BookMarks: An ode to New England's rivers and streams

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I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts for half the year, and when I want a glass of water, I turn on a faucet and out comes clean, clear water that has been transported from reservoirs about 10 miles west, filtered, and treated with chemicals. When I flush wastewater down the toilet, it travels through a series of pipes to the Deer Island Treatment Facility in Boston Harbor, and then out to the ocean floor via a 9.5-mile long pipe.

I live in Brownsville, Vermont the other half of the year. There, my glass of water is filled from either a spring, which feeds water into a cistern in the cellar via a one-inch lead pipe that runs downhill from the meadow across the dirt road, or from the 430-foot deep well which we dug 10 years ago when the spring became contaminated with E. coli. When I flush the toilet, wastewater enters a septic system which eventually drains into the earth in our backyard.

While I may have given little thought to these various systems' histories and operation over the last 30 years, that will no longer be the case after reading Jim Rousmaniere's "Water Connections: What Fresh Water Means to Us, What we Mean to Water'' (Bauhan Publishing, 2019).

This book is different from the Cassandra-like warnings about the end of nature or mankind's extinction voiced in recent books written by Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert. Both of those books focus on important messages about climate change and man's destructive powers. But Rousmaniere has chosen to stay close to home and to write stories about how "humans have changed their ways around water" and how those changes have resulted in improvements in our water and our lives.

The author was the editor of the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel for more than 30 years, and his skills as an editor and a newspaper writer who knows how to find and tell a good story are evident. Instead of drowning us in scientific jargon and graphs displaying mountains of data, he finds the fascinating person, the telling detail, and the human interest angle that illuminates his larger tale.

Along the way the reader meets a cast of fascinating characters — entrepreneurs, activists, scientists, artists and concerned citizens, all interacting with water in some way, and in many cases, working to preserve it. There's Thomas Westbrook, a British army colonel who built a dam for a mill on the Presumpscot River in Maine in 1733, and Wabanaki Chief Polin, who was killed in 1756 while trying to destroy the dam Westbrook built and recover his tribe's ancient fishing grounds. There's George Perkins Marsh of Woodstock, Vermont, whose classic book "Man and Nature," published in 1862, is widely credited with launching today's environmental movement, and Marion Stoddart whose 50 years of efforts to clean up the Nashua River in Fitchburg, Massachusetts began by sending a mason jar of its foul water to Gov. John Volpe.

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These are great stories that entertain, educate, and motivate. Most of all, they illustrate Rousmaniere's primary messages: Environmental damage caused by humans can be repaired by them, and change comes about through the energy, intelligence, and initiative of ordinary citizens. The combination of citizen action and government regulation has resulted in improvements in public health and our environment that provide benefits for people, animals, and our beautiful New England lands.

Rousmaniere begins the book with a chapter that describes his walk tracing Roaring Brook, a small stream which runs through the woods behind his home in Roxbury, New Hampshire, population 311. Roaring Brook originates in Woodward Pond, named for the man who built a dam to power a wood and grain mill in 1806, and empties into Otter Brook, which empties into the Ashuelot River, which empties into the Connecticut River.

The brook's course tells the tale of water in New England — dams for mills, ponds for town water supplies, a tunnel carrying the stream under a railroad embankment, beaver dams and their risk of disease, contamination from a tannery, and small hydroelectric operations. The impact of all of these human interventions was eventually a Connecticut River that was so polluted that it received a D rating in the 1960's. Citizen action and government regulations removed dams, outlawed and prosecuted polluters, and addressed agricultural and urban runoff. The result was that the Connecticut River was named the first National Blueway in 2012.

This, and much of the rest of the book, resonated with me in a very special way. I, too, have the great pleasure of having a small brook run through our property in Vermont. The brook is small enough to not even have a name, but I've walked its length upstream from where it starts in a small pond in Happy Canyon to downstream where it empties into Mill Brook.

Rousmaniere gives this same Mill Brook a shout-out as he describes its 60-foot drop over one-third of a mile as it enters Windsor, just 6 miles from our home. The water power from Mill Brook enabled Windsor to become the northern end of the Precision Valley that dominated American industry in the 19th century.

We humans are more than 50 percent water, and we can't live without a safe, reliable source of it. Rousmaniere's book provides us with easily comprehended information about the threats to and the promises of this critical substance in our own backyards while entertaining with fascinating stories of how people have acted to protect this resource. It's a book well worth reading.

Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Cambridge, Mass., and Brownsville. He can be contacted at EpsteinReads.com where you will also find more than 1000 ideas for what to read next.


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