My landscape: Connecticut River in Deep River

written for River and Shore

It’s early June on the Connecticut River and the sun is blazing just above the tree fringe of Selden Island on the far bank. The glitter on the water is so bright I have to write with one eye closed. Out in the river just up from Eustacia Island, a gigantic, curved piece of driftwood lies beached on a sandbar, its arching silhouette stark in the morning light.

I stumbled out of bed today in an attempt to see the sunrise over the river, but I missed it by two hours. It rose at 5:19 a.m. Still, I was way ahead of all but the three people who were sitting in their cars at Deep River landing when I got there. The next day I realize—as I arrive one hour after the sky begins to lighten—that at this time of year the sun rises from the true east—it was right in my face as I backed out of my driveway a mile from here. I have never seen the light on the river from this angle before. Today the river is calm, the tide is low, and the current slides noticeably seaward.

The Connecticut River is my landscape the way New Hampshire fields and forests were Robert Frost’s, the way the sea was Melville’s, the way the Cape is Robert Finch’s, the way Sand County was Aldo Leopold’s. It’s not my landscape the way Walden Pond was for Thoreau or Annapurna was for Maurice Herzog because I’m not seeking intensity or victory with it. I do not go out in my kayak or in a canoe more than a few times a year, but it is my constant backdrop. I know its moods. I have crunched my sneakers against its piles of thin ice sheets in winter and smelled its vegetal brown in spring. I have sat on a rock with my legs submerged and watched hundreds of times the little swirls of green/brown/blue below the Deep River docks. It’s how I measure the seasons, and the place where I come to sort out my life.

The river is so wonderful now that it always shocks me to come across the phrase, “once known as the most beautifully landscaped sewer in America.” I have quoted this remark myself many times without knowing its origin. I do understand something about it, though. I grew up in New Jersey, and every time we drove to New England we passed the chemical plants near Bayonne. They smelled awful back then and made me ashamed for my state. That’s the way people used to feel here, in the 1950s and 1960s. That sewer remark transports us to that not-so-distant time, before the first Clean Water Act of 1972, when barely filtered human waste mingled with domestic chemicals and industrial outflows. It all swirled slowly past quiet houses tucked on the banks, ferry slips, boatyards, and wide expanses of marshes at the river mouth between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme.

Who said those words first? Who thought to call this river a backdrop that concealed a sewer? Who felt such shame for what had happened?

I started to do some research. Here are some typical examples of the “sewer” quotation:

“Once referred to as America’s ‘best landscaped sewer,’ the Connecticut has undergone a dramatic transformation in the last three decades,” wrote Jo Beth Mullens and Robert S. Bristow in a 2003 research study, “Overcoming the Nation’s Best Landscaped Sewer.”

It’s called “the best landscaped sewer in New England.” (League of Women Voters of the Upper Valley, Vermont.)

It’s called “the best landscaped sewer in the nation. (Connecticut River Watershed Council.)

And so on. It turns out that the actual original phrase was, “the world’s most beautifully landscaped cesspool.” A cesspool is a holding tank for the unspeakable, so it probably counts as a meaner metaphor than sewer. And so this label, first uttered in 1965 by actress Katharine Hepburn as she narrated a half-hour documentary film, got the attention of the public in a big way.

The movie was called, “The Long Tidal River,” a translation of the native American “Quinnetukut,” and its writer and director was Hepburn’s then-brother-in-law, Ellsworth S. Grant. It helped wake up the public on the verge of the first major environmental movement. Around the time he made this movie, the water was officially classified as “suitable for transportation of sewage and industrial waste,” according to the Connecticut River Gateway Commission.

Let’s not wring our hands too much over this. The river owes its cleaner status, its beauty, and its value as a quiet tourist destination, all to its polluted past. That’s not a new idea; I didn’t make it up, but it’s been a long time since it’s come up. We owe our national treasure to what came before.

Without pollution, the Connecticut River might never have had the chance to make a fresh start in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It would have been crowded with amusement parks and restaurants and cottages and neon signs. Because it was so polluted, and because the river mouth was too shallow to support a major port atop the shifting sandbars, all of these things that can ruin lakes didn’t overwhelm the river landscape. The river was waiting for the politicians and conservationists to take it and save it.

The man who might have first suggested that pollution created opportunity was Evan Hill, a former journalism professor at the University of Connecticut. “Sometimes when its flow is low and it cannot properly dilute the waste man dumps into it, its attraction to the eyes is overbalanced by its repulsiveness to the nose,” Hill wrote in The New York Times in 1969. Hill made that point that cottages and hot dog stands hadn’t invaded and that the river valley wasn’t too built up for transformation to take over.

The first big move to treat it like a big preserve was Senator Abraham Ribicoff’s bill – the same year as Grant’s movie, 1965 – to establish a string of national parks, a hiking trail, and conservation lands along the river’s 410 miles. The idea was huge, maybe the most giant recreational plan ever conceived because the river valley was so highly populated. It called for dams to create reservoirs for boating, and it would demand every town on the river to see itself as part of this park. Sort of like the Adirondack Park in upstate New York, except with a bunch of cities thrown in.

It took imagination for him to come up with something so huge. Interior Secretary Stuart Udall soon told Ribicoff that he was supposed to check with Udall first so that his department could do a proper study. But the two men were smiling when they got on a boat to tour the stinky waters on a rainy day a few years later (chronicled by The New York Times).

Over the next several years, Ribicoff’s big idea died, and it was the lower river valley residents who helped killed it. At one meeting in Deep River in 1972, hundreds of people from eight lower valley towns came to say, in essence, that towns get nothing from parks but visitors. They said that making the river a big park would do more environmental damage than it would solve. This second point seems unlikely, given the state the river was in when Ribicoff had the idea. But I understand where the people were coming from. If I had been around then I’d have felt that my privacy had just been invaded. I live near the Deep River landing. I don’t think of this as a national park but rather a varied jumble of private and public enterprises, both money-making and not. As beautiful as it is, it’s a working and living landscape.

At any rate, Ribicoff’s park plan called for several dams, and another independent film came out in 1972 to refute the popular notion that dams and flood control are good for the world.

This film was by Lincoln Brower, then a professor at Amherst, now affiliated with Sweet Briar College. Like Grant’s film, it was a short half-hour documentary. Like Grant’s, it made its point, showing what happens when floods aren’t allowed to occur naturally but instead get pushed back by manmade structures. In effect, the whole river could change course. The fertile floodplains of the central valley would stop receiving nutrients. “As a result of that film, not a single dam was built in the Connecticut River Valley,” Brower told me in a phone interview.

Ribicoff’s big dream did change people’s attitudes. The bill’s plan for the lower river or “gateway” zone inspired the formation of the Connecticut River Gateway Commission which, since 1973, has been setting building standards for riverfront land in eight towns from Haddam to the river mouth.

Today, the river supports osprey (fish hawks) that have recovered from DDT’s damage. About 350,000 shad run it in a season. Atlantic salmon have struggled to return but last year 140 made it upriver to Holyoke, Massachusetts, while 0 were counted from 1969 to 1973. Bald eagles winter here, supporting a yearly festival of gawkers. In recent years, scuba-diving biologists in Massachusetts have documented creatures in the river no one had ever found anywhere.

After a few decades of secondary sewage treatment and better laws on outflows, the Nature Conservancy, the non-profit land preservation group, named the river one of the “last great places” on the globe. An international convention designated the lower Connecticut a “wetlands of international importance.”

The river became part of the largest wildlife refuge ever formed, the federal Conte refuge, an experiment in working with multiple land owners to preserve a landscape.

It’s not a beautifully landscaped cesspool, or sewer, anymore. But some stretches are not particularly clean. The greatest threat to the river today is ordinary people living their ordinary lives. In Connecticut, 15 sewage treatment plants line the river, and one section of the river, from Hartford to Haddam, suffers chronic overflows of untreated waste when it rains. The Connecticut River Watershed Council considers this section contaminated.

As the population grows, even the best sewage treatment plants must use better nitrogen-removing equipment, something most of them are not equipped with now. Nitrogen, basically fertilizer, encourages the growth of aquatic plants, which in decaying can deplete the water’s oxygen, resulting in dead zones.
Even worse, probably is simple runoff, what the experts call “nonpoint source pollution.” Everything that lands on pavement eventually washes into the river when it rains.

While the Gateway Commission has done much to control what could have been runaway development, the wide swaths of forest cleared for big riverfront houses have greatly increased run-off. This “nonpoint” source pollution is the latest threat to our lovely river.

The grand Connecticut River carries water all the way from a chain of lakes in northern New Hampshire near the Canadian border south 410 miles across four New England states before emptying into Long Island Sound. Along its winding course there are places where our busy lives seem to press too close; and yet, own here in the wide estuary amid the low green hills and marshes, the river still lives a life of its own. I love it because it’s quiet, because it’s a symbol of what people can do to reverse pollution when they try, and because its size humbles me.

It’s not the world’s most beautifully landscaped cesspool anymore. It is a beautiful soup of runoff, perhaps diluted, but definitely in need of care.


About This Article

I had been trying to sell an essay about the development of a new pharmacy to an editor of a group of newspapers, Erik Hesselberg. He didn’t buy that article, but we did begin to correspond. When he and his parent company, the New Haven Register, decided to publish a magazine, River & Shore, in 2008, I was delighted when he asked me to contribute to its debut issue. I also wrote an article about Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport for its second issue. People who didn’t even know I was a writer, people who have lived near me for years, saw this magazine, picked it up, read my article, and told me they’d read it. That was gratifying.

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