JACK E. DAVIS
Author of “Gulf – The Making of an American Sea,” winner of the 2018 Pulitzer prize for non-fiction
“There are sobering lessons in this book. There is also beauty and eloquence and passion, in Jim Rousmaniere’s voice and the watery places he takes you to. He is guide and companion, knowledgeable and engaging, and when you part company with him—a sad moment—you will be grateful for what you have learned and the hope he has left you with.”
Executive Director, The Connecticut River Conservancy, Greenfield, Mass.
“Understanding and protecting our water resources doesn’t have to mean wading through a morass of technical data and engineering reports. Engaging stories about people and the places can inspire the ever-continuing work needed to ensure our rivers, streams, and lakes are clean, healthy, and full of life. Jim Rousmaniere’s Water Connections tells these stories well and leaves readers both encouraged by the work already done, and emboldened to take on the work still to do.”
President and CEO, River Network, Boulder, Colorado
“Water Connections is a wonderful meditation on rivers and their importance to each of us, our communities, and our future. With New England as the primary backdrop, and his own Roaring Brook and other local streams as central characters, Rousmaniere has uncovered lost stories of human ingenuity and engineering prowess as well as public health emergencies and regulatory failures. The examples from 1870 and 1945 lace together with those from 1982 and 2013, punctuating his points while encouraging a new look at history.
“He comfortably integrates systems thinking about complex problems into his prose, allowing the reader to increase their ecological literacy with little effort. His examples also draw our attention to the remarkable ability of our rivers to restore themselves when given the time and space to do so. By the end, I was left with a deep sense of hope for the future and profound curiosity about the untold stories of salvation and calamity from rivers all over the world.
“Don’t miss this book – it is full of surprise and wonder.”
Supervisor of the planning unit in the drinking water program at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, Concord, NH.
“At the same time entertaining and immensely informative, Water Connections weaves together a broad collection of stories about the people who shaped and continue to shape the relationships among New England's people, land, and water.
“To understand any aspect of New England, one must know something about its history, and Jim Rousmaniere shows that's no less true of our multi-faceted relationship with water – in many ways the backdrop of our lives and – historically and currently – the lifeblood of our economy.
“The book is populated with historical figures like John Wingate Weeks (author of legislation that enabled the establishment of the White Mountain National Forest, spurred by the devastation of rivers brought about by clear-cutting), resourceful 19th-century figures who used “water rams” to pump water uphill, and modern-day heroes like the Nashua River's Marion Stoddart and the generation of watershed defenders she inspired. Water Connections' sweep is broad, reaching into every aspect of water in our lives, providing lessons that extend well beyond New England and the Northeast.
“It's a hopeful book, showing how much progress has been made in undoing the damage done to our life-giving rivers, lakes, and groundwater. It also strikes a cautionary note, reminding us of past blunders, failures to anticipate the consequences of new technologies and practices, and pointing to the troubling proliferation of emerging contaminants whose health and environmental effects we as yet know little about. Water Connections is a must-read for every New Englander who is drawn to water.”
MICHAEL F. EPSTEIN
The following review was published under the title “An ode to New England’s rovers and streams” in the Bennington (VT) banner and other newspapers on August 30, 2019.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Cambridge, Mass., and Brownsville, Vt. He can be contacted at EpsteinReads.com
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts for half the year, and when I want a glass of water, I turn on a faucet and out comes clean, clear water that has been transported from reservoirs about 10 miles west, filtered, and treated with chemicals. When I flush wastewater down the toilet, it travels through a series of pipes to the Deer Island Treatment Facility in Boston Harbor, and then out to the ocean floor via a 9.5-mile long pipe.
I live in Brownsville, Vermont the other half of the year. There, my glass of water is filled from either a spring, which feeds water into a cistern in the cellar via a one-inch lead pipe that runs downhill from the meadow across the dirt road, or from the 430-foot deep well which we dug 10 years ago when the spring became contaminated with E. coli. When I flush the toilet, wastewater enters a septic system which eventually drains into the earth in our backyard.
While I may have given little thought to these various systems' histories and operation over the last 30 years, that will no longer be the case after reading Jim Rousmaniere's "Water Connections: What Fresh Water Means to Us, What we Mean to Water'' (Bauhan Publishing, 2019).
This book is different from the Cassandra-like warnings about the end of nature or mankind's extinction voiced in recent books written by Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert. Both of those books focus on important messages about climate change and man's destructive powers. But Rousmaniere has chosen to stay close to home and to write stories about how "humans have changed their ways around water" and how those changes have resulted in improvements in our water and our lives.
The author was the editor of the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel for more than 30 years, and his skills as an editor and a newspaper writer who knows how to find and tell a good story are evident. Instead of drowning us in scientific jargon and graphs displaying mountains of data, he finds the fascinating person, the telling detail, and the human interest angle that illuminates his larger tale.
Along the way the reader meets a cast of fascinating characters — entrepreneurs, activists, scientists, artists and concerned citizens, all interacting with water in some way, and in many cases, working to preserve it. There's Thomas Westbrook, a British army colonel who built a dam for a mill on the Presumpscot River in Maine in 1733, and Wabanaki Chief Polin, who was killed in 1756 while trying to destroy the dam Westbrook built and recover his tribe's ancient fishing grounds. There's George Perkins Marsh of Woodstock, Vermont, whose classic book "Man and Nature," published in 1862, is widely credited with launching today's environmental movement, and Marion Stoddart whose 50 years of efforts to clean up the Nashua River in Fitchburg, Massachusetts began by sending a mason jar of its foul water to Gov. John Volpe.
These are great stories that entertain, educate, and motivate. Most of all, they illustrate Rousmaniere's primary messages: Environmental damage caused by humans can be repaired by them, and change comes about through the energy, intelligence, and initiative of ordinary citizens. The combination of citizen action and government regulation has resulted in improvements in public health and our environment that provide benefits for people, animals, and our beautiful New England lands.
Rousmaniere begins the book with a chapter that describes his walk tracing Roaring Brook, a small stream which runs through the woods behind his home in Roxbury, New Hampshire, population 311. Roaring Brook originates in Woodward Pond, named for the man who built a dam to power a wood and grain mill in 1806, and empties into Otter Brook, which empties into the Ashuelot River, which empties into the Connecticut River.
The brook's course tells the tale of water in New England — dams for mills, ponds for town water supplies, a tunnel carrying the stream under a railroad embankment, beaver dams and their risk of disease, contamination from a tannery, and small hydroelectric operations. The impact of all of these human interventions was eventually a Connecticut River that was so polluted that it received a D rating in the 1960's. Citizen action and government regulations removed dams, outlawed and prosecuted polluters, and addressed agricultural and urban runoff. The result was that the Connecticut River was named the first National Blueway in 2012.
This, and much of the rest of the book, resonated with me in a very special way. I, too, have the great pleasure of having a small brook run through our property in Vermont. The brook is small enough to not even have a name, but I've walked its length upstream from where it starts in a small pond in Happy Canyon to downstream where it empties into Mill Brook.
Rousmaniere gives this same Mill Brook a shout-out as he describes its 60-foot drop over one-third of a mile as it enters Windsor, just 6 miles from our home. The water power from Mill Brook enabled Windsor to become the northern end of the Precision Valley that dominated American industry in the 19th century.
We humans are more than 50 percent water, and we can't live without a safe, reliable source of it. Rousmaniere's book provides us with easily comprehended information about the threats to and the promises of this critical substance in our own backyards while entertaining with fascinating stories of how people have acted to protect this resource. It's a book well worth reading.
The following column was published in The Keene (NH) Sentinel June 15, 2019. The writer is an editor at the newspaper.
The concept of aspiring artists and authors contemplating their works in the serenity of the woods alongside a brook — babbling or otherwise — may be a bit hackneyed, but it is prevalent.
For first-time book author Jim Rousmaniere of Roxbury, that motif is a catalyst in “Water Connections: What Fresh Water Means to Us, What We Mean to Water.”
The twist here is that instead of acting as inspiration for a book, the brook itself becomes the central subject. Time spent by a brook near his house energized Rousmaniere to explore the interactions of fresh water, nature and humans, exploring how they affect each other. It turned into a six-year project.
The core of his research centers on the Monadnock Region and the Northeast, though it’s not limited to this area. He highlights the connections of water and people through stories and interviews of naturalists, scientists, artists, government regulators, those in the fishing industry and ordinary observers. He cites articles and books compiled by experts. Rousmaniere is the narrator, spreading out the information he has gathered as opposed to what he calls authorial imposition.
“I took from that the idea that I could insert myself into the narrative without making the narrative about me. I desperately did not want it to be about me; I wanted it to be about the subject,” he says.
He takes readers on journeys to various bodies of water, starting with the 4-mile-long stream that’s a half-mile from his own home. Called Roaring Brook, the inconspicuous stream plays a recurring role in the book, and Rousmaniere serves as escort and guide, pointing out its characteristics, step by step. “I wondered, if water could define the character of a town by helping keep it green, what else could it mean to us?” he writes on the first page of the introduction. “Our connections to water — and our connections among ourselves when we’re around water — are many and complex and occasionally difficult.”
Rousmaniere first dipped his toes in the relationships between water, people and environment decades ago, when he helped design irrigation canals in India as a member of the Peace Corps. He first wrote about Roaring Brook as part of Roxbury’s bicentennial in 2012, a year before he retired after 32 years at The Sentinel, as editor and president. Though the progression of retired editor to author isn’t novel, it wasn’t a direct route.
“It wasn’t on my mind,” Rousmaniere says. “(The bicentennial research) got me thinking about water, but I didn’t, at that point, think I would be taking the matter beyond a short article in a bicentennial booklet.”
Rousmaniere has been involved in numerous endeavors since retiring — selectman, beekeeper, president of the Board of Trustees of the Historical Society of Cheshire County among them. He’s written articles, for The Sentinel and The Boston Globe, including a dive into the socioeconomic consequences of the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vt. But as he spent quiet time brook-side, the idea for a book took hold.
“I thought about taking it to a deeper level. And the deeper I got into it, the more fascinated I got about water,” Rousmaniere says.
The book features many stories rooted in the Monadnock Region and beyond, including the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irene in Vermont in 2011 and the 2005 Alstead floods. Some stories are humorous and center on Roxbury, such as the time in 1943 when two residents night fishing for hornpout at Babbidge Reservoir think they’ve stumbled upon a plot to poison the water. The story, told to Rousmaniere by now 91-year-old Bill Hooper, who grew up in Roxbury, leads into a broader study of the effects of pollution on waterways. Readers will learn about Tide, “the washday miracle,” laundry detergent packed with phosphates that devastated water bodies before the government stepped in.
Hydropower, the development of reservoirs, aquifers, dams, water rams and climate change are all addressed. So are high-profile examples of failure, such as how pollution inside the pipes devastated the water supply in Flint, Mich., and when the College of Holy Cross had to cancel its 1969 football season because tainted water led to an outbreak of hepatitis A among the players.
And fish. There’s only one chapter on fish, but it’s an “oh, wow” subject for Rousmaniere. Though he is not a fisherman, he is engrossed by the role fish play in nature. He tells of humans trying to restore migrating wild salmon to waters they once knew, only to be frustrated at failing to do so, a struggle that’s been going on for centuries.
“The ‘ah-ha!’ moment came when the waters had been cleaned, dams removed, habitat being restored but the fish were not coming back,” Rousmaniere says.
He discovered a complexity of issues in the ocean — new parasites, fish raised in fish farms being released and mingling with wild salmon, warming waters — all contributed to the lack of success. He discovered that sometimes there was no single fault, no single point of failure, when something goes wrong. And multiple points of failure suggest there cannot be a single fix.
“We determine what’s going to be in water, sometimes not fully thinking through the consequences,” Rousmaniere says. “Change is always occurring and when humans get involved, we speed things up a bit.”
But he balances it by presenting many cases in which humans were successful in restoring polluted waterways. He says it’s a credit to public health standards and somewhat of a miracle that pollution isn’t as destructive as it could be: “Not all unintended consequences are bad,” he says.
Last Saturday, at the official book kickoff, Rousmaniere talked about “Water Connections” with an eager audience of about 20 at the newly opened Bruder House on Main Street in Keene. He has about 15 regional appearances planned so far, including one today at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough at 10:30 a.m.
Bauhan Publishing LLC of Peterborough is the publisher, although, like a meandering brook finding its way to the sea, landing a deal took a while. Rousmaniere is an acclaimed journalist, yet a first-time book author with no name as a writer. With publishing houses in contraction mode, he says he found the process daunting.
The book has had a number of working titles, including “Roaring Brook,” and “Water Stories” lasted a couple years. Ultimately, he favored the relationships implied by “Water Connections.” In Keene, he urged the audience to pull over if they’ve ever been curious about a body of water, spend some time there as an observer.
“If so,” he says, “this book would have been a success.”