Category: Voices of the Watershed

Of the residents of the Lower Raritan Watershed there are many naturalists and individuals with a wealth of knowledge about the special ecosystem we call home. “Voices of the Watershed” is our community blog, a place for watershed residents to document (through photos and posts) stories and observations of the watershed. We regularly feature environmental observations and writing by Joe Mish, Joe Sapia, Margo Persin, Susan Edmunds, Maya Fenyk, Heather Fenyk and others on our site.

Starting in 2020 the LRWP is pleased to include a set of new voices to our “voices of the watershed” contributors. Our new writers are students in Dr. Mary Nucci’s Environmental Communication class at Rutgers. Effective communication about the environment is critical to raising awareness and influencing the public’s response and concern about the environment. The course Environmental Communication (11:374:325), taught by Dr. Mary Nucci of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, focuses on improving student’s writing and speaking skills while introducing students to using communication as a tool for environmental change. Students not only spend time in class being exposed to content about environmental communication, but also meet with communicators from a range of local environmental organizations to understand the issues they face in communicating about the environment. In 2019, the course applied their knowledge to creating blogs for their “client,” the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). Under the guidance of LRWP Founder, Dr. Heather Fenyk, students in the course researched topics about water quality and recreation along the Raritan.

Enjoy Nature While Nurturing It: Clean Up Edition

Article by Caleigh Holland, written as part of the Rutgers Spring Semester 2019 Environmental Communications course

It is no secret that pollution is a problem in our oceans; we know that plastic bags and straws are killing sea creatures. However, the public is not always as aware of the pollution in local rivers and the consequential damage it is costing us and the environment. The Raritan River is unfortunately full of garbage from littering and industrial facilities, as well as polluted by raw sewage. How can you as the public help an issue that impacts your drinking water, local wildlife, transportation, and recreational activities? An opportunity to aid in the health of our environment is to participate in a river clean up. This weekend activity or weekday afternoon would allow you to not only enjoy the outdoors, but bond with a group of people that share the same goal.

LRWP’s 2019 South River floodplain clean-up team, photo by Heather Fenyk

Who can join in a clean up?

The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP) is happy to have volunteers join them for service; you can connect with them through their website to find clean-up opportunities, or to share ideas for clean-up locations. Participating in a stream or river clean-up is a great community-building activity for groups of all sorts. Faith-based groups, Rutgers environmental and outdoor clubs, and local charities can sign up to help out. In addition to the LRWP, several other local organizations regularly host clean ups, and organizations like American Rivers help groups schedule river clean ups and offer advice to the public on how to create a successful event.

What are the safety precautions for the river clean ups?

For most clean-ups protective gloves are provided.

Participants should ensure that they have proper footwear, clothing for the season, bug repellent, hydration, and snacks.

The LRWP asks that volunteers leave glass, weapons, and drug paraphernalia where it is, and that they let a clean-up coordinator know about those and any other dangerous items.

Individuals under 18 need a parent’s signature to participate in formal clean-ups, and for every five youths under 12 one adult must be present.

Why we should clean up the river

There is a considerable amount of pollution in the Raritan River from a number of different sources.  One kind of pollution of concern is microplastics, which are any pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters. Microplastics are either created from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic, are by-products of plastics production, or are used in products such as toothpaste or cosmetics.  Researchers from Rutgers University have shown a high concentration of microplastics in local waters water. 

Any plastic that is allowed to wash into the river such as through storm drains can easily end up in the water and over time will wear down and distribute itself throughout the river’s waters. If freshwater animals eat the microplastics found in the water and then humans eat the aquatic animals, there is growing research that suggests that the ingestion of plastics can lead to changes in our chromosomes which could lead to obesity, cancer, and infertility. There are potentially several health consequences to the public if we don’t clean up the Raritan River.

How much of a difference can you make cleaning up the river?

Although it may seem like a lost cause when you hear about the amount of pollution already in the river, a little goes a long way in terms of clearing the water of garbage.  Over 20 years, the town of Manchester, NJ organized over 116 clean-up events with more than 1000 volunteers.  In less than two decades they managed to collect 2,394 bags of trash which amounts to $78,000 in volunteer donation time.  Organizations like the LRWP are trying to do the same along the banks of the old Raritan.

How can we clean up when there is no event scheduled?

A clean river starts with your daily routine.  Recycle rather than throw out your garbage.  Recycle your plastic shopping bags at local grocery stores.  When you walk or jog outside, pick up garbage as you go.  “Plogging” – picking up litter while jogging – is a way for you not only to promote a healthy lifestyle for yourself, but for the environment too.  You don’t need to jump right in and get your feet wet—you can help the river by thinking more consciously about your own behaviors at home, at work, and in your community.

Effective communication about the environment is critical to raising awareness and influencing the public’s response and concern about the environment. The course Environmental Communication (11:374:325), taught by Dr. Mary Nucci of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, focuses on improving student’s writing and speaking skills while introducing students to using communication as a tool for environmental change. Students not only spend time in class being exposed to content about environmental communication, but also meet with communicators from a range of local environmental organizations to understand the issues they face in communicating about the environment. In 2019, the course applied their knowledge to creating blogs for their “client,” the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). Under the guidance of LRWP Founder, Dr. Heather Fenyk, students in the course researched topics about water quality and recreation along the Raritan. Throughout 2020 the LRWP will share student work on our website.

Why Children Need Nature

Article and photos by Ben Schiavo, written as part of the Rutgers Spring Semester 2019 Environmental Communications course

Children today are spending much less time outdoors than children in the past. Whether riding bikes, interacting with nature, or just playing with friends, research is pointing out that not enough time outdoors, and too much time indoors, especially when that time is spent in front of a screen, can have negative consequences. Research has shown that too much screen time has been associated with obesity, problems with cognitive development, irregular sleep schedules, behavioral problems, and loss of social skills. Parents are recommended to reconsider how much time their children spend interacting with screens, and that they should make sure their children play outside an hour a day; an hour which can help children physically, mentally and emotionally.

Losing our nature
Have you ever heard of nature deficit disorder? Most people have not. In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv pointed out that children are spending less and less time outside, and that some behavioral issues in children, such as limited respect of their surroundings, attention disorders, and depression stem from not spending enough time in nature. As a metaphor, and not a medical diagnosis, nature deficit disorder speaks to a loss of connection to the natural world. Did you know interaction with nature can reduce symptoms of ADD and ADHD? This is a lot to take in but let’s rewind for a quick second.

Back to the past
Remember the days when you were growing up? Riding bikes around with your friends, maybe getting into some trouble, and having to return home when the streetlamps turned on because that was Mom or Dad’s rule?

Children aren’t creating memories of time outside like we did. As a child I spent a lot of time with friends building a tree fort. If you look closely at the tree in the picture you can still see a rope tethered to it. My friends and I took an old tarp and tied it to that tree to make a fort where we could hang out and just be kids. To most, this may seem like a regular old backyard/forest, but to me it is my childhood. When looking back into their memories, all kids should get to experience the feeling of nostalgia that I have when I go into my backyard.

Instead, too many children are spending too much time in front of a screen. And importantly, too much screen time and too little nature time is more than a kid glued to their phone, it also means they can be feeling the negative psychological effects brought upon by too much tech use.

Finding your way back to nature

Research has shown that children do better physically and emotionally when they are in green spaces, benefiting from the positive feelings, stress reduction, and attention restoration nature engenders.  Not only can nature deficit disorder be disruptive of the development of your child but it also promotes a generation of children disconnected with nature.  This is a troubling thought when looking into the future.  What will happen if our children are raised to not care about the environment? How can we implement positive change for theEarth if our children do not care about nature let alone go into it?

For parents, grandparents and anyone who cares for children, there are many different ways you can introduce nature into their lives:

  1. Take your child hiking. Show them the outdoors and let their imagination do the rest. Look at all the insects, the frogs, the butterflies and show them how beautiful and fun nature can be.  Heck, let them throw some rocks into the water if they get bored.
  2. Take your child to the parks in your area, like Boyd Park in New Brunswick. Boyd Park holds an event every year called the Raritan River Festival that has all sorts of fun, kid friendly events, like a rubber duck race down the Raritan River.   Not to mention music, food, arts and crafts, and basically everything a festival needs for a child to enjoy themselves. Show your kids that the outdoors around them can be fun if they give it a chance.
  3. Use social media to show your children that going outdoors is cool. A new trend on social media is the #trashtag challenge which involves going out and cleaning up your community. and afterwards, posting the pictures of all the things you found and disposing of them properly. The trend is beginning to gain speed, and those who participate receive huge positive feedback from those who see their actions! Your child could receive tens of thousands of likes on Twitter (which is a big deal to kids these days) making the children happy, and the Earth happy. Not only will your child be happier, but they will be healthier!

But it doesn’t have to be anything structured to reintroduce nature to your children.  Perhaps you can also think about how much you loved to be outside when you were a kid.  Build a tree fort, lay on your back and watch the clouds, feed the birds, plant a garden, kick a ball.  Just go outside and enjoy the world all around us.

References

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. Algonquin Books, 2008.

Links

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_protect_kids_from_nature_deficit_disorder

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1056499318300592?via%3Dihub

Effective communication about the environment is critical to raising awareness and influencing the public’s response and concern about the environment. The course Environmental Communication (11:374:325), taught by Dr. Mary Nucci of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, focuses on improving student’s writing and speaking skills while introducing students to using communication as a tool for environmental change. Students not only spend time in class being exposed to content about environmental communication, but also meet with communicators from a range of local environmental organizations to understand the issues they face in communicating about the environment. In 2019, the course applied their knowledge to creating blogs for their “client,” the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). Under the guidance of LRWP Founder, Dr. Heather Fenyk, students in the course researched topics about water quality and recreation along the Raritan. Throughout 2020 the LRWP will share student work on our website.

Lower Raritan Parks – Ours to Enjoy

Article and photos by Gisela Aspur Chavarria, written as part of the Rutgers Spring Semester 2019 Environmental Communications course

Are you bored at home?  If so, go to one of our local parks along the Raritan River and enjoy the outdoors. Highland Park offers various parks and abundant open space and recreation for residents and visitors. One amazing place to visit in Highland Park is the Native Plant Reserve.  The reserve has a collection of native flowers, shrubs, vines, and trees, with educational signs for each species (1). The reserve is a fantastic place to drop by and explore nature. It’s also a great place to bring children of all ages to teach them about plants and their importance.

You can also visit the Eugene Young Environmental Education Center in Highland Park which uses art to raise awareness about wildlife and the significance of the Raritan River. In 2014, a mural was unveiled at the Eugene Young Environmental Education Center as part of a project to create artwork to highlight the river, and to make people aware of its beauty, and value (5).

Highland Park’s Eugene Young Environmental Center

Another extraordinary recreational place along the Raritan River is Donaldson Park which is located in the Borough of Highland Park. The park has boat ramps, kayaking, fishing, sports fields, biking trails, playgrounds, and paved trails (2). The picnic groves in the park are a great place for families to eat and spend quality time with each other.

Donaldson Park picnic groves

Similarly, Elmer B. Boyd Park in New Brunswick is an amazing recreational space for community engagement. It provides walking and biking paths, a playground, and a boat launching space. Boyd Park also hosts many community events during the year, including the autumn River Festival, the Hispanic Festival, and the city’s Fourth of July celebration (3). You can also learn about the history of the river through the signage through the park. All of these parks are great recreational places for individuals and families to connect with the river and enjoy the outdoors.

New Brunswick’s Boyd Park during the annual Raritan River Festival & “Duck Drop”

Promoting River Access

But our local parks are important for more than just recreation, as they provide vital access to the Raritan River.  River access encourages individuals to develop a relationship with the river and connect to our local environment. By connecting the community with the river, people develop a sense of ownership and care about the river and its future. Visual exposure to natural resources like the Raritan River prompt people to understand the importance of the river and the value it provides for the community.

Recreational activities by the river are wonderful ways in which individuals can connect with the river. Whether you canoe, fish, or walk along the river, access to river recreation inspires people to protect nature and wildlife. Furthermore, recreation creates a caring constituency for healthy rivers, lands, and resources, inspiring the preservation of important places. Thus, it can encourage communities to help control pollution and ensure natural resources are preserved.

Nature and Mental Health

Aside from the pleasure of enjoying activities along the river, recreation by the river can also improve your quality of life.  Researchers have shown that exposure to nature is beneficial to people’s mental health, suggesting that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world (6). Exposure to nature can improve your mood and self-esteem, help you feel more relaxed, reduce anxiety, and help with depression (7).  Significantly, a lack of nature experiences may contribute to a range of issues in children.  In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv described how children are spending less time outdoors and how it could influence not only their health, but also their connection to and support of the natural world.  The book spurred national dialogue about the importance of nature.

Ultimately, regardless of where you go along the river, and the park you choose to visit, you can find many ways to connect with the river: you can learn about the importance of plants, have a family picnic, go to a river festival or just take a walk.  Our local parks can help you stay fit both physically and mentally while connecting with the river.  So, if you are bored at home, go spend some time along the Raritan.  See you out there!

Effective communication about the environment is critical to raising awareness and influencing the public’s response and concern about the environment. The course Environmental Communication (11:374:325), taught by Dr. Mary Nucci of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, focuses on improving student’s writing and speaking skills while introducing students to using communication as a tool for environmental change. Students not only spend time in class being exposed to content about environmental communication, but also meet with communicators from a range of local environmental organizations to understand the issues they face in communicating about the environment. In 2019, the course applied their knowledge to creating blogs for their “client,” the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). Under the guidance of LRWP Founder, Dr. Heather Fenyk, students in the course researched topics about water quality and recreation along the Raritan. Throughout 2020 the LRWP will share student work on our website.

January Snow, An Open Book Exam

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A red fox walks along the South Branch following rabbit tracks and unaware it is being observed from the water below. Following an animal’s tracks in the snow to see where it goes and what it does, is like having an open book exam with answers to the questions in the back of the book.

The snowflakes reflected in the street light outside my bedroom window to give hope to a day off from school and a predawn visit to the land where the wild rabbits roamed. Rabbits were at the far end of the spectrum of big game animals but shared the stage with cape buffalo, lions, leopards, rhino and elephants. Locally, rabbits were the best we could do and were attributed full big game status typically accorded to the celebrated, ‘dangerous five’ that roamed the continent of darkest Africa.

Rabbit tracks are easy to recognize with the two widespread hind feet and two centered front paws. The obvious first question to be answered when first seeing rabbit tracks is always, ‘which way are they headed’. Seeing a bunny and backtracking it will reveal the important directional information.

For a budding naturalist, fresh fallen snow is akin to taking an open book exam and a guaranteed A+. Animal tracks were everywhere and in the best tradition of Sherlock Holmes, invited investigation, imagination and a theory of resolution. The maze of rabbit tracks evident in the predawn light were nearly impossible to untangle. It appeared as if hundreds of bunnies randomly danced to some mysterious tune leaving footprints reminiscent of an Arthur Murray, ‘learn to dance’ floor mat with outlined footprints. The foxtrot and bunny hop surely had to be popular among the cottontail youth.

If you find tracks in the early morning snow, realize they were made hours earlier and appear to trace endless miles of travel in a rather confined area. “What was this bunny thinking?” would be a valid question.

Food is a primary concern and feeding areas will have the most tracks as local bunnies recognize where the supermarkets grow. Of course an active social life interferes with nibbling an oak twig or a withered raspberry leaf and that is reflected in the snow lining the aisles of the cold food section.

The obvious conclusion to unraveling the confusing tracks was to wake up earlier in hopes of finding a single track or perhaps actually seeing a bunny. Problem was the snow had already been tracked up in an undecipherable mess that required tracking abilities far beyond boyhood skills. The only hope for another chance was a new snow fall.

Flipping the tv dial from the Our Gang Comedies to catch the next day’s weather forecast seemed sacrilegious or perhaps antagonistic to my little sister, but anticipation of new snow was insatiable. Loss of faith in the weatherman led to observing the nighttime sky for signs of impending snow. If the temperature hovered at or below 32 degrees and there was a ring around the moon, hopes were high that snow was on its way and the next trip to Bunnyville would be a resounding success.

What would success look like if it were to happen?

Though rabbits were substituted for leopards, the hope was to unlock the mystery of a wild animal’s movement to reveal its most intimate secrets and eventually accumulate skills appropriate for tracking lions and African elephants.  None of this could ever happen unless fresh snow covered the cold ground and school was cancelled.

The most fun is to find the tracks of a startled rabbit and pace off the distance between leaps. I watched a fox sneak up on a pair of bunnies and it was clear the fox couldn’t make a decision as to which critter to take to dinner. His indecision left him looking like a foolish fox, who, after a short chase, failed to appreciate the acrobatic display the two rabbits put on. The tracks they left were decipherable only because the scene was observed.

Favorite foods will be surrounded with tracks and the telltale sign of an angled cut, sliced as if with a razor, are a rabbit’s trademark. Deer, on the other hand, have no upper front teeth and leave a ragged tear as they trim your shrubbery.  Cottontail rabbits actually have four upper front teeth which classifies them as lagomorphs rather than rodents

Persistent pursuit over brimming with hope, fresh snow and rabbit tracks eventually began to unravel and reveal a satisfactory knowledge of what rabbits did and where they did it. Not surprising, the rabbit tracks led to a lifetime of curiosity and wonder which spread out as a ripple in a quiet pond to reach far beyond the shores of the neighborhood claybanks.

Following rabbit tracks in the snow had become the loose thread that begs attention and always leads to reveal the weave of the cloth. Overwhelming and complex concepts or problems are best approached by following what appear to be insignificant loose threads.

A fresh snow, imprinted with deer, rabbit or fox tracks, is sure to arrive this January. Some curious person will be compelled to follow those tracks that will lead to a lifetime of natural curiosity, wonder and transferable skills, useful in as yet, many unimaginable ways.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

#LookForTheRiver, Jersey Water Works Opening Plenary Speech

On December 13, 2019 LRWP collaborator and coLAB Arts co-producer and Director of Education John Keller delivered the opening plenary to the 2019 Jersey Water Works annual statewide summit at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Brunswick, NJ. John talked about the intersection of art, and our work in the watershed. He gave lots of examples of our collaborative effort these past 5 years. With thanks to John for allowing the LRWP to share his words.

Good Morning Everyone,

Uh, oh. I have to be that first person who annoyingly chastises you for being lack luster in your morning greeting. Think of it this way. It is Friday! You are coming to have a great time at this symposium, learn lots of stuff, have some good conversations, have la meal and still be out by 2:30! And as long as you don’t have a boss who is a party pooper it’s highly unlikely that any of us are going to go back to the office for just a few measly afternoon hours so that means found time! Maybe you’ll stop by your favorite independent coffee shop and have a nice afternoon latte in your favorite reusable cup. Then go over to the local day-spa maybe get a message or a nice facial (as long as it doesn’t have any microplastics in it), then meet up with some friends or family for a movie afterwards, but you will bring your own refillable BPA free water bottle because you are a little dehydrated from the latte, message, and facial and don’t want to pay $12 for a bottle of water at the theater. Then you will get out of the movie and think to yourself… wow that was a pretty good day.

So, let’s start this over.

Good morning everyone!

My name is John Keller and I have titled this presentation. 5 years of art in 9 minutes.

I am the director of education and outreach for a non-profit arts organization called coLAB Arts. You can find us on all the social media stuff as @colabarts.

I am here to tell you a story. The story is how an arts organization found itself motivated and inspired to facilitate conversations around our watersheds, and our relationship to water.

First, a little background. What is coLAB Arts and how does our mission drive us to collaborate with non-arts based social advocacy organizations, government institutions, and community groups?

Our mission is quite simply an equation. We engaged artists, advocates, and communities to created transformative new art-work. For us transformation must be three things. It must be sustainable, positive, and community focused. We work in areas as diverse as juvenile justice reform, transgender rights, domestic violence prevention, and dignity for our immigrant neighbors.

But this one is about water. So here we go.

In 2015, myself and two coLAB Arts’ board members attended a watershed education workshop with the then recently formed Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). After the workshop we adopted a local stream and found what so many find in our urban areas: a stream in need of some love. We asked ourselves what we ask ourselves whenever engaging with a new advocacy concern:

How does the artist engage in this space?

What are the core issues that the advocacy partners are wrestling with? What are the historic contexts? What are the socio-political barriers to equity, diversity, inclusion, Justice and Access that the arts might help dismantle? Who are the communities not yet at the table? What are the questions not being asked? What are the ways artists can influence and augment research? – quantitative and qualitative data gathering. What are the complex ideas that artists can infuse into the conversation to make advocacy and even infrastructure better?

When LRWP heard these questions. And challenged us with some of their own for us to ponder. It was kismet. We began working together. Two organizations, arts and science. We formed a working group of artists, landscape architects, community organizers, and civic scientists, to wrestle with arts-based interventions to our natural and built environments. Early recognition from the American Architectural Foundation and their Sustainable Cities Design Academy gave us the opportunity generate bold ideas around on how the arts can drive sustainable changes to complex structural challenges.

We centered on a seemingly simple idea to drive the story of the work. It is the idea that the river is both a physical entity in our landscape, but it is also a powerful metaphor in our daily lives. It is all around us. It does not just exist in the physical limitations of the banks of a body of water, but it exists in our storm water systems, in the run-off from our homes, in our sprinklers, our faucets, in our dreams for quality of life, in our stories of migration, and our desperation in times of crisis. We began asking ourselves as well as the artists and communities brought into the work to #LookForTheRiver in all things.

We began work in earnest. Going alongside the LRWP on stream clean ups. Participating in macro invertebrate trainings, touring spaces and landscapes that maybe weren’t the most obvious places of water stewardship. We began engaging professional artists through programs like our National Endowment for the Arts funded residencies where we partner an artist with a non-arts based organization and task each with creating an engaged arts project that facilitates a conversation with community that generates new works of art inspired by some big problem or question that advocacy org is wrestling with. The model of that residency which now has multiple artists with a diverse group of organizations is successful in no small part to LRWP piloting that program our first year. Our Watershed Helping Hands Sculpture Project on display in the lobby is one such example of one of the community based art engagement programs that resulted from that artist residency.

Once the communities have been engaged and you have built a critical mass of participation. You have to think next steps.

At the end of the day we are an arts organization and the greatest way to partner with artists is to provide opportunities for them to create bold artistic gestures.

Our work has been both conceptual and literal.

We have used the process of cleanups, data collection and public access as our points of inspiration to create works that both reuse found materials as well as engage with artists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines such as sculptural work, dance, theater, and mixed media.

To integrate both professional arts creation with community arts creation. Recognizing that while not everything can be called great art, great art can come from anywhere. We balance the ethereal of the performative with the substance of created artifacts; both a natural growth from a new communal education on watershed health and quality and the provocation of a call to action.

When this happens a new kind of reality might be possible. Where if we truly look for the river in all of the aspects of our lives. We begin to question why is it absent? And we see our spaces built in essence to do whatever they can to keep the river out. To blot it out from our landscape…

But when you create the potential for new vision we can inspire ourselves, our planners, and political leaders to reintegrate the river into our lives; into our built cities, and our story telling. Accepting the river back becomes our way of solving infrastructure problems. Like a new art and history based greenway connecting public spaces through the heart of an urban area, or an art and green infrastructure concept project which includes a two-story sculpture work that becomes a wayfinding landmark, urban beautification, and a five thousand gallon cistern to keep water run-off from reaching the storm water system in times of flooding.

When empowering communities to create art that allows them to connect with both their environmental and social justice history we can make space to dream about ways in which we can work with our built communities to remember the landscape of our past. And find new ways to interact with it.

The arts are in incredible communicative tool. But the first act of social justice is to listen. Our creations cannot come before we first strive to listen with the intention of learning. Artists and water experts need to engage in this process together. When the artist is involved in the process – not just brought in at the end to slap some paint on a wall, not just asked to develop the PR or marketing strategy, rather allowing the artist to be in response to this listening process.

In 2019 we began an oral history archive which is about capturing those stories. Balancing the narratives. We research and collect the stories perhaps lost, perhaps suppressed, perhaps forgotten, around one very simple idea: Water is everywhere, and water is important to everyone.  And then doing what we do… make are that is in response and helps us all frame a greener future.

Whispering Shadows Tell Their Mid-winter Secret

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A female cardinal fluffs her feathers and settles in to wait out a midwinter snowstorm

The autumn light gradually dims, as it follows its well-worn path deeper into December. Like a long circular tunnel with a vanishing point, the swirling colors fade away until they disappear, engulfed by dark shadows on the threshold of winter.

From this darkness, caused by the celestial despair of the planets, new light instantly begins to grow while shadows hidden on the far side of light begin to withdraw.

The apparent low orbit of the sun across the sky in winter produces the longest shadows. Shadows, which when measured at the height of the day, over time reflect the ebb and flow of the seasons. It is as if the shadows whispered their secret to early sky gazers, bestowing upon them, the gift of predicting the future.

When the position of stars and planets were noted in association with the occurrence of the longest and shortest shadows, a living calendar was discovered. Sunrise and sunset defined a day, full moon a month and the longest shadow to the longest shadow was a year. The concept of time was now measurable and the occurrence of future events predictable; predictability being an innate need and prerequisite to human survival.

As the primitive calendar became more refined, certain times were marked for celebration. Surely, the longest and shortest days were noted and given special attention. Humans will bridge gaps in knowledge with mythology and paleo societies revolved around myths used to explain natural phenomena.

In the northern latitudes, winter was a critical time of survival. During midwinter the sun appeared to stand still. If you look at a perpetual calendar of sunrise and sunset, the change in day length is minimal during that period.

Many were the rites and ceremonies during that period of darkness. Some gave rise to modern celebration when religious holidays overlaid pagan rituals. Druids burned a yule log to encourage the return of light. Holly, which was evergreen, was given as a sign of life. The birth of light marked a new year, a time to plan and celebrate future success.

I take comfort in celebrating the shortest day and birth of light with a campfire, lighting a cattail and roasting a piece of venison on the glowing coals. This day is my paleo New Year celebration, identifying more with primitive ancestors than ethnic DNA. January first is of no consequence.

To hunt with a traditional bow and arrow and bring a deer to ground to share with the clan is the ultimate act of caring and community. It becomes a communion of spirit and flesh where the animal is assimilated, a sign of respect for its sacrifice. It also transcends time and allows me to share in the emotions felt by my ancestors who looked to the sky and listened to the whispering shadows for guidance and survival.

Welcome to winter and new life. Sophisticated calculation of planetary movements indicates that this year winter will arrive December twenty-first at 11:19 am. Like magic, the descent into darkness instantly gives way to the ascent into light.

If nothing else, give a glance up at the stars on the twenty-first. Know the wonder your ancestors felt when they looked to the heavens in awe, their imagination encouraged by the stars and planets moving across the night sky.

A female cardinal turned upside down, perfectly reflects the new year of light ushered in by the midwinter solstice. It is a chance to use the light to see your world from a different perspective and discover all the treasures hidden by unconscious routine and preconception.  A legacy of the ancient Roman midwinter celebration of Saturnalia where “social order was turned upside down” while merriment and wild celebration ruled the day.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Good Bye Dam!

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The large letters written in white chalk on the old concrete dam simply said, “good bye dam”. That sentiment was accompanied by other names and sketches, not unlike a farewell card signed for a departing fellow co-worker.

The dam on the Lamington River at Burnt Mills was scheduled for removal after several iterations of mills beginning in early colonial times circa 1754.

Dams and mills came and went on New Jersey rivers and streams. Some destroyed by floods, fire or angry upstream neighbors deprived of migrating fish. British troops did their part and burned the mill on the Lamington, in Bromley, which was henceforth named Burnt Mill. These days the dams are being removed by private organizations and groups in cooperation with the National Fish and Wildlife Service. These organizations are dedicated to the restoration of rivers and the downstream benefits to native wildlife and soil stability.

Hundreds of dams across the country have been removed or are being scheduled for removal. The results are, for the most part, shockingly positive. From California to Maine, stories of returning fisheries, reduction in sediment accumulation, reduced flooding and a greater diversity of wildlife have been documented.

Every dam is its own story, its significance dependent on location. Downstream of the Lamington, on the lower Raritan, removal of dams allowed the upstream travel of anadromous fish.

In colonial times, netting alewives and shad as far upstream as Raritan, generated a profitable commercial fishery. Mills and dams put an end to that business.

Most early mills were situated on feeder streams to avoid seasonal floods and raging current. The Lamington dam was perfectly situated in that regard.

Mature trees lined the banks to stabilize the soil and as a result the stream bed suffered minimal erosion during seasonal flooding. Runoff was minimal due to the surrounding land being unsuitable for farming. Even today as development has exploded, the stream bed of the upper Lamington and Rockaway is mostly sand and gravel. The difference is striking when compared to the nearby lower South Branch which suffers from erosion and a build up of silt.

This image above the Burnt Mills dam captures the character of the Lamington and South Rockaway. Mature trees lock in the soil and a heavy canopy shades the shallow water. 

The low concrete dam across the Lamington had been breeched in the early 1950s and misdirected the streamflow into the opposite shore causing severe erosion. An aerial view comparing the intact structure in 1953, to breeched version in 1956, shows the progress of the resulting erosion. An aerial view as seen today, compared to 1956, is even more dramatic.

The image on the top shows the intact dam in 1953. The image on the bottom shows the impact of erosion caused by the breeched dam in three years time in 1956.
 

The Lamington is the recipient of water released from Cushetunk Lake and Round Valley reservoir via South Rockaway creek as well as runoff from extensive upstream development. The added flow into the lower Lamington has hastened its meandering as directed by impervious shale cliffs and the concrete dam. Concrete walls designed to prevent erosion, speed the streamflow otherwise slowed by natural shorelines. Concrete walls line an upstream golf course, and another wall lines an outside curve along the road about a half-mile above the dam. During times of planned water release and seasonal storms, the water volume and speed create a high-pressure nozzle at the point of the breeched dam. The sum of upstream water, that makes up the Lamington, flows around a sharp bend a few hundred yards above the dam, careens off the high straight wall of red shale, slams into a concrete barrier perpendicular to its flow, then left, into a bank of unstable soil.

Free flowing rivers exhibit pure energy and it is energy and movement that define life. Science aside, it is the magic of perpetual motion and endless flow that we embrace. Flowing water is a magic carpet which requires no effort to travel, whether it be by vessel or imagination.

Any interruption of the energized free flow is representative of progressive pathology and an existential threat. The ‘damnation’ of rivers and streams represent stasis, blockages and clots; their removal, a life saving intervention.

So it was, the landmark Burnt Mill dam came down. Mixed feelings for those whose youthful memories were cast into the concrete substructure. The sight of the dam served as a reminder of an idyllic time and sunny days. A momentary retreat from the harsh reality that, on occasion, bites us all, was erased.

The removal was well planned and orchestrated as opposed to a charge of dynamite and a call of, ‘fire in the hole.’

The course of the river needed to be shifted and so large boulders were placed strategically to form the foundation of a left bank to replace that which was lost.

A 323 Caterpillar excavator fitted with tracks, moved into the river above the dam and began to scoop river bed gravel to line the upstream side of the length of the concrete dam. Apparently, this prevented water from flooding the work area during removal. Boulders in place, a second 323 Cat positioned on the downstream side, fitted with a ram driven spike, began to break up the concrete starting at the midstream end, working toward the right shore. It appeared the first foot and a half was easily penetrated. The second and third pass strained the hydraulic ram, the concrete’s resistance futile. After each session with the spike, the front-end loader scooped up the rubble and dumped it in-line with the boulders to form a new shoreline. The effort continued and half the dam was broken up and redistributed in about four hours. https://vimeo.com/367086739

Before and after images show the progress of the removal. Images 3 and 8 are the same view. Images 1 and 7 represent the same view. This work took place over three days.

Work continues as the removal of the dam was the first step in restoring the Lamington to its original course, pre-1754.

A new generation will know a different river, just as the last generation knew only a river interrupted by a dam.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

A Final Blast of Flaming Fluorescence

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Another autumn, like no other, passes through an ageless portal, as all seasons must.
Autumn’s final blast of flaming fluorescence is embodied in these black oak leaves that appear to be on fire.

A profusion of spider webs and hopeful strands of silk, looking for a second anchor point, weave throughout the late August woods in an attempt to hold the fleeting summer hostage.

Though the formidable silken net poses enough of an obstruction to divert a hiker’s footsteps, its hold on summer goes unnoticed by the celestial choreography that declares the arrival of autumn.

Color begins to appear as careless drips and blotches on the faded green palette left behind by summer. Scattered specks of yellow mist the crown of a wild cherry tree, as if clearing the sputtering nozzle on a can of yellow spray paint.

Deep scarlet splashes onto leafy vines of virginia creeper to appear as strands of a necklace lying against the perennial greenery of an eastern red cedar.

Swaths and stripes of color appear in fields and resemble an artist’s palette, holding an array of colored oils.

Fields offer the greatest diversity of any stage of plant succession and so, are showcases of color in the fall. The earliest news of the changing seasons is published in full color ads in open fields for all to read.

Pokeweed, drooping with clusters of deep purple-black inkberries, standout among the yellow swaths of fully blossomed goldenrod. The main stem of pokeweed always gets a second glance as it appears to be some odd placed artifact that does not belong. The arrow straight magenta stems are so dramatic in color they deserve a long moment of admiration simply for the boldness of nature’s artistry.

Native cardinal flowers which favor damp soil, is a personal favorite, which signals that the end of summer is near. Blooms begin mid-August and last well into September. A favorite of humming birds, this small, delicate tube-shaped flowers glow with a flat reddest red fluorescence and contrast beautifully against pale green cattail leaves, which often grow nearby. If ever a color was to catch your eye it would be an isolated cardinal flower bloom that glows with the power of a lighthouse beacon.

Bright purple ironweed, swamp and common milkweed add to the scene of fall color. Begging a closer look, an isolated stand of ironweed or a yellow swallowtail butterfly on a cluster of milkweed, often offers a surprise in exchange for curiosity. Hidden among the dominant grasses and blooming plants, hide the volunteers. Long thin pods of dogbane, used to make bowstrings and cordage, odd placed wildflowers or other cultivated escapees, find safe harbor and anonymity within these trackless fields.

An isolated single plant of Beardtongue penstemon was an unexpected surprise hiding in obscurity among the dominant field grasses
Dogbane

As summer begins and ends with colorful flowers, and Autumn, bearing genes of summer parentage, carries on that tradition of color in a final blast of flaming fluorescence.

Black gum and native persimmon begin the lightshow, subtly at first. Random isolated leaves are electrified and take on the appearance of old fashioned decorative light bulbs, salmon and orange, respectively.

The concocted color combinations composed of various tints used during the early seasonal transition, now overflow, mix and explode in brilliant colors used by October to paint the tree tops.

Oak and sweet gum take the full blast of color shot from October’s paint gun. Add a clear autumn day under full sun and blaze orange oak leaves absolutely glow against the blue sky.

The sweet gum produces a kaleidoscope of color ranging from shades of reddish purple to pure red, maroon, orange and yellow. Individual trees favor one color over the other but all sweet gums offer the complete spectrum of possible tints and shades.

It’s fun to imagine, spiders, as in Charlotte’s Web, spelling out the word, AUTUMN, in silken letters, to foretell the coming season.

Another autumn, like no other, passes through an ageless portal, as all seasons must, only to reappear and fade and reappear and fade again. The ephemeral concept of life seems at odds with the reality of nature.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Encounter with a Gray Ghost

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The elusive gray ghost of Native American mythology appears out of the river’s mist, as we stare into each other’s eyes.

February fourth, late afternoon, marked a close encounter with a gray ghost I have been chasing for decades. Face to face at eighteen paces, the apparition materialized out of the river’s mist. So close, our eyes met as I looked unavoidably through the lens of its honey-brown/yellow eyes and into its soul.

Just as an opening act raises the energy of the audience, three terrified deer ran past moments before on the same trail and I do not use the word ‘terrified’ lightly.

I quickly picked up the camera in anticipation of more deer running through the constricted pass. I was sure there would be a second act, though had no idea what it might be.

To my amazement, shock and awe, a coyote appeared. I always wondered if I could tell a coyote from someone’s pet dog. Well I’m here to tell you, the recognition was instant and left no doubt which canine version stood before me.

The eyes, the yellow eyes, commanded full attention at that close a distance. The coyote’s mottled gray fur blended so perfectly into the leaf covered ground, its eyes appeared as two gleaming orbs hovering, unattached, in the air, above the ground.

The eyes, those yellow eyes, were a personal invitation afforded to me as a momentary portal through which to view the heart of a wild spirit.

The coyote is a mythological character come to life whose reputation for intelligence and adaptability is well documented in ancient tribes’ oral histories. Amazing, our interaction with coyotes in ancient times has continued unabated to this day. The coyote appropriately goes by any one of several aliases, yotes, song dog, brush wolf, prairie wolf, so fitting for a reputed trickster as described in the myths of many early cultures.

Originating in the west, coyotes have migrated east on their own, as well as spread by intentional redistribution. The first documented sighting of a coyote in NJ is reported to be 1939 and today they have been reported in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Song dogs have been legal game in NJ since 1998. Many states have been conducting genetic studies on coyotes and some, like NJ require the killing of a coyote by legal means or roadkill, be immediately reported to the state division of fish and wildlife.

The eastern coyote is generally much larger than its western cousin. The largest coyote has been reported at 55 pounds, though they average much less. DNA sampling has documented coyotes and wolves have mated, which may explain the larger size and the color variation in their coats. Coyotes will, on rare occasion, mate with dogs and are referred to as coydogs.
Coyotes are now well established in our area and often, a red or gray fox will be mistaken for a coyote. The visual differences between the two species are dramatic, size and coloration the most obvious.

Coyotes have always been at the center of controversy, especially in the west where livestock depredation is a concern. Their adaptability includes a diet so varied as to take advantage of whatever fare is available. That menu may include pets, insects, plants or poultry. Coyotes have been trapped, poisoned and shot and yet persist in viable populations in close proximity to man, thus have earned a ghost-like reputation. Someone once said of a coyote, ‘if you turned a coyote loose on a tennis court it could disappear behind the net!”

In the court of popular opinion, defenders stand opposed.

A doctor I know was nonplussed at my excitement of encountering a coyote. He regularly sees them on his property and one often comes to play with his 110-pound German shepherd.

Another strong proponent and defender of coyotes is Geri Vistein, who has written a great book, “I Am Coyote”. Geri also has a website and Face Book page, “Coyote Center, Carnivores, Ecology and Coexistence”. Geri explains that coyotes are an indispensible part of our living web of life and points out coyote management errors that add to the problem of negative human/ coyote interaction.

However you view coyotes, this wild and untamed spirit, wrapped in gray fur, is worthy of admiration. If you love dogs, it is not a leap to extend that feeling to their wild cousins. But be warned, not everyone shares that love.

It is quite a feat for any species to have flourished in times gone by and still maintain genetically viable numbers in the midst of an expanding human population and chronic loss of natural habitat.

The coyote remains more of mythological character of dubious existence, as it is rarely ever seen; you are more likely to hear a chorus of melodious howls on a cold and still winter night than to ever see a coyote. As with any sound in the night, its source and location are left to pure speculation which only deepens the mystery of the gray ghost’s existence. Doubt creeps in when your eyes fail to confirm what your ears hear.

For more information on coyotes see the link on the NJ Fish and Wildlife site.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Field Trip Recap: July 15 Green Infrastructure Tour

Middlesex County Extension Agent Michele Bakacs explains shoreline restoration to our group.

Many thanks to everyone who joined the LRWP and Middlesex County Water Resources Association for a picnic and tour of green infrastructure and detention basins in Middlesex County!

Rutgers County Extension Agent Michele Bakacs and Rutgers Doctoral Student and plant expert Kate Douthat provided guidance as we explored several sites in Middlesex County’s Thompson Park (Monroe Township), a retention basin retrofit site in Monmouth County, and a new rain garden at Spotswood Middle School.

Lake buffer restoration was the highlight at Thompson Park (more information on this project is available on the Freehold Soil Conservation District project webpage). This area is also part of the Watershed Protection and Restoration Plan for the Manalapan Brook Watershed one of the southernmost sub-watersheds in the Lower Raritan watershed.

For more info on wetland islands….

Additional general resources on Green Infrastructure include the following:

Overview of Green Infrastructure practices (brochure)- http://water.rutgers.edu/Green_Infrastructure_Guidance_Manual/GI-Brochure_PRINT-FRIENDLY.pdf

Rain Garden Manual of New Jersey- http://water.rutgers.edu/Rain_Gardens/RGWebsite/RainGardenManualofNJ.html

Manalapan Watershed Restoration videos- www.tinyurl.com/ManalapanWatershed

More technical resources include:

Green Infrastructure Guidance Manual- http://water.rutgers.edu/GreenInfrastructureGuidanceManual.html

NJ’s Developers Green Infrastructure Guide (NJ Future)- https://developersguide.njfuture.org/

NJDEP’s maintenance guidance for stormwater- https://www.njstormwater.org/maintenance_guidance.htm

Butterflies in the rain garden.

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