Lauren Stevens: So, what is your watershed address?

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WILLIAMSTOWN — What sort of a shed is a watershed? Yes, it has come to mean an important turning point, as in "a watershed event." With real water, though, with or without the event, everyone has a watershed address. In fact, our watershed might be our most important address.

A watershed has to do with a river, implying two different but related concepts. It can refer to the divides, those rises in land however modest that steer waters one direction or the other; or it can refer to the area within those divides where the water flows to a single discharge point.

The former is the most common use in England; the latter in this country.

Our watershed address might be the Housatonic, the Hoosic, the Farmington or the Westfield, depending on which quadrant of Berkshire County we inhabit. This commonly accepted classification is arbitrary, however, because in theory watersheds are like Russian dolls, one nestled inside another. On a smaller scale we may be part of the Green River or Hemlock Brook watersheds. And the Hoosic is part of the Hudson watershed, the Farmington and Westfield part of the Connecticut watershed — for that matter, the Housatonic is part of the Long Island Sound watershed. So, one lesson from watersheds is geography, where are we.

Identifying our watershed address is also a lesson in connectivity. Consider, for example, Hollis C. Hollis' 1941 children's book entitled "Paddle-to-the-Sea," which follows a toy canoe carved by a native boy as it travels through the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence and eventually comes to the Atlantic Ocean at Newfoundland. Such a craft launched from Hinsdale, for example, with luck might make it to Long Island. Political boundaries tend to isolate; watersheds attach us.

The watershed concept is a lesson in environmental stewardship. We may think that when we dump the oil from our automobile on the ground or sprinkle herbicides on our lawns it does no harm. In fact, eventually some of it at least will filter into and pollute our rivers, perhaps killing the fish.

Watersheds present a lesson in ecology. In a watershed, everything is related, for example the fish, what the fish eat and what eats the fish. And whether or not we eat the fish, humans, too, play a part in a watershed. In fact, we influence our watershed more than any other living thing in it, sometimes without trying or even being aware that we are doing so. It helps us become good watershed residents to recognize that our influence for good or ill is inescapable.

What sort of a shed is a watershed? Before straining to find some analogy involving a small building, maybe one with a slanty roof, the word may derive from mishearing the German word, Wasserscheide, water sheaf or scabbard. "Shed" is just the way "scheide" sounded to English ears. Sheaf or scabbard seem to work: a watershed would then be the container for all the tributaries, rivulets and runoff that enter one river.

Just how important is our watershed address? The U.S. Postal Service might hesitate to deliver a letter sent, say, to Dennis Regan, Housatonic Watershed. Or maybe the P.O. would. But every fish, bird or terrestrial creature understands. Trees, shrubs, grasses would get the idea. The wind and weather would understand.

A few years ago, under then Secretary for Environmental Affairs Gertrude M. Coxe, Massachusetts tried basing environmental regulations and permitting on natural boundaries, watersheds, instead of political ones. There was considerable resistance and the experiment didn't survive a change of administration, but the logic still seems inescapable. As Trudy used to ask, "What is your watershed address?" People often had to think. Her recommendation was that we figure it out and use it.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.

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