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Watershed Citizenship: Exploring my Backyard Watershed

One of my last memories with my dad involves a small tadpole. There is a pond, hidden from the bustle of suburbia through a winding walking trail, that lives just a fifteen-minute walk away from my childhood home. One spring day in 2008, my dad and I decided to walk to the pond. My dad loved to fish; in fact, that is how I got my name. When my mom was pregnant with me, my dad took a fishing trip to Brielle, New Jersey, and there, the lightbulb in my mom’s head turned on and my name, Brielle, was decided. The water was a sort of therapeutic place for my dad, and I longed to see him healed from his battle with alcoholism. This particular spring day, we decided to bring a net with us. As we walked the outer edge of the pond, my dad pointed out some tadpoles. We looked at each other in the same sort of ornery way, and just minutes later, my dad and I were racing home with a tadpole in our net. As we ran, the small amount of water my dad tried to cup in the net certainly flew to the wind as my small, eight-year-old legs struggled to keep pace with my dad. As you can imagine, the tadpole did not survive, as well as our lightning strike of a dream involving the growth of the tadpole in our home aquarium.

A year later, my dad was gone, just like the tadpole, in what felt like the blink of an eye. In my grief, I walked to the pond we loved frequently. Small bodies of water, teeming with pure, innocent life, have always made me feel close to my dad. That’s why, a decade later, I was both sad and excited as my family moved from my childhood home. A part of me felt broken, leaving the pond that I could walk to in just fifteen minutes, but I also felt the pull of a new adventure calling my name. One that would certainly involve my dad.

In the middle of the bridge, I paused to look down at the running waters beneath me. Dogs and their walkers, moms and strollers, friends chatting about their week all pass by me, and I can’t help but tune them out. I was walking on the Chester Creek Trail, a rail-trail settled in the Philly suburbs of Delaware County. Chester Creek, which I was drawn to on the first day of my family’s move, seemed isolated, a gem amid suburban life filled with SUV’s, lawnmowers, and strip malls. Not until today have I realized that Chester Creek is far from isolated. Zooming out, about a mile down the road from the trail, sits my family home. My house is usually filled with laughter, friends, and puppies, and part of what makes my house so special is the land it sits on. An urban oasis that sold my mom and stepdad on the house in the buying process, my backyard is something noteworthy. Rid of fences, my yard holds several stoic trees, deer tracks (and even deer bones), mystical mosses, cheerful buttercups, and best of all, a small stream. My yard is special in the sense that it feeds my family a place of sanctuary, but it is also important as it leads directly to Chester Creek. My backyard is a watershed.

I came to the realization that my backyard is a watershed one afternoon as I sat by the stream. I was thinking of my dad and our adventures by the pond. Since the move, the pond felt so far away. Logic eventually cut through my emotions, as it finally hit me that the pond really is only now a ten-minute drive away. In fact, the pond probably lives in the same watershed as my new friend, the stream in my backyard. After verifying online, I found that the glue that holds the pond and my stream together is Chester Creek. Of course, I could think in a more regional sense, and focus on the Delaware River watershed, but something about exploring ‘what is the Chester Creek watershed’ feels more intimate.

As I began my search to learn more about the Chester Creek watershed, two words stuck out to me: Watershed Citizenship. I wondered, how can I be a good citizen of the watershed that has offered me (and my dad) so much healing throughout my life? I started with Walt Cressler’s book, The Flow of History Along the Chester Creek. Cressler gave me tangible facts surrounding my watershed. The Chester Creek watershed in 67.2 square miles, encompasses 14 townships, 5 boroughs and one city. The watershed runs 128 miles through rural, suburban, and urban areas before reaching the Delaware River.

Social constructs shape the ways we think about where we live. Most people don’t say they live in a certain watershed, but in a specific county or town. Schools, libraries, town halls, and more are built on man-made spatial constructs instead of natural watershed boundaries, leading to an initial disconnect between people and the watersheds they live within. This disconnect fosters a certain notion of uncaringness for individual actions and how they impact local watersheds. For example, although I’ve lived in the Chester Creek watershed my entire life, it has never been included in any of my postal addresses. It caught me off guard as I realized something as seemingly innocent as a postal address could have much larger implications on conservation and care for the natural world.

So, I wondered, what is a way to tie the bureaucracies of life to the natural features, like watersheds, that sustain and connect my region? James J. Parsons notes that a bioregion “refers to both a geographical terrain and to a “terrain of consciousness”- to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place.” I encountered many technical definitions of bioregionalism, that all perfectly boil down to a sentence from the Living Awareness Institute, “bioregionalism is a fancy name for living a rooted life.” Adopting a bioregional mindset calls for living, thinking, and acting in a way that considers both the human and more-than-human aspects of our close surroundings.

My ‘Watershed Citizenship Toolkit’ was now packed with several things, but I found myself wondering why? Why do I care so much about my watershed and the stream in my backyard, when it feels like so many people live their entire lives without even realizing they live in a watershed? Research and perspective led me to an answer to this question. It’s all about experience, as experience fosters care. Not everyone feels an inward pull to a stream based on childhood memories with their dad. Not everyone learned from their dad that a pond tucked away in urban life is a magical gem to be loved. Not everyone sits by water, hoping to feel a spiritual hug from a loved one.

Practicing natural history was a deeply spiritual, personal journey that enhanced my experience with the water that lives in my backyard. I felt connected to my dad as I became an active, mindful observer of my stream. It felt as if my dad was crunching through the snowy backyard with me in the freeze of February. My dad smiled with me as the snow melted, and the stream broke free of its icy chains. We would stare at a small bubble that danced around the stream after the previous day’s rain.

This journey was just the beginning of my quest to be a good citizen of my watershed. Moving forward, I have several understandings tucked in my back pocket that will not only influence my decisions daily, but hopefully can be used to spread my knowledge to others. It’s important to understand who has the ability to form a place-based relationship with their watershed, as a connection between mind, heart, and physical space is essential to Watershed Citizenship. I hope to include others, besides my dad, in my quest to better myself as a citizen of my watershed, because after all, no matter where you live, you live in a watershed.



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