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Our Home, The Winooski River 

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Workers from CCS Constructors in Morrisville assembled and then put into place the new Cross Vermont Trail footbridge across the Winooski River during the third week of July, 2021.
We all give different answers to the question “Where are you from?” Those of us who live in central Vermont should start saying “the Winooski River.” Named by the Abenaki for the wild onion found along its banks, the Winooski is the deepest connection we have with our fellow human beings, other life-forms, and the land itself. And it’s a connection we should start recognizing as our home.

Most of the time, we think of the Winooski as a thin ribbon of water on the edge of our everyday lives. We rarely take it seriously unless it threatens to overflow its banks. 

Nothing could be further from reality. The Winooski is not just the river we see at the center of the valley, but the whole web of tributaries that spiderweb into the highlands, under the ground, and into our lives. Every time we take a shower, drink coffee, wash our car, or fill our pool, we receive its gift. It touches us dozens of times a day, and we make it part of who we are. 

Even more tangible is that for better or worse — and much of the time it’s for the worse — we contribute to it. All the water we use ends up in the Winooski River. We’ve inflicted a heavy toll. There are certainly a lot of negatives: motor oil, fertilizer, human waste, road salt, deforestation and the resulting erosion. 

Thankfully, we’ve taken major steps to change our relationship with the Winooski. We’re much less likely to directly pollute by dumping untreated waste into the river. But we’ve still got to tackle all the indirect ways we hurt the Winooski. To do so, we’ve got to learn to inhabit it as a home.

A good book to help us think through this is “In the Land of the Wild Onion: Travels Along the Winooski River” by Charles Fish. Fish, a “real Vermonter” of Yankee stock who grew up in Essex Junction, walked and paddled the whole river to meet it in a new way. 

Fish recounts the history and introduces readers to the wide range of characters and communities in the watershed that you’d expect from an “environmental” book: the tracker Susan Morse (who he calls “the most interesting animal in the forest”), the Friends of the Mad River and their work to stabilize eroding riverbanks, and organic dairy farmers.

But Fish goes further and includes groups and organizations we don’t usually include in the story of a healthy ecosystem. He highlights hunters and trappers, such as “Bobcat Man” Patrick Soneira, who play key roles in restoring and advocating for wildlife. Fish visits the Montpelier Wastewater Treatment Plant, an imperfect but huge agent in starting to clean up our mess. 

Fish comes out hopeful. “In my travels in the Winooski watershed, I found much to discourage a lover of rivers, but the more I learned about past and present, the more reasons I found for a guarded optimism.” In Vermont, long-term economic interest often elides with those of conservationists, giving us “reason to hope.” 

Through Fish’s eyes, the reader comes away with not only seeing the Winooski in a new light, but also with a new identity. The river spans all the other, more ephemeral divisions that separate us. You see what we are: tens of thousands of leaves sustained by the trunk every minute of every day. 

Most importantly, we see that we do hold some things in common. Aside from details about the cost and who does the work, I don’t think there is anyone in central Vermont who wouldn’t like the fish population to recover, no matter where we are on the political spectrum.

The Winooski River is the source and culmination of who we are as central Vermonters. We’re better than what it’s showing. Let’s find a way for our home to reflect the best of who we are.

Damian Costello is the Director of Postgraduate Studies at NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community and a speaker with the Vermont Humanities Council. On Monday, May 23 at 7 p.m. he will be giving a talk in-person and on Zoom for the Kellogg-Hubbard Library titled, “Murder in Plain Sight? An Abenaki/Settler Mystery on the Vermont Frontier.” Sign up at kellogghubbard.org/adult-programs

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