I was out in my garden this morning harvesting potatoes and then planting squash and peppers in their place. They are an experiment. Everything is an experiment these days. While I hope they grow and create food for my labor I do not expect it. I do it because I like being outside, even in this heat, taking part in the ecosystem around me. Its not like a hiking trip at all. However, in the midst of the constant sound and presence of cars, lawnmowers, walkers, and leaf blowers there is some nature to be had. It is in the garden and under the tress where the landscaper doesn't go. Sometimes, it is in the sound of the river that runs just across the street.
The Charles River (called the "Quinobequin" in Algonquin) here in Natick is a catalyst for argument these days. You see, there is the issue of the dam (an earthen barrier referred to more often as a park) and the spillway (a concrete barrier colloquially referred to as a dam). Regulators say that something must be done. It is unsafe as it is and the solution comes down to repair of the spillway--which would require removing all the trees (and therefore the ecosystem) in the park--or removal of the spillway (which would mean restoring the flow of the river and lowering the water level above it as well as taking away our tiny waterfall).
Emotions are high. It will be a change either way and people are rarely comfortable with change. I feel it too. I know that--after the better part of two decades living here--whatever will happen will feel a little bit like a loss to me. I have raised my children by the river. We have paddled as far as we could manage both upstream and down. I walk past it many times each day and wave to the people I know enjoying their coffee and watching the water go by. I have sat by the spillway with family, friends, and congregants having some fairly momentous conversations. I have made observations concerning the local flora and fauna here in the weblog. I will miss the way it is now and am grieving what is to come.
I have friends on both sides of this debate--repair v. removal--and I understand why people feel so strongly about this issue. We are talking about our home and our homes. However, things have gotten heated in some quarters in ways that reflect the current political landscape. No doubt they will continue to be. On the social networks (which I am not fond of but have to use) it seems that we cannot help but slide a bit from finding our way together into devaluing the opinions of others. There is lots of snark these days. There are arguments about whose opinion "matters most."
Just like on the national stage each side even has a different language for the discussion. I will tell you my opinion, but fellow Natickites already know it because I used the word "spillway" instead of "dam" to describe...um...well...the spillway.
I have recently noticed that most (but not all) of my neighbors have put up signs in favor of maintaining the spillway in South Natick. This does not surprise me. I will not hazard specific reasons because they can speak for themselves. It is a nice spot and--as I described above--part of a profound set of memories and connections for all of us who live on its banks. That said, I cannot agree with them. I am in favor of keeping the trees in the park and removing the spillway.
There are reasons for my position and, again, if you live here you probably already know what they are; Removal of the spillway would increase biodiversity, expanding the range of a number of species. This is something I believe in strongly. Heck, I have an ecology blog. Also, restoring the river has been a priority for the local Nipmuc people for a long time. After all we have done to Native Americans in this country, removing a spillway that serves no clear purpose seems literally like the least we could do. Finally, removal and restoration is the most cost-effective choice. This town is growing and will be for some time. Our needs are growing too. I would like the money to be put elsewhere in support of this community.
There is also another concern. Maybe it is a personal one but I will share it anyway. When I decided to become a minister (I was 19) I decided also to walk a path of faith as I see it. Seminary, fellowship, and ordination reinforced that decision. My theology has changed but my walk has not. Part of that walk is doing what you think is the right thing to do. I fail plenty of times. I am a pastor not a saint. That said, When faced with as clear a decision as this--where the ecological, cultural, and economic impact point in one direction--I cannot go back on that walk because right now it might feel inconvenient to me. I believe the world isn't about me. It is about the "Great Whatever." It is about living in harmony with nature and with each other. It is about taking the time to set aside my own ego to work for restoration of rivers and, frankly, of many other things. I have to stand on principle, even if I don't know exactly what will happen next.
Of course, another part of the walk of faith is understanding that change--the very thing that makes us anxious--does, in fact come. We cannot stop it. There will be change either way. Things will not be the same. Both paths can lead us to wonder what it will be like in our neighborhood in a few years. However, I have spent a great deal of time on and beside rivers without dams and honestly they are pretty, too. I expect that--no matter if the spillway is there or not--people will still be called down the banks of the Quinobequin with our coffee and our thoughts for a very long time.
This post is already too long. I am going to stop now and just leave you with some links to more information that might help if you are interested in either my reasoning or the specific issue here in town.
First, my ecological theology is in development. However, I have posted a three-part "curriculum" that I wrote here at the Walks Blog;
Environmental Literacy In Creation I
Environmental Literacy in Creation II
Environmental Literacy in Creation III
Also here is the link to the FAQ page from the town government. It is regularly updated as we learn more about the project and its impact and is worth looking at. Generally the evidence here--written by engineers and scientists with expertise in dams and their removal--supports spillway removal. So...
Here is the webpage of Save Natick Dam
Finally one version of a psalm I wrote for the river as the first thing I posted here.
As some of you know from an earlier post, one of the things I am doing to connect with nature is spending time on the river across the street from my house. The plan is the engage in close observation. This project brought me into closer-than-usual contact with skunk cabbage.
I watched Symplocarpus Foetidus over the course of a couple weeks. It was always on the list because–it being early spring–there were few plants available along the banks of the Charles River where I live outside of Boston. The most prolific early grower in my area of observation, in fact, was the “burning bush” (Euonymus Alatus) an invasive that is now illegal to sell in Massachusetts and New Hampshire because of the tenacious hold it has on the local environment. It came here as an ornamental for lawns and "gardens". Other landscaping staples like Rhododendron can be found along the banks as well. Some migrated, no doubt, and others were planted.
Skunk cabbage, on the other hand, is indigenous to this part of the world. Perhaps ironically, part of my interest comes from the fact that it, too, has been banned or regulated in parts of Great Britain. Apparently context is everything with invasive species. They are survivors, which also attracted me. These days--much of the time--I and the people I know are thinking hard about survival. Economic crises, plagues, and war seem closer to us than they were before. Our human ecology is frayed and fraying. Taking the boat out to visit a species resisting the incursion of civilization is restful, even inspiring in ways.
Henry David Thoreau recognized this in his own observations. Writing in his journal on October 31, 1857, “If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year.”
Along the river–even when the invasive burning bush is just beginning to awaken–the skunk cabbage is already well established. If the observer is in the right mood, it can be remarkable to look at. Its broad green leaves and alien flower evoke the times of the far past or far future. Its smell--designed to attract pollinators--is more rude than off-putting.
Unlike most plants, the skunk cabbage is “thermogenic”, meaning it generates its own heat. This keeps much of the frost at bay, allowing it to establish itself in the wet areas of its habitat by spreading roots out and down for the majority of the year. This aspect–possibly more than its famous smell of rotting meat–is a key element to the survival of its habitat along riverbanks and other areas susceptible to erosion. My own observations, of course, did not cover its fall transformation, when the old leaves die off to reveal Thoreau’s “spears” underneath. However, I was able to see some of the benefits this provides the landscape.
The approach for my observations--as I noted earlier--included regular trips by canoe or kayak out on the Charles to see how the cabbage and the ecosystem itself is doing in the human-dominated suburban community where I live. The role of the cabbage–particularly during this early spring part of the year, is a key element. It is easy to miss in many ways, but if one knows what to look for, the situation is quite clear.
The Charles River (Its Algonquin name is “Quinobequin”) is a narrow, meandering body of water as it passes through Natick, MA where these observations occurred. On each side of the river at its widest points are large marshy areas that are home to a larger percentage of the wildlife that makes the Charles home. The tall grasses and brush rising out of these banks provides protection to at least two species of turtle as well as nesting areas for Blue Herons, Canadian (and feral) Geese, 3 observed species of duck, a mating pair of swans, amphibians in their various stages, and fish. There are also insects and songbirds in abundance.
During this time of year the grasses have yet to recover from their winter. The wildlife conceals itself within the gray, dried remains of last year. The lone green–with its complex root system–belongs to the skunk cabbage.
I was careful when taking the above picture not to disturb any of the geese who were nesting in my proximity. However, it shows the very edge of the largest of these marshes which, in addition to providing habitat for wildlife, also are responsible for flood prevention, absorbing a large portion of the excess water we experience in March and April. The limited number of green grasses that can be seen around the base of the cabbage may actually be benefiting from the warmth of the cabbage itself. It is not unusual in the spring and fall for them to heat the ground enough to eliminate the frost layer nearest their roots, giving other species a head start as well.
Just visible in the picture above is a large, white house. The Charles is not in a wild and remote place. Over 900,000 people live in its watershed. Even more commute into the area daily for work or other activities. This means the ecosystem must contend with air, water, light and noise pollution on a regular basis. There are human-made structures that disturb the flow of the river and the ability of plants to take root. There is toxic runoff from the street above. Those invasives abound. The invasive plants are mostly from a couple of centuries of home and public landscaping projects. Some invasive animals–like the red-eared slider turtle–are descendents of pets and were later released into the river when their novelty wore off. Others--like the rat--are opportunists. Some of these species play nice with the environment. Others do not.
The skunk cabbage functions as part of the team of species keeping the river habitat together and is frequently able to make headway in places other species cannot. At the top of the first picture, in fact, one can see the barricade that indicates the presence of a major commuting road into Boston. Twice a day it is clogged with cars and trucks going to and from the city. However, just below, in the mud that has gathered around the foundations of that road are the skunk cabbages, helping to absorb sound, clean the water, and provide safe haven for the rest of the river community. They are hard to kill and impossible to remove, which is a problem in Britain. However, it is ideal for life on the Quinobequin, where it has always made its home.
Yes... I know that this is the non-church blog. Still, this is more about nature and spirituality than anything else and that is really what this is about. I am taking a course/workshop online about ecojustice and ecological literacy for religious leaders. We had an assignment to write a "psalm of praise" for our local social ecosystem. The "praise" part hung me up a bit because humans--even well-meaning ones--make quite a negative impact on the environment wherever they live...and that is pretty much anywhere.
But this is what I came up with after taking the kayak out on the Charles River (Quinobequin in Algonquin). I could praise the river and the life it supports, and the people who are fighting to restore and protect it...
April on The Charles: A Psalm of Praise
by: Adam Tierney-Eliot
Praise God for the awakening of creation
In the In the temperate biomes of New England
In the Inland marshes and deciduous forests of Massachusetts
In the fertile valley of the meandering Quinobequin
Praise God in all the miraculous wonder
That emanates from its waters
From the kin-dom of animals;
Both sliders and painters
Rolling off the logs at another's approach
The rustling on the banks of new life;
Of Rodents and their predatory foxes
finding their place by the water
The swans on their nest,
The geese (mostly Canadian),
And mallards on the river current
Searching for insects darting under the surface
And in the air;
The red-tailed Hawk,
The Herons hidden away
Waiting for their fish,
And the frantic flight of the red-winged black bird
Reveling in the new growth
Of new buds and insects on the old decomposing logs
Praise God for the kin-dom of plants, too;
Growing river grasses pushing up amid the spindly burning bushes
on the wet, spongy soil
Too new to know their names
And the first buds on the pines, the maples,
The native skunk cabbage
That thrives early on Quinobequin’s banks
All these many organisms and more
Diverse yet overlapping helping, feeding, being fed upon
Native, non-native, and invaders
In a constant cycle of life, death, and new life
Each organism reaching out to others
Both hostile and hospitable
Praise the power of life and wildness
To flourish in the cramped confines
Of human sprawl
And praise the river-keepers
Working for its return
Walking onward toward reconnection
To the ecosystem no living thing can escape
Praise God for the power of creation
From the small local habitats
To the grand biomes
That ebb and flow
According to the shifting
Of temperature, water, light, heat and cold
God’s creation is beautiful in its complexity
And its interconnection
Beautiful Creation in its complexity
We are connected and interconnected
Praise for all God’s people
Praise all God's beings
Who also praise and act
And bring us closer
To the divine universal interconnection
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.