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Why I Sweep: History, humility, heroes and humanity


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This is one in a series of guest blogs about Riverkeeper Sweep, our annual day of service for the Hudson, involving more than 100 shoreline cleanups and planting projects on a single day in May.


In a way, I’ve been sweeping as long as I can remember – whether it was when I was a teenager assisting a guide in Baxter State Park in north central Maine, enjoying the magnificent views of the Oregon Coast Range or backpacking in the remote primitive Gila Wilderness of south western New Mexico. But in these more isolated places, trash was hard to find, and the focus was to bring out all what you came in with. Hikers seemed to get it.

When moving to the Hudson Valley over 30 years ago, my lifetime tendency toward the out-of-doors connected me immediately to the overwhelming beauty and strength of the Hudson River.

It was exciting to learn that the Hudson River School painter, Frederic Edwin Church, made more than a dozen rugged treks with his family to northern Maine, where he was fond of painting Mount Katahdin.

I became engrossed in the history of the Hudson River, as it reflected the history of the development of our nation – at times, for better or worse. The Hudson was a major channel for the raw materials to build New York City, and was the gateway to connecting to the expansion of commerce across North America.

The remnants are still here, like treasures to be discovered, along the tree covered western shore – where bricks can be found paving shorelines at low tide, along with the rusting remains of piers and pulleys. The east bank is mostly hard edges of massive rocks protecting the encroachment of Metro North and Amtrak rails.

Early on, the River was quite humbling to this avid kayaker. Some days I would just stay on shore and let it be a powerful force that I’d be a fool to try to tame.

I learned to study and respect its tides, always starting out against, to benefit from the relatively easier return trip. Moving from high to low, the current could be 4 miles per hour, making it a challenge to work against.

It was also important to note that in the hour or so before high tide, that current would seem to be the strongest – and similarly approaching low tide. Native Americans who lived along the Hudson River called it Mahicantuck, or the river that flows both ways.

Experiencing the meditative “unstressed” time on the Hudson at slack tide has provided me with a great opportunity to just tune in to the River and myself.

About six years ago I learned about Riverkeeper and its own history dating back to 1966, when a group of fishermen near the Tappan Zee – which not too long time ago was well known for its sturgeon, shad and striped bass – initiated a grassroots movement to protect their fishing grounds from the polluters along its banks. The General Motors plant in Tarrytown NY would simply spill its automobile paint residue directly into the Hudson, fouling the water and discoloring marine life. These fishmen – just regular guys – are the heroes of the ensuing worldwide movement to protect our waterways.

So why do I Sweep?

Because it connects us to our humanity – to our responsibility to care for our environment; to be in touch with our shared surroundings; to see our commonness.

When I connect people with the River, I become more hopeful for our survival on this planet. Picking up trash that unintentionally or intentionally makes its way into the River or along its banks brings you face to face with your responsibility to “be the change,” and encourage others to be the change as well.

Jeffrey Scales, an advocate for a clean and natural Hudson River, removes trash and invasive plants from the river year-round and participates in the aquatic plant life survey. Jeff is a Financial Advisor who specializes in sustainable and socially responsible investments. He is a founding member of the Rhinebeck Farmer’s Market and the Hudson Valley Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, a longtime Rhinebeck Rotarian and advisor to the MBA in Sustainability and Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College. Jeff was recently chosen among thousands of people for a special service award from Commonwealth Financial.

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