The Ripple: Living Patterns of Watersheds

Thinking Like a Watershed

In the same way all the tiny veins at a leaf’s edge connect to the midrib and then the leaf stem and then the branch and tree trunk and roots, so do our upland streams and brooks flow down into our rivers that empty into our oceans.

Make this summer the summer you discover (if you haven’t yet) the Westfield River watershed.

A watershed is—imagine—a giant bathtub, where the high sides of the tub are defined by ridgelines; and when the shower is on (rain), all the water is contained in the tub shape, flows to the bottom (river), and exits through the same drain.

A better way to imagine what a watershed is: it is a leaf-shaped geography.

I like imagining watersheds as leaves for a few reasons, the first being that our educational systems have yet to fully define and celebrate the importance of fractal patterns in nature—and a leaf-shape is a fractal pattern. A fractal pattern retains function and integrity when it is magnified or miniaturized; “If you divide a fractal pattern into parts you get a nearly identical reduced-size copy of the whole.

A fractal design is also one that “nests”; if you look a picture of the Connecticut River watershed, you’ll see it’s comprised of many subordinate watersheds, including the Westfield River watershed.

A simple fractal design attains complexity by nesting together and re-combining with itself. The Westfield River watershed is a portion of the giant leaf of the Connecticut River watershed, yet it contains myriad miniature watersheds within itself, each one having a slightly different and unique identity. For example, the Westfield River’s East Branch watershed contains wide valley portions suitable for agriculture, while the Middle Branch never widens up so much, making agriculture there a rarer and less productive activity.

Ultimately, a watershed’s identity defines the human activities that can occur in it; and that is, of course, why human populations increase in the wide and flat portions of a watershed, and decrease when it narrows up. We experience this here where we live: the Happy Valley is where the corn is grown and the big-box sprawl and traffic jams (and lots of good restaurants) cluster; hung higher in skinnier watersheds, the orchard-laced hilltowns are less populated, have less “conveniences” and “culture,” and more “wildness.” In the Westfield watershed, this separation of wide and flat and narrow and high can be seen as you cross over the river on I-91; to the southeast and downriver, you see Westfield’s rolling hills that soon become Connecticut and the DC-to-Boston mega-city; to the northwest and upriver, you look up a rainforest canyon to the abandoned hydro-powered paper mills of Woronoco that barely hint the presence, farther up, of the federally-designated “wild and scenic” parts that you should explore.

We are so lucky to have valley and hill cultures “nesting” so close to each other, because they enhance each other, giving us our unique Western MA liberal and libertarian identity, an identity that has at its core a traditional, historical appreciation for both “community” and “self-reliance,” solidarity and independence—and Hadley potatoes and Ashfield cider, and big river shad and tiny brook trout.

Our educational and economic systems position us in rectilinear grids that ignore and disrespect the wavy circular lines of watersheds, and that constant displacement—that act of living in a place like a town or a state that is just a legal fiction and not a “nested fractal pattern of nature”—is one of the deepest causes of our present global environmental collapse. Another way of putting it: we are not (often enough) taught and reminded where we actually live: in the fractal and living patterns of watersheds.

California is not the only highly-populated inhabitation where humans are suddenly realizing that, because they did not think like a watershed, they have misused and exhausted their water resources. Recently, NASA published a report that “Twenty-one of the world’s 37 largest aquifers — in locations from India and China to the United States and France — have passed their sustainability tipping points, meaning more water was removed than replaced during the decade-long study period, researchers Tuesday.” (June 16, 2015). Imagine the cities of LA and San Francisco being abandoned because their builders ignored the living patterns of nature.

So— if you haven’t already, make this summer the summer you discover how nested you and your loved ones are in watersheds, macro- and micro-; and treat yourself to an adventure or two in the Westfield.


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: (cc) David Hung; (cc) Paul McCoubrie]

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