The Ripple: Respecting the Lifeblood That Are Rivers

No Substitute for Health, Our Own and Our Rivers’

Last month, I wrote about how our native trout survive, miniaturized, in the plunge pools of our chilly mountain brooks, while in the main courses of our rivers, big fat factory-raised trout are set loose by the Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs so folks who want to catch big fat native trout out in the wild can pretend. They have to pretend because, as game fish go, factory-trout are listless and lack the vital energy and intelligence of the native trout who actually live and breed here.

Soon enough, when the rivers heat up as summer flares, we’ll see the factory-trout floating stiff as styrofoam on top of the flow, or smell them in the flotsam and snags, dead because they are not fit to survive out of the fish tanks they lived most of their lives in—and we’ll hope they provide a nice meal for bald eagles, raccoons and black labs.

Don’t eat the factory-trout, for the same reasons you wouldn’t eat the fish out of your friend’s aquarium. And please, don’t eat the native trout because we need them to survive the short 200 +/- years of poorly-designed industrial dams that made trout-stocking and fish-passages necessary. When the dams finally come down b/c they are silted-up, useless and/or hazards, or fish passages that work are created to circumvent them, the populations of fish families who have lived here for over 12,000 years will rebound. And with them will come a host of other furry and feathered creatures, whose families once upon a time dined on them. Biodiversity requires lots of food.

What I’ve written thus far is factual and based in basic ecological- and bioengineering- principles; what I’d like to do for the rest of this entry is reveal some biocultural history that will help us to understand how our rivers got into and remain stuck in the unhealthy state they are in. I have to go way back, and I have to avoid getting too complicated, so bear—or better yet fishercat—with me.

Let me begin by reminding us that until about 1820, our rivers were filled with fresh water and anadromous fish—as filled as un-impacted rivers in Chile, Alaska and Iceland are today. They were a major source of excellent quality protein for Native Americans and Euro-colonists, and for many other animal families. When the dams were built, there was very little or absolutely no consideration given to the economic cost/benefit value of losing such a massive, essentially “free,” source of food, mainly because the dam builders and boosters did not care about anything except their own bank accounts. (If a cost/benefit analysis is ever done, I guarantee you that the economic value of the fish will exceed any profits made by the factories that used the dams for power. All you have to do is drive through the brownfields of Holyoke and Springfield to see the legacy, and unprofitability, of our short-lived industrial era.)

The other reason the dam boosters did not care about the loss of the native fish was because of the idea of “substitutability” — the economic assumption that, if the salmon go extinct in the Connecticut River and its tributaries, it doesn’t matter because we can “substitute” wild salmon from Alaska, or from factory-fish farms. “Substitutability” does not work when it comes to industrial-scale fisheries, however; sushi-lovers are becoming aware that the tuna for their maki-rolls is going extinct, and that there is no substitute for it.

They also know that the crab that finds its way into other rolls is not crab, but some emulsified, artificially-colored, amalgam of Pollock. (That crabstuff is awful, isn’t it?)

The concept of “substitutability” is, interestingly enough, not a concept that “native” people have, because when people evolve to live sustainably within their environment, they develop a “permaculture.” To live in a “permaculture” means living well without importing necessities such as protein, clean water and fuel.

The concept of “substitutability” is, even more interestingly enough, a concept that is central to imperial governments; I learned this by reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

“Whatever ills either reason or declamation have imputed to extensive empire, the power of Rome was attended with some beneficial consequences to mankind. …  The accidental scarcity, in any single province, was immediately relieved by the plenty of its more fortunate neighbors.”

Rome fell because it could no longer take what it wanted from its neighbors, and for centuries it was, and more-or-less remains, a picturesque ruin. In comparison, after only a few decades (not centuries), many parts of our nation are ruins, like Detroit and Fresno, and are not picturesque. Clearly, the economic idea of “substitutablility” is a failed one.

When I look at our rivers, I see how the assumption of “substitutability” is alive and well today, disintegrating their original, resilient, ecological designs; how it leaves thousands of confused, soon-to-perish, factory-trout in the main stretches, while the native brookies survive in tiny pools on mountainsides. What is as disturbing as it is fascinating, is that factory-trout have no future. They don’t reproduce. They are not a substitute for our native trout, or for the anadromous fish that used to swim up into the Hilltowns. The industrial activities the dams were built to power are, along the cash they briefly generated, all but gone, yet the assumption of biotic “substitutability” zombies on as an idea and a behavior—making our rivers little more than giant holding tanks for expensive aquarium fish.

For those of us who want to be native to our place, because we live in one of the most beautiful, intelligent and productive parts of the world, and there is no substitute for it—I offer this dream that will sooner or later come true.

I dream of dams removed and fish passages installed so that the three branches of the Westfield rivers receive and dispense ocean-seeking fish like shad, herring, eels and lampreys whose families once lived and bred here. I dream of no more expensive aquarium fish being trucked ‘n dumped to “substitute” for our native trout, and of our native trout I dream of years of steadily rebounding populations whose individual members increase in size every generation until they are as big and prevalent as they were 200 years ago. I dream of fish-filled rivers that feed far more humans, herons, eagles, mergansers, otters and black labs than they presently do. I dream of rivers that are both scenic and wild, and of the health that comes with them, for which there is no substitute.

And since there is no substitute for health, I dream we care for, nourish and love our rivers as if their health were our own—because, think about it, unless we decide to substitute our selves and communities for something else to replace us, it is.

I have no doubt that what I just wrote sounds new agey and ridiculous, even though it’s basic ecology and bioengineering 101; yet, for those who have read this far and don’t believe that our health is consanguineous with the health of our rivers, consider the lesson California is today learning too-late.

I dream of the joyous, liberating and whole-y day when we treat our rivers as we, who are +/- 70% water, treat our own blood.

[Photo credit: (cc) Liz]


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!

2 Comments on “The Ripple: Respecting the Lifeblood That Are Rivers

  1. Hi Jack,

    A few native trout live in our larger rivers, and can be spotted (or reeled in) occasionally. Warm water is definitely a key problem that prevents their comeback, and is caused largely by hot runoff from paved and deforested land surfaces. Large dams collect hot water on the surface, but the waters are cold below, so if they are managed well, they can be used to keep the water cold for trout. Beaver dams actually promote large trout populations.

    Dams are what drive migrating anadromous fish, that live in both rivers and oceans, to extinction—which is exactly what’s happening in the CT river watershed. Look, for ex. at this year’s herring #s:

    The factory fish do crowd out the natives in river basins temporarily; but what is most pernicious is they give folks they feeling that there is an abundance of trout, when actually the opposite is true; and if the stocking stops, which it will be it is expensive and not sustainable, we find that despite all PR to the contrary the river ecosystem was never rehabilitated.

    A good way to imagine what a healthy trout habitat is, is to read TU’s article about Ted Turner, who is a classic elitist trying to restore trout populations to Montana ( We can’t follow his top-down model here. Industrialism—its worldview and behaviors—killed off our native trout, and since that 200-year-era of using rivers as machines and dumps is more or less over, we have the opportunity of turning to our rivers not just for recreation, but as a sustainable sources of food, and as “hearts” of a bio-cultural renaissance that is already underway in W MA. In short, restoring the native trout and their habitat to health will restore our health as a human population. To save them, is to save ourselves.

  2. Why, exactly, can’t native trout live in the larger rivers — is it because the water is too warm as a result of damming? Or because the factory fish would muscle the natives out in the competition for food?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: