Call and Response : Journeys in UU Lifespan Faith Development
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The Place I Am From

By Gail Forsyth-Vail

Merrimack River spring 2015 from Natl Park Service

National Park Service photo, Merrimack River in spring, 2015

When I was six years old, my family moved to a town along the Merrimack River in northeastern Massachusetts. In those days, we talked about living “within smelling distance” of the river. It was a mess, about as close as one could get to an open sewer, with manufacturing plants, homes, and schools all along its banks using it for waste disposal.

And yet, even then, I was drawn to the river, the way its muddy banks were exposed at low tide and its rapid current pulled sticks and debris toward the mouth. It held me. It was the most significant part of the landscape of the place I now called home.

It was also one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the country. My father, who worked in factory buildings along the banks, watched the waters change color as the textile factories released their used dyes into the river.

When I was in high school, my senior biology project was about the pollution in the Merrimack River. Wearing hip boots to protect our skin, my lab partner and I waded in. We took water samples, observed the toilet tissue and other debris rushing by, and looked for signs of life. There were none, other than worms in the mud. In petri dishes we grew E. coli and other, equally scary things from drops of water. (I can’t imagine anyone letting high school students do any of this today!) That same year, 1972, the Clean Water Act passed in Congress, and people were forced to begin cleaning up the river and bringing it back to life.

As a religious educator, I think about the deep needs and hurts of our world, and how to equip each of us to offer our gifts to make the world a better place. Over time, I’ve come to believe that an important part of our spiritual grounding is tied up in the place where we are from. As we understand the layers of living that have made our place, our hearts will open to the stories and lives--human and not--in our own place and in other parts of the world. As we engage with the wisdom of our place, we will learn to bring our whole selves to justice-making. To deeply know one’s own place is foundational to affirming and supporting the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

So, I’ve spent time learning the stories of my place, the lower valley of the Merrimack River, stretching from the falls in Lowell where the Concord River joins the Merrimack to where the river joins the sea in Newburyport. Stories of fragmentation and fracture, and of hope, reconciliation, and connection. I imagine how we from this valley might repair this piece of the world by reconnecting with the river and with each other.

Next Steps!

Promise of Place, a website dedicated to "enriching lives through place-based education," offers detailed information and stories to help you understand, plan, and lead place-based learning.

Gather the Spirit is a multigenerational Tapestry of Faith program that teaches stewardship with a focus on water. Circle of Trees is a multigenerational program of eight workshops that nurture deep connection with trees, nature, and all of earth’s living creatures.

For an intimate, place-based learning memoir, read Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World (Beacon, 2010). Author Amy Seidl demonstrates how climate change has altered her daughters’ experiences of their woods and garden and describes engaging with seasonal community events in her small New England town.

About the Author

Gail Forsyth-Vail

Gail Forsyth-Vail is a Credentialed Religious Educator, Master Level, who served congregations for twenty-two years before serving on the UUA Ministries and Faith Development staff from 2008-2019. She is the author of a number of faith development curricula and resources....


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