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Understanding Rivers Through Poetry

April 19, 2024 by Addie Hedges

You may have heard about the tour of Windham County we have been doing, sharing river-themed poetry with people at local libraries throughout the watershed. These workshops have been a way to foster a connection between communities and rivers, letting words flow just as rivers do. I recently interviewed Peggy, a musician, physical therapist, and lover of rivers. Peggy participated in the Brattleboro workshop and has been grateful to spend 5 Tuesday afternoons thinking about rivers and their prominent place in different art forms. 

One thing Peggy said during our conversation that really stuck with me was that to save something, we have to know it, and know its value. For rivers, maybe that starts with getting our feet muddy, like the girls in a Ginger Murchison poem that reminded Peggy of her own teenage years. Maybe it starts with a hike, a swim, or just sitting and watching the river.

Throughout her life, Peggy has been connected to rivers in more ways than she could imagine when she set off to write a list at the start of the series. The Saranac River, where she grew up, and the Mississippi River, where she went to school and canoed frequently. The Deerfield River, where she lived and paddled for 15 years. The West River, where she lives now, and walks frequently. The Hudson River, where she hiked to Lake Tear of the Clouds, and the Connecticut River, where she frequently enjoys lunch, are a few that she has had an intimate relationship with over the years. Through these experiences, Peggy has learned that the pull of rivers transcends the physical conditions of any one place.

This connection to the many rivers she has called home sparked Peggy’s interest in our poetry workshops. She was excited to see that Vermont River Conservancy works in her community to protect and restore rivers, a vital part of all ecosystems. When she arrived at the first workshop, she was surprised to see familiar and new faces. She noticed that many of the other participants have a connection to music similar to her passion for violin and singing, a testament to the fact that people of all backgrounds are interested in connecting with these aquatic systems, and learning more about them in ways that may seem surprising. 

Throughout the sessions, Peggy noticed that many poems and songs relate to rivers and water. She knew some of the poems that our conservation manager, Hayley, had curated but has also learned some new ones. As Peggy observed, rivers have drawn people in for thousands of years and are a place for relaxation, peace, and connection to the natural world. She resonated with river poems in a reflective, timeless tradition, from works by the ancient Chinese writers Wang Wei and Hsieh Ling-yun to more contemporary pieces like “Ask Me” by William Stafford. The poems the group read during their sessions have led Peggy to go home and reread others that she has been reminded of.  

Although Peggy originally went to college for natural resources, there were few jobs in the field at the time. She then returned to school to learn chemistry before realizing that being in a lab all day wasn’t for her. She found her career in physical therapy and enjoyed doing that, but after retiring, she has taken more interest in environmental issues. Taking a boots-on-the-ground approach, Peggy has served as a citizen scientist taking water samples on the Deerfield River. This experience strengthened her connection to Tracy K. Smith’s poem “Watershed” about the importance of keeping our waters clean and safe to drink. We are thrilled that Peggy is interested in keeping up her passion for conservation by volunteering with Vermont River Conservancy.

Peggy is happy that younger generations are now entering the field and looking to solve the big problems we face – like the young people working to free dammed rivers in this poem by Richard Hugo. Throughout her life, Peggy has found ways to be there for our environment, even when her career didn’t lead her along that path. She has understood that knowing our rivers is an important part of being one with them. Maybe it starts with a poem. Whatever it takes, it’s something I try to do as I serve at Vermont River Conservancy and that our whole team strives to do through our conservation work. Talking with Peggy about her passion for rivers gives me hope for the future of Vermont’s rivers and our connection to them as both individuals and communities.


If we’re going to save things – watery things – lakes, rivers, ponds, and wetlands; we
need to know them intimately – know their value. Poetry helps us do that.

Rivers create borders, boundaries; the need for bridges, crossings. Landscapes shape
rivers and they, the land in return.

So much happens down by the riverside – the laying down of weapons, baptism – work,
play, song – love arriving or leaving – drinking deep – crossing over.

— Peggy Outcalt

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