River Teachers as Green Heroes

A Great River Teacher: Greenfield’s Karl Meyer

When it comes to learning about the rivers of Western MA, we are our own best teachers; for, the surest (and perhaps only) way to understand rivers is to be with them: to visit them often, walk their edges, get to know the creatures who call them home, meditate on their floodings and dryings and flow patterns. Swim in them. Float on them. Let them take you, calm you, connect you. In our world so many things are mixed up and frustrated; a few hours with a river reminds us that our world is not the only world; rivers teach us that water embraces whatever is before it, and there is no obstruction that can’t be flowed over and beyond. 

Still: each river has a history, natural and cultural, and a unique identity. There are teachers amongst us who know these histories, and who can speak inspiringly of these identities. Fishermen know a lot about our rivers because they visit them often, and it is always fun to start a conversation with one. Professionals from academia, government environmental officials, expert naturalists from our environmental non-profits: all of these people can teach us about our rivers.

My favorite teachers have always been people who know and love their subject. Love is so important because information is just information, and a person who loves their subject has made that subject part of themselves: their day to day, minute to minute existence. Teachers who love their subject will research and teach their subject even if they don’t get paid well, or at all, because what they research and teach is as much a part of them as their heart or nose is. Their subject is not simply a pile of information; it is a “way” or a “path” or a “mosaic” that completes the part they play in a greater design. The word amateur has the word love (amor) in it, and I have found that some of my best teachers have not been professionals, who often become blinkered by their need to have mastery, and who have sacrificed wider perspectives in exchange for detailed knowledge (also called over-specialization). Like our rivers, amateurs embrace what is before them; union, not mastery, is their goal.

All of what I have just shared is meant as an introduction to a Western MA river-lover I have never met in person, but have learned so much from by reading his blogs and op-eds. Take a look at Karl Meyer’s website and you’ll read things about our Connecticut River that are very educational. He loves the Connecticut River, its natural and cultural history, and unique identity—so much that he has learned the technocratic language of state and federal agencies, and used that language to voice his love for the shared life that is our Connecticut River.

He collaborates with another great researcher and teacher of the life that is our Connecticut River, Dr. Boyd Kynard, to speak up on behalf of the only federally-listed endangered species in the CT, the short-nosed sturgeon, at the FirstLight Turner’s Falls and Northfield Mountain hydroelectric infrastructure FERC-relicensing hearings. I testified at an early hearing (it’s a five year process), and was not surprised to see FirstLight pretending to be good actor when it could and attacking critics when it needed to. Karl Meyer is such a critic, a very effective one because his does his homework. In apology to the people of Vermont and New Hampshire he writes:

“Sorry, but your fish are down here in Massachusetts. With Vermont Yankee’s heated discharges no longer clouding issues, that’s become clear. We’re talking hundreds of thousands annually. This year a quarter million might’ve reached Vernon and Hinsdale had we not corralled them. A hundred thousand in the Great Eddy at Bellows Falls might’ve been a possibility.

And these aren’t small fry. These are free-swimming American shad straight from the briny Atlantic—wild fish that snap at lures and offer anglers an honest fight. Fresh caught and sweet, they’re a homegrown harvest for anyone taking the time to debone them or put them in the slow roaster. You could’ve been enjoying all that.” (Source)

The ancestors of the Nonotuck and Pocumtuck people inhabited this valley for at least 9000 years, fattening themselves on the foods provided by the Connecticut River. In less than 300 years, our colonial then industrial culture has decimated the population of every Connecticut River fish species and, as Mr. Meyer points out, “Not one in ten shad have made it beyond Turners Falls across the decades.”

Learning about FirstLight operations means learning about a French-owned, Texas-based multinational corporation that treats the Connecticut River as a money-making machine. It does not love the river as a shared life, gets giant fines for dumping waste into the river during migration time, and even tries to prevent scientists from studying the destructive impacts caused by its operations—arguing the studies are unneeded or overburdensome. As a way of turning public attention away from what it does to our Connecticut River fish, FirstLight runs the Northfield Recreation and Environmental Center whose paid staff dispenses river information. Do they teach people that FirstLight has to be constantly watchdogged and vigorously prevented from destroying river habitat and making more anadromous go extinct?

The Greenfield Recorder reports on a river subject these FirstLight’s teachers should teach:

“In 2015, 410,000 American shad passed through Holyoke, but because they are diverted out of the river and into the power canal only 60,000, fewer than 15%, made it past Turners Falls to reach open, upstream spawning grounds. This is clearly unsustainable. Today’s US Fish & Wildlife Service passage goal is 60% passing Turners Falls. Their original 1967 target was 75%.” [Source]

For the educational service he provides, Karl Meyer was honored this September with the “Green Hero” award by “Greening Greenfield.”


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!


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: