Six Community Organizations that Support Learning on the River

Six Community-Based Resources Support Learning on the River

Our river ecosystems are about more than just water – they about thousands of species of plants and animals, fascinating natural history, and the connections between humans and their surroundings. By utilizing resources made available by a handful of local community-based organizations and events, families can learn about and connect with our local landscape.

The Westfield and Connecticut River are ecosystems made up of beautiful landscapes and filled with fascinating natural history, home to a great many creatures of all shapes and sizes. By utilizing resources offered by community organizations and plugging into local networks, families can access the many community-based learning opportunities that our local habitat affords us. From species identification to Native American culture, the our rivers are filled with opportunities to engage in community-based education… Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: The Importance of Ice

The Ripple: Take Me To the River

Older and Stronger than Mountains and Sky: The Long Body

Let me take you to the river. I want to show you something miraculous—something that lives there that has been alive longer than the sky or the mountains. The reason I want to show you this is to make you feel good. Knowing that the life we live right now is connected to all the lives around us should make you feel good, I think. (We are not alone!) Knowing that the life we live right now is older than the sky and the mountains, well, I think that might make you feel even better. (What power we carry with us that we barely even recognize because, like the breath we just breathed, we take it for granted!) Let’s go, get out of here and down to the river! Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for August

Patterns, Perception & Preservation

This month’s nature table is written by environmental educator Phoebe Gelbard, a recent graduate of Northampton High School and a freshman at the University of Massachusetts.

This summer, whether you are swimming in a river, admiring a striking sunset, or smelling a flower, you can observe recurring shapes and patterns in the landscape around you. Change is a constant, and as each month fades into the next, previous patterns fade and new ones begin to appear. While we are all familiar with certain designs that are found in our backyards, such as the heart-shaped leaves of clover and the spiral of a snail’s shell, other patterns that involve multidimensional interconnectedness are more difficult to recognize. These patterns, known as fractals, are described as expanding or evolving symmetry because of the way that they repeat themselves when taking both a closer look and when stepping back.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Synchronization of the Watershed Flora & Fauna

A River Is Always In Synch

Like tiny submariners bursting up and out of the bottom of the brook, breaking into wings and soaring for a short time above the world they once knew, the stoneflies are here, molting from crab-shells they lived in. On the back of my neck, computer keyboard, every boulder around me: they multiply, skitter all directions, avoiding the rushing water they recently called home. The frenzy begins.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Life in the Riparian Zone

The Life Riparian

“Land is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” – Aldo Leopold

Riparian is a strange sounding word that denotes “river bank”: the meeting point of river and land. We enter the “riparian zone” when we get close to a river. It is a place we want to be, because it brims with exuberant sounds and smells, and because it often harbors wild plant populations that flower and fruit, attracting pollinators and all sorts of other hungry creatures. In fact, when I think “riparian” I think of food. The riparian zone is where the food is, and where the food is, life is. It is possible to trace this living landform from where it almost touches the sky all the way down to the sea.

A few weeks ago, two miles high in the Chilean Andes with my friends at Superfun, I became dangerously dehydrated. Careful to avoid water that might have bad bacteria in it, I found what I thought was a perfect source. Beneath a melting ice field I filled my canteen and drank until I gasped in pain. So cold, the water sang in my skull; so pure it tasted like breath. For half an hour I sat on a rock, loving the fact that this straight-from-the-glacier water was as perfect as water can be. The purest of the pure, cleanest of the clean, the supreme goal of bottled water drinkers achieved. Woo!

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Learning Along the Watershed: Rivers, Wetlands & Bogs

Learning through the Lens of Habitat: Watersheds in Western MA

Our natural landscapes come to life in the summer months, offering families numerous opportunities to learn about local plant and animals species and a variety of habitats found in our region. These community-based resources are available everywhere, from the parks in our cities to rural countryside. While the months are warm, look for ways to engage in your community in meaningful ways while supporting nature-based interests and education.

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When thinking about the flora and fauna found in our local habitat, consider how these environments support them and how they are all connected with one another.  In western Massachusetts we have a variety of natural surroundings we can examine, including rivers, wetlands and bog, and how they support insects, birds and plants.  Check out these community events that utilized our local habitats and species to support learning, along with points of entry to community engagement that include intergenerational adventures, citizen science and community service… 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 »

We (heart) the Deerfield River: A Hilltown Families’ Family Community Service Night

Art Garden Event: River Fest Parade

Hilltown Families and The Art Garden partner for a final community-service art-making event for the season

Our watersheds are vital and important ecosystems for animal and plant species. Celebrate the Deerfield River Watershed with friends, family, Hilltown Families and The Art Garden on Friday, June 6th, from 4-7pm in Shelburne Falls for our final community-service art-making event for the season.

At this event we will be focusing on what we love about the Deerfield River Watershed and preparing for the annual Deerfield RiverFest’s Frog and Flower parade on June 7. Be a part of creating large cardboard fish, frogs and flowers for the parade, as well as individual processional artworks. All ages can participate! Materials provided. Takes place at The Art Garden.

Engaging your family in community service teaches kids positive values while opening up channels of communication between parent and child, and can increase their participation as future volunteers. Join us for an evening of community service art-making on Friday, June 6th from 4-7pm at The Art Garden in Shelburne Falls, MA, for We (heart) the Deerfield River, the final event in a series of five free family community service nights!

The Art Garden is located at 14 Depot Street in Shelburne Falls, MA (in the Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum building.) SEE MAP. Questions? Email Sienna at swildfield@hilltownfamilies.org.

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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: 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 »

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