The Ripple: Ancient River Friends

Freshwater Sponges: A Most Ancient and Wonderful River Friend

Of all the river beings who remind us of the unity of our highlands and our beaches, the most startling is the lime-green freshwater sponge that you sometimes encounter downstream of swamps and beaver dams. I am always blown away when we meet each other around here, not only because they are most venerable of the multi-celled river beings, but also because you’ll find that they are not documented as living around here yet!

The leaves are falling again, and soon enough we’ll view without obstruction the muscular bodies of our hills and valleys.

I think of geology when I see our biome bared: the thermochemical transformations that over eons have given us our sandy happy valleys and smooth rounded granite ridges.

400 million years ago our mountains were the first and tallest in what is now North America; 200 million years ago the subterranean lava leaks that are now Mt Holyoke and Mt Tom were spluttering; 90 million years ago the Atlantic Ocean formed, splitting North America off from what is now Europe and Africa; and very recently, only 13,000 years ago, the Laurentian Ice Sheet crushed the mountains into boulders and pebbles, then melted and those waterfalls and rivers spewed the grits out into the ocean, where they formed Long Island and Cape Cod. Yes—the sands of P-town come from here, where we live!  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: A Philosophical Exercise of Eradicating Invasive Species Along Our River Edges

Cutting Knotweed

Cutting knotweed is a philosophical exercise, because doing it makes you a cultivator of the wild. Wherever the knotweed takes over, creatures starve. It provides no food to native species, except to pollinators when it briefly flowers. By eradicating it, we increase biodiversity, and the amount of food there is to feed our wild creatures.

Every summer I bring students into our woods, and wade in our rivers, so they can learn biocultural history and experience deep biotic immersion. Over the years, we have become very aware of the character and health of our biome; by visiting the same places, we register how they have changed—and they always change. One of the most striking changes we have encountered is the blanketing over of our favorite river spots by Japanese Knotweed, a bamboo-like plant.

Two years ago, we began to reclaim some the beaches we love on a nationally-registered Wild and Scenic river (the East Branch of the Westfield river) because they’d disappeared under impenetrable groves of the stuff. We had nowhere even to put down our packs and eat lunch. Until we got squeezed out by this pernicious plant, we thought there was some entity that would come and take of the problem; but after a few years, we realized there was nothing stopping knotweed from choking the entire river corridor. Action was required.

Cutting knotweed is always good thing to do. At the river spot you love, chop it down and let it dry out on shore. It will come back out of the root, so hit it again until it’s finally surrendered. Be sure not to spread the root, because that’s its primary means of colonization.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Living Patterns of Watersheds

Thinking Like a Watershed

In the same way all the tiny veins at a leaf’s edge connect to the midrib and then the leaf stem and then the branch and tree trunk and roots, so do our upland streams and brooks flow down into our rivers that empty into our oceans.

Make this summer the summer you discover (if you haven’t yet) the Westfield River watershed.

A watershed is—imagine—a giant bathtub, where the high sides of the tub are defined by ridgelines; and when the shower is on (rain), all the water is contained in the tub shape, flows to the bottom (river), and exits through the same drain.

A better way to imagine what a watershed is: it is a leaf-shaped geography. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Respecting the Lifeblood That Are Rivers

No Substitute for Health, Our Own and Our Rivers’

Last month, I wrote about how our native trout survive, miniaturized, in the plunge pools of our chilly mountain brooks, while in the main courses of our rivers, big fat factory-raised trout are set loose by the Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs so folks who want to catch big fat native trout out in the wild can pretend. They have to pretend because, as game fish go, factory-trout are listless and lack the vital energy and intelligence of the native trout who actually live and breed here. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Cheering on our Native Trout!

Native Trout vs. Finned-Zombies: the Essential Difference

More than ever our rivers—and other river-lovers—need us. The Massachusetts Department of Ecological Restoration has published a list & calendar of river-helping opportunities. This local offering is a perfect way for those of us who want to do something, to do it!

Purples, reds and greens thrown high like hard candies, caught by each branch tip that shakes in the soft warming breeze;
our winter dun hills flare up in their pointillist fervors, a rolling canvas of vivacious colors that blend and bleed and swarm ‘til we can’t see the ridgelines or hollows;
hawks and falcons and eagles circle above our busy ant movements in parking lots, farm fields and backyards;
sweet tulips burst and bend over, taking their bows:
the snow melts and sugarings are suddenly memories;
and amorous fish arrive from far out at sea, crowding the rumbling spillways of Holyoke Dam, hoping to catch a ride on a world-famous elevator, so they may have babies upriver where their parents once did.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: The Living Land Wants to Play

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 »

The Ripple: Getting Beyond the Dam

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 »

The Ripple: Listen to the Story of the River

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 »

The Ripple: The Survival Instinct of the Sea Lamprey Endures…for 460,000,000 years

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 »

The Ripple: Rivers Can Fly

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 »

The Ripple: Short Guide to River Movies

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 »

The Ripple: Your Local River is Alive…and Waiting

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 »

The Ripple: Squelching through Wetlands Reveals Nature at its Most Natural

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 »

The Ripple: Lifeline Waterways

River Trees

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 »

The Ripple: When I Jump into Your Flow

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: The Cure For All Things Pavement

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 »

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 »

The Ripple: The River Will Rise

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 »

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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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: 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:

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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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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 »

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 »

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