Paddling my kayak on Dunning Lake in Farmington, Ct., one day late last year I passed close to shore near an apartment complex and happened upon a middle-aged man crouched at the edge of the water. He was washing a paint tray and roller. In front of him was a milky-white plume easily 15-feet by 15-feet and expanding. I was outraged, and my face showed it I’m sure. We made eye contact. I stopped paddling and stared. He turned his head away, waited a few moments as I glided by, and plunged the roller back in the lake. I caught it out of the corner of my eye.
Lake Dunning is small body of water, perhaps three-quarters-of-a-mile long, maybe a half-mile wide at most, fed by springs, rainfall and a tiny inlet brook. Water from the lake flows west to the nearby Farmington River, then on to the Connecticut River and eventually the sea.
I thought of the incident as I read another new book on the Connecticut River, “Where the Great River Rises: An Atlas of the Connecticut River Watershed in Vermont and New Hampshire,” edited by Rebecca A. Brown and published by the University Press of New England. ($35.00) Its stated purpose is to heighten understanding of the Connecticut and its watershed, to increase awareness of “the whole interrelated fabric of the region.” After all these years, after the Clean Water Act, after so many Earth Days, after so much progress, we still need books like this atlas.
People still do stupid things.
Governments and businesses do stupid things, too, though far more subtly than the guy with the paint tray. Not always – as I said, there is progress, significant progress – but rivers like the Connecticut even now are too often abused, as the Atlas documents. True, factories and municipalities no longer flush untreated wastes through a pipe directly into the Connecticut, but at the same time there is little improvement in controlling the insidious runoff pollution from the ever growing volume of paved surfaces in the watershed, which drains parts of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Not to mention the other problems, like global warming, mercury deposition, and the degradation caused by dams, 14 of them on the Connecticut still functioning, another 3 slowly crumbling.
The Atlas is a project of the Connecticut River Joint Commissions, created by the legislatures of Vermont and New Hampshire to coordinate efforts to protect the Connecticut’s upper valley. Experts at Dartmouth College assisted with the book. The upper valley is a big area, nearly 7,000 square miles, draining places like Vermont’s rugged Northeast Kingdom and the westerly slopes of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, including part of Mount Washington. There are essays on the upper valley’s geology, forests, plant and animal life, agriculture, fisheries, and recreation. Other essays trace the impact of Native Americans, explore population trends, assess water quality, document the cultural history of the valley then and now. There are graphics galore – including one showing public access points in the upper valley. Handy.
There is graceful prose in places, but mostly this atlas is a kind of Upper Valley textbook with workmanlike, explanatory writing. Nothing wrong with that. There is an enormous amount of information about the river and its watershed between these covers, and it is the kind of vetted, reliable, factual matter that is valuable and needed. Connecticut River afficionados will snatch it up and add it to their increasingly sagging shelf of Connecticut River literature. We’ve been seeing a couple of Connecticut River books a year in recent years.
That is, I think, because there is something about the Connecticut River that rings an emotional bell with some people, I’ve met dozens of people over the past few decades who feel proprietary about the river, who can’t spend too much time on it, near it, reading about it. I’ll count myself among them. What we Connecticut River groupies have to hope is that others will discover the Connecticut – or discover and fuss over the brook nearby that feeds the stream that feeds the Connecticut.
Rivers are not just moving water, they are the lyrics of the landscape, singing a song that measures our stewardship better than anything else I know. A plume of paint-stained water draining to the Connecticut is, if we keep things in perspective, an example of the work still to be done.