Vol. 12, No. 2,856W - The American Reporter - March 18, 2006

On Native Ground

by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
Dummerston, Vt.

DUMMERSTON, Vt. - In these days of cynicism, corruption and evil, we're all looking for examples of how one person can make a difference.

I found one a few weeks ago while paddling a canoe down the Nashua River in Groton, Mass.

My wife and I were on a press trip sponsored by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. The dominant theme of the trip was exploring some of the state's natural wonders, which included a canoe trip on the Nashua.

The Nashua - from the Native American word Nash-a-way, meaning "river with the pebbled bottom" - was once one of the 10 most polluted rivers in America. Our guide told it was once so fouled that animals could walk across the top of it on the paper pulp waste that was dumped in it. Sections of the river would change color daily, depending what kind of paper the mills were making, and one could smell the river's foul stench from two miles away. For all intents and purposes, the river was ecologically dead.

That started to change in the 1960s through the work of Marion Stoddart. She and her husband moved to Groton in 1962. The then-filthy Nashua flowed by their home. She was appalled by the river's condition and resolved to do something about it.

Stoddart organized the Nashua River Cleanup Committee in 1965. The group's goals were to clean up the river and protect the land along its banks. Stoddart helped bring together lawmakers, businesspeople and citizens and worked to convince the 34 communities along the Nashua that having a cleaner river would benefit everyone.

After Stoddart took a bottle of the putrid river water to the State House and uncorked it there so lawmakers could see and smell for themselves how bad it really was, a sympathetic Legislature passed a state Clean Water Act in 1966. The law addressed the dumping of wastes from the mills and was one of the inspirations for the federal Clean Water Act of 1970.

The Clean-Up Committee became the Nashua River Watershed Association (NRWA) in 1969 and soon went to work on developing a long-range plan to improve the health of the watershed. Thanks to the NRWA's work, more than 8,000 acres of land and 85 miles of greenway are permanently conserved. Eight new sewage treatment plants were built and existing treatment plants were upgraded.

We saw the fruits of Stoddart's work on our canoe trip. The now-clean river was dark brown with a surface speckled with pollen and twigs. High banks on both sides were held together with knotted and twisted tree roots, mostly spruce, oak and swamp and red maples. The tall trees arched over the river and were reflected in the water. Even though we were less than 40 miles away from Boston, it seemed like a private place tucked away in the north woods.

As we were gliding upstream, an older woman in a red sunshade and a bright turquoise kayak paddled up and asked where we were from. She turned out to be Marion Stoddart.

Although the river is in the best shape its been in for decades, Stoddart said she realizes there's still more to do.

"Once people stopped polluting, the river was able to come back," Stoddart said. "We want to introduce more people to the river, have them fall in love with it, and help us protect it. We have to work just as hard to maintain what we've achieved, and even harder to make it better."

Hope combined with hard work helped transform the Nashua River from a beautifully landscaped sewer to a natural treasure. Stoddart devoted four decades of her life to this cause and proved that one person really can make a difference. Her life is an example of something we need more than ever, for hope is our only weapon in a time where the world is full of monsters and evil is on the march.

"Hope isn't a choice, it's a moral obligation, a human obligation, an obligation to the cells in your body," said playwright Tony Kushner in a commencement address at Vassar College in May. "Hope is a function of those cells, it's a bodily function the same as breathing and eating and sleeping. Hope is not naive, hope grapples endlessly with despair. Real, vivid, powerful, thunderclap hope, like the soul, is at hope in darkness, is divided; but lose your hope and you lose your soul."

It won't be easy and it won't happen quickly, but we have to continue to believe that positive change is possible and that it begins with each of us doing our part in some way to make it happen. Thankfully, there are people like Marion Stoddart to give us inspiration.

Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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