What Happened on Rawson Island

What Happened on Rawson Island

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What Happened on Rawson Island

On 8/23/23, the last Wednesday of Our Place Summerschool, students and teachers discovered the bones of a human being on Rawson Island near the Rock Dam in Montague.

We’ve been exploring this part of the Ct River every summer for over 14 years , because it is where Living Rivers School director Dr. Boyd Kynard and his colleagues discovered a group of shortnose sturgeon, a federally-listed endangered species, who have survived the decimation of habitat resulting from years of awful conservation stewardship by megadam owners HG&E in Holyoke and FirstLight in Montague. It’s a miracle they have survived, because they are an anadromous species (born in freshwater, maturing in salt water, returning to breed in freshwater) and they’ve never been able to return to the Atlantic.

Somehow, via the process of evolution by natural selection, these sturgeon have become a totally freshwater species! And they are not celebrated by the megadam owners, who either continue to ignore them (FirstLight/with the assistance of the EPA/USFWS/FERC) or resent being forced to provide up- and down- river passage that remains inadequate (HG&E). Dr. Kynard’s research and activism has been the major impetus for any actions taken to prevent the extinction of the sturgeon, and he deserves our praise and support.

We visit his sturgeon lab in Erving in conjunction with our visit to Rock Dam and the FirstLight operation. Through this experience we get a “thick” understanding of why the lives of the sturgeon, and other aquatic species, are in such a bad way. We enjoy the FirstLight-managed recreational resources of Rock Dam while walking the desert-like cobble flat immediately downriver of it where the sturgeon once successfully bred, a desert because of FirstLight’s studied agency-supported malfeasance. The mixture of delight (it’s so beautiful) and outrage (it’s where sturgeons are going extinct) is felt by all of us, unwilling participants in our planet’s 6th “great extinction event”.

This summer we visited Rock Dam in June and did what we always do, then the floods came. The second time we visited, we were greeted by a FirstLight resource manager who, after saying “Oh! It’s biocitizen! I love what you do!”, informed us that we are not allowed to swim at Rock Dam. Yes that is what the FirstLight signs say, I concurred, but both the Public Trust and Riparian Rights doctrines grant us the right to swim in the river, and overrule your signs. “We have 5 lifeguards here”, I told her, “and know where the dangerous spots are. FirstLight does not own this river or these lands; it leases them from, and at the pleasure of, our Commonwealth, which trusts it “manages” the “resources” for the benefit of present and future generations. You say this is a recreation area where people get hurt and are drowned—where are your lifeguards? Why doesn’t FirstLight take its job seriously? We do. If you had a lifeguard on the beach the injuries and drownings would be a thing of the past.” She acknowledged that we do what no other visitors do (have lifeguards/first responders, teach Field Environmental Philosophy), but insisted her bosses set a firm rule and she must enforce it. I told her I understood and respected that and that I would address this issue with the FirstLight board as soon as I was able. The river was flooded that day and the issue of swimming was nugatory; we observed the conditions caused by global warming and left.

The night before that last Wednesday I looked at the USGS river gauge report in Montague and was surprised to see the river was low, where it is supposed to be in late August.


Rock Dam!

Of all Our Places,

the favorite—

What occurred there has been reported by journalists, and here are their articles (indexed chronologically; the “best” one is marked by **:


Not reported were at least three things.

First, I worked that day with a staff of young adults who have walked with Biocitizen since they were children; and the bond of trust we have has not been forged by capitalism (i.e., on the basis of a “job”); our trust is forged by our shared decade-long existential experience of walking our place and having direct contact with whatever expresses itself before and around us. The calm we exuded under such stress resulted from the confidence we share; and by confidence I mean both confide-ence (we are always truthful when we communicate with each other) and con-fi-dence (we work always with shared trust: “con” as in with, “fid” as in fidelity/loyalty, “ence” as in shared quality). It was this calm confidence that let us all, students and teachers, absorb the stress and transform it into profound empathy for Brian Cornwell and a rational understanding of the strong, confused feelings we felt. 

When Jonathan Maginnis, Jake Young, Simon Dostal, Lavery Greenfield and Olin Rose-Bardawil left me on the island so I could meet the state and local police detectives, I was not worried at all because we have been through, and have absorbed, so much together with our students. When parents told me how sensitively and professionally they presented themselves and the traumatic event, I was so proud of them; but I was not surprised.

Second, our students tell their parents what we do in the field and over time, parents begin to understand what a valuable pedagogy Field Environmental Philosophy (FEP) is. We have never been a “nature camp”, though that is one central aspect of our programming. More than that: we are an unschool that helps students to de-industrialize their identities, while at the same time gaining awareness of their status as biocitizens.

(Please read, and perhaps share, our academic article that lays out the pedagogical theories we practice.)

Very hands-on, totally experiential, FEP allows students to enter the world as it is, on their own terms, as a part of a group that is dedicated to exploring, challenging, learning, sharing, and expressing their place and their selves. As we walk, we chaperone our students at/through this entrance to the world and their lives, present and future, in it. It is this act that sets Biocitizen apart from other schools, and because we do it in “our place” (as opposed to indoors, abroad or somewhere vacation-y), the result is a student who increasingly knows where, and who, they are. Once they know that, a whole fresh set of abilities, capabilities, and possibilities is available for them to assume as their own—along with a love of where they live, and with that love an urge to care for it. (Here I express sincere gratitude for the patience and occasionally forgiveness parents have shown/given to Biocitizen; we are not perfect, have made mistakes, and are still learning—together. We are an experimental school!) 

Finally, the articles explain in general how we coped with the experience; but there’s more that could not be presented by news outlets. When we walk, the world presents itself as it is; the realities of reproduction, birth, survival and death are unavoidable; over time, we cope with the inevitabilities of these states of being, endemic to biological organisms.

Our forays into places reduce our existential fears; we become less surprised but no less sensitive to the instances of death we discover; though our open expression of thoughts and feelings, we find we are not alone in the world, and as we make meaning of the experiences, we find comfort, solace, respect and strength. Tentatively, we practice being philosophers who don’t shrink from what is, and through this practice gain wisdom. But even all of this is not what we saw that sees us through.

Places are stories we live in. Biocitizen exists to reveal and teach this complex, multidimensional fact. But we also take the next step, and inquire about and examine what our role is in this story, what character we play in the living narrative that is our world. Students see without effort that our place has been constructed by characters who have done, and who do, good things that bring health to our communities human and otherwise. They witness ample evidence of characters who have done, and are doing, bad things that cause disease and extinction. 

By weighing these deeds, and by judging them, they develop the land ethic. The foundation and impetus of this ethic is our knowledge that, as characters in a living narrative that is revised every second, we have the power to (re)write the plot and our own characters. Walking lets us understand the ultimate biotic power that infuses all actions in the world is a power we wield; and they are well aware that human actions cause global warming. It is this awareness that our species has the power to produce a healthy or unhealthy world—one where sturgeon are respected and loved as members of an extended family who have a natural right to breed and live in the Ct River, versus the present federally-regulated one where they are ignored as an economically valueless “resource” that can be erased forever from our place—that is half the reason we were not damaged by our discovery of Brian Cornwell’s remains. 

Together we witness and reckon with the power of death as it is an objective biological fact, and also as it is inflicted by humans on other family members. This awareness makes us sensitive. As a result of FEP, our students are aware of the reality and power of death, and also that when we create our place we use its power to select that which we will let live and that which we will let die, or kill. When we understand the power we have to bring life or death to our place through the land ethic, we become sensitive to fragility of being itself, and of its intrinsic value. This deep respect, and urge to care, for life—our own, Brian Cornwell’s, sturgeons—is what helped us the most in coping with the discovery.

Though there is no test that can be given and graded to prove we learned a lesson that day, I am confident that we—staff and students—gained a sense of our place and our role in its living narrative that will make us useful biocitizens as our, and every, species, evolves by natural selection to successfully address the existential challenges presented—as Our Place—by the Anthropocene.

Brian Cornwell, thank you for teaching us about the limits of our powers.

Humility before the world and its great mysteries is what we left with after we found your remains—and carry forward. May we share it widely, especially with FirstLight.

> From humus—topsoil—comes the words human, humane and humility.

And with humility comes wisdom—

the “highest grade” awarded by Biocitizen School of Field Environmental Philosophy.

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