Hilltown Families


This month we welcome Dr. Boyd Kynard, one the world’s most respected fish behaviorists, who has an urgent message for the people of Connecticut River watershed.

This month, Kurt presents an essay by Rika Tsuji from Osaka Japan, who river-walked two summers ago with Western MA youth. Rika is a Fulbright Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Texas finishing her dissertation on Environmental Philosophy for Children. 

Before wagons, cars, trains, and airplanes appeared, rivers were main transportation routes for our species and attracted and circulated the biotic abundance of plants and creatures through all four seasons. Imagine a road that is also a food source. That’s a living river.

Learning Landscape for April: Spring’s Big Night & Vernal Pool Habitat The April Landscape April is a month of massive transition here in New England. March’s maple sugaring season often runs into the month’s earliest days, while the tail end of April is filled with new life and much green. Spring emerges on its own time, and its arrival varies from year to year. Regardless, the pattern of melting, emergence, and growth… Read More

Whether the winter has been harsh or mild, late winter is the toughest time of year for wildlife to find food. Knowing a few easy-to-spot and heavily relied on food sources in your local landscape can help to illuminate the habits of local creatures, as they’ll be frequenting their most reliable late winter food sources this time of year!

Learn more and find the downloadable education resource in this month’s Learning Landscape!

While projecting our human view of nature onto the natural world makes it seem dead and lifeless, it’s actually full of life that’s well-adapted to winter’s ways. By learning basic animal tracking, even the most amateur naturalists can begin to learn about the ways of creatures who are active during the wintertime. This month’s guide highlights the tracks and habits of small mammals, deer, and birds.

While the suddenly-bleak landscape of December may not seem like an ideal context in which to begin to connect more deeply with nature, it truly is! The snowy backdrop brings to light some of the natural world’s most everyday occurrences that go unnoticed in a landscape filled with lush color and detail. The new snowy landscape provides ample opportunity to begin to search for and notice bark, lichen, hardy mushrooms, tracks, scat, and middens!

While we’ve been aware that the seasons were changing, now that the leaves have mostly fallen, the brown and barren landscape has come as a bit of a shock. And what exactly happened to all of the green, anyway? This month, before the dead and brown is covered with snow, explore your landscape to find out what’s really, truly dead and what is hardy and still kicking. Then, experiment with still-live plants to see the effects of cold temperatures on plant cells for yourself.

What was intended as a study of fall food and the culture surrounding it has turned into the creation of a small zoo of squashy creatures. Caterpillars make for a perfect September study, as they’re easy to spot, even easier to keep, and on the verge of a fascinating transformation!

Nature Table for August August is heavy in the air. Slightly shortened days, daytime humidity, and a slight evening chill are the hallmark (and ominous) signs of a summer that has begun to give way to fall. As always, we’re attuned to the changes happening in the natural world around us, yet somehow our emotional response to the change in seasons can cloud our ability to notice the natural phenomena nearby. Rather… Read More

Imagine the world without roads. No highways, interstates, traffic lights, or roundabouts. For most of us, the only way of life we’ve ever known is shaped by our roads and the technologies that transport us – and what we consume – from place to place. Of course, many defining characteristics of modern life would be completely different or nonexistent without our modern road systems, but perhaps, for now, we’ll focus on the implications that roads have on non-human entities.

Rivers, as flowing water, can be soothing to the ear, or overpowering with noise, depending on the river’s bed or soundscape. Protruding rocks may be the only visible evidence of what creates the sounds a river or stream makes as water tumbles over and around boulders and pebbles. As water levels often drop this time of year, during the summer, the sounds of moving water may become softened and even silent, to be restored by rain storms. Even in winter, the muted voice of a stream can be heard flowing under the ice…

Rivers flow through our lives both metaphorically and realistically – sources of drinking water, energy and transportation, but also as symbols of life “flowing like a river.” Rivers have been dammed, turned into lakes, or redirected into irrigation channels, among other human uses for them. We, as a species, tend to take them for granted, using them as a way to rid ourselves of our waste – out of sight, out of mind – with little regard for the other animals and plants which live within their banks.

In the sea of green that our surroundings have become, plants are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Leaves blend with needles blend with grass, and so our war on weeds begins. To young naturalists, however, weeds are a world unexplored. Use the diversity of common weeds to spark learning about plant life this month!

Phoebe Gelbard debuts as Hilltown Families newest Contributing Writer, taking over “The Ripple: Stories About Western MA Rivers,” a monthly column previous written by Kurt Heidinger. For her debut post, Phoebe writes, “We are not the movers and shakers of the earth, for that would be far too appraising of how we have laid claim to a home that was never rightfully ours; rather, we are the Takers of all things wild and free and the Leavers* of a world whose light dims a little more each day.

“With all of our advancements, we have not progressed to the point of living in ways that will allow us to continue to inhabit the earth. We are simply atoms that are arranged to form beings capable of comprehending arrangements of atoms, and we have not yet mastered the art of awareness – or so we pretend.”

When spring rain makes the earth soggy but puts rivers and streams off-limits, sink your boots into the muck of a pond’s edge! This month’s nature table tadpole habitat lends itself to explorations of the multi-faceted pond habitats that serve as incubators for local amphibian species.

Feeling impatient for leaves and blossoms? Bring some branches inside and force buds to hasten your local leaf out. A nature table of forced buds is not only beautiful, but provides a fascinating look at the process of leaf and blossom growth.

It seems like maple is visible all over the place this time of year, but the trees themselves remain hidden to the untrained eye without their summer leaves. Learn to identifying sugar maples during the off-season for growing (but on-season for tapping) by looking closely at leaf buds and bark, and create your own March nature table filled with leaf buds of all kinds.

This month the Ripple takes us to the riverside, to witness a life larger than we imagine, older and stronger than the mountains and the sky, and as immediate as we are.

This month, our nature table focuses on an element of the fall season that, despite its usefulness in preparing families for winter, has waned significantly in popularity over the course of the past two generations: deer hunting.

Imagine the long course of evolution that took our species out of the trees of Northeastern Africa, led us on the great tribal migrations that dispersed us across the globe, and left us to settle on the banks of rivers. Kurt shares his thoughts this month in “The Ripple.”

Focused on the search for patterns in nature, this month’s nature table encourages families to consider their place in the local landscape – and the universe. From twigs to entire watersheds, nature’s patterns share a common theme; by recognizing this pattern, families can place themselves within these patterns and gain a deeper awareness of the interconnectedness of the world.

Writing intersects with the natural world in many ways. Genres of nature writing include science writing, environmentally inspired literature, and works of environmental advocacy. Walks and hikes through the woods and mountains, journeys through rivers and streams, can inspire all types of artwork from poetry about the beauty of the natural world to imploring essays on our responsibility to preserve it.

And because of the natural beauty of our region, Western Massachusetts has a rich literary history. Famous authors such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes all share ties to the Berkshire area. In addition, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, William Cullen Bryant, W.E.B. Du Bois- all hold historic ties to Western Massachusetts.

Those interested in learning about literary history should check out our post: 10 Resources for Literary Learning in Western MA. Others may want to follow in the footsteps of these authors, many of whom drew upon the natural surroundings of the Pioneer Valley in their writing.

Here are several upcoming community-based opportunities that support your interests…

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’… Read More

Nature Table for July is crawling out of its skin! Found in and around the river, evidence of aquatic invertebrates is everywhere. From exoskeletons abandoned by suddenly-winged creatures to eggs disguised as bird droppings, this month’s collection speaks to the fascinating and tiny creatures that live at the bottom of the river.

When Rivers Talk, They Speak River, Not English

It’s not truly seasonal, but lichen makes a fascinating nature collection! Able to survive in outer space, go dormant in order to wait for favorable growing conditions, and support microscopic life, lichen is amazing. It’s even an indicator of air quality! Learn some local lichens and make your own lichen-y June nature table.

When I started writing this column in 2011, I did so hoping to inspire readers to “make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!” Rivers are all around us, but they don’t form as much a part of ourselves as roads do. Close your eyes again: can you see a river? How far can you follow it? Does it lead anywhere?

Living the life riparian—what does it mean? What could it mean? How can we live it? The best place to consider these questions is by the river side. Every river drains a unique watershed, collects unique nutrients, which in turn become habitat and food for unique creatures, which eventually become nutrients themselves, again. And all tumble down to the sea from mountain heights, carried by streams, brooks and rivers. — Read more in The Ripple!

As we near the end of winter (did it ever begin?), our creature neighbors start to emerge more and more frequently. Exploring the meaning of “hibernation” and the habits of local mammals can support a deeper understanding of these creatures’ winter habits!

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