The genealogy of watersheds

This post contributed by Alison Gillespie, urban wildlife writer in Silver Spring, Maryland.

When I was a kid, July and August always included at least one fishing trip with my grandmother. She was not a great angler, but she was brave. I will never forget watching her tramp through tall weeds in search of grasshoppers. Upon finding one, she would quickly snatch it up with her bare hands and then smilingly pierce it with a small hook on the end of her ancient fishing pole. It did not take long for a hook thus baited to attract a bite.

Finding the right place to catch those fish was another matter altogether. We often drove miles through the countryside seeking out the best spots to drop our lines. Information about where the fish were biting was often secured through conversations with people who owned bait shops or ran bookstores, clerked groceries and minded the local post offices.

Sometimes, even if she had never met the person before, she could identify whether or not they were a relation of ours based solely on where they lived.  When a distant cousin or cousin of a friend was discovered, my grandmother’s delight was clear. She carried a mental family tree in her head that was so entirely accurate it was startling. A newly discovered relative filled in one more blank spot in the map for her.

Certainly, living in an underpopulated, rural area, it was fairly easy for her to do this. She knew every inch of the woods and fields of Granville County, North Carolina, and she could tell you the history of almost any piece of property we would drive past. If someone died and their house was abandoned and went into disrepair, she noticed it. If someone built a new house or had a new baby, she noticed that, too. If someone’s property was sold, she wanted to know why.  It was not that she was nosy; rather, the landscape and the people were so entwined in her mind that she often referred to a location with the name of a person—Cousin Alphareda’s place, or Uncle Billy’s old homeplace—even years after the people had passed away.

I never lived in North Carolina. Instead I grew up in suburban Baltimore, Maryland. Later as an adult, I moved to Washington, DC. I never really saw anything similar in the way my grandmother and I experienced our environmental surroundings until this past winter when I was attending a professional meeting.

I was seated in the audience, listening to informational sessions about the Chesapeake Bay. Around me sat Bay advocates, scientists and policymakers.

Every time someone got up to speak they would begin by telling which part of the Bay they hailed from and where in the watershed they did their work. Sometimes the speakers would even refer to points on large maps: I live here, on this branch of this river which is in this part of the watershed, they say.

Why, I wondered, did this remind me of genealogy? In some ways, the maps and satellite pictures themselves conjured up images of family trees; the Bay and its tributaries look a lot like branches stretching across the page, and the river’s names are similar to the names of the descendants scrawled next to them.

But it is more than a visual image. Like my grandmother all those years back, I too want to know where someone hails from, and I feel like I understand them a bit better when I know their chunk of the landscape. What part of the Bay do they see everyday—shoreline, riverfront, farm field or creek slope? Do we have any connections in common? Do our creeks connect to the same river?

There is a genealogical movement upward there: from field to creek to river to Bay. This is very much like tracing one’s family roots—from sister to mother to cousin to grandfather, farther and farther up you go until you find the mutual connection between you and that other person.

There is also the delight I get from filling in the missing places on my own mental map. Can they tell me what it is like on the Severn River, or over in Curtis Bay? How does it look along Watt’s Branch these days? What migratory birds have they heard along the southern edge of the Anacostia this week? I want them to “catch me up” on what it is like out there. It brings me a clearer sense of the Bay’s nature and health.

Sitting in a professional meeting listening to scientific presentations is nothing at all like stopping in a bait store for provisions. And yet, the need to feel connected and grounded seems oddly similar. In the same way my grandmother wanted to know if someone had given birth or passed on, I want to know if a creek in the watershed is doing well and if not, what its specific struggles are. How are the bacterial counts there recently? Has there been any flooding this summer? Anyone finding interesting wildlife there?

It strikes me that both my grandmother and I were grounded by this kind of information seeking. Something which seemed ever-so-boring to me years ago (discussing third cousins removed twice on my uncles’ side and so forth) now seems entirely interesting and familiar. Now if I could just learn how to bait my own hook the way she could. Then I would really feel accomplished.

Alison Gillespie lives and writes about urban wildlife in Silver Spring, Maryland. She contributes to the “Dispatches” section of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment and covers topics related to backyard ecology for several local publications in the D.C. area.  Visit her blog Where You Are Planted at

Photo credit: Matt Tillett

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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1 Comment

  1. A very nice perspective on the relationships of waters and watersheds. I also sought out this information from a technical perspective using indexes and ‘watershed intelligence’. It is perhaps unfortunate that we translate everything to numbers and economic value, but then again, very few people are as fortunate as us to be able to take the time to contemplate such values.

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