the Journey to the Sea
By Christy Foote-Smith
To understand "headwaters" in all their complexity,
one must be familiar with the idea of the "watershed." Roughly
a decade ago, I shifted my thinking about wetlands from
individual swamps and marshes and bogs and began to
them as integral components of the watersheds in which they
lie. Watersheds are all those lands from which water runs
to a river, a lake, or the ocean. Waterfalls as rain (or
snow) and either seeps into soil and becomes groundwater
or flows across the land surface to form streams.
Wetlands form in low spots where water lingers on the land
surface or bubbles up from underground. Ground waters, wetlands,
lakes, streams, the river, and the land surface are all parts
of the dynamic system we call a watershed.
Watersheds are like our lives. They have beginnings, middles,
and ends. The end of the watershed is where water leaves the
watershed and enters a lake, a bigger watershed, or the ocean.
The middle is the main stem of the river where water from
many tributaries has collected into a large channel that winds
through the landscape. The beginning of the watershed is the
most fascinating of all. This is where small drops of rain
strike the soil and begin the long journey to the sea.
When I think of the headwaters of a river I almost always
hear the opening bars of the 19th Century Czech composer
Smetana’s symphonic tone poem The Moldau. Humming,
I close my eyes, follow the music, and see raindrops forming
puddles, joining in rivulets, dancing over small stones,
tripping, and flashing in the sun. Headwaters are joyous
birthing places, the modest beginnings of great rivers.
We tend to think of the headwaters of a great river as occurring
in just one place, at the "top" of the watershed,
as if it were the top of a mountain. In fact, watersheds
shaped like bowls. Therefore, the top of a watershed occurs
all along its rim at many locations. For every river, and
for every watershed, there are many headwaters. Many small
streams contribute to the mighty river just as many ideas
contribute to the ocean that is our human society.
In the shallow channels and pools of headwater areas, there
is more time for soil, plants, and water to interact. This
is where chemical changes can take place as pollutants cling
to soil particles or are absorbed by roots. Nowhere in the
watershed is this cleansing process as efficient as in the
small, shallow backwaters at the heads of streams. Perhaps
this is what was meant when the phrase "clear-headed" was
The watershed dynamic is both linear and cyclical, and it
is important to recognize both of these aspects. The raindrops
that begin their journey in the headwaters were once part
of the great ocean that girds this planet. They returned to
the atmosphere through evaporation, ready to repeat their
journey through the watershed. And, it is to the clean, clear
headwaters that anadromous fish, such as salmon and herring,
return from a life at sea to lay eggs and complete their life
cycle. Headwaters are, therefore, both the beginning and the
end for these species.
In our highly disturbed landscape, small headwater streams
have accentuated ecological significance. These streams are
the most vulnerable to human disturbances from logging, road
building, and development. Because they are small, they react
rapidly to these changes. If downstream areas have undergone
significant alteration, relatively undisturbed headwater areas
can help maintain a balance within the watershed for both
water quality and biological diversity. Biological diversity,
an indicator of ecological health, is measured by the number
of species represented in a community. In highly degraded
river systems, unaltered headwaters can act as refuges for
biological diversity. As long as these headwater refuges and
the genetic material they harbor are protected, there is always
hope that the degraded watershed can be biologically restored.
Perhaps, if we can embrace both the science and the metaphor
of the watershed, we can begin to heal our environment and
ourselves. We must keep in mind, always, as we pass through
the watersheds of our lives, that headwaters are both the
beginning and the end of the journey to the sea.