Ambrose Brook Stream Assessment: One-Year Chronology

Margo Persin, Rutgers Environmental Steward

Editor’s Note: In 2018 Margo Persin joined the Rutgers Environmental Steward program for training in the important environmental issues affecting New Jersey. Program participants are trained to tackle local environmental problems through a service project. As part of Margo’s service project she chose to conduct assessments of a local stream for a year, and to provide the data she gathered to the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). Margo keeps a journal of her experiences, excerpts of which are included in the LRWP’s “Voices of the Watershed” column.

Location: Willow Dr.  Middlesex, NJ  08846, USA

            Latitude: 40:566552

            Longitude: -74.510890

Prologue

In working on my project, I plan to provide a detailed chronological report of the specified site over a period of one complete annual cycle.  Secondly, I will take photos to document any changes – or lack of changes – with the passing of seasons, and to bear witness to human intervention, whether it be positive or negative.  For example, has any work been done previously to prevent erosion of the stream?  Or, what are the effects of littering/ dumping in regard to stream health?  I am looking forward to being an active observer of the ‘big picture’ as well as the minutiae of this specific site.  Because I am a life-long gardener, it is patently obvious that my garden ‘talks to me’ – I learned that from my Mom.  One needs to learn to observe and interpret the sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious messages that nature sends out.  For example, a plant may not be partial to a planting site and thus sends out runners or shoots to a more appropriate placement and then a new plant pops up in the more favored location.  Needs more sun?  Wants higher or direr ground?  Example:  day lilies don’t like to be in the vicinity of lilies-of-the-valley and they also don’t tolerate any mulch…. With this in mind, I want to to enter into that active ‘observing/listening’ relationship with a stream habitat, which will be slightly different from one with a suburban garden.  But I suspect that some (many?) of the same or similar skills will apply.

And third, I want to create a written narrative of my relationship with the site, which I hope will be a meditation on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of a more intimate connection with the wild part of nature that surrounds us.  How can we become more active and aware observers and listeners, in order to be able to honor the wildness in nature?  And how can we utilize that in order to attain a closer, more authentic and honorable connection between earth and human, to acknowledge that wild part that connects rather than separates us?

A bit of a delayed and bumpy start ….

Given that I wanted to do a stream assessment, the first order of business was to get some training in that field of endeavor.  To that end, I participated in a Visual Habitat Assessment training program offered by the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership that took place on 21 May 2017 at the Lawrence Brook. It was led by Heather Fenyk and those of us in the group learned how to assess stream quality utilizing a very helpful and specific set of guidelines that include water conditions, stream measurements, and stream characteristics.  In addition, we also were introduced to ‘high gradient monitoring’ that has as its focus such parameters as embeddedness, sediment deposition, channel flow, velocity/depth, channel alteration, bank stability, etc.  My mind’s eye was awakened to the plethora of detail that could so easily be passed over, if one’s full attention to detail is not called into service.  It was a wonderful learning opportunity and I was so glad that the opportunity had been afforded to me to learn in this very supportive and educational context.  It is my opinion that we learned from the group leader, from the assistants and from nature itself.  It was an experience that has stayed with me – I was so impressed by how the gifts of science and observation we who inhabit that green planet that we call home can both inhabit and commune with earth, water, sun, and sky.  We need to be silent, to look, to listen, to be, and to be at ease so that the earth’s signals can fill us with wonder.

My next step was to find out exactly where the stream was located, obviously.  But this task proved much, much harder to achieve than would be expected.  After contacting several people over a period of several months, the site coordinates were eventually sent to me by Mr. Robert Hughes, the Watershed Ambassador WMA 9, on 30 October 2017.  Progress!

The third step was to do a reconnoitering mission to the site – more about that in a moment – and finally, to arrange for an ‘official first visit’, in the company of another environmental enthusiast, so that the first official set of measurements could be taken.  It was strongly suggested by both Michele Bakacs and Heather, with an eye toward safety, to develop and utilize a team approach for site visits.  Two people had been recommended to me who might be willing to visit the site with me; I contacted these two people and because of timing, only one was able to co-ordinate with me for the site visit.  That first official visit took place on 2 December 2017, with Carolyn F as the second member of the site visit team.  So begins the project – it will continue over the course of an entire year, from December to December, so as to be able to capture the feel of the site and to develop a relationship with nature’s rhythm at this particular site.  Wish me luck.

Preliminary visit

Prior to the official start of my project, I wanted to locate the site on my own and to reconnoiter it from a very practical perspective: aside from the spatial co-ordinates, what was the easiest, safest, most direct route to the site?  Is parking available?  How safe/reachable is the site from a public safety perspective?  Is the site easily accessible via vehicle?  On foot? Are there walking trails? Are they cleared / easy to negotiate?  Are there other accommodations?  Is the site under the care of any public entity?  Are there man-made structures in the vicinity?  If so, what purpose do they serve?

25 November 2017

My first unaccompanied visit to the site was purely for reconnoitering.  The part that I visited is easily accessible from Rte. 28 in Middlesex and there is a small parking lot available that fronts the Ambrose Brook.  (It turns out that I was not quite at the coordinate site, but within walking distance of the GPS coordinates.  More about that later.) While seated in my vehicle I waited for a few moments to get my bearings:  there are paths that lead in both directions, one that parallels Rte. 28 and another that cuts back into a residential area.  Part of the path is paved, then gives way to some well-trodden dirt walkways that follows the contours of the stream as it meanders its way through the suburban area.  There is a small park with a pavilion, a suspended observation / fishing deck that is handicapped accessible, and a portable potty adjacent to the parking lot.  Farther down, barely visible from the road, is a lovely foot bridge that crosses the stream from the small park area to a rather dense suburban area.  The bridge is made of metal, quite sturdy, and provides a beautiful vista in both directions of the stream.

Exiting my vehicle, I walked farther down along the part parallel to Rte. 28 and observed a small but lovely waterfall that allows for the swelling of the brook during times of heavy rain.  There are two drains, presumably for rain run-off, that deposit water into the brook.  One is a cement structure with a grate that protrudes from under Rte. 28 and the other is a slightly battered metal pipe that extends from underground over the brook.  During that first visit, neither drain had any appreciable amount of water to contribute to the brook water capacity.  In regard to vegetation, being that it is winter, the ground is frozen hard but the water from the brook is not frozen.  The grass is brown and dormant, fallen leaves are all around and the trees are bare, sleeping as they should on this cold winter day.  Few birds made their presence known and the only sounds were those of the quietly gurgling brook versus the distant hum of the traffic less than one block away.

A lovely memory and observation came to me from the past.  One of my acquaintances from years past is a lovely Native American woman; if I remember correctly, she is of the Cree tribe.  In speaking of the turning of the seasons, she noted that within Native American culture, in her tribe in particular, winter is of great value because it gives members of the tribe both the time and the space for storytelling, for being with family and tribe members in close proximity, for listening and learning, for observing, for working on and teaching traditional crafts to the younger generation, for making music and singing, for the passing down of valued and cherished information such as family and tribal history, tribal traditions, myths and legends, for sharing the lessons that are needed to pass from one stage of life to another, for maintaining a way of life.  She also emphasized that winter is so important to nature because it is a time of somnolent rest, a time to retreat inward, to focus on the completion of one cycle before embarking on the renewal of spring and the start of yet another growing season.  As I wandered the bank of the Ambrose Brook on that cold and quiet winter day, I pondered the lessons that await me in this project.  The air was cold and I felt a quiet sense of contentment and anticipation, a turning inward that my friend had indicated that is one of the gifts of the winter season.  What other gifts would nature bestow upon me if I could just be still, wait, observe, and listen?

2 December 2017

Ready, set, go!  This was a cold and brisk, partly cloudy, not unpleasant day for the very first ‘official visit’ to the site; I was accompanied by Carolyn F, a valued member of the assessment workshop whose name had been suggested to me by Heather of the LRWP.  We communicated several times via e-mail and then met on this Saturday in order to put into practice the skills and formula that we had learned back in May.  It turns out that this environmental buddy had a bit more on the ball than I did, for she pointed out to me that the actual site of the GPS coordinates was a bit farther removed from the one that I had scoped out on Rte. 28.  After texting back and forth, we finally met at the appointed date and time at the GPS location; both of us came prepared, she more than I.  Her waders served her very well, given that we did a practice run of habitat assessment using the study sheets provided at the workshop.   We did a quick reconnaissance of the site via the latitude and longitude numbers, which is located in a residential neighborhood a bit farther removed – about two blocks or so – from Rte. 28, close to a modest children’s playground.  We walked the site, she took some photos, then we decided to head for the other section closer to Rte. 28 in order to try our hand at working through the assessment sheets as a practice run.

Using all the equipment and measurement tools provided by the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership – metal ruler, flag markers, floating rubber duck, thermostat – we happily set to work on the task, starting with the ‘general sheet’, then working through ‘water conditions’, and ‘stream measurements’ (width, depth, velocity).  Sounds fairly straightforward, right?  Well, what slowed the process at this point was that the measurements are required to be taken using the metric system and not the standard American system of inches, feet and yards, including centigrade versus Fahrenheit readings.  Arghhhhhhhh……  Needless to say, the conversions slowed us down just a bit but Carolyn’s phone (with calculator) turned out to be a most vital component of our visit.  We did some of the calculations on the spot and then later at home I checked our numbers and completed the conversions. Our tasks included wading into the stream – her waders and my duck boots came in very handy considering the distance and depth – and I appreciated very much having a buddy to ‘compare notes’ to take all the measurements and come to a shared decision in regard to stream characteristics and visual assessment of gradient factors such as epifaunal substrate, embeddedness, sediment deposition, channel flow, frequency of ripples, and the rest of the categories.  We measured out our required distance – 50 meters in either direction – placed the flag markers, then got to work.

The task was engrossing and the suburban context faded into the background as we assiduously worked our way through the assessment.  Even though the natural habitat was in full winter mode, I became aware of the subtle shadings of sound, color, texture, movement and stillness.  For example, the floating rubber duck signaled the literal ebb and flow of the stream with its bobbing and stalling as it responded to the currents and cross-currents of the slowly moving water.  At times it got caught in a pocket of calm, and then with a bit of encouragement from us, rejoined the water’s energy to make it to the final point of our measures.  In observing the little rubber duck’s movement, its vibrant yellow color so visible to our human eyes, it became for me a bit of a metaphor, in that it was floating on the surface of the all-encompassing stream, seemingly unaware of its insignificance vis-à-vis the natural world.  We humans ‘float on the surface’, unaware of our insignificance over time in regard to the pulsing of the planet beneath our feet.  Alas, our interventions often are negative, considering how overpopulation, pollution, and other forms of contamination interfere with this pulsing, as our lovely green planet hurls itself through the universe, the planet itself insignificant in the greatness of space.

Carolyn and I utilized our time well:  we were at the site for approximately two and a half hours, taking measurements, comparing our individual observations, appreciating the subtleties of the winter landscape.  And just one more observation.  We both noted that the area was relatively clean of human garbage, trash, and other forms of detritus, which was a pleasant surprise for me.  Given the site’s proximity to the road, the parking lot and rather dense housing, I honestly had expected there to be a stronger and more visible human footprint in the form of various forms of waste – trash, paper, cans, bottles, old tires.  But the area is fairly clean!  At the end, my environmental buddy suggested that a visit for the purpose of kayaking might be a doable undertaking at some future time in the warmer months, in order to explore the area upstream of the given site.  That idea will be placed on the list of possibilities for another day.  With that we each went our separate ways.  It was good to be heading home, with the heat flowing in the cab of my vehicle.

30 December 2017

         “The best laid plans….”  Now that this project had finally launched, I was anxious to establish a steady rhythm in regard to my site visits.   And in addition, there was contact with another environmental enthusiast, who signaled a sincere willingness to serve as my exploration buddy.  Susan E. had volunteered to accompany me on further adventures; she is perfectly qualified and suited for the task, having developed an environmental project of her own, which in truth, was the inspiration for my own.  We decided that an end-of-the-year visit would be an appropriate means to both close out one cycle and look forward to another, Janus like, in anticipation of a yet another change of season.  Alas, the plans fell through because I came down with a virus and was out of commission for the good part of a month.  So… on to the New Year and the start of another cycle.

21 January 2018

In the company of Susan E., we headed to the site on a cold, clear and sunny day.  We parked at the lot in close proximity to the brook, then on foot wandered back to where the GPS coordinates are located.  Our meandering took us farther upstream than I had previously visited. The footing was firm in places and quite soggy in others, and we noted the dormant vegetation, including a healthy crop of brambles that very effectively caught at our clothing.  Ugh.  We noted the places where the waters had left a mark on the land within an overflow plain, evident in the swirling, matted down grass and the markings on the shrubs and trees that line the banks of the brook.  Susan pointed out several places of evident erosion in the banks of the opposite side of the stream and noted the layering of sediment – different colors and textures — that gave evidence of the changing composition of the earth’s layering.   Many are the varieties of trees that line the banks, whose root systems benefit from the generous supply of water. [ Note to self:  try to identify the flora on the banks of the stream.  Are these specimens native to the area? Or have they been added to enhance the landscape from a human perspective?]

We made our way to the lovely footbridge, a steel structure that provides an excellent vantage point to look in both directions, both up and down stream.  Some fauna were present, a few ducks and geese on the surface of the water as well as a some fish that lazily lolled in the current below.  I was struck by the sense of solitude and peace of this beautiful place, in spite of the proximity of suburban life so close.  We continued on the bridge to the other side, then made our way carefully along the opposite bank.  The footing became quite muddy and unstable but the view from this far side of the stream offered the opportunity to reclaim a perspective based on a more unenhanced version of the site, one not as manufactured by human intervention.  Nice!

Our visit included stopping for Susan to take some photos, then we crossed back to the parking lot and took our leave.

21 March 2018

         As predicted by the US Weather Service, it has been a cold and long winter, followed by a cold and wet spring.  I stopped by the Ambrose Brook today in the hopes of spying a bit of change, whether in the early budding of trees, the minute sprouting of grass, a return of more birds with their flutters and chirping.  Any harbingers of spring?  No such luck, not yet.   However, this visit provided me with another opportunity.   It was a cold and mostly cloudy day that served for me to stand in quiet solitary contemplation on the observation platform.  Not to be deterred, I chose to focus attention on a small island that is at the center of the brook and attempt to take note of the visual minutiae that delineate the island’s subtle shadings.  The colors are primarily brown and green, with varying shades of tan and grey.  Black lurks in the shadows and slivers of flickering sunlight shoot arrow-like through the trees, shrubs and brambles.  Wind ruffles some fallen leaves that cling to roots and branches, decaying evidence of a season long past.   Some ducks paddle quietly along the perimeter of the island and barely take note of my presence.  Perhaps they have become inured to human presence in general or through experience have learned that the imposing, vertical mammals do not have the habit of crossing the water barrier between solid ground and the little island to their backs.  They occasionally glanced in my direction and then continued on with their creek cruising.  Not a bad life, given that their feathers and a layer of winter fat provide ample protection from the water and wind.

My observation also took in the water level, higher than in previous visits, presumably from early spring melting and run-off.  The brook water was a muddy brown and lapped at the edges of the island; there was some bank vegetation that was partially submerged and partially above water level.  As with the previous visit a bit upstream, trees on the island threw off roots, some as thick as the fists of a prize fighter, to sustain their height.  There was no indication as yet of buds forming on the trees, none that I could see from the distance, standing on the observation platform.  The quiet of this visit on this end-of-winter day comforted me, offered a soothing message of tranquility, endurance and the abiding wisdom of nature’s continuing cycles.

10 May 2018

         Spring has finally arrived at Ambrose Brook, there are many indications that the season has turned in alignment with the earth’s rotation and tilt.  I visited the site at around 10:30 am and stayed for about one and a half hours.  My time was spent in observation and contemplation of the natural environment as well as the effects of human intervention.  For starters, the leaves are starting to appear on all the trees – finally – the grass is starting to appear less stubbly.  As a result of the burgeoning leaf cover, the ability to see across the brook will be quickly diminishing in the coming weeks, I surmise.  The water in the creek seems to be moving at a bit faster pace, probably because of the amount of rain that has been falling in the last week or so.  I walked for approximately a quarter of a mile in each direction from the parking area off of Rt. 28 in order to determine what changes, if any, had occurred because of the winter weather.

What I observed in the area closest to the segment identification by latitude and longitude was some washing up and / or tree fall from winter storms.  Some of the fallen timber had been ‘cut down to size’ by someone wielding a chain saw, most probably a worker from the local DPW; the logs and branches were piled up on the left bank to a height of approximately three and one half feet.  This pile of wood and leafy debris may prove enticing to some small furry creatures in the future for a lovely, cool, and protected nesting or burrowing place, if it is left as it is. I was able to get around the pile and continue my observation but the brambles have started to fill in and the slog got a bit more difficult.  It was evident from where I was walking on the bank that there is a type of flood plain for the creek; the flow exceeds the bank where the creek takes a meandering turn toward the left.  The footing became quite muddy and the brown grass left over from the fall manifested the effects of flowing water – lovely swirls and whorls that give the impression of a lazy aquatic ballet performed upon the welcoming earth with the literal ebb and flow of the creek’s capricious visits during the winter months.

The brook’s water has now receded from the flood plain and is within a channel that has definitive banks, although the height of the banks varies at different points on my observation path.  Taking a turn in the opposite direction from the parking area, parallel to Rt. 28, the view is idyllic – a meandering brook with a few surface ripples that give off a low and pleasing hum, an overhang of greening trees, grass appealing to the eye and calling for the tread of bare feet, a small waterfall, and some waterfowl – Canadian geese and a few mallard ducks who were more than willing to share the space and beauty of the moment, either the ones who were on the banks of the creek or those who were enjoying the cool embrace of the creek’s sultry flow.    In spite of the minimal traffic noise emanating from Rt. 28, this was place and moment that could be described as a feast for the senses.   The gift of sight  that captures the nuance of color and form, that of hearing,  the sound of birds and brook, that  of touch, that encourages physical discourse with so many material forms as well as the ephemeral contact of wind on my face.  And the olfactory experience is not to be denied, in the sweet reminder of flowering trees and bushes that contrasts with the musty and not-to-be-denied odor of the languorous creek within its uneven banks.  And the experience of taste?  I was not expecting to add that to the list, but a bug unceremoniously entered my mouth and with an unanticipated crunch, the bitterness of the insect’s demise forged its way into my consciousness.  Ugh.  So much for poetic contemplation of this idyllic scenario.

In regard to human intervention, in addition to the chainsawed fallen timber, there was evidence of tidying up in the recently mowed grass along the banks, mulch piled and spread along the public walkways, and a cheerful DPW worker raking some leaves.  There was some human traffic; two men were fishing off of two different piers with hand rails – handy for resting their fishing poles –, and a young mother ambled briskly with her toddler son who had no interest in staying in the stroller but rather preferred to trot along beside her.

The visit was enjoyable, refreshing, renewing.  Some ideas for further exploration are to identify the trees and shrubs in the area, to focus on bird species that are present, and perform another official habitat assessment of the creek utilizing the format provided by the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership.  And the possibility of a kayaking expedition offers yet another challenge.  Onward!

About Margo Persin: I am a retired Rutgers professor who needed a project. I took the Environmental Stewards course offered through Rutgers and was inspired to get back in touch with this beautiful green planet that we all call home via a focus on water. I grew up on the Lake Erie shore, the northeast Ohio coastline, so the pull to return to a partnership with water was a logical and autobiographical one for me. Also, during my years as a professor, I spent several years in Mexico and was able to observe firsthand the devastating and catastrophic effects of no access to potable water. Water means healthy communities, healthy crops, healthy kids. Water is life.

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