The Ripple: The River Will Rise

The River Will Rise

Bridge remains at Chesterfield Gorge. (Photo credit (c) Sienna Wildfield)

This shivery month of melt, please bring your family to the upper neck of the Chesterfield Gorge and look across the Westfield River. You’ll see a twenty-foot tall stone wall tower— the remains of an old colonial bridge, a massive abutment built in 1769 by meticulous stackers of dark granite schist.

I remember looking at it a few years ago, marveling at the brawn and artistry of the backwoods engineers who made it. They must have believed their incredible backaches were worth it, that their bridge would stand for centuries, and they and their progeny would make a living collecting tolls where hemlocks now cluster and choke.

Over two hundred years have gone by, the bridge is long gone and the road it extended is a deer and porcupine highway. Another two more centuries will go by, I imagined then, and the abutment will remain unstaggered, a gratifying, even beautiful, example of our manipulation of the biome to achieve economic goals. And aside from this, I thought, the imperturbability of the stacked stone next to the swift and crashing rapids is, itself, a story that offers a lesson…

We had a wicked melt late February last year, when the snow and ice (two feet deep) drank up three inches of warm southern rain, the same rain that drew the sap to the branchtips, and released the songs of the robins.

In June, I was surprised to see river flotsam snagged in branches, ten feet above the abutment; the February flood submerged it, and quite dramatically. The Westfield makes a 90 degree turn at the old bridge site, and the abutment is on the inner corner. For a day or so it was near the bottom of a whirlpool, in a place of extreme physical dynamism. I wished I’d been there, perceiving its roils, surges and seethings. Heavy was its scent, I’m sure, the deep steamy exhale of wet forest mountains, subtly sweet with the ozone of melting snow.

I looked closely at the abutment and noticed stacked slabs on the upriver-side were ajar. Comparing pictures taken before and after the flood, I saw the symmetry of the whole was wobbled, very slightly but terminally. A great and dreadful secret about geological time, and our place in it: the river reminded me that, despite its fluidity (or perhaps because of it), water is constant, unstagger- and imperturb- able. It dissolves stone.

The river is never more powerful and dangerous than during ice melt, when the bergs crash, split and rupture—and enter a massive moving milkshake that carries with it, or bashes and scrapes into, everything it smothers—barns, trees, boulders, soils, picnic tables and basketballs. Right now, many tributaries are frozen entirely over, and our riverbanks tower with heaped bergs. Soon the warm southern rain will loosen the clenched sheet- and thick- ice, and dissolve the white velvets of snow. Treat yourself to a glimpse of it as it does; listen to it; breathe its vapors and trace its scents through the sugarshack hills and the memories of, at the very least, the fading bluegray of winter.

In melting time, our rivers rise, taking with them what we put in their way.


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!

One Comment on “The Ripple: The River Will Rise

  1. Thanks for reminding me to visit the Chesterfield Gorge and walk the East Branch Trail, soaking up the vision of the frozen sculptures before they are released by spring.

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