As a child I used to spend countless hours playing in a nearby brook under a canopy of red maples, yellow birch, and hemlock. It provided a place to cool off in the summer; a perfect environment for living out and playing my adventure fantasies. On some days I was Blackbeard, trying to find my buried treasure, on other days I might have been a Native American fishing for my next meal. It was a wonderful place to explore in all seasons. Like all brooks it was in a constant state of change. It was fundamental to my developing interest in science and natural history.
I can remember spending whole afternoons on a warm summer’s day overturning rocks and boulders. I loved to examine the inhabitants in the little pools created from the imprint where the rock had settled into the brook bed. I couldn’t tell one benthic invertebrate from another at that time but I did begin to recognize them as different insects. There were large, fierce looking creatures with giant forceps protruding from their head that must have dominated their aquatic world. I now know these benthic invertebrates as hellgrammites. Their were tiny little critters that built their own houses and crawled around the stream bottom, some out of wee sticks and plant materials, and some out of tiny, tiny sand pebbles. I now know that these are caddisflies. And there were ones that were incredibly quick, and varied greatly in size and shape, but all of them had two tails. I now recognize these as stoneflies, but I also know that not all of them have two tails. The brook was my refuge. It was a place to escape from my own problems, hot weather, my older sister and her talent at getting me to do of her chores, and, of course, hot weather. It was a place where no matter what was bothering me, I could find temporary asylum from the difficulties in my life. It was a place so private that I only shared it with my best friend Jeff. There Jeff and I were free from all of the worries of our lives and all of the worries of a world gone nuclear. We also were frequently free from our clothes. Our mothers could only guess as to how we got all of those but bites on our entire anatomies.
New England is blessed with numerous brooks. Most brooks start in areas where there is steep topography from springs and seeps and other forms of groundwater discharge. At one time these fast moving brooks, dynamos of energy, dictated both the economic well being and life style of early New England inhabitants. The small hill towns of New England had plentiful water powered mills. Water power that operated grist mills, saw mills, and various other kinds of machinery. This mills ultimately produced goods used both locally and goods that were sold outside the region. As history would have it, better, more efficient machinery became available at locations closer to the population centers of New England. And then with the advent of electricity, New England hill town industrial products were no longer an efficient way of doing business. The small water powered mill era was over; a historical artifact. Most of the mills were abandoned. Lack of maintenance and weather events provided by mother nature eventually tore the rock and wooden dams apart, allowing the streams to revert to their natural flow regimes and locations.
During the small mill era, brooks and streams were not recognized as important ecological resources. Beyond the impediments put on the streams by dams, people of that era used the moving water in rivers, streams, and brooks to dispose of human waste, by-products of tannery operations, and by-products of the mining industry. The effect of this human neglect was disastrous. Many of these beautiful streams became waste zones, some of which have not recovered and do not support life in this era. Some mines still leach out heavy metals into stream waters rendering them devoid of life. This is a true tragedy. The good news, of course, is that most streams did recover and today enjoy a relative good state of health as displayed by the biodiversity and the presence of ecologically sensitive fish species such as the brook trout.
Sadly, in this day and age, brooks and streams go largely unnoticed by the general population in New England. Certainly there are groups of people such as fishermen who have a vested interest in the health of our watersheds, but by and large, most people simply don’t think about these precious resource areas in any serious or detailed way. Our watersheds are simply taken for granted and yet they shouldn’t be. Brooks, streams, and rivers are ecologic barometers of our regional environmental health. Eventually all of the water from the hydrologic cycle ends up in our streams. These moving water bodies receive elements from air pollution (mercury for example), land pollution (dust and heavy metals from mining), and ground water pollution (noxious effluent from landfills and dumps). By studying our local water resources we not only realize their importance in the ecology of the area, but we are able to gauge the health of our own local ecosystem.
It is amazing what humans can learn about themselves by observing natural phenomenon. For example, by studying which benthic macroinvertebrates live in specific aquatic environments we can determine how clean or polluted the water is. Specific macroinvertebrates prefer to live in a variety of environments. Some need high oxygen concentrations in the water; others prefer heavy nitrate concentrations and low oxygen amounts in waters. By studying which of these creatures are present (and in what densities) it is possible to determine how lean or dirty the water is, not for just that moment, but for quite sometime into the past. Generally speaking, stoneflies (Order Plecoptera) are very intolerant to pollution that utilizes precious oxygen in the water. Dragonflies and damselflies (Order Odonata) can easily survive moderate amounts of some types of pollution. True flies (Order Diptera) can survive a wide variety of different environmental influences so an observer must really be able to recognize the specific family and genus before drawing any conclusions about how clean or polluted the water is.
Studying the chemistry of our brooks, streams, and rivers also tells us much about our local ecological health. Although chemical analysis gives the observer data that is only specific to the time the samples were taken, it can help to indicate general trends for the studied water resource. Dissolved oxygen tells us how much available oxygen there is for the many different plant and animal species that utilize that environment. Testing nitrate levels gives us an indicator of outside influences that may readily use the available oxygen in water. For instance, animal waste needs oxygen to decompose. Large amounts of animal waste can lower overall oxygen levels within a water resource, making that environ inhospitable to many living organisms. Ph testing tells us the acid/base level of a water resource. The Ph will literally determine what lives in a water system. And testing for alkalinity, actually a measurement of resistance to acidity, tells us how much buffer we have left to combat acidification. This is very important throughout New England due to the past and present influences of acid rain.
There are many environmental groups doing these types of water testing throughout New England. Much of the water tested throughout the region is very clean and healthy. There is one major exception to this observation. In many streams in New England alkalinity has declined to endangered levels. This means we are still losing the battle to acid rain. Much of acid rain does not originate locally, but rather from areas in the Midwest where large coal gasification plants plume out thousands of tons of noxious chemicals into the air each and everyday. It is an everyday example of why it is important to think globally when it comes to environmental issues. Water resources in the Adirondacks have already been the recipient of toxic air pollution and acid rain. The results are disastrous aquatic environments in many high altitude ponds and streams that are becoming devoid of living organisms. With the present energy crisis the increased use of coal dictates more need for technology that reduces harmful admission, and regulations that ensure that these technologies will be put to use by corporate America.
It is important for all the people of New England to take the time to enjoy our brooks and streams. If we don’t take the time to appreciate these natural wonders there will be little will or energy to protect them.
On a hot day one can still find me playing near the edge of a brook, turning over a rock, casting into a pool in search of brook trout, or just sitting on the edge of a stream forgetting about the everyday pressures of life. Sometimes, watching from a distance, I see my children playing in the brook that flows through our land. They play just like I did with my friend Jeff, inventing games and capturing dreams in the cool, wet environment of clear, clean water. It reminds me of why I am an environmental activist. It is for the future of my children and grandchildren, and their turn to enjoy a place where it is absolutely okay to be free in spirit, free from worries, and perhaps, free from the restriction of clothes.
Originally written for the Heath Herald, September 1992.