The Ripple: Lessons of Drought

The Lessons of Drought

In the one hundred and twenty years that flow records have been kept for the Westfield River, never has it been as low as it is today. Drought is a phenomena we are going to experience more now and in the future because our climate is warming. How we learn about and deal with this planetary change will mean everything: the success or failure of our own species’ evolution-by-natural-selection depends on learning lessons that are taught only by our biome, which is to say by the great life our own is nested in.

When river flow diminishes, the water heats up. On the Westfield, which looks like a brook, all the stones on the sides collect solar energy and warm the water. (Rivers and brooks that are shaded are always colder than those that aren’t.) The heat does at least two things: it forces the cold water loving inhabitants such as brook trout to find deeper pools; and it reduces the oxygen in water, because hot water expels or exhales it.
Creatures such as our fresh water lobsters (i.e. crayfish) have a great difficulty finding suitable habitat, because they prefer the shallows which are the first to heat up and dry out. Our rivers and brooks are rife with dead ones at the moment.
Algae blooms appear in the warm and sluggish water, further depriving inhabitants of oxygen. Minnows such as dace have great difficulty, because they are not adapted for living in deep dark pools. Like the crayfish, they are suffering right now.
Certain plant species that line the river banks, such as Shadbush, are drying up and when you look down long lengths you’ll see brown spots. Other species, such as the invasive Japanese Knotweed seem to be adapted for drought, for they cluster together and create deep shade that holds the moisture in the sand and soil.

Go and spend a day with you family walking the dry banks of a river or brook near where you live. The drought is something we must learn from, and one of the things it does is concentrate life into the areas that still have flow, such as below waterfalls, and in the deep pools. This, then, presents us with a perfect opportunity to patiently observe, and familiarize ourselves with the creatures—vertebrate, invertebrate—who are adapting to the present and the future. Witnessing them provides us with a natural history lesson, and with an opportunity to raise the big questions of existence with our family, our friends and friendly people we meet as we discover the ways that life, the bios, is resilient.


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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