CITIZEN-SCIENTISTS: WATCHDOGS OVER THE WATER

By Jock Lauterer

Earth Day number one, I remember like it was yesterday. 1970. As a young upstart editor at a start-up weekly in rural western North Carolina, I was called the “hippie editor” by some locals.

But that’s OK. There was this “hippie teacher” at the local high school, too, a gifted young visionary who, when he heard about the outrageous notion of holding a day to focus on the environment all across the nation, latched on to it with all fours. So we did it. And between the two of us — Mike, the hippie teacher and Jock, the hippie editor — dang if we didn’t launch Earth Day in li’l ol’ Rutherford County.

All these years later, 37 to be exact (I can always remember because my first kid, Selena, was one year old at the time), Earth Day has evolved into a more than just a single day; for many it has become a way of life.
My years in the mountains of North Carolina as a 24/7/365 small-town newspaper editor left me with what has become now a sacred legacy: a cabin on 50 acres not far from Lake Lure. And it was the building of that cabin during those “back-to-the-land” days of the ‘70s that really schooled me in ecology.

I built the cabin in a wide, lush hollow to be close to water — a creek that meanders affectionately around the house, so that sitting on the deck, you can see Silver Creek for 180 degrees and hear her gentle chuckling as she trips and falls and laughs over mossy rocks.

Water — good old H20 — plays a critical role in not just my housesitting and lifestyle, but life in general. Yet here in the water-blessed East, how easy it is take for granted — like a faithful old lover, this sweet water.

When in fact, without it, we’d be like folks out West, who, dealing with water as a finite resource, must fight over “water politics”, something most of us don’t give a second thought to, unless there’s a drought, or we don’t pay our water bill.

Author Sam Keen suggests that water is an intensely private thing and that each of us has a responsibility to this vital substance.

I didn’t come to fully appreciate what Keen calls “watershed consciousness” until I built my cabin and laid in 1,000 feet of piping from a mountain spring for gravity water high above the house.

As Keen suggests, I know where my water starts, how it gets to my house, what I do with it inside, and where it goes from the cabin: my own little water cycle.

Apart from its utilitarian value, water is fun. For three decades now, humble Silver Creek has provided the little boy who never got his fill of building dams with hours of contented recreation.

But most recently, I stumbled on a new concept: You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to appreciate your ecological habitat. You can become, what they call a “citizen-scientist,” because each one of us should make ourselves more knowledgeable about our own little corner of the world, especially if we exercise any control over it.

So, Silver Creek became my lab, my woodsy classroom and my professor. A field guidebook to Eastern creeks and streams opened my eyes to the tiny but nonetheless miraculous wonders of my sliver of water.

I learned my creek is a system, a subtle but complete community where thousands of entities — flora and fauna, both large and small, organic and inorganic — thrive by interacting with each other and the immutable forces of nature.

So I no longer build as many dams, for beneath each rock lays a complete community. Instead, I catalogue my creek critters: caddis fly larvae cases, periwinkle snail shells and wriggling salamanders, to name a few.

And in the water, there are leopard frog tadpoles, minnows darting in the sunlight, crawdads and crawmoms.

And on surface of the water, striders, skimmers and Chinese water boatmen bugs. Why, I could spend the rest of my summers devoted to making such lists. Perhaps I will.

Like the Native Americans, I cannot accept the concept that I “own” this land, this water, this community (though the county tax books say I do). I would rather think that I am but one of thousands of citizen-scientists out there — caretakers of the land entrusted to us, watchdogs over the water, keepers of the creeks.

Old-timers say: they ain’t makin’ any more land.

Well, y’all, they ain’t making any more WATER, either.

For more reading on small watersheds, check out Michael J. Caduto’s “Pond and Brook: A Guide to Freshwater Environments” published by University Press of New England, Hanover, N.H. 03755

Author of the article