Looking toward the North River mouth, from Damon’s Point in Marshfield.

Every summer for the past few years, I’ve been a water sampling volunteer on the North and South Rivers. The sampling must be done on an outgoing tide, and because upstream the high tide is quite a bit later than it is at the river mouth, there is only a three hour window in which to complete the job.

Each session involves walking on slick docks and wading among slippery rocks. I have to be careful where I’m going, but still get the work done before the tide begins to turn. I measure the air and water temperatures, use an 8-foot telescoping pole to procure uncontaminated samples, and do my best to avoid falling in. This is not always an easy task, and its importance is magnified when you consider that the majority of the sampling sites were chosen because of their typically high pollution levels — these are not the best places to swim. Usually I’m so occupied with doing the job right, that I don’t pay much attention to my surroundings.

RiverWatch testing takes you on a whirlwind tour of the local waterways. You begin upstream at the Washington Street Bridge in Hanover, where the water is mostly fresh and earthy-smelling, and the riverbanks are a steep forested upland. Moving downstream to the brackish waters off Corn Hill Lane and the Union Street Bridge in Marshfield, you encounter salt marsh, and then — after a brief stop at the outfall pipe at Scituate’s wastewater treatment plant — for the bulk of the tour you are in the estuary, taking samples at various sites in and around the North River mouth. Two stops on the South River — one at the Julian Street Bridge in the southern part of Humarock, and one at Willow Street, a narrow bend in the river near Marshfield Center — complete the trip. The views can be quite stunning: one year I brought a camera along, but I was so concerned with getting the samples done and back to the lab on time that I didn’t take a single picture.

This year’s sampling run required me to be knee-deep in the river by 7 AM. In order to do so, I had to get up a couple hours earlier than usual — which would not have been a big deal except that I was expected not just to be awake and moving around, but alert and able to complete tasks that required precision and coordination. By the middle of the sampling run I had managed to lose several items. First the pen with which I recorded my temperature readings slid off my clipboard and disappeared the marsh grass, later the thermometer slipped from the end of my sampling pole and plummeted into the deep waters off James Landing, and finally, at Damons Point, my freshly collected and capped sample bottle popped right out of my wet hands and into the rapidly retreating tide. After a few futile stabs at it with the pole, I watched it get swept into the swift current and — because of the small pocket of air left inside the bottle — bob merrily along at the water’s surface, passing through the abutments of the old railroad bridge and out toward the ocean. Maybe I’d catch up to it at the river mouth . . .

If you’ve never been to Damons Point in Marshfield, I suggest you add it to your list of things to do this week, because any description I may offer will pale in comparison to the actual thing. The view at Damons Point is spectacular. This narrow piece of land juts out into the river, and on a clear day you can see all the way to the mouth, and far across the marshes both upstream toward Norwell and up Herring River toward Scituate. It had been an overcast day, but as I trudged up the ramp, heading back to my car for another bottle (lucky for me, the NSRWA had provided back-ups for all the items I managed to lose), the sun burned its way through the clouds, illuminating the vista that nearly surrounded me. It was as if someone had tapped me on the shoulder and said “Wake up.” Suddenly I was aware of the vast expanses of green-gold marsh; the splash of water against docks, boats and mussel beds; the scent of the mud and the river; the birds, the wind, the trees . . .

In my ongoing education as a yoga and meditation teacher, I’ve been learning lately about mindfulness. Jon Kabat Zinn, director of the Stress Reduction Program at the U. Mass. Medical Center, leads an exercise where for five minutes all you do is eat a single raisin. You are asked to contemplate the raisin using all of your senses, to think about where the raisin came from and how it got to you, to ponder the highly-specialized mechanisms involved in getting the raisin from your hand to your mouth and on through your digestive system. Five minutes on a single raisin! Zinn talks about how we go through life, every day, noticing very little — how we focus on accomplishments and are constantly moving on to the next thing, how we rarely stop to contemplate what we are doing or how we feel. Life speeds along as we compulsively get things done: the sad thing is that we miss so much.

My sampling run from there became much different in tone. I still had to work quickly to be sure I was done on time, but I began to look around more at each site — admiring the view instead of the face of my watch as I counted off the seconds required to get a accurate reading on the thermometer. I won’t say it was a complete transformation — I nearly lost the back-up thermometer in the shallow waters off Julian Street — but I was certainly more tuned in to where I was and what I was doing.

I’ll make this suggestion, and you can take it or leave it. When you finish this article, stop reading for a little while. Put the newspaper down and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, and simply be aware of yourself. Notice how you feel physically, as well as what state your mind is in. Acknowledge how you feel, but refrain from judging these feelings as good or bad — just let them be. Spend a few minutes doing this, then open your eyes, and take note of your surroundings using the same non-judgmental observation techniques.

Believe it or not, this simple exercise does wonders for your health and well-being, both physically and mentally. Do this a few times each day and after a while you will feel healthier, more alert, more connected to yourself and those around you. Life will continue to pull you in several directions at once, but taking even the shortest breaks from time to time to become more aware of how you feel and what you are doing will make a difference.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
August 1999

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance, and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of the latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.