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…


We like beaches, the thin mineral line between elements. No trees or crabgrass on beaches. Clean, swept, sanitary; who ever does the housekeeping there, please give me their number.

We like beaches so much, we Facebook each other pictures of them. Lots of them, in the middle of winter and the end of summer. Smiling, having fun.

Beach experiences get stored in the sunlight-filled banks of our long-term memory. Digging the hole in the sand, big enough to fit a whole body, head just sticking out. Running to and darting away from the waves. Sand in the potato chips. Sunburn and ginger ale dripping with ice water, dredged deep from the cooler.

We take seashells, put them on our shelves. And even if we don’t, we look at shells and think warmly of the marginal realm.


Beaches are constantly flooded. Because cleansed by the rinsing waters, they always look fresh and new, and at the same time ancient and permanent.

We love beaches because they have qualities, strong and beautiful, we feel in ourselves, and can’t quite explain—except in those pictures, seashells, memories.

How can we love floods?


The floods that we’ve had lately in the Hilltowns and Pioneer Valley are to be expected, according to future climate projections. Global warming increases the amount of H2O in the air, and when it returns we get Super Storm Sandys, which we will have more of.

About 8” of rain we had from late May until now, and our stream and rivers flooded and over-poured.

Did you see hillsides, dancing with new-found rivulets? Was your lawn or walk in the park sodden, sock dowsing, and more interesting because there were little ponds were you’d never seen them before?

Floods can’t be resisted, so let’s not. Let’s grow things in floodless places, and if we do grow things in flooding places, let’s make them ephemeral, out paper and wood and stone.

Let’s make things we grow in flood plains look beautiful, and improve fishing habitat, when they are judiciously leveled and piled up, reorganized perfectly in shattered heaps, by unseen hands. Sandys will return to Wall Street, and try to clean it out, again and again, stacking cars like trees on the sides of major flows.


Our floods have left two things I want you to look for, as you get close to our Hilltown rivers & brooks this month. They will tell you the story of major flows, and teach you where safe heights are.

Look for leaves and garbage bags snagged up in the branches that hang near the side of the watercourse.  Recently on the Westfield River, a student saw a black bag fluttering in leafy clutches about 15 feet above the river. The snag let us visualize how the river was, perhaps within the last six months, about 4 times wider than we were presently seeing. The bag was a river memory.

Also, look closely at the edge of the river for bent grasses, which will tell you how high the most recent flooding has been. Recently, we saw banks of fresh grass bent over, as high as five feet above the river. Because it was fresh, we knew the grasses were bent by the 3 or so inches of rain that fell a week ago.

Thinking outside about floods is how we learn to live with them. And live with them we must, because they are not elitist.


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) Mike]

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