Watersheds, Connections, and Spirituality

Beverly Hunter

Sermon for Unitarian Universalists of the Blue Ridge

August 17, 2014

As you know, the Unitarian 7th Principle is: Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part.

When I view the world through the lens of WATERSHEDS, I am viewing and participating in that interdependent web.

I offer to you today some of my own experiences of studying and being increasingly a part of the interdependence of connections in watersheds, and experiencing the spirituality in that interaction.

what is a watershed? A watershed is an area of land in which every drop of rain that falls, will drain to one particular location. A watershed can be very small, like a section of your backyard, or very large like the Rappahannock River Basin or the Chesapeake Bay Watershed which includes portions of several states.

(show rapp river basin map)

. Here in the headwaters of the Rappahannock River basin, all of our watersheds flow eventually into the Rappahannock River. We get all of our water from the sky – there are no rivers flowing into Rappahannock county from upstream because there is no upstream from here. (skyline drive is the northwest boundary, and everything flows downhill from there).


Studying watersheds involves looking at connections. Over time, we see more and more of the connections, and increasingly seek biodiversity which generates more connections.

In 2002, Janet Davis, a professional gardener, and I, a systems engineer, gathered a couple dozen people in RappAHANNOCK and madison counties to form a grassroots group we call RappFLOW, rappahannock friends and lovers of our watersheds. The mission of Rappflow is To help preserve, protect, conserve and restore water resources and watersheds in Rappahannock County

One of the first things I did was to drive around the county and look at streams that I could see from the roadside, and take pictures of them. I began to observe connections about these streams. Erosion of banks. Land cover. Mowed grass, pasture, forest. The surrounding floodplains, uplands, watersheds. Seeing connections in the topography, land cover, water. Erosion of banks associated with mowed grass or pasture. I took photos of these streams and terrain, illustrating some of the connections. Used the photos in workshops.

In our world here in rural virginia, The study of watersheds is the study o f the Connectedness of people and natural world and human-made world (conscious and unconscious)

When we identified and analyzed 26 subwatersheds in RappAHANNOCK county, we looked at the factors that affect the WATERSHED PROTECTION. We rated the subwataersheds by the strength of these factors. See report card map.


Here in the headwaters of the Rappahannock River watershed, I see four levels by which people coneect to their watersheds: (NOTE MAPS thematic)

  • public policy (e.g. SNP, zoning, public roads, stormwater management policies, public incentives to private landowners for conservation, e.g. easements, ag programs) See maps for these. At this level, we are agreeing as citizens, consciously or unconsciously, to protect watersheds through zoning, where and how public roads are buiolt and maintained, what stormwater management ordinances our locality has and enforces, the fact of federal support for the SNP, and so forth. The biggest most important protection for our particular watersheds, of course, is the Shenandoah National Park. So when you engage as a visitor to the Park, or as a supporter of the SNP conservancy, or as an advocate for conservation in the Park, you are connecting at the public policy level.
  • Individual property owning and economic (e.g. land uses, forestry, farming, commercial, private roads) In this rural area, landowner decisions about uses of their land are the most important factors in watershed protection.
  • For example, in analzying our watersheds we noticed there were x miles of private roads and driveways in the county, many of them causing erosion and sedimentation in the streams. This observation led to incorporating strong provisions for engineering watershed-friendly private roads into county stormwater ordinances.
  • Individual land management (e.g. land cover, stream buffers; native plants; ecosystems) See maps for these.
  • Observing natural processes (topography, soils, erosion, stormwater management) See maps for topography, soils.

All of these are dimensions on which we as individuals and community interact with, connect with, the health and protection of a watershed.


As I study the connections within watersheds, the connections among people and the rest of nature, I see more and more the importance of biodiversity. The rich web of life we have privilege to be a part of here in the Blue Ridge mountains and Piedmont. As just one example, the macroinvertebrate species and populations in some of our headwaters streams serve as the standard for measuring water quality by the statewide Department of Environmental Quality.

At first, I learned the connections between land cover along the stream buffers, stormwater movement, and the quality and quantity of water in the stream and underground. 20 years ago, the Bay cleanup leaders determined that the path to a healthy Chesapeake Bay was one lined with lush corridors of healthy trees. In 1996, the state-federal Bay Program partnership set a goal of planting 2,010 miles of streamside, riparian, forest buffers b y 2010. In our rappflow analysis of local watersheds, the percentage of 30-foot forested buffers along the streams is a key factor in the score for health of the watershed.

One way of participating in the health of the watershed is to plant those trees. Or avoid cutting them down. Or avoid mowing along that stream.

Then, I begin to understand the value of not just vegetation, but more importantly native species and diversity of species in the landscape for the health of the watershed. For example, tall native grasses have extremely long roots that enable the rainwater to sink slowly and deeply into the ground. But also, those native grasses and flowers have co-evolved with certain species of pollinators and other insects, so that you begin to have a richer, more interconnected ecosystem. Not only do the pollinators help produce our human food, but also the birds and other creatures can feed on those insects and drink the water and get protection in those bunchy grasses and trees.

In our projects to improve water quality and watershed health, we use locations that the public can easily visit and learn from. We focus on practices that incorporate diverse species of native plants, for example on stream and pond buffers and raingardens. We try to provide signage so people can learn these plants and begin using them in their own properties.


But more deeply, I contend, we connect at ethical, moral, aesthetic and spiritual levels, and those are the drivers for what we do at the behavioral dimensions.

Several in this UUBridge community are artists and musicians whose work reflect the aethetic and spirit.

Aldo Leopold said “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

and, he observed,

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”
― Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac with Other Essays on Conservation from Round River

Through the process of studying and participating in the connections within watersheds, I have come to believe that biodiversity of native plants and animals is the key to both the health of a watershed and the strength of the spirit that I a human am connected to, immersed in.

E. O. Wilson, venerated biologist, speaks to our human connections with the natural world in his book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth..

Human nature is deeper and broader than the artifactual contrivance of any existing culture. The spiritual roots of homo sapiens extend deep into the natural world through still mostly hidden channels of mental development. ….

Only in what remains of Eden, teeming with life forms independent of us, is it possible to experience the kind of wonder that shaped the human psyche at its birth…much of human nature was genetically encoded during the long stretches of time that our species lived in intimacy with the rest of the living world..

Health Benefits of Forest Bathing
Japanese and other researchers for decades have studied the health effects of spending time in forests. These benefits include:
Boost the immune system: Laboratory studies discovered that “phytoncides”—like a-pinene and limonene, which are essential oils from the wood of forest trees—increase the activity of killer cells, responsible for keeping cancer cells in check and for otherwise preventing infections and illnesses. Other studies have found that fragrance from these oils helps boost killer cell activity.

Relieve stress: forest bathing trips significantly decreased the adrenaline levels,
Reduce blood pressure and heart rate: ; Reduce fatigue & improve mood:

Researchers noted “human beings have lived in the natural environment for most of the 5 million years of their existence. Therefore, their physiological functions are most suited to natural settings. This is the reason why the natural environment can enhance relaxation.”


Ron Engel is a UU theologian who had an important role in the drafting of the Earth Charter language..Engel’s basic idea is that the human spirit flourishes when it engages with the natural world.

He says that “Human beings have evolved a plurality of ways of engaging spirit, nature, and one another so as to enable their mutual flourishing.”

The word “evolved” suggests that these ways or paths are innate, part of and emerging from the long process of human evolution. “Mutual flourishing” means that all of these things together (spirit, nature, and humans) are required for the flourishing.

In conclusion, I encourage all of us to continually engage in processes of observing and feeling a part of our watersheds.

  • Observe the behavior of rainwater on the ground in a rainstorm.
  • Observe the interaction of the rain with the ground cover.
  • Notice the life forms in the creek, the puddle, the pond.
  • See ways in which our stewardship of the land can result in richer webs of life and life-giving waters.
  • Observe ways in which our public policies contribute to, or detract from the richness and protection of life.
  • Observe the effects of a rich diverse ecosystem on your own spirit and body and state of mind.
  • Have a special place by a stream or in the woods. Mine is on the rappahannock river, a healing place where I can sing: There’s a sweet sweet spirit in this place, …

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