Learning, Loving, and #SwimmingWhileBlack in Your Local Watershed
“Wherever you are, right now, you are part of a watershed. Think of it like an aquatic neighborhood, where the neighbors (i.e. the animals and plants) can be specific to your area, and the concerns and issues (e.g. pollution, damming) can affect the whole community.”
Hi! My name is Tamara Johnson, and I am so lucky to be an Outdoor Afro leader! I had no idea that playing outdoors as a kid, capturing lizards, worms, and caterpillars, would be the foundation for my eventual career as a wildlife biologist, which is what I do currently. Being homeschooled for a few years provided open-ended opportunities to explore the outdoors and form my own questions, and thus, a personal, specific love for nature. As an Outdoor Afro leader, I love that I get a chance to foster those open-ended opportunities for others, operating under the philosophy that “wisdom begins with wonder.” Recently, my personal wonder has been inspired by learning about the waterbodies in my area, and the watershed that I live in.
Growing up, I did not know there was a stream next to my house. I was raised in an area of Atlanta named “Camp Creek,” but rarely did I actually note where that particular body of water was, and to this day I have never set foot in it. I engaged with wildlife, but my interests remained fairly terrestrial. I’d swam and canoed in lakes before, but streams, creeks, and rivers remained in my mind beautiful but unreachable, natural features you drive over or walk beside.
“Watershed? Watershed?? Uh…hmm….try not to look too confused…”
That was my thought process when I first heard the term. I was the new biologist intern at a government agency, listening to a presentation on the Conasauga River watershed during my first staff meeting. From the nodding heads in the room, this vague “watershed” concept seemed very important, and understanding it seemed essential to the conservation work we did. I did what any good intern would: I nodded and smiled, then went home and googled this new term.
I found out that a watershed is a specific area of land in which all of the streams flow towards a common point to form a larger body of water—similar to the way tree branches all stem from one trunk. Each stream is connected to the larger network of waterbodies. What happens to the streams in the beginning parts of the network (the smaller branches) can affect the downstream area (moving towards the “trunk”, the large river). For instance, the stream next to my childhood home is a part of the Chattahoochee River watershed, its waters eventually flowing into that major Georgia river.
Wherever you are, right now, you are part of a watershed. Think of it like an aquatic neighborhood, where the neighbors (i.e. the animals and plants) can be specific to your area, and the concerns and issues (e.g. pollution, damming) can affect the whole community. Since you are more than likely a primarily land-dwelling individual, how can you engage with the watershed you are in?From working in different watersheds in my career, and just enjoying hanging by streams, I have a few ideas for how to connect with your watershed, whether or not you want to get in the water:
Hop in and explore: Be empowered to get in the water and observe! There are so many fish, salamanders, frogs, and other critters that live under rocks, along the edges, and in small pools in these streams. Climb in and find out what your underwater neighbors are, and what type of habitat they like to dwell in. This can be done with respect to the homes of these creatures, and acknowledgement of potential limitations (stream depth, time of year, safety, etc.).
Learn the history: Did you know African-Americans were some of the first true stream ecologists? The river was a friend of our ancestors who used it as a guide, following along the network of streams to get to free land. They also used it as a cloak to cover their scent from those who wished to keep them in bondage. There are many historical connections to the waters of our country, and with a little research you can find out how the waterbodies in your area were used, whether for agriculture, electricity, or sustenance fishing, or in other unique ways.
Engage your community: As mentioned, what happens upstream in a watershed affects the downstream area. Learn how upstream factors are affecting the watershed, whether through pollution or destruction of stream habitat, and organize local efforts to keep the watershed healthy, through river clean-ups or similar activities. These efforts benefit the community and encourage stewardship of the nature in your own backyard.
Chill: Take time to go sit by a stream, lake, river, and breathe. Let the sound of the running water soothe you. Watch the birds, dragonflies, turtles and other critters play by the stream. Refresh and recharge in a wildlife oasis.
Through a mix of all of the above, I’ve learned (and am still learning) how to connect to aquatic environments in my community. Whether it’s from an ecological, historical, or environmental perspective, be free to engage the streams and creeks in your area. Let your wonder of the waterbodies in your backyard lead to wisdom in how to love and protect your watershed. Happy exploring!