March 23, 2015 at 12:00 pm (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Aldo Leopold, Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
Our Bodies of Water
The land is an organism, wrote Aldo Leopold, the Yale-trained game management specialist, about seventy-five years ago. An organism is alive, and its life is made up of the contributions of disparate organs, each of which would be lifeless without the collaborations of all the others.
The idea—actually fact—that land is an organism is, of course, an ancient one, as venerable as our anthropomorphic figure of “mother earth.” Leopold’s work, especially his classic book A Sand County Almanac, reveals how he struggled through his education in empirical science to prove something that we, as a species, have felt and known for eons. If Plato was correct, and knowledge is remembering something we have forgotten, then Leopold stands as a vibrant example of a knowledgeable person. His experience of translating the wisdom of our ancient ancestors into the lexicon of science is one that anybody who loves and tries to protect land knows well. Read the rest of this entry »
February 23, 2015 at 9:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: dams, Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, River Walking, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
Life Will Return to Our Rivers!
The challenge we (who value these nonhuman lives) face is to turn the immense powers we have to obstruct life into powers that liberate it.
Sweet as maple syrup, the thaw is coming.
Sea lamprey, shad, herring, alewives, eels, sturgeon and the last of the salmon: all are sensing it, as they swim far offshore in the (comparatively) warm ocean. Exactly how they sense the return of Spring remains unknown, even to the brightest marine biologist; but our lack of comprehension, alone, will not prevent their return. Our dams will.
Every dam we remove increases the chances that our native anadromous fish—and all the other creatures (birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles) that feed upon them—will thrive. For this reason, I long ago joined the Connecticut River Watershed Council, which has a laudable record of success in removing the obstructions that block fish passage. Read the rest of this entry »
January 26, 2015 at 12:00 pm (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, River Walking, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
The Importance of Escaping to the River
Be adventurous and skirt the edge, but do be careful; use snowshoes, stay clear of ice jams, and have a friend close by if you can’t resist walking in spots that clogged with frozen floes.
A walk alongside one or our rivers is a walk with a companion, even when alone. Cares of the world will ping pong and even hornet in the head ‘til settled by rushing water. Give a river a chance, when one’s thoughts have quieted down: listen—it tells a story, and like every really good story, it draws us out of our heads and into another.
Asked how I began to love rivers so much, I recall how as a lad I’d scoot to the flow whenever things stagnated, or became too crazed, in a house with three brothers. No matter the boredom or conflict I escaped from, the river—Silvermine river it is—settled the ping pongs in my head by providing fresh and loud sensations, and endless opportunities for adventure. Rafting down it in cold April floods, in cheap inflatable pool rafts that punctured instantly (unless steered by experienced skippers), introduced me to hyperthermia, blue lips and the need to pack hot chocolate in thermos.’ (We wore cotton back then, and I remember shivering for hours like a wet cat on an iceberg. The experience toughened me up, and made me realize that dressing correctly makes all the difference between teeth gritting and laughing when on the adventure. To this day, I dress so I when sleep in snowdrifts, I purr.) Read the rest of this entry »
December 22, 2014 at 9:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, heat waves, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, River Walking, Rivers, rivers and streams, sea lamprey, western massachusetts
Why I Love Sea Lampreys
Sea Lampreys: A lot to love, and even more to admire.
Our rivers—the Westfield and the Connecticut—are alive. They could be more alive than they are, but the Holyoke and Turners Falls dams on the Connecticut and the West Springfield dam on the Westfield prevent that vivacity. These dams make anadromous fish (that spend part of their lives in fresh water and another part in salt water) go extinct.
I have wondered how it is that people can allow these extinctions to happen, without feeling absolute horror and guilt, and preventing any more of them. One reason is that we don’t know why their lives are valuable. Read the rest of this entry »
November 24, 2014 at 12:00 pm (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
The Importance of Flying Rivers
Flying Rivers have receded in the Amazonian rain forests but can be seen around our very own Mount Tom! However you won’t see them in Fall. Wait for a humid August day, and you’ll have more luck.
Perhaps you’ve heard that California is experiencing a very severe drought caused by climate change. Since most of our fruit and vegetables are grown there, now is a great time to become knowledgeable about our regional food system, and to redouble support for our farmers who can supplement the shrinking Californian supplies. Compared to the rest of the nation, we’re lucky to have such a vibrant and energized agricultural base. A few years ago, a study was done to see if Northampton could grow enough food to supply its own population; and the answer is—if everybody’s vegetarian—”yes.” What good news! Read the rest of this entry »
October 27, 2014 at 9:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: cinema, Ecology, Film, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, river movies, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
Rivers in Reels: Short Guide to River Movies
A classic film set on the Potomac River…a river mighty enough to hold two film icons.
Witch hazel crane over Halloween rivers, their branchtips glowing with yellow blossoms—tassled tiny chandeliers of color, calling for sensitive notice. Catch one in the sunlight; examine the blaze that pops vibrant against the drab of forest dun and river dark. Rivers seem darker when leaves have fallen down. Soon the tiny chandeliers of the hazel will drop, too, into the flow to spin and drift and sail away deep into the frosty months of winter. Soon enough, water will show us its sterner self, as snow and ice will be with us.
Still a few weeks where we might catch some peace in a warm little microclime beside a Hilltown river: yet there’s no fighting it; it’s time for us to retreat from the outdoors a bit, and pull back into our shells of home and work. And imagination.
When it gets cold in the coming weeks, light a fire and let yourself go on a voyage on a river—at least, a voyage of imagination and feeling. Rivers are real as the rain, but they are also imagined. I love imagining rivers, and of experiencing what others have imagined, too. Rivers are always apparent; they don’t hide. But they are inscrutable and relentless, always a mystery.
Here are a few of my favorite river movies, starting with the child friendly titles then moving into PG13-land: Read the rest of this entry »
September 22, 2014 at 9:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Connecticut River, Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
Touch the River and It’ll Touch You
The Connecticut River is the lifeblood of the Pioneer Valley.
Thinking of how important it is for nature-lovers to spend time “being in” nature, the conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”
Ethics involve what we judge to be right or wrong; and Leopold is correct: if we are to be ethical—if we are to wisely judge the rightness or wrongness of a thing—we need to have a direct experience of it. It’s easy to forget that a river is alive, and has a life that is valuable unless, from time to time, you touch it. Unless we touch the river, we can’t understand enough about it to be ethical towards it.
Rivers have always provided humans with perfect places to live, whether it be the nhà sông of Vietnam, the chickee hut of the Mississippi shrimp catcher, or the highrise of a hedgefund manager towering over the Hudson. We’ve always been attracted to rivers because they, of all landscape features, are the most alive: kinetic in movement and full of creatures. There is a big difference between viewing a river, though, and touching it. I want you to touch a river this month if you haven’t lately—and let that river be the Connecticut, which flows for over 400 miles from just over the Canadian border to Long Island Sound.
One way to touch the Connecticut River is to volunteer to assist the Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Source to Sea Clean-up, scheduled for Saturday, September 26 and Sunday, September 27, 2014. Read the rest of this entry »
August 25, 2014 at 9:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, Geography, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Pioneer Valley, western massachusetts, Western Massachusetts River
There’s Gold in Our Hills!
Gold in Mt. Tom anyone?
I met a person who was panning for gold in one of our hilltown brooks this summer who knew a lot about geology—at least enough to know that gold is produced by volcanic activity. We don’t think of our biome as having volcanic bones; Iceland, Hawaii, and the Pacific Rim come to mind, but Huntington?
Look closely, though, and you’ll find evidence of igneous geology all over the place: from Mounts Holyoke and Tom which were bubbling lava when hungry raptorsauri ran wild here 200,000,000 years ago, to the weirdly eroded lava ash boulders people place out by their driveways in Goshen, to the cocoa puff pumice balls that float in eddies just downriver from the Turners Falls dams. Read the rest of this entry »
July 28, 2014 at 9:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, heat waves, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, River Walking, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
The Beauty and Ickyness of Upland Wetlands
Thanks to wetlands, mountain rivers should be clear while valley rivers like the Connecticut can resemble a river of milk chocolate.
Last week, I stood by the side of the East Branch of the Westfield River in Chesterfield with a group of intrepid explorers, astonished by the gasp and growl of its raging flood waters. “Where’s Augustus Gloop?” I heard someone ask; “He would love all this hot chocolate!”
Laden with brown soils that had eroded from roadsides, construction sites and fields upstream, the river did look like it was made by Willy Wonka. A wild and scenic river like the East Branch of the Westfield should not look like hot chocolate because of its federally-registered conservation status, and the fact that there is little development in the hilltowns. And yet here was unmistakable proof that torrential rain on vegetation-less lands was causing extensive erosion. Read the rest of this entry »
June 23, 2014 at 9:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!
Imagine—by float, boat or walking, you’re in the river as it wends past farmland, backyards and woods, through plains, valleys and gorges. After an hour, the initial thrill of united movement, of flesh and water and flow, has passed, and so have the conversations. The river begins to insinuate your skin and re-network your synapses; you start thinking like a river. Feel the expansion.
Hear the river sound; its voice (like ours) combines the everything it passes through, and that passes through it (for it breathes and eats with its mouth open): the more obstructions, the more turbulence; the more turbulence, the louder the growl. Read the rest of this entry »
May 26, 2014 at 3:00 pm (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, River Walking, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
When I Jump into Your Flow
When I jump into your flow
You’ll take me wherever you go
ever you go, ever you go
You’ll take me wherever you go
We’re in one, and sucked into bigger flows that swept into bigger flows. And on and on. Minnows circling in eddies. In white water, stonefly nymphs cling to stone. Anadromous fish are making their way up whatever tributaries aren’t dammed, and being watched and counted at Holyoke and Turners Falls dams. Visit them, because their populations are declining and might soon vanish—just 397 Blueback Herring, for example, have passed Holyoke Dam as of May 21st.
April 28, 2014 at 10:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, Hilltowns, Insects, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
The Cure for All Things Pavement
Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you! Tuning into this “wheel of time” is one way that we leave our pavement-based perception of place. If you are lucky, you’ll get to see mergansers, a sort of river loon, as they hunt for the same trout that are hunting the invertebrates.
Before there were roads, there were trails and before there were trails, there were rivers. The Nile and the Mississippi—can you see Cleopatra and Huck & Jim making their ways on these liquid highways? Have you heard the tale (more or less true) of how Native Americans followed the paths of deer that traveled up and down food-rich riparian corridors; and that Routes 5 & 7 were laid over such paths?
Once upon a time, people knew their places from the perspective of the river; and what is so wonderful is that this perspective is still available to those who pine for a way of seeing, and being, that is not pavement-based. This summer, you could float down the Deerfield or Connecticut Rivers—and you ought to!—but floating down means that you’ve already driven up it. Nothing wrong with that; in fact it can’t be avoided given our moment in time; but the proper way to get the feeling and the vision of being placed in a biome is to head upstream, like the Atlantic Shad are doing right now. (Reminder: the operators of the Holyoke and Turner’s Falls dams open their anadromous fish viewing stations around Mother’s Day, and—despite the fact that both dams are causing extinctions—they are worth visiting.)
If you want to change the way you and your family view your “place” by leaving the pavement and making your way up a river valley, you are lucky! Read the rest of this entry »
March 24, 2014 at 9:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, Endangered Fish, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, Short-nosed sturgeons, Shortnose Sturgeon, Sturgeon, western massachusetts
Our Friend, the Shortnose 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 »
February 24, 2014 at 9:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Chesterfield Gorge, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, Trustees of Reservation, western massachusetts
The River Will Rise
Bridge remains at Chesterfield Gorge. (Photo credit (c) Sienna Wildfield)
This shivery month of melt, please bring your family to the upper neck of the Chesterfield Gorge and look across the Westfield River. You’ll see a twenty-foot tall stone wall tower— the remains of an old colonial bridge, a massive abutment built in 1769 by meticulous stackers of dark granite schist.
I remember looking at it a few years ago, marveling at the brawn and artistry of the backwoods engineers who made it. They must have believed their incredible backaches were worth it, that their bridge would stand for centuries, and they and their progeny would make a living collecting tolls where hemlocks now cluster and choke.
Over two hundred years have gone by, the bridge is long gone and the road it extended is a deer and porcupine highway. Another two more centuries will go by, I imagined then, and the abutment will remain unstaggered, a gratifying, even beautiful, example of our manipulation of the biome to achieve economic goals. And aside from this, I thought, the imperturbability of the stacked stone next to the swift and crashing rapids is, itself, a story that offers a lesson… Read the rest of this entry »
January 27, 2014 at 12:00 pm (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: benthic invertebrate, Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
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 »
December 23, 2013 at 10:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, Experiential Learning, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
Gift to Receive 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 »
November 25, 2013 at 3:00 pm (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, Experiential Learning, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
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 »
October 28, 2013 at 6:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger, Nature Based Education)
Tags: Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, Watershed, western massachusetts, Westfield River
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…
September 23, 2013 at 9:00 am (Citizen Scientist, Community Based Education, Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger, Nature Based Education)
Tags: Adopt a River, Benthic Invertebrates, Citizen Scientists, community engagement, Connecticut River, Ecology, Environment, Environmental Steward, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rapid Biotic Assessments, rba, Rivers, rivers and streams, Watershed, western massachusetts, Westfield 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).
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!
August 26, 2013 at 3:00 pm (Citizen Scientist, Community Based Education, Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger, Nature Based Education)
Tags: Ecology, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, western massachusetts, Westfield River
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…
July 22, 2013 at 4:00 pm (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, heat waves, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, River Walking, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
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:
June 24, 2013 at 9:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, floods, Hilltowns, Insects, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
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…
May 27, 2013 at 12:00 pm (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: blackflies, Ecology, Hilltowns, Insects, Massachusetts, mayflies, mayfly, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts
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…
April 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm (Citizen Scientist, Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Citizen Scientists, climate, Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, Spring Equinox, Spring Peepers, Vernal Pools, western massachusetts
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.
Read the rest of this entry »
March 25, 2013 at 12:00 pm (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, springs, western massachusetts
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 »
February 25, 2013 at 10:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Berkshires, climate, Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, otters, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts, winter, winter wetlands
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 »
January 28, 2013 at 11:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Berkshires, climate, Ecology, fog, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, western massachusetts, winter wetlands
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 »
December 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Berkshires, climate, Ecology, Hilltowns, Massachusetts, Nature, outdoors, Pioneer Valley, Rivers, rivers and streams, swamps biome, western massachusetts, wetlands, 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 »
November 26, 2012 at 6:00 am (Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Big Sur, Jack Kerouac, Language of the Rivers, Nature, Rivers, West Coast
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]
October 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm (Citizen Scientist, Contributing Writer, Ecology, Kurt Heidinger)
Tags: Adopt a River, Benthic Invertebrates, Citizen Scientists, Connecticut River, Ecology, Environment, Environmental Steward, Massachusetts, Pioneer Valley, Rapid Biotic Assessments, rba, Rivers, rivers and streams, Watershed, western massachusetts, 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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