Woman to dig into ecology, sense of place by walking length of a river

LINCOLN — The New Haven River flows down from the Green Mountains into Otter Creek, and during the last week of July, a graduate student will walk from its headwaters to its confluence — close to 25 miles. Along the way, Sonia DeYoung will introduce herself and her project to as many people along the river as she can, people with whom she hopes to talk in more depth once she completes the walk.
DeYoung is a master’s student in the Field Naturalist program at the University of Vermont, but her goal is not to bring her scientific study to the river. She’s decided that the best way for a naturalist to truly understand a place is to talk to the people who live there. For her master’s project, she hopes to interview a diverse array of people who live near or use the river, in order to understand their relationship to the New Haven — and their concerns about it.
“I want to talk to farmers, loggers, anglers, swimmers, birdwatchers,”  DeYoung said. “Scientists can spend all the time in the world testing water quality or studying flood patterns, but at the heart of the matter is the people who live with the river every day. If nobody pays attention to what locals have to say, scientific findings won’t have much of an impact.”
DeYoung, 28, grew up in a town north of Boston and worked in wildlife research and management at national parks around the country for several years before returning to New England for grad school.
As she walks the New Haven River, her intent is not to trespass on anybody’s private land. She plans to walk along the bank where it falls on public land, but to walk most of the distance along the road that runs almost the whole length of the river. She’ll be knocking on doors and leaving letters in mailboxes, asking residents if they — or anyone they know — would like to be interviewed in August.
She’ll eventually take the opinions, stories, and concerns she hears and share them with the watershed community so that residents can consider more deeply the shared and differing perspectives of their neighbors.
Why the New Haven River? DeYoung said she chose it because the New Haven supports a vibrant community for recreation, industry and agriculture, flowing right through the heart of three very different towns: the steep forests of Lincoln, the bustling village of Bristol, and the farm fields of New Haven. The watershed lends itself well to comparing the views and values of towns with different natural and cultural characters.
DeYoung will begin the walk next Thursday and expects the walk will take around five days. She plans to set up her tent at night on the property of landowners who have offered a site ahead of time.

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