The following essay first appeared in the Winter 2022 Friends of the Mad River Newsletter.
Friends often uses the word stewardship to describe our work planting trees, helping landowners and property managers ‘spongify’ the Valley with resilient Storm Smart practices, and collaborating with partners to build an ethic of care for and connection with the natural ecosystems in which we exist. But the idea of stewardship has a deeper history than our work alone. We understand that how people think about stewardship is informed by an environmental movement that is all-too-often grounded in the limited perspective of a small group of people. Recognizing this complicated history offers us an opportunity to redefine stewardship in more equitable ways.
The environmentalist and author, Wendell Berry, wrote about the “good work” of environmental stewardship as something rooted in, “the real names of the environment…the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes, roads, creatures, and people.” He wrote those words in response to what he called the “juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities.” As an environmental organization, Friends of the Mad River is more inclined to see the concepts of ecology as full of life. But the point is well taken, that it is our connection to the place as we know it and as we live within it that drives us to do the “good work” of caring for it. Another famed environmentalist of the 20th century, Aldo Leopold, wrote that, “we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in.” These close connections work as regular reminders that nature is not something ‘out there’ as much as it is something found and cared for within and between all of us.
While the insights of Berry and Leopold are valuable, it is important to recognize that the environmental movement in this country has often fallen short of these ideals. Too often the conservation community has kept a narrow view of just which connections are worthwhile. If the personal names we use each day are where we find the meaning that lets us do good work, then the role conservationists have played in silencing indigenous voices who called these rivers and mountains by other names for thousands of years is all the more tragic.
Stewardship, unfortunately, can have the ring of arrogance about it; that what is before us is an estate to be managed or an account to be balanced, that it is a supervisory arrangement, and that the steward is master of their domain. Stewardship risks becoming the work of a few experts who know ‘what is best.’
There is danger here – that the environmental movement overlooks the knowledge of those outside the expert inner circle, and that the experts become so alienated from the world as it is lived day to day that the public doesn’t give them credence where it is due.
We can be more forgiving of our definition of stewardship if we move away from dominion and turn towards the personal connections, the pride in place, our responsibility for ourselves, and reciprocity with others and the planet. If we lean into exploring our connections with each other and place, and how we are not separate from our wild neighbors but part of an unfolding story of curiosity, discovery, and care for the world around us, stewardship can be a more honest reflection of each person’s limitations around knowing what is best and more accurate in describing the deeply personal and contextual way that stewardship is actually done.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass; Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, writes that, “We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of the earth’s beings.”
Here, Kimmerer offers us an avenue forward that ties environmental and social justice together, that recognizes that the historical harms that degrade our environment also degrade our ability to respect one another and, crucially, that our mistreatment of other beings sends us down a dangerous route in which it is all too easy to forget the costs of our way of life. Kimmerer writes that, “Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives its life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream’s gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning a gift in kind. An integral part of a human’s education is to know those duties and how to perform them.” As Friends seeks to stay rooted in our special relationship with the Mad River, the many tributaries that feed it, and the valley that it has formed, we find meaning in this alternate definition of stewardship. It is the same meaning we find in the joy and curiosity of our Mad River Watch volunteers as they visit their field sites, in the imagining of the future floodplain forest at the Austin parcel in Waitsfield, or in the conversations with property owners aimed at a ‘spongier,’ more resilient Valley. Our role as stewards is defined, not by some master plan of environmental conservation, but by the relationships we have with partners like the Mad River libraries, Mad River Path, Sugarbush Resort, and the towns, to name just a few. And yes, we do keep one foot in the world of environmental science, of data, and academics. But not because it is some “juiceless, abstract intellectuality,” but because these concepts are part of a vital connection to the world beyond our valley walls. By supporting this bridge between the close connections we foster in the Mad River Valley and the wisdom and expertise of those beyond, we are able to find opportunities to act, to do good work, and meet our duty to live in reciprocity head on.
Nature offers so much bounty to us.
If we want the lands and waters to thrive,
we must give back.
The Valley's resplendent forests, ridgelines, swimming holes, and of course, the Mad River, serve as an inspiring backdrop to our celebration, respite, healing and connection.
If you have enjoyed a cooling dip in the river, or a peaceful walk in deep woods, or appreciated the simplicity and power of a forest re-growing in place of lawn, please know that the work of Friends of the Mad River is embedded in these moments. Your support is critical to our continued work. Please join with us and help our circle grow.
The Valley's lands and waters need Friends.
Saturday is the 10 year anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene when around 6 inches of rain fell in the Mad River watershed in a matter of hours, causing the river to crest at ~19 feet at the gage in Moretown, a full 10 feet above flood stage. The damage to infrastructure and peoples’ homes and businesses was significant. “After Irene, the community came together to take care of each other,” recalled Katie Sullivan, Friends’ board member and Warren School teacher. “The way people pitched in and helped, however they could, was a true testament to this community’s spirit.” That spirit of community central to the Irene recovery effort continued in the efforts for resiliency over the decade since. “Town board representatives planning and acting together across town lines as part of the Ridge to River initiative, homeowners enhancing their homes and driveways with Storm Smart, Town reps and road crews upgrading culverts and improving roads, Mad River Watch volunteers dedicating time and energy to understand the river,” listed Corrie Miller, Friends’ Director. “Over the last decade, our community has worked hard, learned a lot about the opportunities we have to shape our future, and made great strides together towards resilience.”
It Takes a Village
This past Sunday and Monday, 23 Friends of the Mad River’s (FMR) Mad River Watch volunteers visited 21 field sites across the valley in order to monitor water quality, make detailed environmental observations, and leave the site better than they found it. It was their sixth and final field exploration this summer. As Lisa Koitzsch, Mad River Watch Coordinator, greeted volunteers on their return from their last field day, they were reflective on their learning and experience, putting pieces together from a summer’s worth of observations and asking questions about what more they can do to support a clean river and resilient watershed. “With our new directive this year as River Watchers to spend more time making observations of the natural surroundings along the riverbanks, we found a new appreciation of the diversity and resiliency of plant life within the sometimes challenging environment bordering the river,” said Julie Westervelt of Warren about her experience volunteering with her daughter, Ingrid. “Taking a closer look has helped us understand the beauty of this special ecosystem that’s such an integral part of our community here in the Valley.”
A young Warren volunteer thinking in geologic time annotated his drawing of the Freeman Brook site with: “the big rock was carved out by water and made three water shoots over time.” A Fayston mother/daughter volunteer duo also noticed changes to the Ward Access landscape caused by water, but in a much shorter time frame: “a growing sand bar upstream will likely disappear in the rain to come tonight,” and added, “changes to the beach from the rain are lovely to watch.”
A Warren volunteer took note of a change at Rice Brook since her last field day that will likely enhance trout habitat, “the tree with the holes fell over and has become part of the stream.” Another volunteer in Waitsfield, on the other hand, noted a change that may reduce the quality of aquatic habitat: “the property was mowed or hayed for the first time this summer and only a narrow riparian buffer was left by the mower.”
A summer Warren resident, noticed the seasonal changes at the Wabanaki Conservation Area: “interesting how my site has changed in two months: vegetation, water levels, and traffic on 100” but also worked with the Town of Warren and Vtrans to clean up the Kingsbury Bridge.
Volunteers removed beer cans, baby diapers, household trash, and takeout containers from stream sides and marveled at fleeting wildlife including cedar waxwings, red-winged blackbirds, geese, mourning doves, and an eastern kingbird, as well as tent caterpillars, water striders, a groundhog, and unknown animal holes and unidentified scat.
In consideration of the greener sides of biodiversity, Julie and Ingrid Westervelt collected and preserved physical examples of plants at the Warren Covered bridge. “Many are common plants we see along our local roadsides, and we were curious to know more about them. We were pleasantly surprised to find a good mix of native species from flowers such as Common Boneset and St. John’s wort to trees such as Balsam Poplar and Sugar Maple and non-natives such as Smooth Brome grass and Chicory to Clematis and Rugosa Rose,” said Julie Westervelt.
Water temperatures ranged from a low of 63°F at Warren Falls to a high of 71°F at the USGS gage in Moretown on Monday. This fall, FMR will compile other data and observations and share key findings and highlights in the Valley Reporter and online at friendsofthemadriver.org/madriverwatch. “Paying attention to a changing landscape is a critical step as we seek to understand opportunities to build the watershed’s resilience to a changing climate,” remarked Corrie Miller. “The Mad River Watch volunteers, landowners, and funders their energies to this resilience work and continue to make our community better.