Are We Going to Do Now

I invite readers to join us at the beginning of Fall, as we help people become stewards of their local stream and river as biotic citizens. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Aldo Leopold was one of the shining lights of our long-awakening ecological movement; and he said that one of the drawbacks of seeing the world from the ecological perspective is that, at the same time you see the incredible beauty of the kinship of all living creatures, you also see the damage being done to our great shared life. He implored educational leaders to not only teach ecology, but to act on that bittersweet feeling of loss by getting involved in the “real world” of political activism to change the course of our collective destiny from that of the “conqueror of nature” to that of the “biotic citizen.” For this reason, he—a professor at the U. of Wisconsin—started the Wilderness Society.

I have always believed that, given the grim news coming from other parts of the world, our Happy Valley and Hilltowns were doing better ecologically than those parts. There are so many farmers concerned about soil and plant health, thought I, and so many nature lovers watching out for their favorite species and landscapes, and so many smart people acting rationally about energy and consumption issues hereabouts that we don’t need to worry about most of the grim things that are occurring elsewhere. It was a shock, therefore, to learn that our air quality gets a grade of “F” from the American Lung Association.  We aren’t making most of that air pollution; we inherit the wind from the cities and states out West. We are connected to everything else; that’s what ecology tells us; that’s how the world works.

If you’ve been following the news about what is happening to the Atlantic Salmon, you know the news isn’t good. Despite the best technology the state and federal government could muster, the salmon are not coming back again. Technology did not provide the solution. So what will—what can—prevent further extinctions of fish species in our rivers?

Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: The Future of Anadromous Fish in the Connecticut River

Connecticut River’s Anadromous Fish

Hadley Falls Fish Lift in Holyoke, MA.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting both the Holyoke and Turners Falls’ anadromous fish recovery operations with a group of intrepid high schoolers (Anadromous fish are born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean for most of their lives, and return to fresh water to spawn.). Holyoke has a fish elevator, which is somewhat unique, and Turners Falls has a fish ladder; both are open for public viewing from Mother’s to Father’s Day every year.

Normally, I shy away from zoos, and there is something zoo-like about both these operations. However, in this case, the survival of several fish species is on the line, and I brought the high schoolers as much to have them ponder the evolutionary, economic and ethical issues as I did to let them take in the sheer spectacle of tons of money being spent to engineer the desperate last ditch attempt to save these beings. The fish—sturgeon, shad, salmon—have lived in Nonotuck for plus or minus fifteen thousand years, ever since the end of the last ice age. The dams that prevent their migrations and spawning are two hundred or less years old. Any person, child or adult, who visits these sites can see that the easiest, cheapest and permanent solution to the steady demise of the fish is to pull the dams down. It is this obvious knowledge that conflicts with the more complicated fact that nobody is calling, much less organizing, for the dams dismantling that I wanted us to wrestle with. Read the rest of this entry »

Citizen Scientists Wanted for Franklin County BioBlitz

Families as Citizen Scientists this Saturday
BioBlitz at Northfield Town Forest

Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust is joining with the Town of Northfield to host a BioBlitz on Saturday, June 9th, at the Northfield Town Forest. Volunteers are invited to come down and join the BioBlitz—an event in which people gather to survey a property and compile an extensive list of species, both plants and animals, present in the area.

Help to identify plant and animal species and to provide a foundation for future stewardship at the Northfield Town Forest.  The Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust and the town of Northfield are hosting a BioBlitz on this Saturday, June 9th at the forest.  A BioBlitz is an event where community members volunteer  as citizen scientists (alongside experts in wildlife biology, forestry, etc.) to survey an area and compile an extensive list of the plant and animal species present there. Not new to Western MA, Berkshire County and Hampden County have played host to a BioBlitz in year’s past, and now Franklin County will have one happening in Northfield.

Northfield’s BioBlitz will feature two “shifts,” one during the morning and one in the afternoon.  The first part of the event is a bird walk, which takes place from 7:30-9:30am, while the second takes place from 1-5pm and will focus on identification of plants, fungi, and small (and maybe large!) non-avian creatures.

Citizen scientists of all ages and levels of experience are welcome – there will be plenty of people and resources available to help out with proper identification of specimens.  There will also be a craft table for kids, where they can create illustrations of the species they found and help to design a logo for the forest.

Participating in the BioBlitz is a great supplement to studies of local ecology, habitats, and ecosystems, and can provide students of all ages with a new perspective on their local environment and help them to develop awareness of the many different organisms that live and grow nearby.  For more information, visit www.mountgrace.org.

Directions to the Northfield Town Forest: From the Northfield Town Hall, head south on 63, turn east (left) onto Maple St. Continue onto Gulf Rd for about 2.2 miles. The event headquarters will be at the parking area for the Brush Mountain Conservation Area.

RiverFest: What Makes the Deerfield River Amazing?

RiverFest in Shelburne Falls
Saturday, June 9th, 2012

Youngsters, and the young at heart, are invited to dress up as fish, frogs or any other favorite river creatures or simply have their faces painted—and then join performance artist Maya Apfelbaum and friends in the traditional “Frog & Flower Parade,” which steps off at 1 p.m. on the Buckland side of the river, joyously “flows” across the Iron Bridge and up Bridge Street to a lively finale. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Celebrate the Deerfield River and its role within the community at Shelburne Falls’ annual Riverfest!  The event takes place this Saturday, June 9th, from 10am-4pm and includes performances, activities, and adventures (plus a parade!) for families throughout the day.  This year’s celebration, “The Amazing River,” will focus on the specific things that make the Deerfield River particularly amazing – including its history, resources it provides, etc.

Beloved local musician Sarah Pirtle will give a morning concert on the deck by the potholes right by the river (where Mole Hollow Candle Shop was once located) from 10-10:30am with music to celebrate the river, and many special events will take place throughout the day, with opportunities for both fun and learning.

Visitors can create their own costumes and/or masks and participate in the community parade, which begins at 1pm on the Buckland side of the river.  The parade’s theme is frogs and flowers – participants can design their own creative wearable expressions of the theme.  Create an outfit that represents a species of frog that lives near the river, or design a wildflower mask!

Memorial Hall will host two family-friendly shows: the “Watershed Waltz” puppet show at 11am; and Piti Theater Company’s “To Bee or Not to Bee,” at 2pm.

Other activities include a documentary screening from Pothole Pictures, a chance to explore the Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum and learn about local transportation history, fly tying workshops where kids can learn about the best flies to use on the Deerfield, art shows at local galleries, and more.  Riverfest also brings Nickel Days – a celebration of the days when ice cream cost just a nickel!  Families can buy ice cream from the Snows Ice Cream truck for a nickel, then visit the trolley museum.

Visit www.shelburnefalls.com for more schedule information.  Before attending Riverfest, learn as a family about the natural history of the Deerfield River and its significance within the community. Visit the Deerfield River Watershed Association for great resources to learn more.  Studies of the river pair well with studies of geology, ecology, and marine biology.

The Ripple: Westfield River, the Heart of the Hilltowns

Heart of the Biome: Rivers

The Westfield River is the most Hilltowny of flows, featuring a full range of terrains and moods. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

A few days ago I was walking along the Connecticut River, at the Bashan in Hatfield (the green space off “Bashin Rd.” on this map), and the mist from the low-belly clouds touched its soft, purling surface—connecting the earth and the heavens. I was alone; there were no motor boats (this river is often a highway) and—dripping like the leaves—I absorbed serene, wonderful moments of simple raccoon and heron prints in the sand, of patient muscular hurlings of water molecules from mountains to sea, and of the paradoxical, rousing smell of sweet ferns and mushrooms. The quiet strength of these things (and more), and the feeling of equanimity and ease returned with me to my home, pouring from my character for others to splash in ’til bedtime came and we all drifted away in our own birchbark canoes of sleep and dreams.

Being alone, without distractions, helps one to connect to a river; and always coming and going, shrinking and growing, the river connects us to the elements and creatures in a manner that lakes (too static) and the ocean (too big) can’t. Let us cherish our friend the river, who leads us out of the cares and the cages we live and work in, and helps us recall that the world is bigger and more beautiful than our conceptions of it.

And let us gather by it, with our friends and family, and strangers who we meet, who have been drawn by its ability to draw us in, and absorb us—whether through its calm or its cacophony, its embrace or its danger. Even in great cities, with scores of museums and millions of diversions, people gather by the river, to pause and reflect, and feel bigger and freer than anywhere else. Be it the Ganges, the Spree, the Tiber or the CT, rivers always take us when we give ourselves to them.

Hemingway wrote the “Big Two-Hearted River,” which expressed the way a river can heal the wounded amongst us, and while I love the tale and its message, I love its title the most. The river is the heart of any biome, any region, any political geography. A city built away from a river, is a city that cannot and will not last. Souls, it might be said, that are too long abstracted from the flush and fury of uninhibited rivers, wither. And rivers dammed, like our own lives, soon silt up, get diseased—and then, with that soft power that creates grand canyons, cracks and overwhelms the obstruction, restoring the flow. All rivers are hearts, beating vitality into stones, dusts and dirts: (re)charging the fields and forests, and even those glorified ashtrays we call cities, with bios, with life. And life must be, and always is, shared—just like our rivers.

You are invited to share the heart of the Hilltowns by Meredyth Babcock, Volunteer Coordinator of the Westfield River Wild and Scenic organization, to join up with others to learn about, and care for, the Westfield River. The Westfield River is the most Hilltowny of flows, featuring a full range of terrains and moods, and I urge you to take care of any riparian business you have, or would like to have, at any of its three conveniently located branches.

On June 3rd, 2012, Meredyth will be training volunteers to explore parts of the Westfield River, and collect data and document findings that will be used to understand, and then conserve and protect, its ecological processes and systems. In short, you’ll be invited to enter, and immerse yourself the vital rhythms of, the beating heart of the Hilltowns—seize this opportunity! Call Meredyth at 413-623-2070, or email her at walkinthewatershed@hotmail.com for more information.

Go ahead—release yourself! The river is waiting for you—


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!

The Ripple: Reassuring Voice of the River

Get Into the Flow Like a Mayfly

We measure our lives in decades, which is fine; but what if we measured our lives like the mayfly, who reappears in the same place for tens of thousands of years, each individual a facet of single transgenerational being, each individual a carrier of the baton-of-life in the finish-line-less relay-race of the species in time?

“Rivers can take this—don’t worry!” said Jason Johnson, who works with Masswildlife’s Caleb Slater to stock our streams with trout and salmon, after hearing me whine about the drought.

“Most droughts occur in late summer. The fact that this one is happening as the leaves come out…” I’d worried.

“The tree species that are native to our area can handle this. It happened a few years ago—the buds dried and fell off, but new leaves appeared,” he retorted, determined to make me cheerful.

It’s good to know that; I don’t mind being reassured. Words are just words, though. Real assurance requires the real.

Reassurance can be found, for example, in the flocks of blackflies that greet you when you step into the woods. As a native species, they’re tough survivors—at least as old as the mammal species they’ve supped upon for plus or minus fifteen millenia. Ah, but this is just more blather! To the river we go, sure our blackflies will follow.

At the river, we find the aerial bobbings of the longtailed mayfly. Up and down they flit, yoyo-ing as if played with by kids. They are older as a native species than the blackfly, and form the basis of the aquatic food chain of which trout and salmon are the hungriest. biggest-mouthed predators. Find a boulder to sit on, exposed in mid-stream—a perch fit for a Zen monk or an osprey. Look closely: the twin tails of the mayfly straighten to parallel as they rocket upwards. They linger at zenith for a moment of motionless poise, then drop; their tails split and become V-shaped parachutes they sit on, like children on swings. Wings of chrome-fuzz in the sunlight, bodies slender and dark, they ride for seconds like William Blake’s cherubim: miraculous beyond the ken of science. How can the value of these lives be over-estimated as they do this, as their ancestors have done since before the Ice Age, and the arrival of mammals? We measure our lives in decades, which is fine; but what if we measured our lives like the mayfly, who reappears in the same place for tens of thousands of years, each individual a facet of single transgenerational being, each individual a carrier of the baton-of-life in the finish-line-less relay-race of the species in time?

This is what the river asks us through its tumbling hiss of water against stone, and answers with the yoyo-ing mayfly. In the same place the river speaks its soothing words of white water, the mayfly does its courtship dance, and lays its eggs from which next years dancers will emerge. The kinetic force that gives voice to white water also trebles the oxygen content, and mayfly nymphs—and hungry trout and salmon—need an oxygen-rich environment.

In this way, the voice of the river—even in drought—is voice that reassures. As long as there’s flow, there are the mayflies.


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) Marko Kivelä]

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