Working on a river restoration project that is focused on restoring 11 species of sea-run fish — including the enigmatic shortnose sturgeon and leaping wonder of salmon — offers many fascinating moments of discovery about rivers, community, and restoration of place.
Yet, I never imagined freshwater mussels would invite the depths of thought I had while helping to relocate exposed mussels to deeper habitat during the removal of the Great Works Dam and subsequent lowering of the impoundment to a natural river flow.
Mussels move. They leave trails in the sediment that are intriguing, leaving one to wonder where they thought they were heading and why. Was the water six feet over more palatable than the water here by my feet? Why did the mussel move closer to shore as the water levels dropped and warmed at the edge, rather than to deeper, slightly cooler water?
Mussels also squeak when maneuvered out of a tight spot in the mud or between crevices of rock, and spit at you. In spite of years of scientific training and contemplating wildlife and water for management purposes, it was at times difficult not to anthropomorphize the mussel behavior and wonder about their lack of a brain.
The search to save mussels
Over several weeks, dozens of volunteers joined us along the shoreline. In part, we were supporting a team of biologists under contract to find rare mussels such as the yellow lampmussel and the tidewater mucket.
Spotting a yellow lampmussel was like finding a gold coin, and it seemed to give some volunteers more prestige among the group if they found several among the many, many thousands of the more common elliptios that lined the shore. Mostly we were there to save the elliptios – move as many as we could to deeper water habitat, not because of permitting requirements, but more simply out of respect for life, even knowing of course we could not save them all, and that changing an impoundment back to a river could only support so many mussels.
It just seemed right, and it brought people together as community, doing something for the river that was tangible and could be held in the hand and not simply in the mind or on paper.
I was relieved to find I was not the only one who started talking to the mussels that I moved. Maybe it was the sun and long hours, maybe it was just that inherent desire to feel connected to other life, even that with shells (think E.O Wilson and his biophilia hypothesis). In the evening when I shut my eyes to go to sleep, I would see mussels protruding out of the sediment with siphons filtering and releasing water.
Musing on mussels
On a day after I had gone out many days, and spent more hours than planned moving mussels, because it was hard to leave, and after finding mussels that were still alive after being exposed for several days and that I thought were dead but still squeaked with an expulsion of air when I touched them, I found myself wondering about the persistence of life – the way even these shelled creatures without a brain kept clinging to survival, and what I see as a mysterious force that weaves through all living creatures, brainless or not.
Being so close to dam removal in action, my methodical and meditative search for mussels often brought thoughts of my father, who would have loved to have witnessed the changes happening at Great Works. He would have found a way to be here alongside me and our volunteers, and I can imagine his own meanderings of thought while gathering mussels into buckets or tossing them into deeper water. Before he died, he spoke about life and what it meant to be alive – he said it was like the ripple that forms when something touches upon the surface of water, it keeps spreading out, and the ripple gets smaller as it gets larger, but then at its end it might send up the slightest breath of air that touches upon a length of grass, and perhaps there is a butterfly on the tip of that grass that is then sent aloft by its movement, and it goes on and on. He said that our small actions in life are like that, sending out ripples, and you never know what might be influenced by each small act.
From mussels to my dying father to butterflies and the ripplings of life, while crouched in sediment exposed by the removal of a dam – who knew the common mussel could send one into such philosophical wanderings?
It is hard to know what moving mussels accomplished from an ecological perspective, although we will seek some answers as we monitor the relocated yellow lampmussels. But the act of mussel relocation, and that bringing together of people, made me feel a closer connection to the river and its inhabitants, and deepened my respect for the value of restoring this place and all that is meant to live here.