Since October of last year, the seventh-grade students at Harwood Union Middle School have explored the web of water, and life, that surrounds their school. The exploration culminated in a month-long artist-in-residency project this March.
The Watershed Project brings art and science together at schools across the greater Winooski watershed. At Harwood, this meant inviting two teaching artists, Renee Greenlee and Alissa Faber, to join up with Friends of the Mad River to design and offer a project that brings artistic expression and watershed science together. The Lozelle Brook, which runs through a wooded area behind the school and is crisscrossed by Harwood’s cross-country trails, has become the muse for the students’ artistic exploration of their place in the watershed.
Throughout March, the students created watershed-inspired art that combined block prints, screen prints, and poetry. The art will be installed on wooden signs throughout the trail network at Harwood and help students and visitors learn more about Lozelle and Dowsville Brooks, both of which run through school property, as well as the wider watershed. “I used to think that the watershed was much smaller, but now I know how far it really goes,” says Harwood student Jade Lawson.
“[The Watershed Project tells] the story of how the landscape changes over time, and how the life in that area changes and adapts with it, because the land, plants, creatures, and watershed are all connected,” says Harwood student Harmony Devoe.
“The Harwood property is an amazing resource for implementing place-based learning. The opportunity to integrate art into our learning experience has broadened students’ understanding of the natural systems that connect us, and deepened the students’ connection to place,” says Harwood teacher Angela Selvaggio.
“Having a personal connection to nature is not only good for you, but it also tends to lead to more active participation in caring for the environment,” says Friends of the Mad River Stewardship Manager Ira Shadis. “The idea of a watershed can be a little abstract. It's not always easy to picture the huge basin formed by the surrounding mountains or the path all the streams and brooks take before they reach the Mad River (and the Winooski River and Lake Champlain beyond). This is where art, storytelling, and getting outside can make a big difference.”
Students at Champlain Elementary School and South Burlington High School are also engaged in the Watershed Project with support from Friends of the Winooski River. “Big topics like climate change can feel overwhelming,” says Michele Braun of Friends of the Winooski River. “This project helps students see changes in the landscape and the weather through a local lens and share information about a nearby brook with their community.”
“I want [the community] to think about where plants and animals grow and live. I want them to see that if you affect their environment, it affects them. I want them to realize that their actions count,” says Harwood student Sydney Schaller.
“A place that connects us all, a place that we call home, that is the Mad River Watershed,” says Harwood student Marley Greene.
The signs and artwork will be finished over the next few weeks and installed at the school this Spring. The Watershed Project was funded bу an agreement awarded bу the Great Lakes Fishery Commission to NEIWPCC in partnership with the Lake Champlain Basin Program.
Since 2015, the Ridge to River Coalition has found success supporting strategic clean water and flood resilience actions in the Mad River Valley. In addition to fostering communication and collaboration across the watershed – among planning commissions, selectboards, road crews, and engaged community members – the 5-town coalition laid the foundation for the Storm Smart program and ongoing stormwater mitigation planning and construction efforts.
In 2021, members of the coalition came together to recognize the strong ties between clean water, flood resilience, and the broader picture of how this Valley may be impacted from a changing climate. Seeing an opportunity to use their established 5-town structure and their experience doing excellent flood resilience planning and turning it into action, the group considered broadening their scope. In 2022, Ridge to River participants will consider next steps as they seek to adapt and craft a vision and plan for climate resilience in the Mad River Valley.
A critical part of this effort is the inclusion of broad and diverse voices and ideas. Are you interested in joining with neighbors across our 5-town watershed as part of the Ridge to River Coalition and working together to build our community’s resilience to climate change?
Learn more about Ridge to River's past work by visiting Ridge To River - Friends of The Mad River and take the first step towards helping to define what work comes next by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
of the Mad River