Imagining an Entire River System

Aerial Photos by Joe Mish and Alison M Jones, on flight granted to NWNL by LightHawk

Joe Mish has always lived in sight of New Jersey’s Raritan River, with his early years spent roaming its clay banks, streams, tidal creeks and the Lower Raritan swamps near Crab Island. Currently, Joe lives further upstream on the South Branch of the Raritan continually seeking New Jersey’s natural treasures hidden in plain view. He shares these discoveries in his column, “Along the South Branch,” published in New Jersey’s Branchburg News and in his blog. In 2019, Joe joined NWNL on a photography flight over the Raritan River Basin offered by LightHawk.


“An elephant is like a tree. No! an elephant is like a snake. No! an elephant is like a wall.” So claimed three of six blind men from Indostan, asked to describe an elephant. Their blindness represents a loss of perspective, prompting a reflection on our nature to define the world into segmented parcels.  

Being gravity-bound to the earth leaves us with a limited view; and so we parse the world via manmade contractions. For instance, take a local county road, built to traverse through several counties, towns and cities. To ensure continuity, such roads are given a numeric designation. New Jersey’s County Route 514 is an example. As it crosses geopolitical borders, it has been christened with local names: Amwell Road, Hamilton Boulevard, Woodbridge Avenue and Main Street, etc. Yet, collectively, they are the same road – County Route 514.  

It is human nature to tease out pieces of the whole to better grasp an extensive subject. Our education system has honed the specialization of studies to create unique disciplines and professions; each, too often, treated as unrelated kin. 

Historic mills and dam on the South Branch of the Raritan, Clinton NJ – Photo by Alison M Jones

Over time we have tended to lose perspective of the whole and thus dismantle the larger puzzle into its component pieces, forgetting that all disciples are related. Discplines taken together are additive and complementary. Formal education has handed each disciple within its hallowed halls a critical piece of the puzzle. This process of learning is much like a treasure hunt, with a map torn into pieces and handed out, requiring all participants to bring their scraps of paper together in order to find the hidden gold.  

When we look at rivers, our earthbound position shapes our view. We may see the north branch of a river apart from the south branch, as we realize that each stream that feeds into a larger waterway gets a name. In some cases, when a watercourse passes a political jurisdiction, that flow of water can get a name change, similar to our numbered county routes. Often, when we trace a stream back to its source, we discover it doesn’t get a name on a map until it crosses a roadway. 

I had the opportunity, at the invitation of Alison Jones (No Water No Life Founding Director) to accompany her and Dr. Heather Fenyk (Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership President) on a complimentary flight provided by LightHawk. We flew over and photographed the entire Raritan watershed, from its two main sources down to the Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook. 

Aerial of Sandy Hook Beach at Sandy Hook Point Photo by Alison M Jones

Our transition from ground dweller to eagle was as breathtaking as it was revealing. Instead of only seeing only puzzle pieces, the entire picture of the watershed miraculously appeared. Each reach of the river lost its defined edges as its resolution increased; as if going from a pixilated image to a crystal-clear picture. 

Though intimately familiar with each section of the river, I was lost when asked where we were at any given moment. I tried to rely on referencing the last known position; but the speed at which we travelled and this new-to-me, cloud-high perspective was surprisingly disorienting. It takes about an hour and ten minutes to drive from t the confluence of the Upper Raritan’s North and South Branches down to Sandy Hook. In our sea-plane, it took only a few minutes to fly there. That alteration of time and distance overcame the linear relationship of diminishing interest over increasing distance. A lingering, innate human-survival mechanism focused on serving the moment to save the day.      

The value of gaining a new perspective, where the threads reveal the weave of the cloth, provided an avenue toward a holistic approach, tempering human impacts on the totality of this watershed. With this view, a change to any geo-politically-defined segment now seemed to represent a systemic, rather than isolated local impact. Impervious surfaces, from housing developments and parking lots, flush more water into the river and exacerbate extreme weather flooding. Crops planted in the river’s flood plain and growing right up to the edge of the river, cause erosion and silt build-up, forcing flood waters further from the main river course.  

A good lesson to remember is the literary relationship of the word river to rivalry. The word for people accessing or drinking from the same stream was rival in French and rivalis in Latin.  When a downstream village’s drinking water was contaminated by an upstream village, it created a rivalry. Even in early times, the awareness of downstream consequences was a well-ingrained wisdom in riverine communities. That lesson has become somewhat lost today. 

In lieu of boarding a plane, you can fire up your imagination. Imagination is a magic carpet. It transcends a lack of available opportunities, bad weather and poor visibility to deliver needed perspective. Imagine, if you can, all the water in the Raritan River Basin – replaced with blue, injection-molded latex – as a giant hand that reaches down to grab the main trunk of the Raritan River and pulls it from the earth, holding it aloft — as if a giant oak tree, its crown represented by the ocean. The fine mass of hairy threads lead into primary roots and finally form a main trunk.  See the river as a tree. See its form and function as more similar than different. 

A river’s watershed or tree – both a conduit for flowing water. An alternative way to grasp the extent of a watershed. Overlay this image on a land map to visualize a watershed, whose dimensions are typically presented in incomprehensible numeric values. Original artwork by Richard Reo

Loss of perspective is a demon that transcends all issues and stunts efficient problem-solving. It leads to false conclusions, lost time and diminished energy.  

Perspective may be gained in several creative ways. It just takes imagination and an open mind to intellectually take flight to see the whole picture. Once we realize our world is one entity, we see the smallest changes have cascading effects far downstream. The impacts extend beyond where we had figured the ripples terminated. This vision allows us to be better prepared to approach business, technology, relationships, education and nature. It promotes the sage advice of ‘First – Do no harm.”  

New York City as seen from the Lower Raritan River. Photo by Joe Mish

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