ODE TO SPRING

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March 20, 2015. It was the first day of spring. Cold, raw, with leaden skies and a promise of snow. Supposedly not a lot of snow. The forecast called for less than an inch. Not noteworthy. After the past 7 weeks, “noteworthy” has a new meaning.

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So I said “Let’s go shooting,” and Garry agreed.

Garry goes out everyday. I am sometimes inside for a week or more. Usually, it doesn’t bother me. This winter, though, I haven’t been able to get out at all, not even to the backyard or deck.

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Finally, I got restless. I had a sudden, urgent need for a change of scenery. An airing. It was, after all, spring. The vernal equinox.

We went down to the river and took pictures.

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I’ve lived in the northeast my entire life, minus 9 years. Garry too. We’ve both been in New England through many winters. I don’t remember this much snow still on the ground so late in the season. Not in my 28 winters. Garry’s been here or in Boston for 45 years and he doesn’t remember one like this, either.

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I don’t necessarily expect it to be warm and flowery at the end of March, but I expect the snow to be mostly melted. Maybe see a crocus or two. Robins returning to build nests.

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Not this year. No crocus, no robins. And the thing is, it’s cold. Still dropping into the low twenties at night and barely going above freezing by day.

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NOTHING SAYS SPRINGTIME LIKE MORE SNOW

March 21, 2015. It was the second day of spring. Surprise! It’s snowing. It had been snowing since the previous afternoon and there wasn’t much accumulation. But it wasn’t nothing, either. All the ground which had appeared was white again.

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I took pictures out the front of the house, out the back window and over the deck. I still can’t get to the deck, but I can push the door open about halfway. We call this progress.

We cancelled our planned excursion for the beginning of April. Even if the weather turns suddenly seasonably warm, it will take more than two weeks for the mess to clear up. For the mud to dry up. For the huge piles of dirty ice to disappear. Maybe we’ll go in the autumn.

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Maybe we’ll just stay home.

RIVER OF DESTINY – BORN ON THE BLACKSTONE

BORN ON THE BLACKSTONE: A SHORT HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

Born Bankrupt

America was born bankrupt. We won a revolution, but lost everything else. Our economy depended on Great Britain. We produced raw material, but England turned materials into goods.

Battle of Lexington and Concord revolution

Not merely did we depend on the British to supply us with finished goods we could not produce ourselves, we depended on British banks, shipping, and trade routes.

Everything has a price and we had no money. We hoped we could reach an agreement with England short of war and had there been a different monarch on the throne, we might have been able to. Despite the Massachusetts “Sam Adams faction” most colonists felt at least some allegiance to England.

We had no “American identity” because there was no America with which to identify. What colonists wanted were the rights of free Englishmen. A deal should have been reached, but George III said no. It was war. England lost their wealthiest colonies and we were born.

How did we win the war? George Washington did an amazing job considering what he had to work with. And then, there were the French.

French military support was the key. Ships, guns, mercenaries. It was a loan we agreed to pay back. The French revolution was a stroke of luck indeed. Afterwards, when Napoleon suggested we repay our war debt, we said “What war debt?” Phew.

What Did We Have?

Slaves and land. Sugar and rum. Most slaves lived in the south, but were brought here by New England sea captains. Held in New York, and Boston, sold to slavers at northern markets, they were then sent south to be resold to individual owners. Our entire economy was based on slaves.

The new-born United States had no factories, no national bank, currency, credit, courts, laws, or central government. Even before 1776, slavery was the polarizing issue in the colonies. When it came time to write a Constitution, it was obvious abolishing slavery would doom it, so slavery became law, laying the groundwork for America’s bloodiest war.

87 years later, more than 600,000 lives would be the butcher’s bill for that “deal.” It would twist and distort American history, shape our politics, society, culture, and social alignments. Its legacy remains. When you dine with the Devil, bring a long spoon.

Welcome to the Blackstone Valley

People needed work. Trade goods. If this country was going to develop into anything, it needed reliable sources of income.

Slave and rum might work for a few, but most settlers didn’t own ships. Moreover, slaving was never a profession for “nice folks.” Decent people might live off the labor of slaves, but actually buying and selling people was more than they could stomach.

As great minds gathered in Philadelphia to draft a document to build a nation, other great minds sought ways to make money. It’s the American way.

Renovated into elderly and affordable housing, the old Crown and Eagle mill in Uxbridge is beautiful today.

The Crown and Eagle Mill today, renovated into elderly and affordable housing.

As the Constitution went into effect in 1789, the American Industrial Revolution took shape on the banks of the Blackstone River.

Moses Brown had been fighting his own war. He was battling the Blackstone. With a 450 foot drop over a 46-mile course — an average drop of about 10 feet per mile — the Blackstone River is a powerhouse. Not a wide river, its sharp drop combines with its narrowness and meandering path to give it much more energy than a river of this size should generate.

As the Constitution was gaining approval, Brown tried to build a cotton thread factory in Pawtucket, RI at a falls on the Blackstone River. He was sure he could harness the river to power his mill, but at the end of 1789, the score stood at Blackstone River – 1, Moses Brown – 0.

America had her welcome mat out in those days. We needed people. We weren’t picky. All immigrants were welcomed, a stroke of luck for Moses Brown.

Slaterville Mill -- oldest mill in the Blackstone Valley

Slaterville Mill — oldest mill in the Blackstone Valley

In December 1789, Samuel Slater — a new immigrant from England — began working for Brown. Slater was an engineer with years of experience working in English textile mills. In less than a year, he built a working mill on the Blackstone River. America’s first factory was open for business.

Slaters Mill restoration (museum)

Slater’s Mill restoration (museum)

Mills sprang up everywhere along the Blackstone. From Worcester to Providence, its banks were lined with mills and factories. More sprouted by the Merrimack and eventually, everywhere in New England where a river ran.

The Blackstone Canal

What made the Blackstone a natural for generating power made it useless for shipping. Horse-drawn wagons were slow and expensive. It took 2 to 3 days over dirt roads from Worcester to Providence.

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When winter came, the trip was impossible. All of which led to the building of the Blackstone Canal.

What Does This Have To Do With Slavery?

Mills brought employment to the north. It created an industrial base which would give the north the ability to fight a civil war and win. It started with the river, continued with a canal, expanded with railroads. Which is why the Blackstone Valley is the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution … a revolution that brought the U.S. into the modern world and positioned us to become top dog on the international scene.

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The canal system remains largely intact. Trails along the canals where horses towed barges are walking paths. Barges are gone, but small boats enjoy the open stretches of canal and river.

Railroads

Railroads were the game-changer. When rail arrived, the canal was abandoned. Business boomed.

By the end of the 19th century, the Blackstone River was lined with mills and factories. The Blackstone supplied the hydro power and in return, the river was used to dispose of industrial waste and sewage.

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By the early 1900s, the Blackstone River in Massachusetts was grossly polluted. This was also the beginning of the end of the textile industry in the northeast and the beginning of mass unemployment in the north.

As of 1923, the majority of nation’s cotton was grown, spun and woven down south — and that’s where the mills went. One by one, they closed, never to reopen. Without its mills and factories, the valley’s population began to shrink.

Pollution

In 1971, the Blackstone River was labeled “one of America’s most polluted rivers” by Audubon magazine. It was the low point. Time to clean up the mess.

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We’re still cleaning up. Although not as bad as it was, the watershed isn’t clean yet. Against all logic and reason, waste-water is still being discharged from a sewage treatment plant in Millbury. It’s hard to fathom the reasoning, if any, of those knuckleheads still pouring sewage into our river.

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Good news? The birds and fish are back. American eagles nest in my woods. Herons and egrets wade in the shallows to catch the fish who breed here. The river is alive, if not entirely well. An apt description of our nation too.

A bright, beautiful first morning at the cabin

A bright, beautiful first morning at the cabin

It rained hard most of the day yesterday and started off with heavy rain this morning, too.

Rays of sunshine through the last of the morning mist

Rays of sunshine through the last of the morning mist

It’s ironic. All summer, it has been sunny and dry. Beautiful weather, pretty much from May through September.  As soon as we got to Maine, it began to rain.

And then, it rained ...

And then, it rained …

Maybe it’s nature’s way of telling me I need to relax … to not run around doing “stuff.” Still, it is gorgeous here and I was looking forward t the opportunity to take some pictures.

Rain, rain ...

Rain, rain …

I did take some shots of the rain yesterday, but it’s hard to see it. You can see it’s wet, but the rain is elusive.

THEN, THE RAIN

The Mumford is normally a powerful little river. It’s the largest of the Blackstone’s tributaries.  The Mumford’s wrath has more than once been felt as it overflowed its banks and turned the town into a lake.

Mumford Dam - May 2014

Mumford Dam – May 2014

Mighty no more. The Mumford is barely a stream. Until the dam in Uxbridge, where the river crosses Route 16, the river looks more or less normal.

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That’s because the dam contains the water, allowing only a small spillway and a tiny overflow to pass the dam and flow into the Mumford. Immediately in front of the dam, there are a few inches of water — enough to sustain a few small fish that can feed at least one blue heron.

Mumford River - September 2014

Mumford River – September 2014

Just across the overpass formed by Route 16, probably no more than 200 feet from the dam, the river becomes a series of shiny, reflective puddles. Not a river at all. Unable to sustain fish or other water-based life. No turtles. No ducks, geese, or swans.

One heron, waiting for a fish

One heron, waiting for a fish

The drought to which no one is paying attention, which is being ignored by TV stations and newspapers alike, is taking a terrible toll on wildlife. If it doesn’t start to rain soon and steadily, it’s going to take a similar toll on people, especially those of us who get our water from private wells.

Mumford River, just down from the dam

Mumford River, just down from the dam

We all share the same aquifer. Not just in the Blackstone Valley. All over the state and across state lines into Connecticut and Rhode Island. The aquifer, a series of interconnected waterways that run through the base rock of New England, doesn’t know about state lines.

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Your well, my well, the wells belonging to my neighbors up and down our street and wherever the aquifer runs … they are all connected. Your well may be on your property, but the water belongs to all of us. Your water use affects me as surely as does the lack of rain.

Pretty reflections in the shallow puddles of the Mumford

Pretty reflections in the shallow puddles of the Mumford

Even if you are on “city water,” where do you think your water comes from? We are the watershed.

The water source is here. If we are drying up, so are you. Whether you know it or not.


As many of you may know, our well recently went dry. It was a chaotic moment for us. We did not have the money to renovate our well. I had no bright ideas. We had one option. I didn’t like it but we didn’t have a choice. We had to ask for financial help. It probably was the most depressing moment of my adult life.

I was surprised by the response. I am still shaking my head in wonderment at the generosity of friends and strangers. We’ve received enough money to schedule the renovation of our well.

Thank you doesn’t seem adequate to convey our gratitude.

Thank you!

IT WAS A MIGHTY RIVER – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I was very organized. I’ve wanted to get over to River Bend for a few weeks, but life kept taking us in other directions. Today, though, I knew we’d make it because we needed to go to CVS … and it’s just around the corner from the farm. It’s flu shot time. Last year, we got sidetracked. Not only did both of us get the flu, but we both got pneumonia. I had to delay my heart surgery twice because you really can’t have heart surgery when you’re coughing so hard you’re afraid your heart will propel itself out of your chest.

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And we made another mistake too. Not only did we get our flu shots late — the beginning of November — but we went to the doctor’s office to get them. It was already flu season by then. There were at least two people with heavy coughs in the waiting room. One of them firmly declared she didn’t need a mask because she wasn’t sick. “It just allergies,” she explained. I winced every time she coughed.

Thought balloon: “Excuse me, you germ-ridden hag … that deep, hacking cough is no damned allergy.”

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It was already too late by the time the nurse insisted she cover up. Garry and I got our shots, but it takes about 2 weeks to develop immunity from the vaccine. It was less than 48 hours before we were both sick. I slipped seamlessly and promptly into pneumonia and stayed sick for the next 4 weeks. Garry took longer to develop pneumonia, but he eventually got there too.

Not making the same mistake this year.

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Getting flu vaccine at CVS was quick, easy, pleasant. The nurse was cheerful, friendly, and competent. We didn’t have to sit in a waiting room full of sick people. The shots were paid for by Medicare — without the “office visit” charge the doctor charged — a full $100 less than last year.

We were in and out in about 45 minutes, including a little bit of shopping we had to do.

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I recommend everyone get a flu shot. The rumor that you can get the flu from the vaccine is untrue, a classic urban legend. The flu is serious stuff. It frequently leads to pneumonia and other secondary infections. Unless you have a month to spend miserable and sick, get a flu shot soon. Before you get sick.

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River Bend Farm is part of the Blackstone Valley National Corridor, one of many parks along the Blackstone River. While there’s a bit of color showing now, the rich reds, orange, and yellow-gold of true autumn haven’t quite arrived. But close. Very close.

There is more color in the woods behind my house than along the river today. Usually, you see color first where there’s water.

So … autumn’s not here yet. But it’s on its way. You can smell it on the breeze, feel it in the crispness of the air. And see it in the bright yellow foliage.

SEPTEMBER AT RIVER BEND – AND PLEASE GET A FLU SHOT

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It was a beautiful day. Almost every day this summer has been perfect. Except for a scarcity of rain, I don’t remember a better summer in New England. No stifling humidity or weeks of tropical rain. No blistering heat. Just sunshine, moderate temperatures, low humidity. It doesn’t get better than this.

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With a little bit of luck, Autumn will be equally perfect. And maybe (please, oh weather gods) a mild winter to follow?

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A trip to River Bend Farm to see the beginning of Autumn in the trees. It was nice to see the Blackstone River looking pretty much normal. Hopefully that bodes well for our water supply.

RIVER BEND LATE SEPTEMBER – GARRY ARMSTRONG