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 »

Nature Table for March

Nature Table for March

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

As late winter and very early spring begin to overlap here in the Hilltowns, the landscape begins to change. Snowy banks and icy walkways are melting into gigantic muddy puddles all over town, and the trees are filled with the joyful cries of birds who’ve returned to perch amongst the tiniest of early leaf buds. This month’s nature table in my classroom reflects all of this: the lengthening of days and the coming of warmer weather, the sudden influx of feathered friends, the buds that are beginning to lengthen on branch tips, and the very few bits of green found amongst a sea of still-sleepy brown.

In addition to objects that reflect the changes taking place outside, the children in my class have added some items to the table that pair with some of the late winter activities we’ve been doing. We have tapped a single maple tree – old school style, with a metal spout and bucket – so our table includes new buds and last year’s leaves from our tree. We’ve also spent an awful lot of time feeding and conversing with the birds in the schoolyard, so we added a feather that we found in the woods, the bird call we’ve been summoning them with, and a homemade cardboard bird feeder that a squirrel took a big bite out of.

What would you find on a nature table in March…

Nature Table for February

Every month, Hilltown Families will feature a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

What would you find on a nature table in February…

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 »

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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Let’s Play: Nature Based Play & Art in Autumn

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Searching for Fall

Scavenger hunts appear to be popular right now. They are being used for local fundraisers. They are mentioned on many television programs this fall. Local college groups are joining in. So we went on a nature scavenger hunt of sorts.

Head outside with the kids to hunt down the visual signs of fall with a mental list of outdoor things specific to the season. Brilliant red leaves. Acorn tops. Pine needles. Helicopter seed pods. Colorful fall flowers. After all your collecting, stop in the woods and make a nature collage on the ground. This took a bit of convincing at our house because this will not be permanent. There was a bit of concern about leaving our project behind…

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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:

Read the rest of this entry »

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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Let’s Play: Sunflower & Popcorn Houses

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Families in the Dirt

This summer we are taking a break from the usual planting and growing of beans, pumpkins,  squash and salad greens.  This year we’re making plans to grow a Popcorn House! (Photo credit: Carrie St. John)

Snow pants, boots and mittens be gone! It’s time for sunny afternoons and mud pies after a spring rain. Outdoor clean up. Digging. Rakes. Water. Hoses. Sticks. Rocks. Shovels. Mud. Now that the younger ones are completely engrossed in dirt play, encourage the older kids to put down their devices and join you for fresh air and sunshine. Their play job this month is to help you design and plant a sunflower house.

The Story of the Sunflower House

Wondering what a sunflower house is? Here is an excerpt from Inspiration from the Garden: Sunflower Houses, a Book for Children and Their Grown-ups by Sharon Lovejoy that shares the story:

In early summer, my mother would wake us up with ‘Get up you sleepyheads, today’s the day!’ and we would get out of bed and pull on our clothes. We didn’t even want to eat breakfast, but she would make us sit down and take our time. It all served to heighten the excitement. We couldn’t wait to get outside. Chores done, watering can and stick in tow, we would head outside and take time choosing the best, flattest, sunniest spot in our garden. Then the work would begin. Mother would use the stick to trace out a large rectangle, usually about 6 by 9 feet, leaving a small opening for a doorway. She would drag the stick along the ground and gouge out a trench a couple of inches deep. My little sister and brother would trail behind and drop in seeds. John would drop in a big, fat sunflower seed; daintily, my sister would tuck in a ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory seed. I would trudge along behind them lugging the huge tin watering can. I’d use my foot to knock the earth back over the seeds and then I’d give them a small drink of water. Every day one of us would have the chore of walking that rectangle of land and giving a drink of water to the sleeping seeds. We all hoped to be the one to discover the first awakening green heads that poked through the soil. Once the green of the sunflowers peeked through the earth, we became even more interested in our growing playhouse. Usually, we would each water the plot once a day. Soon flowers were climbing skyward and the ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories were wrapping their tendrils around the stalk and heading upward too. I’ll tell you there was nothing like crawling through the door of that playhouse and lying on the ground looking up through the incredible lacework of vines and flowers. I guess you could say I spent the best days of my childhood playing, dreaming and sleeping in that little shelter.

The Story of the Popcorn House

My daughter and I planned a slightly different version for our garden—a Popcorn House. Japanese Hulless Popcorn. This year we are taking a break from the usual beans, pie pumpkins, summer squash and salad greens. We have loofah seedlings, hibiscus tea sprouts, wine cap mushroom spawn in our fridge and various flower seeds waiting for warmer days. So why not plant our own popcorn? We saved a space 10 by 20 feet for the Popcorn House.

The entrance will be slightly hidden by a verbena and sunflower border. Verbena has gorgeous, delicate purple flowers with brilliant, green stems and attracts many varieties of butterflies. A mix of ornamental sunflowers (sun samba), giant sunflowers (sunzilla) and a summer mix of bright yellow, red and orange sunflowers will help create the outer wall with the rows of popcorn.

My daughter requested a secret space in the center where she can dig, collect outdoor things and have tree stump seats. Her inner space will also have a carpet of fresh straw to keep the weeds down. The process involves a lot of patience waiting for everything to grow. Hopefully the excitement of warmer weather, planting and planning will help with the waiting for warm summer days playing in the popcorn house while mom weeds and waters the veggies.

April Collections

  • Seeds of choice
  • Outdoor buckets
  • Shovels
  • Water & Dirt

April Book Resources

April Web Resources


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie continues to do freelance work for clients here and in Chicago.

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 »

Let’s Play: Guerrilla Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Play it Forward

This month we need to spread the play. It’s cold out. People are looking for signs of spring. I think families can brighten a little corner of our world with kindness and have great fun doing it.

Many people are helping neighbors near and far. Knitters have made blanket squares for victims of Super Storm Sandy (Knit Sandy). Many observed the National Day of Service in honor of Martin Luther King (Spreading Kindness). Small gestures are made numerous times a day that can brighten an afternoon such as holding a door for a delivery man loaded high with packages, helping your child’s teacher with a special project or shoveling the neighbor’s walk. We decided to spread play in our community.

I mentioned yarn bombing in my column last year. Those wacky knitters provide the public with visual interest and color in unexpected places. Knitted items pop up over night. Yarn bombers spread creativity, art, beauty and ideas. Technically yarn bombing is an act of graffiti. Northampton frequently removes it from the main areas downtown. We decided to start making Play Bombs! Can play bombs be illegal? I hope not. We have been leaving finger puppets, tiny toys and bouncing balls around Northampton on and off for months now. Have you found a paper puppet in your stroller? Or a tiny purple spider on the jungle gym? Maybe a felt bunny on the chair at a local coffee shop? We try to be subtle and act as if we accidentally left an item behind, as subtle as you can be with a 7 year old excited about leaving surprises for other children to discover. Each has a little note so people know there is no need to look for the owner. You can brighten the faces of kids in an after school program by dropping off something as simple as a box of paper airplanes. Are the neighbor kids home with the flu? Leave a box of hearts to cut out with scissors and glue on the front steps. It’s easy and can quickly bring a smile. Just don’t get caught. Play bombing is much more fun, if it is secret.

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Help us spread some play this month. I have links below for more ideas and examples of random acts of kindness.

February Resources


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie continues to do freelance work for clients here and in Chicago.

Call to Artists: Travel the Watershed

Westfield River Wild & Scenic Call for Hilltown Artists

Michele Beemer of Heartwood and volunteers have been working away in the beautiful Washington, MA shop, designing and building watershed suit cases. (Submitted photo)

The Westfield River Wild & Scenic advisory committee invites local artists of all ages to paint wooden suitcases that will “Travel the Watershed” this summer!

“Many artists choose to live in the Hilltowns because of the inspiring landscape and the pristine river that runs through it,” writes the Westfield River Wild & Scenic advisory committee. “The idea for a call to artists is to invite local artists to paint six handcrafted wooden suitcases that will ‘Travel the Watershed,’ inspiring others to soak up the beauty and protect the watershed.”

These suitcases will be on exhibit as works of art throughout the summer as display cases with information about Westfield River Wild & Scenic.  Local artists of all ages are invited to apply by midnight, March 1st, 2013… a great opportunity for youth artists to integrate art with environmental studies!

Selected Artists will be announced at the Westfield River Watershed Symposium held at Westfield University on March 23rd, 2013.  A $500 honorarium will be given to each of the selected artists and their work will be shown throughout the summer as the cases “Travel the Watershed.”

“We are looking for local artists of all ages, four of the selected artist must have an address in one of the ten towns with Wild & Scenic designation,” writes Wild & Scenic.  Towns include Becket, Chester, Chesterfield, Cummington, Huntington, Middlefield, Savoy, Washington, Windsor, and Worthington. To apply visit: becketartscenter.org.

Westfield River Wild & Scenic advisory committee serves to preserve, protect and enhance the special qualities and outstanding resources of the Westfield River Watershed in concert with local communities. Find out more at westfieldriverwildscenic.org.

Citizen Scientists Wanted for Mass Audubon Winter Bird Count

Focus on Feeders
Mass Audubon Winter Bird Count
February 2nd & 3rd, 2013

People can help their feathered friends in the coldest season by joining Mass Audubon’s annual Focus on Feeders winter bird count on the weekend of February 2-3. The volunteer survey invites participants to list individual bird species and the greatest number of each seen at one time at their feeders and in their yards during that Saturday and Sunday.   Anyone can participate—including families, first timers, and veteran bird enthusiasts. Participants will be able to learn and share information about the birds that visit their yards and feeders in winter. They will also be contributing knowledge to more than 40 years of winter bird feeder sighting information.

Does your family enjoy watching birds at your feeder during the winter?  Backyard feeders provide a consistent, easily accessible source of food for a wide variety of bird species during the winter, and feeder-watching is a great way for families to learn about the many different species who live in their neighborhood.

This weekend, Mass Audubon is offering a chance for families to put feeder-watching to good use!  Focus on Feeders – the great winter bird count – will take place on Saturday, February 2nd and Sunday, February 3rd, and is an annual event held to collect data on bird species and populations.  All that families need to do to participate is to keep a list of the types of birds seen at the feeder during the weekend, as well as the number of each type of bird seen at a time.  Then, families can submit their data for use in an actual scientific study by either entering it in online or completing a form and mailing it.  The data collected will be used to assess bird populations and habits across the state – information that can be analyzed in order to understand the effects of changes in climate and landscape.

In order to identify birds, families will need to use a good field guide.  Using a field guide to identify species allows kids to develop and practice reference skills while discovering bird characteristics of different species needed to properly identify them.  Learning about the species living in their backyard will help students nurture a sense of place while drawing closer to the natural world around them!

Deadline for submissions is Thursday, February 28, 2013.  More information at www.massaudubon.org/focus.

[Photo credit: (ccl) senoracak]

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 »

Let’s Play: Great Day for Snow Play!

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Go Out in the Snow a Bit Each Day!

It’s a great day to get out into the snow!  Just add kids and go!  But before you head out, prepare so as to optimize the fun! Set up a healthy snack for the kids to energize and hydrate, then have them take a bathroom break BEFORE getting dressed in their winter gear. While they eat, gather up the warm clothes by the door. Layers. No cotton. Wool and other fibers are warmer. Long underwear. Turtlenecks. Sweaters. Snow pants. Snow jacket. Warm socks. Waterproof boots. Winter hats. Warm mittens you can tuck up into the jacket sleeves. And extra mittens to swap out when the first pair gets wet. When its really cold, add a neck warmer and leg warmers. Cover all the skin you can in layers. Then open the door and let ‘em out… and the kids will just play!

Snow has a magic effect. There are the traditional snowy day activities. Sledding. Slipping and sliding on patches of ice. Climbing snow hills. Building a snow person. Walking through the drifts. A snowball fight. Constructing a snow fort or igloo. Making snow angels. For variety, as the winter lingers on, present some other options.

  • Paint Snow: Fill spray or squirt bottles with water and food coloring to paint in the snow (Avoid spraying each other as food coloring can stain.).
  • Build Winter Fairy Houses: Build mini houses with icicles for walls. They can be houses for snow fairies similar to summer time fairy stick houses.
  • Make Mini Snow People: Use snowballs and tiny foods like raisins and nuts for faces and toothpicks for arms for mini snow people.
  • Blow Bubbles: Blow bubbles on a cold, cold day. They freeze.
  • Hula Hoop: Have a hula hoop contest dressed in all those layers.
  • Flashlight Tag: It gets dark early, so consider a game of flashlight tag before dinner.
  • Box Sled: Use a cardboard box or trash can lid for a sled.
  • Tracking: Go on a hunt for animal tracks in the snow.
  • Indoor Snow Bin: IF it gets too cold outside, bring a plastic bin of snow inside to play. Add a few action figures, toy trees and some ice cubes or sugar cubes for building and pretend to have a tiny winter landscape inside.

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Enjoy the season!

January Collections

We are always collecting and saving items in bins and on shelves for creative projects. This month add a few things to enhance snow play:

  • spray or squirt bottles
  • food coloring
  • flattened cardboard boxes and large trash can lids make great sleds
  • traditional summer playthings like bubbles or a hula hoop
  • large plastic bin to bring snow inside

Related Post: 9 Resources for Surviving & Thriving the Winter in Western Massachusetts


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie is a licensed family care provider and continues to do freelance work for clients in Chicago.

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:

Searching for Nests & Animal Tracks in Winter

Stalking Winter Nests & Wildlife Tracks
Family Outdoor Adventures

“Because robin nests are fairly large, and so well built, they are one of the easiest to spot after the nesting season. Look for them in shrubs and on horizontal branches in the lower halves of trees.”

During the cold months of winter, many of the creatures often seen during the rest of the year have migrated south, are tucked away in burrows for most of the winter, or have become even better at hiding so as not to be easily spotted against the snow. But their signs are still there and a lot of fun searching for! Looking for signs like tracks, scat, dens, and nests is a fun and educational way to learn about the habits of wildlife living near you.

To inspire families into winter tracking expeditions, Mass Audubon offers an online list of the Top 5 Nests to Spot in Winter! The list includes information on the American Goldfinch, American Robin, Baltimore Oriole, and Chipping Sparrow, as well as Eastern Gray Squirrels, who builds nests high up in trees as well. The nest list not only shares information on spotting and identifying five different nests, it also includes facts about the nest’s structure, specific reasons for why each nest is created the way that it is, and interesting facts.

Identifying nests together with your family can teach them a lot about the habits of each bird species, and can help them develop a greater awareness of the many animal signs present around them. Mass Audubon also has Winter Walk Bingo Cards families can download and print that would make for fun this winter while searching for nests and other signs of wildlife.

Maybe even take Kurt’s advise and after a week of constant ten degree weather, head to the wetlands and explore an area otherwise not easily accessible outside of winter. Read more in his post, “The Ripple: Winter Wetlands.”

Looking for organized activities to do together while looking for nests and other animal tracks, here are some upcoming events in January worth checking out:

[Photo credit: (ccl) carfull...Wyoming]

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 »

Citizen Scientists Wanted for Annual Christmas Bird Count

Christmas Bird Count: An Annual Citizen Scientist
24 Hour Hunt for Bird Species

This beautiful Cedar Waxwing is a year-round resident and a commonly seen during the Christmas Bird Count. (Photo credit: Leslie Reed-Evans)

Leslie Reed-Evans writes:

Imagine standing at the edge of a frosty field on a chill December morning.  Out of the corner of your eye you see an electric flash of blue- a male Eastern Bluebird flying to a wild rose bush to munch on its fruit1 – This is a scene played out all over New England, and indeed the country, as bird enthusiasts get out to find, identify and count as many individual birds and species as possible as members of the annual Christmas Bird Count.

According to the National Audubon, prior to the turn of the century people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.” They would choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won. Conservation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition -a “Christmas Bird Census”-that would count birds in the holidays rather than hunt them. One hundred and thirteen years later, hundreds of citizen scientists head for the woodlands, fields, ponds and rivers to compete with fellow participants and find the most number of birds, building on the tradition started so long ago.  Everyone is looking for the most exciting and unusual species, but every bird sighted is a special one.

Counts may take place anytime between December 14 and January 5, and each count area is a circle extending from a center point with a 15-mile diameter, taking in as many habitats as possible.  The count period is 24 hours.  The north Berkshire count averages  between 45 and 55 species, depending on the weather of the day, and the weather leading up to the count day.  This year there have been many reports of winter finches, such as Pine Grosbeaks and crossbills, which in some years come from the north when cones or other food is in short supply.

Each of the citizen scientists who annually braves snow, wind, or rain to take part in the Christmas Bird Count makes an enormous contribution to conservation. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations – and to help guide conservation action.  Everyone who takes part in the Christmas Bird Count does it for love of birds and the excitement of friendly competition — and with the knowledge that their efforts are making a difference for science and bird conservation.

If you are interested in finding a Christmas Bird Count to take part in, visit birds.audubon.org (or contact the organizers below).

You will be participating in a tradition that you just might adopt as your own!

Western MA Area Christmas Bird Count Dates & Organizers:

  • Springfield Area Christmas Count: Saturday, December 15th, 2012. Contact: George Kingston. 413-525-6742. gcking@yahoo.com
  • North Berkshire Christmas Bird Count: Saturday, December 15th, 2012. Contact: Leslie Reed-Evans. 413-458-5150. lre@wrlf.org.
  • Central Berkshire Christmas Bird Count: Saturday, December 15th, 2012. Contact: Tom Collins. tcbirder@nycap.rr.com.
  • Westfield Area Christmas Count: Saturday, December 22nd, 2012. Contact: Seth Kellogg. 413-569-3335. skhawk@comcast.net.
  • South Berkshire Christmas Bird Count: Tuesday, January 1st, 2013. Contact: Rene Laubach. rlaubach@massaudubon.org.

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]

Citizen Scientists Track Owls in Massachusetts

Tracking Owls in Massachusetts
Families Can Help Mass Audubon

Great Horned OwlThere are eleven different species of owls found in Massachusetts, and chances are good that there are a few in your neighborhood.  Families can become owl spotters and useful citizen scientists by taking part in Mass Audubon’s efforts in tracking owl populations – there are lots of ways to participate, and any and all information collected in useful!

There are a variety of different owl-themed family programs offered by Mass Audubon, including moonlit trail explorations to search for birds, hands-on learning activities at sanctuary visitor centers, and owl-themed presentations for older students and adults.  After brushing up on owl-knowledge, families can venture out into their backyards or nearby woodland areas (parks, nature sanctuaries, etc.) to search for signs of owls – and maybe even a real-life owl itself!

Findings can be reported on Mass Audubon’s online Owl Reporter form, used to collect all sorts of information on owl sightings, including location, species of owl (or general characteristics of the bird), etc.  There are even instructions for constructing bird houses on the organization’s website – owl-loving families can build them to encourage owls to move into their neighborhood. ()  Taking part in the project is a great way to supplement studies of New England wildlife biology and can help kids develop confidence in animal identification and outdoor skills.  For more information, visit www.massaudubon.org/owls.

[Photo credit: (ccl) Eric Kilby]

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]

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