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The Sudbury in Flood

The Sudbury River has been spread out over its floodplain for so long now that I forget where it usually flows. I drive across Heath’s Bridge and see the top few feet of a tree, and I think, Is that really the shore, so close to the center of the bridge? Was there an island there that I don’t remember?

Three weeks ago the rains swelled the river till it overran the approaches to both bridges leading home. I ignored a Road Closed sign, tried to drive around by a back way and found myself braving a foot of flood water running across a low spot more than 300 yards west of the usual river edge. That night, the Concord police left an automated voice message for every household with a land line, warning people to obey the road closures. The voice told us not only of the danger of becoming stuck, but also of causing pollution. Maybe I was an occasional daredevil, but I really didn’t want to trickle my engine oil into the river if I got stuck. So my drive to work the next day took two hours, and the drive home took even longer, as the thousands of cars that usually traversed the two bridges crowded onto the one road by which you could get anywhere.

The Sudbury River is one of the walls of my home, one of the containers of the space I live in. I don’t travel on it (Thoreau did.) I don’t swim in it or fish in it. The municipal boundary it forms in part, between the Town of Sudbury and the Town of Concord, is pretty trivial in the course of day-to-day life. But it anchors me, locates me on the land so that I know where I am. The water that falls from the sky and soaks into the ground all around here makes its way there, so that the crest of the flood follows the rains by as much as a day or two. The river is responsible for a good deal of the quality of the soil that supports the nearby farms. These lands have been under cultivation by this civilization, the descendants of the Europeans, for over three hundred years. And who knows for how many centuries before that the first people here cultivated squash, beans, corn, and apples on this alluvial plain?

I love that flood plain, and I love that river. I love it so much that I can almost forgive the mercury it carries, poisoning not just the fish but the farmland adjacent. I haven’t studied up on whether the corn the Brighams grow in the flood plain field takes up mercury and stores it in the kernels. I still shop at their farm stand, but I don’t buy that corn.

There are signs on the bridges warning—in English and Spanish, and in pictures—not to eat the fish from the river. But I see subsistence fishers hang their lines over the bridge rail and haul up their catch anyway. They are immigrants, maybe, and the signs can’t possibly be made big enough to convey that warning in Cambodian and Haitian Creole and Russian and Arabic, and…

And maybe it wouldn’t matter if the sign was printed in every language since Babel—maybe people would fish anyway. How can we grasp the meaning of a river poisoned in that way? It looks so real, there where the current slows at Fairhaven Bay, that I almost forget, I plan to dip in my toe, to baptize my whole body, bouncing up to the surface, laughing, shaking the water-dripped hair out of my eyes. How does mercury poison the swimmer? Through the skin? Through the paper cut on the index finger? Through the nose and the mouth? The vagina if I were skinny-dipping? I don’t want to know these things. I turn my back on the seduction of the lazy flow of the poisoned river and go to swim in the blessed, pure pond.

When my son brings his sons for a visit, I will warn him that they can’t eat the fish. I don’t want to have to see the look in his eyes. If they lived here, I wouldn’t want to worry that the boys, become teenaged, would ignore the grownups’ caution, throw their lines over the bridge rail, and catch a secret, forbidden feast to cook up on a makeshift fire. Better we ignore this river, magnificent in flood, treat it as scenery, nothing more.

Maybe, this is why to write. To spend some small time each day with the unthinkable, to turn my face back to the river and know what it has become. It won’t always be grief that I write, but often enough. I am afraid that I will get a reputation as gloomy; I won’t be uplifting enough. The going-on-living in the face of all this may not be recognized for the act of crazy optimism that it is.


Some background form the Nyanza Chemical Waste Dump Superfund Site Nyanza Superfund Fact Sheet:

(Site) is a 35-acre parcel of land located in an industrial area of Ashland south of the Sudbury River. From 1917 to 1978, companies that operated on-Site produced textile dyes and intermediates and generated large volumes of industrial waste, which contaminated soil and sediments, groundwater and surface water, wetlands and the Sudbury River. The principal contaminant is mercury; other contaminants are chromium, arsenic, lead, and organic compounds such as dichlorobenzene and chlorobenzene. Since 1987, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has addressed remediation through initial cleanup actions and four long-term remedial phases focusing on source control and cleanup of the soil, off-Site groundwater, wetlands and drainage ways, and the Sudbury River.
Of particular concern to the State and Federal Trustees and the basis for much of the natural resource damages (NRD) claim is the Site’s impact to the Sudbury River. Mercury contamination of open water habitats, as well as surface soils and exposed sediments downstream from the Site likely resulted in direct and indirect injuries to fish, amphibians, reptiles, other aquatic organisms, birds and mammals. Due to elevated levels of mercury in fish tissue, since 1986 the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has imposed a Freshwater Fish Consumption Advisory for the Sudbury River from Ashland to its confluence with the Assabet and Concord Rivers. EPA’s 2007 Draft Baseline Ecological Risk Assessment also verifies that there are elevated levels of mercury in water and sediments downstream of the Site, as well as in some species of benthic invertebrates, fish, birds and mammals.

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About Katherine Power

I didn’t set out to be a terrorist. As a student activist, I moved from protesting the war in Viet Nam to waging guerrilla war to overthrow the government….

Recent and Upcoming Appearances and Publications
1/15/2014 Complexity and Social Change, Occupy Radio
10/31/2013 Surrender, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
10/25/2013 Surrender, Taos Community Theater, Taos, NM

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