Greg Gerritt and Bruce Campbell walking...

A Converstion with Greg Gerritt: Friend of the Moshassuck

Greg Gerritt and I walk within the Moshassuck watershed on many a morning in all seasons. I have been schooled in the art of observing the natural world in which one lives by someone who has built up quite a unique knowledge base and perspective. His perspective has been shared with many in the community and I respect his opinions as well earned. We enjoyed framing one of our morning conversations in an interview format — one intended to be shared with the RI Blueways Alliance readership here.

Me: I have walked with you often outdoors near the Moshassuck’s three tributaries and have enjoyed each of them. I don’t think I have ever asked you an open question about how you feel on your walks. How do you feel?

Greg: As I walk around our watershed, I move naturally at two to three miles and hour and realize how my whole being has been optimized to experience the world at that speed. We humans have been walking for a long time and I think you actually see everything that way. For example, look at the detail on that stonewall to our left. You can notice every stone and the detail on each stone comfortably as we pass with a natural stride. Speed that up to the speed of being on a bicycle and it blurs — faster yet in a car and you might not even notice the wall as it is only fifteen feet long and off in your periphery. While we walk we can notice the wall and the sidewalk and the trees and grass in view. Whatever we attend to can be explored in a manner that seems tied to our human cognition. Walking makes me feel comfortable and present with the world.

Me: You have been bringing a video camera on our walks for the last year and have been recording and editing video for our Friends of the Moshassuck website. We’ve been accumulating them at the Friends of the Moshassuck website regularly of late. Has that changed your experience of your daily walks around here?

Greg: Since the video camera directs your gaze more intensely and I am likely to zoom into the view to magnify the small and distant animals so that we can clearly see their behavior without disturbing them by coming too close, I have to pay more attention to what I am doing. The reward of doing so is that I get to see the world at more detail than I am able to do otherwise — I gain additional knowledge about the world. Because my interest is in how the world behaves naturally, and I easily sense that the birds, reptiles, and other animals I investigate are aware of me, I like video because I know I have to walk away to let them do their thing. Often my best video sequences are when I set up the camera on a particular scene, and then walk away for a few minutes to capture the pictures of animals going about their business. Later, I see the captured pixilated behaviors of animals in a more relaxed state. I enjoy having those recordings very much.

Me: You know I’d like to explore the Moshassuck more from within the water but our watershed has limited opportunities to paddle its channels and reservoirs. Where are the opportunities you suggest for getting on the water in the Moshassuck?

Greg: The best locations are within Lincoln Woods and nearby on Barney Pond. The headwaters of the West tributary provide a paddling environment on Wenscott Reservoir. The headwaters of the main Moshassuck tributary are protected in a natural setting and you get to the riverbank easy enough but the river becomes urbanized quickly as the water moves south in Lincoln. By the time it reaches its confluence with the Woonasquatucket River in downtown Providence, it’s completely straight and flowing within an engineered channel. Before then it’s been underground under the highway for a half-mile. Despite the urban environment, the waters are rich with reptile, bird, and fish life. The habitat is not ideal for them but the water continues to attract wildlife. I don’t need to be in the water to experience it and as you know, you don’t either.

Me: You have convinced me that you have accumulated a real complex understanding of the natural Moshassuck system from your repetitive daily walks. I don’t think I have asked you about whether you think you are seeing climate change or not. Do you?

Greg: The Moshassuck system is not an ideal system for considering climate change. The layout of the lower part of the Moshassuck Basin is one of a small river in a big, now highly urbanized and channelized, floodplain. The Moshassuck rises and falls rapidly as is fitting in the watershed with the highest percentage of impermeable surface in Rhode Island at more than 53% impermeable. The river is either surrounded by wetlands or in a very high-walled channel built to sit above the highest floods. So far the engineering has held. There are very few structures at risk, unlike some of the other watersheds. As the whole three-river basin is only 23 square miles, it doesn’t capture a huge amount of water in a storm event. Even upstream in Lincoln, there is little at risk from Moshassuck flooding. Therefore we shall have to look in less obvious places to see effects of climate change though I am sure it will eventually show up in the ranges of flora and fauna. With the stormwater retrofits in progress, maybe the cleaner water and more forested banks will provide additional resilience.

Me: What are the wildlife patterns that you enjoy immersing yourself in most?

Greg: I enjoy the annual menhaden runs. I enjoy seeing blue fish and stripers come far enough up into the Narragansett Bay system to reach the Moshassuck. I enjoy seeing crabs and eels when they are in the waters. I enjoy watching the new generations of frogs come of age in stages and how other animals respond to frog behaviors — the night heron, blue heron, and other waterfowl that spend time by the Moshassuck at various times of the year. Lately I have been interested in turtle behavior and have focused my video efforts on them.

Me: Are there any new trails that should be considered for the Moshassuck to help provide access to those who want to pursue wildlife viewing opportunities?

Greg: When it comes to land-based trails, the system is not ideal for it as there is limited green space on either side of the river channels. On the other hand, that means there is plenty of access to the rivers from the roads that are everywhere within a close distance to the water. Any trail system would have to follow a string of pearls style design — with segments of road walking and riverbank walking. I don’t see any particular places where that would be obvious to pursue. As for blue trails, the water is still quite polluted and the river is not deep enough for blue trails to be reasonably pursued. Still, the river runs all year round so wildlife can be seen taking advantage of it at any time — which reminds me that I still need to explore the section of the Moshassuck River below the dam in Lincoln. There should be some interesting things to see there.

Me: How often do you see young people by the rivers and when you see them what are they doing?

Greg: I do not see young people along the Moshassuck except in organized recreation areas. Outside of planned park spaces, the Moshassuck watershed only has tiny fringes of habitat where the rivers are accessible. Friends of the Moshassuck does not have a river rangers program like other watershed councils who have provided great services for kids to become aware of their rivers through exploration activities. The Woonasquatucket, for example, does a stellar job of that. It’s not that we don’t want to see young people involved with river stewardship and natural world knowledge acquisition. I’d support anyone who wanted to work with our council to focus on youth. I’ve mentioned that to others at our board meetings and whenever the topic comes up informally. You and Arthur [Plitt] are more interested in getting youth involved in activities so I let you both pursue that for us.

Me: So does that affect your vision of what the Moshassuck will be in a hundred years time?

Greg: We will all increasingly realize that our rivers need continued restoration. That will happen whether we are out and about experiencing them or not. The economics are becoming overwhelming clear that our rivers need to be pristine to take advantage of the societal and economic benefits that come with clean water habitats. The costs to humanity of not having them are dire and we no longer have industries that require polluted rivers to function. The Moshassuck will not be ahead of the curve on that as a low-key populace lives within the watershed and the buried sections of the river are not going to be daylighted any day soon. But it will happen as part of the global awareness. We are on a path where up to sixty percent of species will face threats of extinction in the next hundred years. That’s a global perspective and the local perspective is likely less severe. We have migration corridors here in New England. New species will move in and existing species can move out in response to some of the changes taking place to climate. We have mountains to our north where changes in elevation may save some species as well, or at least for a while.

Me: So I can readily imagine two guys like you and me walking these grounds a hundred years from now and not behaving much differently than we are now. That’s very hopeful for me as I have looked forward to our walks more and more each time we realize we can make time to do so in our busy schedules. And, even though this interview was somewhat contrived for the benefit of a readership, I recognize the answers from many such questions and answers we’ve explored together over time. Here’s hoping others find such newfound joys in walking about in nature and chatting to start off their days as they get to know what they can through a comfortable walking exploration.

Greg: Hopefully the North Burial Ground in Providence will continue to be a place of nature and contemplation with abundant wildlife and plants, but it will also have quite a different mix of species than it currently has. I probably will not live long enough to see that mix, but people alive today will if they get out and about within the watershed.

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