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Posts from the ‘Environment’ Category

Holding Back the Waters

With every tick of the clock it seems our ignoring of climate change becomes more menacing.  Climate change isn’t coming of course, it’s here.  At this rate, it appears that we may well not act in time to prevent the rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change from significantly altering our shores and our lives.   At the risk of sounding quite pessimistic, what’s known as “mitigation,” lessening the impact of climate change rather than preventing it, will almost certainly have to play a role.   Who will likely play a critical role in that event, at least in the U.S.?  You may or may not like the answer:  the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a leading contender.  We heard a lot about them during the lead up to and recovery from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Their presence in the South and along the Mississippi is well known, but what about New England.? Much like climate change, the Corps of Engineers isn’t coming, they are already here, big time.  Their role is largely focused on helping to prevent serious flooding.  Their surprisingly heavy, in my view, involvement in just the Blackstone Valley may offer some insight into what their activities will look like.  Keep in mind that that these examples are just a few out of many many activities in which the Corps is engaged.

The Blackstone River travels from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island.  Along the way, it falls about 500 feet.  That fall involves the release of a considerable kinetic energy.  It can easily turn a mill’s water wheels and provide sufficient power for major industrial activity.  The Blackstone was the site of America’s first textile mill, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  The River also floods, routinely.  Some of those floods have been extremely damaging, resulting in the loss of life and tremendous loss of property.  That’s been the focus of much of the Corps work.

The impact, present and future, of their work was brought home to me when we visited Woonsocket Falls dam, in November of 2018.  To begin the story, here’s what we saw on a previous visit, in July 2017.  hunt_170716__1000279-edit

Suitable for fishing though I’m not sure I’d recommend it.  Actually the image below is from August 2016, same location.  Our friendly heron was taking her time, the water was very low, just the right height for a relaxed afternoon fishing expedition.

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Fast forward to November, it looked like this (the video is 45 seconds):

If you’re looking in on a mobile device and don’t see the video click here.

A bit more impressive, you’d have to agree.  The River is capable of significant variations in its height and flow.  This was after a wet fall, but it can, and may become, a whole lot wetter.  This dam was built after a serious, life threatening flood in 1955.  The volatility of the River has drawn the interest of the Corps of Engineers all along it’s route.  The gates you see can be raised or lowered to control the flow of the River.  The dam cleverly also supplies hydroelectric power.

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Just a bit north of the dam, you can see how the River was “channeled” by the Corps.  The channeling also helps maintain human control of the River.  However, channeling also inhibits the natural exchange processes between the River and the shore, processes which can help restore a river, among other things.

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The channeling runs through the City of Woonsocket, as well as in quite a few other populated  and industrial areas.

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At the other end of the River, in Millbury, Massachusetts, you’ll see the large Diversion Channel.  The Channel connects with the River and which normally looks like this (below).  It was dug in the late 1940’s again in response to flooding in the City of Worcester and surrounding towns.  Normally its nearly empty.

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After our wet fall in 2018, it looked like this (below).  The Channel acts like a temporary reservoir, a place for excess water to go rather than flowing into city streets.

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Diversion strategies like this take a lot of land.  There’s a larger diversion area along one of the tributaries of the River, the West River, in Uxbridge, Massachusetts.

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If the River moves toward flood stage, flood gates in the dam below are closed storing water, allowing the water level to fall gently over time.

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The dam itself is 2500 feet long.  Behind the dam is a large stretch of protected land, over 500 acres that is largely managed as a park (by the National Park Service).

It is striking how many resources are already going into holding back the water.  Again, this is only a small fraction of what is taking place, largely unnoticed.  That is not to criticize the work done by the Corps.  Much of it, at least in New England, is done to protect life and limb. If you’d like a more comprehensive run down, click here.

But, this is a big deal, one that is very expensive.   The projected budget for 2019 is on the order of 4.75 billion dollars.  Intervening in nature can also be very problematic, as the citizens of New Orleans and environs know.  The management of the Mississippi River is perhaps even more problematic.  We may be headed for the need to greatly expand their work, by a very large margin.  Prevention or mitigation?

I’ll close with a couple of images from a “wall,” also constructed by the Corps, that actually does some good.  These are the massive hurricane wall and gates that protect the City of Providence from flooding.

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Acadia

We haven’t had a particularly pretty foliage season in Central Massachusetts.  Not to my eyes at least.  Luckily, we had an opportunity to spend a few days further north in Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island, Maine.  They were not so unfortunate!  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such intense color, so of course I spent a good deal of time working in black and white.  We were with Tony Sweet and Susan Milestone and a bunch of very nice and quite talented workshop participants.  I always learn a lot from them, probably because of their depth of preparation, their knowledge and their positive attitude.  Tony has an ability to articulate the creative process and rationale that I always find inspiring.  He has a wonderful way of validating the imagination, something I need a dose of every so often.  I recommend them highly if you’re looking for a workshop experience.  You won’t be disappointed.

But, no thousand words today though, on with the pictures.  (And I swear, I did not touch the saturation slider on these.  You get up early in the morning and shoot late into the evening with Tony.  Mother nature is the one manipulating the colors at those hours, but that’s sort of her job so…)

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Along Duck Creek Road

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Boulder Beach at Sunrise, in the rain

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From Thunder Hole (It really does sound like Thunder)

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From Cadillac Mountain

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Acadia National Park is about six hours north from our home.  I can’t believe it took us this long to get there.  It is a big Park, and I would recommend either going with a guide, or doing some serious research before hand, during the day time!

Tech Note:  I hate writing about gear because it’s basically irrelevant at this point.  But a number of these images were taken with the Nikon Z7, Nikon’s new entry into the mirrorless market place.  For whatever reason, none good, it seems to draw a fair amount of criticism on the good old internet, particularly from those who have never used it.  It seems to be a tribal thing, or a way for “influencers” to generate click bait.  It’s sad that all you have to do these days is make something up and it becomes fact.

I thought the camera performed exceptionally well.  I’ll be using it a lot for video as I have grown very tired of taking along a second system.  The still image quality, video quality, still and video autofocus, all worked beyond my expectations.  And we really did land on the moon in 1969.

“Under the Highway” Exhibition in Worcester

Falls Under the Highway, Blackstone River - 2015

EXHIBITION OPENING AT THE FRANKLIN SQUARE GALLERY, HANOVER THEATER, JUNE 27, 6 – 8PM.  ARTIST TALK AT 6:15.  REFRESHMENTS WILL BE SERVED!

I’m happy to report that an exhibition of my work from the Blackstone River will be opening at the Franklin Square Gallery at the Hanover Theater in Worcester, Massachusetts on June 27.  The exhibition is produced by ArtsWorcester and I’m eternally grateful for this opportunity.

The exhibition works were taken along the Blackstone River Bikeway, in Millbury and Worcester, Massachusetts.  The Bikeway, which is an even better walking trail, was created during Worcester’s “Little Dig,” i.e. the reconstruction of Route 146, around 2000.  I have been fascinated by the anxious beauty there since I first explored the Path in 2013.  One can see the interaction of the River, the highway and the railroad, and society in the context of an urban park.

What the River Sees, Blackstone River- 2016

The River is both beautiful and long suffering.  The bikeway was created as part of an effort to celebrate and restore the River through the establishment of the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor.  The Blackstone has enormous historical significance as the engine of entrepreneurship in the new United States in the late 1700’s.  Enormous wealth was created, thousands were employed, but the River was taken for granted.  As I’ve described here previously, the River became one of the most polluted rivers in the country.  Now, many folks are trying to help the River and the surrounding areas, but it’s tough going.  I hope the exhibition contributes to raising awareness of the hidden beauty of the River even in this seemingly hostile environment, celebrating the work that’s gone into trying to help the River and at the same time demonstrating the ever present possibility that we could take our environment for granted at any moment.

Railroad Bridge, Diversion Canal - 2015

The Anthropocene

Relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.  

Have we crossed into a new geological and biological epoch?  Perhaps.  There is some debate as to when humans began to overpower the earth, at least the surface 1% of it.  Global warming has only been on the radar screen, for most of us, for a few decades.  Some scholars though date the anthropocene from the onset of the industrial revolution, and perhaps even the dawn of agriculture thousands of years ago.

Traveling around the Blackstone River Valley of central Massachusetts, one gets the definite sense that it’s been going on for a while.  I’ve been immersed in issues related to sustainability for the past year or so as part of my work at Babson College.  This valley, where I now live, reveals an interesting story of the industrial revolution and its impact, one that I will be talking and photographing more about over the next several years.

I’ll with just a simple image of a rather iconic location in the Valley,  the dam at the Mumford River that created the mill ponds that powered Whitin Machine Works.

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The Whitin Machine Works was founded in 1831.  It ultimately became one of the largest textile machinery factories in the world, employing over 5000 people at its peak in the late 1940’s.  It’s been out of business since 1976, victim of changing business conditions.  Obviously, here, there was an impact on the environment, though nothing we aren’t used to seeing.  Perhaps not such a big deal, though we can imagine that the river was ultimately quite polluted. Consider though, courtesy of Google Earth, the bigger picture.

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When I took the first image I was standing on the sidewalk of the roadway you see in the lower right hand corner.  Note how the dam has changed the surrounding geography, for miles.  The dam no longer provides power for the mill, but it shaped a landscape that those in the community came to accept and with which they are now powerfully linked.  The next time you see a dam, consider what’s behind it.  This is one dam.  More to come.

(I want to give full credit to my colleague at Babson College, Professor Joanna Carey, for the fundamental ideas behind this series on dams in New England.)

Further Up the River: Boom and Bust

Readers know that the story of the Blackstone River has been a major focus of my work over the past year or so.  Much like the Quabbin Reservoir area, I find the mix of nature, history and environmental struggle compelling.  For first time callers, the Blackstone River runs from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island, a span of just under 50 miles.  The fact that it falls 500 feet along the way created the story of the River as resource, place of exploitation, place of growth, place of social change, place of pollution, place of neglect and place of beauty.  That’s quite a list I know, but I do believe it is actually a rather conservative list.

The Blackstone River was the home of the industrial revolution in the United States, beginning just after the signing of the Constitution.  Entrepreneurs powered mill after mill with the falling water.  The landscape changed from agrarian to industrial.  Massive numbers of workers and their families came to work in those mills from all over the Europe as well as Canada.  Times were good for many.  Global competition intervened and the factories moved.  Jobs were lost and the river was left as a dumping ground.  It became a poster child for the Clean Water Act and since the Act’s signing, the quality of the water is improving, albeit slowly.  To those of you who have read the same material before, sorry for the review session.  Now we move on.

We recently took another journey with our friends from Blackstone River Cruises, this time along the stretch of the River that runs through northern Woonsocket, Rhode Island.  The era of the mills began south of here in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, but this is where that era exploded, before imploding.  The River as it runs through Woonsocket was home to some of the largest mills in the United States.  The River also flooded here, repeatedly, sometimes with devastating results.  As you cruise along the River, you can see the history of nature and man and their impact here.  I think it’s useful just to absorb the scene before drawing conclusions, so I start with the River itself.

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The River is quite lovely, especially on a day like this.  In the background you can see the industrial past and present.  Looking more closely, you’ll see that the River has been “channeled.”

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Rock has been placed along long stretches of the river bank on both sides by the Corps of Engineers.  That river bank is not supposed to move in the wake of a flood event.  Other actions by the Corps, the opening and closing of flood gates, are meant to control the water level.

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The abandoned mills pre-date the rock channeling, but not the flooding.  When a mill is flooded, jobs are lost, sometimes thousands of them.  The Alice Mill was once the largest rubber factory in the world, built in 1889 and continued to function as a rubber factory until the 1960’s with a few interruptions.  After its main activity ceased, efforts were made to repurpose the building, but it burned, as abandoned mills tend to, in 2011.

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The former homes of the families who worked in these mills are still readily apparent along the River.

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Parts of Woonsocket are quite nice, but the city payed a high price for the experience of boom and bust.

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Further north, in spite of the rock channeling, nature is making a comeback as it always does when left to its own devices.

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One problem we face is understanding the impact of actions that can take hundreds of years to play out.  We’re not terribly patient as a rule.  Boom and bust appears from this vantage point to be a hard way to go.