How the author got his feet wet

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I first noticed water’s variable influences on humans when I was in my early 20s. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in southern India in the 1960s. My job included surveying irrigation canals in remote rural areas, and as a reward for my work I saw dry farmland turn green and harvests go up.

In the photograph I’m standing on a small dam of my design that diverted waters from a stream into a small canal that got blasted through a rocky field and through a pipe beneath a road to about 15 acres of land

The farmers on that land, including the one next to me on the dam, had scraped by over the years by putting buffaloes to work lifting minimal amounts of irrigation water out of a deep well. The dam project turned their land to highly productive rice cultivation, and it changed their lives.

In that same town I also saw the hazards that water can bring. The monsoon rains went wild one year, filling and flooding streams to the east and west of the loose collection of homes in which I lived. In time, the community became an island, one effect being that the 200 or so residents there got cut off from food supplies. The unrelenting rains, meanwhile, left nothing dry and, you might find this hard to imagine in India, put a chill in the air.

I returned to my tiny home during a break in the rain one day to find a gathering of villagers just outside my door. They had come to visit a doctor who lived nearby, and they had brought an infant who was terribly ill; she had the drawn face of a very old person. The doctor was trying to hydrate the little girl right there in the open.

I entered my home, and within an hour I heard a cry out front, and then an awful wailing. The wailing went on and on and on before it faded in volume as the rains returned and the villagers left, taking with them the dead child and the hysterical mother.

In the following years and decades I never forgot the tragedy outside my door, hemmed in by water, rained on by water, entirely wet, the wailing still in my ears.

Beyond that for quite some time I didn’t pay any particular attention to water, not until 2012 when my small town in Roxbury, New Hampshire began planning a bicentennial celebration of its founding.

By this time I had been a journalist for 40-plus years – in Baltimore, then Washington, then Keene, New Hampshire where I edited the local daily. Given my publishing background I offered to organize a commemorative booklet about the town’s history, and I assigned myself a short article about water.

The Otter Brook flood control dam, Roxbury, New Hampshire.

The Otter Brook flood control dam, Roxbury, New Hampshire.

My town is distinct for a couple of reasons, the first being its size with just 211 citizens, making it one of the smallest towns in the state. Another distinction is that Roxbury is one of the greenest communities around. That’s mainly due to the fact that it contains three large bodies of water that are surrounded by protected lands: two drinking water reservoirs for a neighboring city, the first built in 1886, and a federal flood control dam that went up in the 1950s. Here was a town whose physical character had been largely defined by dam-builders and hydro-engineers. Plus, in its early days the town has hosted several small mills. So, I had enough in hand for an article about what water had meant to this one small town.

The bicentennial celebration came and went, but I kept looking into water. There was so much human history to it! In Roxbury and elsewhere I explored what society had wrought — good and bad — through water power and pollution and flood control and building on lands around lakes and rivers. I read up on what gets into water. I met professionals and ordinary citizens who work to restore rivers to their natural states.

My focus was largely on New England for the region’s early development history and particular topography and rainfall patterns (in several ways our practices and laws around water differ from region to region) but my research also led me to other parts of the country and other parts of the world.

In the process I learned a lot about water, but my biggest lessons were about human society. I learned about our differences over such things as whether dams should be preserved for the sake of history or dismantled for the sake of Nature. I learned how our boundless inventiveness can lead to wondrous products (non-stick cookware, for example) whose chemical components, once they leak into public waters, can be difficult or impossible to get out. I learned that a truly clean drink of water is really quite a miracle.

I came away from the research with fresh perspectives about opportunities and vulnerabilities around water. I also came away wondering how it is that, despite having lived around water for eons, humans have so much more to learn about our connections to water and our connections to each other when we’re around it. That’s what “Water Connections” is about.

About the author

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Jim Rousmaniere is a writer who lives in Southwestern New Hampshire. For 43 years he worked as a journalist, including service as a Washington-based correspondent on economic affairs for The Baltimore Sun followed by the editorship of The Keene Sentinel, a daily in southwestern New Hampshire.

On the side he’s authored scripts for oral history films about New Hampshire affairs and for historical re-enactments. He’s also written about the architectural and economic traditions of bricks and the socio-economic development of early neighborhoods in a New England city. He’s also a published author of short fiction.

Rousmaniere is currently president of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, serves as an elected selectman in his home town, and is a participant in various community affairs.

He is married to a holistic nutrition counselor and is the father of three daughters and one granddaughter. A native of New York and a graduate of Harvard, he is also an avid outdoorsman and bee-keeper.

Podcast interview with the author