Since she was a small child, Farley Brown, Faculty in Ecology, has had a firm connection to and curiosity about the land and how humans make use of it. Her formative experiences in the woods of suburban NJ and in the waters of the Hudson River caused her to wonder about how we make land use decisions, who influences those decisions, who gets to decide. Always an educator — even when not working with students — Farley encourages landowners, loggers, and legislators throughout Vermont to consider how they can work together to protect the working landscape and preserve wildlife habitat. Over the past 25 years, Farley has witnessed and participated in the emergence and evolution of the land conservation movement in Vermont — consistently holding and living into those questions of how to steward this verdant lands and cool waters of this special place. Still connected, still curious, Farley can often be found clad in boots and waders, sampling streams, counting macroinvertebrates, and translating bio-indicators data into the stories about how human activity impacts riparian ecosystems and riverine health.  

[03:56]-out of college came to sterling and fell and in love with land and future husband

[08:44]-defining a watershed and thinking on it from different dimensions 

[13:19]-gathering data, research with students mostly in rivers doing “Bio-Assessments”-indicators of river health and the macro-invertebrate are telling a story of the river and the rivers are telling us about our land use

[21:00]Student’s practicing skill sets in Black river in Vermont and use them traveling to the Monkey River in Belize

[24:21]-people now understanding and translating watershed information into environmental ethics

[27:55]-definition of environmental justice growing out of the civil rights movement




Welcome to Emergency to Emergence. A podcast produced by Sterling college. I'm Nakasi Fortune and I'm Dakota La Croix. This Podcast intends to engage in spirited, heart-centered dialog about intersecting, eco-social emergencies. Featuring the voices and perspectives of people purposefully, engaging in ecological thinking and action. While fostering active, community engaged responses, that offer hope.


And our guest today is none other than the delightful Farley Brown, faculty in ecology here at Sterling. Farley has worked with land owners, loggers and legislators throughout Vermont, helping to protect the working landscape and wildlife habitat. As a faculty, she teaches among other things, environmental justice beyond borders, environmental policy and law, watershed ecosystem analysis, and a personal favorite of mine research in tropical ecosystems in the Bahamas and Belize and in time hopefully Guyana. Farley thank you so much for joining us.


Oh, thank you for this opportunity.


Yes. Thank you so much for being here Farley.


Now Farley you grew up in New Jersey. I'm very different landscape from Vermont. How did you develop such a love for the land and how has that connection evolved over time?


Yeah, I grew up about 20 minutes from New York city and we had a big backyard, actually, a wooded backyard that my brothers and I used to play in. We built forts, we had adventures all throughout the woods. Now it's, it's all built up to, homes in the suburbs, but that's where I grew up basically playing along the hillsides through the woods of New Jersey.

Also, my mother had came from Northwestern, Pennsylvania, and her family was really connected to the land. Her father ran the Farley lumber company, boy, back in the fifties and sixties. And so she came to the New York city area, where she met my father and, and raised the kids, she brought with her also a love for the land. So I believe it's just from where I was. And then my mother you know, just how she influenced my brothers and myself.


How did you go from, you know, that little kid in New Jersey to being this excellent faculty member and community member in, in Craftsbury Vermont?


Oh my goodness. Well, um, when I was a little kid, no I won't start way back then, but when I graduated high school, I moved up to New Hampshire and I was an art major living in the white mountains, and then I ultimately moved back down to New York city where I went to, , a college just outside of the city and studied fine arts as well as, just looking more at environmental science, environmental ethics, sociology, and I think that's where I really started cultivating my, my love for the, not only the land, but the people. So really our, our relationship to the land. And so, um, yeah, going from New Jersey up into the white mountain, Back down to New York. Just thinking about that landscape, and, uh, people's approach to, to the landscape.

I actually was finishing off my degree from Sarah Lawrence and had one semester to go and, and really want to do more hands-on and somebody told me about Sterling, and so I came up here, way up into the Northeast Kingdom and fell in love with the land. And also my husband or my husband to be. And, um so this is where I really felt a place where I was able to put my roots down.

Having that connection to Sterling was fantastic in regards to just the community that was here or that is here, the small communities and how close, we are, we're working both in the classroom as well as out in the woods together. I stayed on as a faculty, as an adjunct faculty member for many years.

full faculty or full-time in:DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

I keep coming back to this cultivation of relationships and, and cultivation of the land. How has that changed over time for you? The way we are thinking even about land management.


I grew up as well, a little kid in the sixties. Um we, we used to swim in the Hudson river and, I remember going down to the Hudson river on a Sunday afternoon, we always had a picnic and we'd go swimming. And there was a big sign saying, uh, swimming, not permitted.

And that was that. I mean I wanted to know why couldn't we go swimming again. And really what it was was that, there was recognition of how polluted the river was at that time. So again, that was the sixties. It really wasn't until the early seventies where the clean water act came into being, and some other laws that really helped to address some of those environmental issues.

So while I was playing in the backyards in the woods ,while I was also swimming in the Hudson river, that was at a time when we really were seeing a tremendous amount of environmental, um, issues going on, especially around pollution. And at that point it was mostly public health as opposed to the loss of habitat for wildlife.

So what I saw was, over time, I watched how people went from abusing the land, and using the land in a really, um in a, a way that really was not sustainable. And I saw people actually making more of a, effort to better understand environmental issues. And once again, really coming from that public health perspective, we also started to see, big efforts going on in terms of protecting landscape for simply for the intrinsic value of the environment and ecosystem. Everything that's within an ecosystem. So back to your original question, I, I've seen the, intense issues around, environmental pollution or environmental, harm that was going on, to watching an evolution of more of a relationship and understanding of the land. And then now just seeing a lot more practices occurring in terms of protection of natural resources and in general, the environment.

yeah, So I've seen a progression going on and maybe it was just my own personal progression in growing up and watching, being involved with many different landscapes and with different people. But I definitely have seen this idea of sustainability really growing, but our population is also growing. So with more people on the landscape, we're really having, continued to have major issues in terms of environmental, um, health.

And so we really need to do more sustainable practices and protection.


And you've mentioned your very unique relationship with the Hudson river, and, you know, I know that you have a particular fascination with watersheds and following them and investigating their health. Can you tell us, firstly, what is a watershed and what are a few things that we can learn from the health of a watershed?


My favorite topic. One of my many favorite topics, a watershed is a catchment basin. We're really looking at the highest point of land and how water moves across the landscape into the lower part of the land. So we're thinking on different dimensions, you know both from a longitudinal, being from the headwaters way up high in the mountains, all the way down to what we refer to as the depositional zone or where the river meets either another river or the ocean. And so watching that longitudinal, dimension watching what goes on within that is, really important in terms of better understanding the land uses up in the watershed and how it impacts. Potentially our watershed down in the lower ends of the, um, what we refer to as the reaches or the lower reaches, if then the watershed. We also look at dimensions of, horizontal, better understanding that right pairing connection, those flood Plains, those connections to the riverine or the river system that's there. So that's a, um, watershed 1 0 1 basic idea is that it's a catchment basin for water, as it moves across the landscape.


As you've traversed from the headwaters all the way in the Adirondacks, down to Manhattan. How have you seen it changed over the years?


Well, having spent so much time in the high peaks of the Adirondacks, when I was younger, I saw this beautiful Wild lands, um just such a unique place. Really becoming almost loved to death. It's the people, the number of people who've discovered the Adirondacks over the decades and who are, um, now continue to go in it has it crease drastically. So the headwaters of the Hudson river are really, um, there's some real potential for, for damage just because from all of us want to be outside and enjoying, um, hiking in the Adirondacks. So I've watched that beautiful, pristine community. Really, being almost, as I said, love to death, but I've also seen as we continue further on down the river, how there have been major issues to, bring back the health of the river.

Pete Seeger back in the seventies was really instrumental in really raising awareness and activism around, environmental, uh, issues specifically to the Hudson river. And the amazing thing now is what I'm seeing down in the New York city area is that there more and more people are actually becoming connected to the river through kayaking clubs.

There's actually a canoe club that I just learned about, on the east river that feeds into the Hudson. And so it's been really great to see how people are making that connection to the waterways. And also there are big efforts going on to restore, the aquatic habitats that are there, uh, specifically the oyster oyster beds.

Actually I see that there's a real connection between the number of people out on the land and appreciating, and at the same time, the climatic changes that are going on and the major rain events that are occurring `now. If we have hundreds of people a day walking on the trails and the high peaks of the Adirondacks, add on top of that major rainstorms, that are then also impacting the, um, just the trails themselves. So it's a combination, but it's all tied to our use of the land, our consumptive behavior, our numbers as our populations, continue to grow.


Sounds like research and data analysis plays a very key role in, in your sector and informing policies and decision-making. I wanted you to, you know, speak a little bit more of, that importance, and what are some of the research work that you are currently doing and why are you doing it?


I do speak with students quite a bit about how we need to have science. We need to gather that data in order to help, make political changes. Now again, data is interpreted in different ways, depending on the, um, the politics. It can be a very political, uh, thing as well. But, it's important to understand and to quantify or even qualify what we've got on the landscape.

And the research that I've been involved with has been mostly in rivers, um, for. Oh, my goodness ,the past 15 years or more, I've had students going out into the river, and actually doing bio assessments. We're looking a little bit of chemistry. We're looking a lot at geomorphology, which is basically the, um, physical landscape.

And we're really focusing in on the, biological aspects and looking for biological indicators of River health. So my students spend time going out and actually collecting the macro invertebrates, which are in a larval stage of a lot of the insects that we, we see on the land. And so they're collecting those, looking at them, counting them, identifying them down to family to better understand the health of the river.

If you have a collection, a sample that actually has a real diversity of an order of different types of bugs, so mayflies, stone flies. And then when you really, spend more time analyzing the sample, you can better understand what the families are actually telling us. The different families are, um, you know, hundreds of different types of families within a one to one order of macro invertebrates.

So these bugs are telling us a story. They're telling us a story of the health of the river. The river as a whole is also telling us a story, a story of our land use practices and what how we are influencing the rivers. Rivers are also dynamic. So they move across the landscape, or at least they should, but our land uses quite often constrict them.

The bugs respond to how the river is actually moving, and again, so if we are constricting the river through rip rap or armoring, or if we're, having, uh, pollution of different sorts being discharged into the river. Specifically around here it's sedimentation is the major form of pollution in our rivers up here in the Northeast kingdom.

So that is once again it's reflective in the bug communities, the macro invertebrate communities that we're finding in the river. 10 years or more ago, I had a grant from the national science foundation to work with a variety of other schools throughout the Lemoile river watershed, and we were actually collecting information in the headwaters of the Lemoile river, where Sterling is, and we had Johnson State College and St. Michael's college and UVM collecting information further on down the watershed before it actually was reaching lake Champlain and Middlebury was involved too. Middlebury college was also involved from, another point in the watershed. So once again, gathering that information in our own backyard of the macro invertebrates and they tell us a story is important, but on a larger scale, looking throughout the whole watershed, what I refer to as the macro watershed or, um, the greater watershed is also important.

We see really more of a rural land use up here as opposed to more of an urban setting down in Burlington. You're going to find a lot, um many different types of families of macro invertebrates.


I really appreciate the way you're speaking about gathering data and the stories, the whispers, the, the truths from this data, and yet, how is it landing or how are you hearing it or seeing, or witnessing it land on your students and how do you see it translating into inspiring movements or some real change or awareness?


What I'm seeing is that the students first off me, them have, come to my classes, especially the watershed class, without an understanding, or even in knowledge of macro invertebrates presence in the river. So just learning about the bugs is, really a big step and gathering the data there. So I've watched the students really gain a better understanding as they are introduced to the bugs. And then being able to make suggestions or recommendations based on that data that they've collected.

What I have my students do is also go through the records, the historical land use records, and so that they can better understand when the land was 80% open and 20%, forested or, um, now we're are, it's a flip around so that we're 80%, forested and 20%. open. That's always a real, um misnomer in the sense that, you know, even though we may have a closed landscape, there's still a lot of activity. A lot of intense land use is going on there, but for students to really look back and to think about what those historical land uses, be it dams or, floating logs down the river or mills of any type. They are able to, students are able to then think about what were the bugs there and what type of communities were, present or not.

And how has the river actually readjusted or changed and how has habitat, now being present or not being present, based on land use. So I've watched the students in their, um, gathering or gaining and an awareness of the macro invertebrates, tying that into historical land use. And that helps for them to think about what we can do today to help, to ensure the health of a river system.

A lot of the students, um, I go off to work in not just in the field of water quality, but just in wherever they're living, they go off to think and they think more about the watershed. They learn something in a classroom that's really applicable in the broader world.


You've traveled to central America.

You've traveled to the Caribbean and hopefully soon you'll travel to south America. So you've done, you've done watershed work and, and the health of rivers across a couple of, a couple of landscapes outside of the U.S. What are, what are the differences do you see? Um, when you compare the rivers in say Belize, at the monkey river or, and the black river here?


Yeah. Great question Nakasi. It's been so much fun to actually see, how. How people around the world make that connection, not just to the river, but to better understand the broader ecosystem and, and many places around the world. They're actually looking at bugs as well, even a lot of these same type of protocols that the students learn here in Craftsbury in the Black river, they can apply into the monkey river in the Southern part of Belize.

And I think it's interesting for our students to see again, to be able to practice. Their skill skillsets that they have developed here in the Black River and take it to another river, a river in the tropics, which is very different, but very similar. When students start pulling up macro invertebrates out of the tropical rivers, we always say, oh my goodness, you know, the hellgrammites or some of the mayflies are, are three times the size in the Monkey River.

Then as they are in the Black River. That's a little bit of an exaggeration, but nonetheless, um, they're able to see that there really are commonalities and differences in terms of those ecological systems. The fun thing that our students do is, when they travel to Belize, we go into local villages and we work with some of the, we have worked with some of the school groups and actually taken students into the rivers in their village.

And I'll never forget being in Golden Stream village in Southern Belize, and the children went in, we, we, collected macro invertebrates and they were looking at these bugs and their mothers were just upstream, washing dishes and washing clothes, and the kids were running up to their mothers saying, you know, oh, look at this beautiful bug, and the mother's thinking, oh my goodness, I'm down here every day. And you know, with our family is bathing and whatever else and they're bugs in the water, but anyway, the students are able to see that they, um, they definitely, the bugs are telling a story and in terms of what's present with the ecosystem, the riverine system, that's there, the river system,


Farley, what needs to change? In your opinion, or what can you see for a path forward to tell the story of the current state of watersheds and our oceans and our globe in general? Like what story are you hearing and feeling that needs to be expressed from all of this data and travel and knowledge that you've witnessed over the years?


Right, Well, not unlike a watershed we're all interconnected. Across the landscape, both in a landscape connectivity can be just in our own towns or our own cities, but also thinking about across, um, larger. Larger watersheds or larger sectors sections around the world.

rs as a dumping ground in the:

And, um now I am, people are actually seeing and, understanding that rivers are living systems and they are once again, um, they travel cross a watershed and there's a lot of, of all that connectivity. So I. See, or I hope for the future that, that a lot of this information that our students, the younger people, older people are, are gathering or at least experiencing in the watershed that that information can actually be translated or used both in a political perspective as well as, you know a regulatory perspective.

And, also just embracing once again, that environmental ethic and people making a connection to those rivers and appreciation. I think that's key. Specifically what I'd love to see and what, um, is more, more money actually than devoted towards, uh, some of the major issues we have in terms of pollution, it being sedimentation and getting sedimentation out of the river.

We put, we were able to stop point pollution, you know pipes, spewing, uh, different forms of toxic material or, or, um, waste into the river for the most. But now we need to think on, those non-point surfaces. Those, uh, everyone points the finger at the farmers to say it's agriculture, but it's also just us driving to the supermarket driving someplace where we're actually adding to problems regarding sedimentation. Things rolling off the roads and getting into the waterways


With all of the interlocking crises that are happening right now, what what's giving you hope? What is keeping you sane, as you move through this world, and what solutions are there that, you know, we can lean into?


Well, what gives me hope? What gives me hope is, um, well seeing young people who are learning and sharing information with, with other people, around the world, but also in their own backyard. People of all different ages, you know, learning or better understanding the natural world, and recognizing how we do need to live on the landscape.

And, but it's, how can we best utilize the land and protect the environment? So what gives me hope is that there's that awareness that that's growing, and that it's being shared in different places. Again, different communities, local, as well as state and national and global. And that's what really, gives me hope in terms of that sharing of information.

Another big issue that, I have spent time with students discussing and also spending time in other countries is really, really better understanding issues around environmental justice and the fact that in environmental justice, those injustices that have occurred, are really significant, and in the United States, you know, back in the well back 200 years ago, major , you know injustices that are occurring, but going to the, the forties, the fifties, uh, and even in the sixties with the civil rights movement going on and the definition of environmental justice growing out of the civil rights movement, really, was instrumental.

Um, evolving or, in partnership with the environmental movement really, helped to define or give a definition to the environmental justice movement. It was here in the, uh, boy, the late eighties, early nineties that we had the first summit through the United church of Christ, people of color who are actually defining the different elements or principles around environmental justice.

That was language that was created and then that was used or has been, is being used around the world. So really better, understanding our struggles or the struggles in the United States with civil rights and the environmental movement. And working up to the idea of environmental justice has actually, raised an awareness around the world and it there's so much that, well that we, as me, as a white person really has needed to do over time in terms of, um, better understanding racism and, my own race being racist, just as, um, within the nature of being a white privileged, older woman or an older woman of privilege. And, um so better understanding my own personal, responsibility, and then also helping to, or really calling for awareness and, uh, local communities and within family members within, you know, different organizations. And really raising that better understanding that, um, issue of diversity and inclusivity or lack thereof. And also, but in being involved in environmental justice issues, a lot of it has to do with you know, just doing the homework and better understanding the different communities.

One of my, heroes is Majora Carter who, uh, started the south Bronx, um, groups that were there actually worked on greening the ghetto, and Majora was extremely important in terms of, raising awareness about the environmental and social justice issues in a predominantly, um, black community or community of color and, socioeconomically depressed area as well.

And how, she speaks to how communities have taken action to really to better their environment, but then also to, um, to be able to carry out that action by raising awareness. And all some many different levels of political, um, through religious organizations through, just communities in general.

We have you environmental justice, climate justice, social justice, um, were able now to look through all those lenses to better understand the, the burdens that people, as well as nature are carrying.


Thank you so much Farley for, you know, taking the time out of your day to join us and share your wisdom with us. It's always a pleasure to learn about watersheds and macro invertebrates and, and what our riverine and systems are telling us. Um, so I truly appreciate you being here and, and, you know, dropping some knowledge.


Yeah. Farley, thank you so much. I hadn't even thought of that aspect of the rivers and having grown up and appreciated them my whole life, I'm rethinking my own childhood in many ways. And the exposure to that story that can be unlocked through what you were talking about, so thank you for that.


Yeah. It's always such a joy to spend time talking with...




...with everyone.


If you enjoyed this conversation, do come back for the commendation. We'll spend a few more minutes with our most recent guests identifying the specific works that inspire them, so you can root further, draw new sources of nourishment and connect to the emergence of vital possibilities.

And before we come to a close Sterling, it knowledges that the land on which we gather, places now known as Vermont and Kentucky are the traditional and unseated territories of several indigenous peoples, the Abenaki in the North, the Shawnee Cherokee, Chickasaw and Osage people to the South. We also learn in, and from a range of landscapes that belong to other indigenous peoples and more than human kin. As we seek deep reciprocal relationships with nature, we respect and honor the place-based and cultural wisdom of indigenous ancestors and contemporaries. Words of acknowledgement and intention are just a first step. We must match them with acts of respect and repair.

Thanks so much for listening, you can subscribe to Emergency to Emergence wherever you listen to podcasts. And a very special thanks to Sterling alum, Fern Maddie, for her musical creations. For more information on how Sterling is advancing ecological thinking and action. Visit If listening has prompted something new to emerge in you. We invite you to share your thoughts as a written message or voice recording, which you can send to [email protected]

Until next time, this is Emergency to Emergence.

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