Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

What's Your Watershed? Folklore at the Intersection of Place, Culture, and the Environment

Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

What's Your Watershed? Folklore at the Intersection of Place, Culture, and the Environment

Article excerpt

From an airplane, the Mohawk River of New York State appears as a low ribbon of eastward flowing water, fed by the Catskill Mountains to the south and the Adirondack foothills to the north. Its role as waterway expanded when the Mohawk River's waters were diverted to become the Erie Canal. Later renamed the Mohawk Barge Canal, it was enlarged to carry freight traffic and oil barges westward. In the 20th century, the canal lost this commercial function to the railroad and the highway.

The Mohawk Watershed, originally the homeland for the Mohawk Nation of the Haudenosaunee, was settled by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries and became home to numerous small villages, populated by European immigrant groups--the Italians, Poles, Ukrainians, Irish, and Germans--who came to work in the region's textile and leather industries. The industries were situated on these streams to take advantage of the power accorded by rushing waters heading to the Mohawk River--creeks with place names such as the Chuctanunda, the Schoharie, the Otsquaga, and Canajoharie creeks, as well as the Alplaus Kill. European population groups were joined in the 20th century by Latino migrants from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and South America, who settled in Amsterdam and Gloversville to work during the twilight years of the regions' textile industries. By the 1980s, these industries had moved elsewhere to take advantage of other regions' and countries' lower labor costs and less stringent environmental oversight.

It is upon this backdrop that the Schoharie River Center, a nonprofit environmental and cultural organization, has been working with the New York Folklore Society to record and document the biotic communities of the Mohawk Watershed. The two organizations work closely with teens in the region in a model of collaborative learning, conducting hands-on scientific inquiry focused on the ecology of the watershed-its plants, animals, insects, and geology--as well as its human habitation, to document the ecological and cultural records of the region. The Community Cultural Documentation Project of the Schoharie River Center's Environmental Study Team (EST) uses an outdoor-based model of inquiry in order to enable students in the watershed to become better stewards of our environment and advocates for its health. The program merges the scientific inquiry of watershed ecology, macroinvertebrate identification, and water quality monitoring with folklife documentation and oral history, drawing upon the local folkways and cultural activities of the Mohawk Watershed and cultural connections to the region's waters in an effort to encourage intimacy in community relationships with the environment. The program allies with the writing of aural historian Jack Loeffler, who posits that the watershed is a commons for the biotic community it cradles and sustains. Loeffler points to the folkways or "cultural mores" that form the moral code for the utilization of the commons, with inhabitants working towards the common good in an implicit force of law that preferences the welfare of all, over the advantages of a few (Loeffler 2012, 13).

We believe, along with Loeffler and ecologist Laird Christensen, that when we are disconnected from the environment we lose a sense of concern for its well-being. The program encourages "watershed consciousness," in that it encourages the practice of profound citizenship in both the natural and social worlds, drawing attention to ourselves as members of ecological communities. As Christensen points out, such positioning is a "radical act," because "when we love the places we call home, 'business as usual' is no longer acceptable" (Christensen 2003, 126).

The work of Mary Hufford provides further support for this work. In "Deep Commoning: Public Folklore and Environmental Policy on a Resource Frontier," Hufford draws upon the concept of the "commons," as "that which gathers us together while granting each of us a place" (Hufford 2016, 639). …

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