Rivers as Circulatory Systems
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…
Finally, let’s bring this back home. One of my favorite moments in all of American Literature, is of Benjamin Franklin drinking from the Delaware River, at the very moment he finds his new life and destiny in Philadelphia:
I went up Market-street as far as Fourth-street, passing by the door of Mr. Read, my future wife’s father; when she, standing at the door, saw me, and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward, ridiculous appearance. Then I turned and went down Chestnut-street and part of Walnut-street, eating my roll all the way, and, corning round, found myself again at Market-street wharf, near the boat I came in, to which I went for a draught of the river water; and, being filled with one of my rolls, gave the other two to a woman and her child that came down the river in the boat with us, and were waiting to go farther. [source]
What is so striking about Franklin’s account is that in Europe, every river was polluted to the point that even children drank beer and hard cider instead of water to avoid getting deathly sick; (fermentation kills bacteria). Though the point is probably lost on today’s reader, Franklin extolled the purity and health of the rivers of the New World against those of the Old, a form of environmental nationalism that later found voices in Thoreau and Theodore Roosevelt. Franklin signaled, too, that on the first day of his life in Philadelphia, he had “become one” with that which nourished and sustained the city of brotherly love: his circulatory system was its.
Over 250 years have passed since Franklin drank from the Delaware, and with few exceptions our rivers have become like the Old World’s: unfit to drink from. Though this news is pretty obvious, and remains a cause of despair for some, and of conscious ignorance for most, there is a middle way between being depressed or unconscious of it. This middle way involves stewardship: the taking on of responsibility for becoming conscious of the health of our biomic circulatory system, so we may understand where and how it is hurting, and become agents of healing and health.
You are invited to 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.”
An RBA is a two to three-hour activity that, following EPA protocol, involves gathering, sorting and counting the insects that live on the bottom of the river. The health of the river can be adduced by the kind, size and amount of insects that are gathered. Here is a description from last year that gives you more information about how doing RBAs is a fun and (relatively) easy way to become both a citizen scientist and a caretaker of our biome’s circulatory system.
Hilltown Families will sponsor its RBA session on the Westfield River upstream from the Chesterfield Gorge on Friday afternoon, September 20th. For more info about this, and other sessions, please contact me, Kurt, at email@example.com. We are presently working with teachers and students at Hampshire Regional High School and Hilltown Cooperative Charter School, and are interested with working with any other teachers and students in the Middle Ct River and Westfield River watersheds. Our goal is to inspire and nurture a bioregional culture of river stewardship.
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!