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: Families Work as Citizen Scientists for the Westfield River

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

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

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

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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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