The Ripple: Naming the Connecticut River

The Heart of Our River

The Connecticut River is ours, right?

It doesn’t really matter if you live in the Pioneer Valley or the Hilltowns of Western MA: when you drive I-91 to invade, or retreat from, the DC-to-Boston sprawl it roils conspicuously beneath bridges or courses by your side—the broad, slow, murmuring River. As you’re chased over the Cooli Bridge by a wolfpack of Volvos, it flashes in the sun like a black snake: unruffled, unhurried and calm. In that instant you know it’s serene and powerful, like great people are.

Connecticut is the name of a state, yes, but also a word that describes our river: “Mohican (Algonquian) quinnitukqut ‘at the long tidal river.’” Our river is tidal for only about sixty-miles, from Long Island Sound to Windsor Locks, home of Bradley Airport; so the Mohican word doesn’t describe our part.

It’s up to us to name it!

Nonotuck is a word the Native Americans who lived in Northampton, Hatfield and Hadley used to describe their home. Nonotuck has a nice sound to it, but is both too literal and not littoral enough.

For our river, we need a name that jumps from its center like a salmon, that wends and purls like a lazy king snake: a name that pronounces its ungraspable yet saturating heart. Because that’s what the middle of the Connecticut River is: the heart + tuc. The Heartuck River. Hmmm…sounds too much like heartache or heart attack. Or hiccup. No, we can’t name it; we must listen.

Draining Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and its namesake Connecticut, our river watershed is the home of the Connecticut River, and its waters, falling from peaks through wetlands to main-body, make up 65% +- of our own bodies. In no metaphorical way are our hearts connected to our Connecticut; our own heart’s blood is its. Western New Englander’s hearts beat with its flowings. Imagine, as I am trying to get you to, your body’s connection to our river. The one we drive by, barely know and want to meet (Meet it; use this map to head to the green spot off of Bashin Rd in Hatfield. It’ll take some doing, and be an adventure: so worth it.).

Last month in my inaugural post to this new column, I linked you to a story the Pocumtuck told of how Mt. Sugarloaf was once a giant beaver.  Now we discover a story from the Anglo-American colonial era, told just as the Industrial Revolution is beginning, by Jonathan Edwards’ grandson & Northampton native, Theodore Dwight. When the first dam spanning our river was built atop the upthrust-granite waterfalls in South Hadley in 1794, the fish population plummeted. And a way of life + a vast free source of protein vanished. Dwight had known, from his youth, the kinds of salmon runs we associate with Alaska.

Before you read his story, think about that. Our river was once as fecund and mighty a source of life, and livelihood, as the Copper or the Kanai.  In 1829, Dwight remembered what happened after the Holyoke Dam.

Let these images ripple through…. Go, look back. Read the old words again, see what he saw. Taste what he tasted. Loved what he loved.

Most, or many, of the fish species he loved live in the Connecticut River, a subject I’ll write about in May when stoneflies fly & maples full leaf.


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) Bob Gaffney]

One Comment on “The Ripple: Naming the Connecticut River

  1. Where is Bashin Beach in Hatfield? I can’t find it.

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