The Ripple: Lifeline Waterways

River Trees

Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

Imagine—by float, boat or walking, you’re in the river as it wends past farmland, backyards and woods, through plains, valleys and gorges. After an hour, the initial thrill of united movement, of flesh and water and flow, has passed, and so have the conversations. The river begins to insinuate your skin and re-network your synapses; you start thinking like a river. Feel the expansion.

Hear the river sound; its voice (like ours) combines the everything it passes through, and that passes through it (for it breathes and eats with its mouth open): the more obstructions, the more turbulence; the more turbulence, the louder the growl.

Quiet rivers drain plains, like our Connecticut River as it passes Northampton and Hadley. Loud ones express descents from great heights, like, in a few spots, our three-branched Westfield River as it drains the Hilltowns. Plains are safe, monotonous and filled with food, compared to the endless hurdle of hills and mountains. Mountain foods are rare, potent, yet can’t support us; for this reason, hill and mountain people are ultimately plain people. Hilltown people return to the river floodplains for food, if only to eat what grows there—or depend on planes, trains and trucks to carry riverfood to them. (Eat a hotdog, say, at Fenway, and that wheat and meat and probably mustard was grown by the Mississippi River, whose watershed comprises 1.2 million miles.

Rivers are food rich. Not only does food grow in the water; it also grows along its bank. Insects, birds and mammals eat the riverside grasses, shrubs & trees, and their fruits. Serving as mess hall for migratory and sedentary creatures alike, rivers are (like mom’s kitchen) a favorite place for hungry beings to hang and get supper. Because spring comes earlier to the mouth of a river than its source, migrators can follow the ripening of a favored plant—shadbush for example —from downstream upstream, always finding fresh buds and fruit. Similarly, migrators can also follow hatches of river bugs, as the macroinvertabrate ripenings —stoneflies—leave the underwater and wing into air: flying shrimps for birds, surface-top dumplings for fish.

Imagine—its still quiet and the drift takes into a place that’s flat and sandy towered over by big beautiful trees. You notice the bark is white at the top of them, and taupe below. Where colors meet, the bark is peeling. The leaves look like maple leaves. They are sycamores, and you can remember them by playfully calling them “sick amores”—the “sick” as in the peeling bark that makes the white part look naked like a dog with mange. (That’s a rough image, true, but a memorable one.) The “amore”—well, that’s another story. You’ll recognize the sycamores most easily in the winter, when their white branches and trunk contrast with all the other riverside trees, and seem to form the perfect place for reindeer to play. In February their hanging seed pods look like large cinnamon-covered truffles, and will delight you, especially if you bring them to your valentines and call them moose earrings.

Imagine—drifting during the Fall, when all the leaves are down except for scattered oaks and beeches, the most stubborn of clingers. Craning over the flow are nearly horizontal branches with tiny yellow-tongued chandeliers near the tips. These are witch hazel flowers. Because they bloom in forests bereft of green life, in the wrong season, they seem to break the law of nature; and the story goes that Puritan colonists who first saw this thought they were possessed by the devil: and so the name. Known for their healing sap, which is procured by boiling bark and distilling the essence, witch hazels are generous givers to the river lovers who know them. Where there are dozens, cut some flowering branches and bring them inside; there is a zen-ness to their spare astringent beauty. They are the perfect expressions of our turn to winter.

Imagine—learning more trees that live by the river. There are several more I’d like to introduce you to in my next post so you can visit them, sit beneath their shade, marvel at their strength and beauty, and collect the wild food they offer to us, and our fellow river critters.


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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