River People: A Vision of Our Future
From the Hudson of New York, the Thames of London, the Tiber of Rome, the Nile of Cairo and the Ganges of Varanasi, all the great old cities of the world are sited next to the rivers that gave them food, water, and a port. These cities, slowly flooding as the icecaps melt, are where the essence of the cultures we identify as Eastern and Western distilled themselves, on the riparian edge between forest and brackish (or fresh) water. Imagine the long course of evolution that took our species out of the trees of Northeastern Africa, led us on the great tribal migrations that dispersed us across the globe, and left us to settle on the banks of these rivers. Imagine, also, how this riparian habitat provided the nourishment and stimulation, and gave us the slow swirls of time and leisure that became the centers from which our cultures emerged. Even if we live high in the mountains, out on the plains, or in Las Vegas, we are river people.
Our particular cultural history is so short, here in the Pioneer Valley and Hilltowns. Go to the Deerfield town hall and see the stone knives and speartips that were used by humans 12,000 years ago. These people hunted caribou near Mount Sugarloaf at time when the Laurentian Ice Sheet was melting back to the Arctic Circle, after leaving the behind the terminal moraines of Long Island and Cape Cod. Less than 400 years ago, AngloAmerican invaders settled Northampton near the Connecticut River, took the lands and erased the histories of the probable ancestors of these original inhabitants, the Nonotuck and Pocumtuc people. It has been only 200 years since the Connecticut and subsidiary rivers were turned to into machines, first for mills to grind grain and saw wood and stone, then to turn wheels in textile and gun factories, and finally to spin turbines to generate electricity. Given this history, the thought of our rivers providing us today with the vital sources of culture seems kind of ridiculous. And yet …
Our rivers remain, flowing steadily, harboring diminished life that will spring back to fullness as soon as the dams crumble or are dismantled. Imagine for a moment what it might be like here 25-50 years from now, a post-automobile-and-highway world, where for a smaller, less-mobile population the Connecticut and Westfield Rivers are again major transportation routes. Imagine, as James Kunstler does in his wonderful 4 volume “World Made By Hand” series, living in a culture that has returned to the old ways of living close to the earth, because what was unsustainable was not sustained. Imagine the beauty, and flavors, of all the fish that have returned to rivers restored to health—shad, herring, sturgeon, trout, bass—and of the abundance of creatures that come with them—otters, mergansers, herons, eagles, turtles. Imagine cities sited next to the rivers being deconstructed, whatever salvageable being salvaged, and agriculture returning on raised beds over brownfields to places it flourished 150 years ago.
A vision, I know. But one worth dreaming into, mainly because here and there it is already being realized: already here and there, fostered by those who can feel the renascent power of steadily flowing waters, who feel within themselves the wet and living sources of culture our ancestors felt—the vision of the future peoples of the rivers.
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!