Share Your Water Story!

The LRWP and South River Green Team are co-hosting this hour-long public discussion, sponsored by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, to capture stories about the different ways water matters to New Jerseyans.

Participants will have the opportunity to contribute their water story to a statewide public archive documenting personal connections to water and waterways in New Jersey. No prior preparation is needed to attend, and all are welcome to share or listen.

Join us Saturday February 8, 1:30-2:30 pm at the South River Public Library
55 Appleby Ave, South River, NJ 08882

Workshop Overview

This workshop creates the space to talk about meaningful water sites and sources for individuals and communities in New Jersey. Stories from consenting participants captured from this event, and others throughout the state, will be part of a public archive and digital exhibition that creatively visualizes, interprets, and maps New Jersey water stories and the waterways that inspired them. After capturing water stories in each county over the next year, project coordinators will curate a digital exhibition (website) to interpret, display, and share water stories.

This workshop will be led by Meghan Wren

Bio: At 23, Ms. Wren founded what has become the Bayshore Center at Bivalve and served for 29 years as its Executive Director. She spearheaded and oversaw the restoration, program development and operation of the 1928 oyster schooner AJ MEERWALD; lobbied and achieved the native NJ workboat’s status as New Jersey’s Official Tall Ship; restored the 1904 oyster Shipping Sheds & Wharves in Bivalve as the homeport to the MEERWALD and historic destination; launched the Delaware Bay Museum and created a community and volunteer supported institution for the stewardship of NJ’s Delaware Bayshore. After Super Storm Sandy devastated many of the NJ’s Delaware Bayshore communities, she chaired the Cumberland County Long Term Recovery Group and the NJ Bayshore Recovery Planning Committee where she raised money and coordinated individual recovery efforts with local, state and federal partners and lead the creation of a plan for resiliency in the region. In 2013 Ms. Wren became the first person to swim the 13.1 miles across the Delaware Bay from Delaware to New Jersey to raise awareness and funds for the Bayshore community’s Sandy recovery.

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.


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


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.

What does the fox say?

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Look in to my eyes and tell me you know I exist, hear my voice and know I am near

The hiker, skier and the fox

Passed this way on a snowy walk

The same path was taken on that day

Though each saw things a different way

What does the fox say?

A series of hair raising, high pitched screams pierced the darkness, made blacker by the invisible February new moon. The sounds echoed in the still night, their source, initially speculative, was attributed a red fox.

Late winter marks the renewal of life for many wildlife species including red fox. What set fox apart from most other wildlife, are their screams made during the night time mating ritual. Mating fox do not confine their mating ritual to the night and may on occasion be heard during the day.

The screams sound quite like a screech owl or a young great horned owl and the range of vocalization is wide and varied. That is what makes differentiation between owl and fox calls so initially challenging. The sound they all share is like a ‘blaat’, elongated into a screech. The giveaway is that an owl will move locations while the fox screams are stationary and muted because they are made close to the ground, the sound obstructed by trees and brush.

Male fox referred to as dog fox, roam far and wide looking for a mate and are often seen during the day. South facing hillsides are a favorite place for a fox to fall asleep.

The air currents travel uphill in the warm sun and carry delightfully interesting scents to a nose that never sleeps.

Additionally, any approaching danger will be detected at a distance, allowing time for the alerted fox to seek secure cover.

It appears more of a magic trick for a red colored fox to hide in the middle of a pure white expanse of snow. When observed, is akin to an apparition performed in a magic act. You can’t believe what you are seeing.

A male will court and mate with one or more females, also known as vixens. It is interesting, that like mink and other wildlife, the implantation may be delayed several days or more as in the case of mink. Theory suggests the first mating may not be with the ideal mate and when a better male comes along it allows his genetics to be passed on.

Late one January, among a jumble of boulders on a snowy hillside in mature woods, a female was preparing a den, as evidenced by the fresh orange earth scattered on the deep snow. Dens may be used year after year but generally a new den site is selected.

The initial den site may be abandoned and a new site selected for the growing pups. I imagine security and cleanliness are some considerations in moving a litter, though there are many examples of a single den serving until the pups explore on their own. One female moved six pups from a pasture to a groundhog den nearby. Mom picked up each pup by the scruff of the neck, head held high and carried them a couple hundred yards to their new home.

This nursing session coincidentally took place on Mother’s day, May 15th. Mom moved six pups 400 yards up from the river flood plain just in time before a heavy rain covered the pasture with 4 feet of water.

Gestation is generally 60 days and litter size may vary from two to six. I have observed a litter of six pups though four or five are more commonly noted.

As the newborn pups are totally dependent upon mom for food and warmth she rarely leaves the den and depends on the male to bring her food. When the pups are old enough to control their body temperature and require less attention, mom will begin hunting again. I have seen one fox, hunt and kill several mice in one session. She then picked them all up, at least three tails dangling from her mouth, and trotted off to her feed her pups.

As I was writing this, I heard intermittent screaming, which sounded quite like a yapping ten pound lap dog. the sounds were consistent with mating fox, though it was nine in the morning. The strong wind carried the sounds afar to confuse the location of the fox. At one point it sounded as if I was just yards away. Nothing! As I returned I heard the sound again at a distance, closer to home. Unexpectedly, a fox trotted across my path from where the barking originated. So I mark this day to project a birth date sure to take place nearby in about 65 days.

Dog fox on the run, love on his mind, suddenly appears and then is gone. Quick draw photography a requirement.

When we go beyond text books and actually observe wildlife, we come to appreciate individual personalities that stand in contrast to the declared behavioral generalizations. We are misled in that way to think of wildlife as isolated, inanimate objects, predictable in nature and nothing more to see, that’s all there is.

The fox that came into a neighbor’s yard and began tossing a dog toy in the air, pouncing and leaping in a playful moment, fits no description of its kind in any Wikipedia summary.

Another neighbor further down the road noted a fox to be a regular visitor and she discovered the fox would steal her pony’s rubber boots. I wondered how common it was for fox living near homes to steal or play with dog toys or other objects a dog might be expected to have fun with. There seems to be enough anecdotal evidence of fox engaged in such antics.

During late spring on Sandy Hook National Recreation Area, I watch a family having a picnic and observed a fox sitting perfectly still and upright about 30 steps away in the open. The picnickers saw the fox and tossed some food his way. The fox came forward, took the food and retreated to his original position, politely waiting for a second handout.

We all have our own unique style and flair as does every individual wild creature. Fox display an intelligence and creativity, as if to say, “Look in to my eyes and tell me you know I exist, hear my voice and know I am near.” A plea often seen in the eyes of little children and the elderly; We are kindred spirits with all living things and share many needs in common, the fox is an animal spirit guide in that respect. That’s what the fox says!

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 See more articles and photos at

Agnotology, or what don’t we know about what we don’t know?

We have learned a lot about ignorance in the last several years, enough in fact for ignorance to now be the focus of its own research field called “agnotology.” The basic idea of agnotology is that ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge, but something that has been itself historically constituted.

Mark Ruffalo’s 2019 film Dark Waters – a study of how DuPont and the US Environmental Protection Agency perpetuated ignorance about the harms related to Perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOAs and the presence of PFOAs in the lands and waters of West Virginia – is a great example of agnotology research. Also on the shelf of agnotology studies is The Guardian’s examination of the case of Flint, Michigan where, for at least a year and a half after hundreds of public complaints about “foul smelling drinking water as dark as coffee,” local politicians suppressed environmental and public health information.

We know from both these cases – and a seemingly endless set of additional examples including mounting climate crises around the world – that ignorance has major destructive and devastating consequences.

The core questions that agnotology asks are: How has ignorance been historically constituted? And how (and why) have we allowed ignorance to be perpetuated?

Applying this line of thinking to environmental assaults, we need to ask: how are ordinary people at times complicit in perpetuating the ignorance that wreaks environmental harm and injustices?

One way to start to understand our construction of ignorance is to examine the perspectives we bring to consider environmental harm and injustice in the first place. Take the two different starting points of the Precautionary Principle and Risk Assessment.

Precautionary Principle

In 1992 I interned with the United Nations Association in preparation for the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and helped develop a compendium of documents on global approaches to addressing environmental concerns. One such approach was the Precautionary Principle. The Precautionary Principle suggests that environmental policy involve anticipating harm and taking appropriate precautions. That is, possible harms are considered pre-emptively as part of development of any new policy. The precautionary principle has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making. The Precautionary Principle guides policy making in many countries, and is the foundation of the strongest and most comprehensive US federal environmental protection programs including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

Risk Assessment

For the last several decades, the Precautionary Principle has been superseded by an alternative approach to policy and decision making called “risk assessment.” With respect to environmental hazards, risk assessment seeks to balance pollution against profit and economic growth. Assessments of risk are carried out by regulatory agencies responsible for protecting environmental and human health, and these entities set pollutant limits and site-specific assessments. Industry is then responsible for complying with legislation and site-specific decisions. Risk assessment is the default approach for oil companies and other climate deniers. Risk assessment was the default approach for DuPont, the EPA and Flint. As our mounting climate concerns, the Dark Waters film, and the Flint water crisis make clear, the “risk assessment” approach has failed us.

Agnotology pushes us to see how our ignorance is socially constructed. That is, do we consider potential environmental harm and injustice as something we must actively plan to avoid based on specific societal goals of environmental well-being and justice (Precautionary Principle)? Or do we instead choose to consider environmental harm and injustice in the context of unknown future scenarios and risk calculations (Risk Assessment)?

Of course the Precautionary Principle and Risk Assessment are not the only approaches to bring to these considerations. Communities and societies around the world are wrestling with hybrid or other distinct approaches to reduce harms. The point is however, that if we hope to prevent future disasters in places like West Virginia and Flint, if we are to take action to avoid contributing to climate impacts, we need to think harder about how we know what we know about the impacts of our decisions to cause environmental harm and injustice. Making decisions while reflecting on them from an agnotological perspective – that is thinking about what we don’t know and how and why we don’t know it – is a good place to start.

LRWP’s Most popular posts of 2019

Many thanks to all our blog contributors in 2019!

We learned so much from authors like Joe Mish and Joe Sapia who share observations of the natural world in our on-going “Voices of the Watershed” series. We are grateful for regular information-sharing from Streamkeepers and civic science volunteers, including writers Margo Persin and Howard Swerdloff. Folks like Rutgers doctoral candidate Kate Douthat teach us about plants and hydrology and stormwater flows through focused blog series. And student interns TaeHo Lee and April Callahan did a great job developing interviews with LRWP Board Members and others active in the watershed.

The following are the most read / viewed web pages on the LRWP website in 2019:

#5 The water world around us we do not see, by Kate Douthat

#4 Elmwood Cemetery BioBlitz, by Howard Swerdloff

#3 LRWP’s Top 10 Environmental Issues, 2019 Edition, by Heather Fenyk

#2 South River’s “Brick Beach”, by Heather Fenyk

#1 Mile Run Clean-up, the Video, by Jessica Dotson

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 See more articles and photos at

#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.

On climate risks, hazards containment, and the Lower Raritan’s “Dark Waters”

In the opening scene of Mark Ruffalo’s devastating new true-story legal thriller Dark Waters, released this week in New Jersey theaters, we watch as a car travels rural roads to a swimming hole. In the dark of night three teenagers exit the car near a “no trespassing” sign, jump a fence, and dive in. The camera pans to signs marked “containment pond,” where chemical byproducts of Dupont’s manufacturing plants – specifically Perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA – are ostensibly “contained”.

The year is 1975. PFOAs are unregulated. Things end badly. We soon learn that PFOA is related to an abundance of health risks. The film traces a decades-long corporate cover-up of these risks, as well as loss of life and tremendous suffering. The film also makes clear how exceedingly difficult it is to contain toxic pollutants.

The issue of historic pollutant containment is the focus of a report released last month by the US Government Accountability Office that identifies the nation’s Superfund sites deemed most “at risk” of climate crises including flooding, coastal inundation, and wildfire. Of the 945 sites on the GAO list, 24 are in our 352-square mile Lower Raritan Watershed. That’s an incredibly disproportionate 4% of the most at-risk toxic sites in the United States. Our almost 900,000 watershed residents don’t have to travel rural roads to encounter pollutant hazards, they are proximate to where we live and work. More info on the GAO report, and a list of these sites, is on the LRWP website.

GAO-identified Superfunds in the Lower Raritan that are at-risk of natural hazards impacts (2019)

Of course the GAO only looks at Nonfederal Superfund sites. Here’s a map of all Known Contaminated Sites (KCS) in the watershed, many more of which are likewise at risk.

Not surprisingly, the concentrated band of sites that runs through the middle of the watershed traces along the Raritan River and feeder waterways. Our challenge will be containment of hazards impacts, particularly tough when stilling ponds and uses are proximate to flooded waters.

One of many Raritan River-adjacent landfills/Superfund sites at-risk of flood impacts
Photo by Alison M. Jones, No Water No Life – taken during a LightHawk flight, April 2019
1 2 3 4 5 30