The Ripple: Stories About Western MA Rivers

The Ripple

In this new Hilltown Families column, The Ripple, I’ll share stories about our rivers, in the hopes you might visit these flowing bodies with your family. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

We who live in and around the Nonotuck biome (also called the “Happy Valley”) don’t have much of the lore, and language, of rivers. The Pocumtuck people who lived here before 1650, had over 10,000 years worth of stories that voiced the value(s) of rivers. Colonists did not record any of them except for one, unfortunately; thus the giant blank and crypt-like silence where stories should be.

The Pocumtuck had all sorts of words to describe the surging crowds of fish— salmon, sturgeon, shad, eels—that swam up the CT River from the Long Island Sound during their annual spring migration. The Natives were smart, and knew when, how and where to grab easy meat. They’d be down at the rivers, say at the confluence of the Manhan & CT Rivers, when thousands of beautiful and delicious salmon engorged it. Life depended on it—their own.

Today that confluence is where Rt. 5 & I-91 intersect, near the Mt. Tom coal-burning electricity generation plant. (You can walk there, thanks to the hard work of the Pascommuck Conservation Trust; Download the Old Pascommuck Conservation Area conservation map.)

The Connecticut River Oxbow.

What are our rivers telling us? Do you wonder? I do. They’re alive with creatures who’ve lived here since the ice age ended, 15,000 years ago. Those creatures know this place: their lives depend on it. For newbies, like us, there’s so much to learn. And ½ of this learning goes way beyond identifying creatures and ecological systems; it involves learning by re-imagining where we live—and when we do that, we’re also re-imagining who we are: we’re not just citizens of a nation; we’re citizens of the bios.

Take a moment and exercise your biotic imagination. Close your eyes and imagine walking out your front door, and seeing the road that’s near your door; imagine taking that road all the way into Northampton. It’s very easy to imagine this, isn’t it?

What you’ve just encountered is the landscape inside of you: a whole world that corresponds to the world of pavement. To a certain extent, that pavement is you!

Next, think of the brook or river nearest your front door. Close your eyes and travel as far as you can downstream. Now, make your way upstream to the source of the flow. How far can you go? How big is the world of rivers inside of you, compared to the world of pavement?

I want the world of rivers to be bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

In this new Hilltown Families column, The Ripple, I’ll share stories about our rivers, in the hopes you might visit these flowing bodies with your family—and listen closely, perhaps gathering the little sounds that, when puzzled together, form a language to converse with: that gives voices to the value(s) of cold running torrents, or cool swirling eddies, or quiet gleaming stretches of the kind James Robeson sung about. For at least 15,000 years the rivers of Nonotuck have spoken to those who listen, closely.

The only pre-colonial river story we have today comes from the Pocumtuck people, and since I’ve flooded over the banks of the 500 words I’m supposed to stick to, why not visit this UMass site & learn all about the bear-sized beavers that called our rivers home?


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!

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