Our Watersheds, Ourselves

'By celebrating the river, people had regained contact with their home waters' – Continuing our water-themed posts this month, James McGowan shows how getting one's feet wet can help bond a community together while restoring and re-inhabiting the local wild territory.
spent a decade working with the UN to help build the world's largest environmental grant-making organisation. He then chose to refocus on raising a family, restoring his local watershed, and writing. His worldview has been shaped by friendships with Thomas Berry, Vine Deloria, and traditional people from several of the Native Nations.

How did we lose our sense of living here on Earth? How did we become so alienated and estranged from everything else alive? 

– Richard Powers

In his groundbreaking book, God is Red, the Sioux author Vine Deloria wrote that the principal difference between Native and Euro-American worldviews is that the former orients itself around place while the latter orients itself around time. Shakespeare captured the Western emphasis on time when he wrote that, ‘our little lives are rounded with a sleep’, but had he been indigenous to the Americas, he might have said that, ‘our little lives are rounded with a watershed’. Cultural dominance of the time/developmental paradigm means that the spider work of waterways weaving together our ecological address within the web of life – our true homes – remains as much of a mystery as the afterlife for most people.

When we began recruiting volunteers to clean up the little river that runs through the centre of South Orange, New Jersey, a neighbour wondered, ‘what river? Is there a river in town?’  We’ve lost the thread of the substance that runs off our roofs in rivulets, then into streams and rivers, gathering force until it mingles with the ocean, connecting all life on Earth. Without a watershed breakthrough in consciousness that comprehends the fact that water = life, and that we each belong to a specific network of waterways, our species will continue dragging itself and countless others into extinction.

A good first step might be to start identifying our homes by more than the names of streets and towns stamped by real estate speculators, colonists, military leaders, or landlords. Every property could have a watershed identifier to give people some basic grasp of their ecological address. Using satellite imagery, you can take things into your own hands and locate your watershed, then follow it all the way to the sea without even leaving your couch.

In my case it’s the Rahway River, which runs through economically blighted sections of Orange, New Jersey, then winds through wealthy towns like Millburn before supplying drinking water to 30,000 people in the city of Rahway. The river ties together desperation and abundance, neglect with the indispensable, basalt hills with oyster beds, and my backyard with the Hudson River estuary and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

The confluence of waters that flow all around us have been so polluted, neglected, embanked, and buried that they now exist below the field of human awareness 

Recent storms transformed the normally gentle Rahway into a raging class V white water full of plastic that roared through villages, making it a star on Twitter and a curse for storefront business owners. Paved surfaces upstream revealed their double lives as rivers waiting to appear with the next heavy rain and cause billions of dollars in damage. Most of the water pollution in the United States is now due to this kind of stormwater run-off that sweeps plastic weighing the equivalent of 90 aircraft carriers into the ocean every year. As it is in the ocean, so it is in our bodies – we each have our very own internal garbage patch gyres thanks to the plastic we consume in our food and beverages.

In the United States, we’re also confronting the fact that the most important impact of climate change relates to water change – we’re experiencing disruptions in fundamental hydrological cycles throughout the country. While the eastern US has been deluged by record flooding, the western half remains embroiled in a mega-drought of unprecedented proportions. Even as western lakes and waterways turn to dust, fracking for oil and gas in those areas has continued to transform precious fresh water into highly toxic effluent at the  rate of up to three million gallons per well treatment. Megafires devastated 75,000 square miles between 2015-2020. Meanwhile, it is predicted that coastlines will be inundated by seas rising at rates that scientists are constantly readjusting closer to the present day.

In the face of such existential problems, cleaning up a small section of a small river seemed to be a laughably insignificant response.

Yet what if tribes of the Northwest are correct, and water is a sacred means of communication? Chemists know that every drop of water tells a story about its particular journey across earth and sky. Emissions from coal burning smokestacks cause acid rain that kills trees, fish and countless other species, including humans who eat fish that have become toxic due to heavy metals leached from soil. On the other hand, streams fed by normal rain and springs receive enrichment as they flow over rocks, sediments, tree roots and subterranean mycorrhizal fungi that link plants in vast communication networks. Rivers deposit all of these complex, deep time messages into the world ocean – that great living library of the planet. Since water unifies all living things from tiny cyanobacteria to giant blue whales, we realised that every effort to protect water, no matter how seemingly small, would reverberate in ways we couldn’t imagine. So we decided to start a water story of love and respect by celebrating our little river with a day of its own: a River Day.

The first River Day drew a handful of local volunteers who hauled out four tonnes of garbage including bikes, tyres, shopping carts, hoses, pipes, barrels, car parts and plastic of every description. The river had never looked so alive, with a steady stream of people wading through its waters and scouring the banks. At the end of the day, we all felt an enormous sense of accomplishment, but a biologist from the state pulled me aside to say that she could not find any aquatic macroinvertebrates, those tiny creatures who support the bottom of the food chain. Without their presence, she declared the river to be dead. I feared this news would also kill River Day, because why would anyone care about a dead river? I kept the bad news to myself, and pointed instead to the heaps of trash being carted away by the town’s public works department as a sign of success.

In preparation for that first clean-up, we printed several hand-outs about how to protect the river and its watershed, but we discovered that giving people information is not the best way to cause a change of heart or a change of habit. That magic was conjured by allowing kids to get right into the river, a birthright they didn’t know they possessed because their parents had deemed it too unsafe or uncivilised to wade into a stream in a heavily populated New York City suburb.

The families who went into the water that day would soon begin pressuring the town to stop spraying pesticides on adjacent playing fields, to ban plastic bags from the stores, and to stop their neighbours from throwing dog poop bags into storm drains. Being in physical contact with their waterway was a baptism of sorts that created a visceral sense of responsibility for keeping the water safe and clean. The river itself had awakened a spirit of activism among the people who lived within its watershed.

On River Day the following year, the little stream began feeding people. An expert in wild edibles led a foraging walk along the banks and returned with a collection of harvested plants which they sauteed over a camp stove and handed out to the volunteers. Attendance had doubled to over two hundred people who browsed through seminars on native plants, rain gardens, impervious surfaces, and low-input landscaping. Live music wafted over the scene courtesy of local players. Grocery stores had donated free food and drink. Children who were too young to go into the river were hard at work on a river–themed participatory art project.

A theatre troupe staged a musical about the river featuring large scale puppets depicting aquatic wildlife who interacted with human characters wearing oversized paper-mache masks and costumes. The story revolved around a tech-obsessed teenager surrounded by a diversity of other life forms who were under existential threat and striving to establish lines of communication with her.

River-themed musical (photo: James McGowan)

The forgotten river was being celebrated in grand fashion not seen since the Lenape tribe held ceremonies along its banks 300 years ago. We attempted to remedy their notable absence by reaching out to the tribe, and they sent an elder who offered a traditional blessing of the river in the language spoken on its banks for at least 3,000 years. He passed around a pouch of tobacco so that each participant could take a pinch and make their own offering to the river while he expressed gratitude to the waters that are still held sacred by the Lenape. What had started as a simple river clean–up was becoming a beloved annual community celebration, a rite of spring on the first weekend in May, and something even deeper.

During River Day’s fourth year, a teacher at the local middle school proposed making the event a centrepiece for his science class. He developed a ‘River Curriculum’ that took students on field trips to perform tests of the river, which they followed up with their own independent study projects for presentation to the public at River Day. The 1,000 people who participated in the fifth River Day browsed 40 tables presenting student projects, each of which exuded the type of enthusiasm usually reserved for sports, music, or other after school activities. These young citizen scientists are now contributing important data to the process of managing the watershed.

The story they’re writing with water, the common bond for all life on Earth, continues to unfold across generations up and downstream

Another group had discovered the growing popularity of River Day, but these folks had to be kept at arm’s length: politicians. If we allowed candidates or apparatchiks from one party to make an appearance, we would be required to welcome those from the other side. We skirted this minefield by turning down requests for participation by any political persuasion. Political operatives could have claimed that we were violating their right to freedom of speech, but for once sanity and restraint reigned, and no one pushed the issue. As the years went by and the political divide turned violent, we realised with increasing clarity that we had dodged a bullet, because if we had let that first group set up shop, River Day would have become a political carnival, and then died. Instead, it became apolitical, ecumenical, and wildly popular across all political camps.

Watersheds have formed political boundaries since the dawn of civilization. Waterways and ridgelines offer organic boundaries that divide human groupings into manageable-sized units capable of acting responsibly toward their shared land and water resources. The practice of gerrymandering represents the exact opposite-dividing up landscapes with imaginary lines to manipulate the vote in favour of particular financial interests. Reorienting municipal and voting boundaries with the natural contours of watersheds would be another big step toward helping people reconnect with their ecological homelands and protecting the biodiversity that ties it all together.

Five years after we first started cleaning the river, I noticed a large snapping turtle laying eggs on a small section of riverbank. An egret and a great blue heron stalked schools of fish that had appeared in the shallows which had once been muddy but were now crystal clear. The muskrat population boomed, but foxes patrolled the banks, keeping them in check. Upon returning for the sixth River Day, the state biologist was astounded to find the water was now teeming with several types of macroinvertebrates. Birdwatchers have now identified 90 bird species along the one mile section of river that runs through town. The river’s regeneration manifested the Lakota term ‘mni wichoni’. Water is life.

By celebrating the river, people had regained contact with their home waters – their touchstone to the natural world – and the river responded by coming back to life. The story they’re writing with water, the common bond for all life on Earth, continues to unfold across generations up and downstream. No matter where one lives, the hyper-local, home waters of one’s ‘neighbourhood-shed’ beckon to be rediscovered and celebrated as the essential starting point for finding the way home.


Calling all salt and fresh water lovers! Dark Mountain’s next How We Walk through the Fire creative workshop will focus on the element of water and take place in late July/early August All details here: https://dark-mountain.net/events/waterland/. 

Dark Mountain: Issue 21

Our Spring 2022 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that revolves around the theme of confluence


Read more

  1. I found it a stimulating experience in which once again we can discover that there are no lost causes, or at least not completely lost, and that life always gives us a chance to be reborn between the cracks of destruction.

  2. very moving.
    I have just finished a beautiful seminar about beaver by Water Stories.
    Can beaver be reintroduced legally in New jersey?

  3. I grew up in Cranford, NJ and in high school in 1971-2 our ecology club cleaned the river, pulling out similar items to those you described. We helped start and staff a recycling center in town. I had grown up paddling on the river, but never in it. I remember a river carnival with floats. I always loved and felt connected to the river, and as a songwriter, it has found it’s way into my songs. I tried to paste a link here, but it won’t allow me to. Look for Paddle On the Rahway, and Home in Old New Jersey on YouTube or other streaming sites.

  4. Thanks Kim. I forwarded the youtube link for Paddle on the Rahway to the people at the Rahway River Watershed Association and others. Maybe it’ll get some play time at an event.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *