Nature Notes: Many Names, Same Bowl

Once we had rain, we had runoff

   They say 70 percent of the earth’s surface is water. Astronomers and astrophysicists have conjectured that it comes primarily from comets (frozen water and dust) that struck the earth. One large comet carries a big cargo. If we were one of the cold planets, all this water would be ice. In a hotter climate, it would boil away and the atmosphere would be too hot and humid to sustain life, at least not human life.
    Very early on, the nature of this water was tied to the comets that provided it. In all likelihood it was fairly uniform in composition and quite fresh. Until the water cycle started up, most of the water just sat there, perhaps, whipped by the winds, and evaporated into the newly forming atmosphere. It wasn’t until the atmosphere became supersaturated with water vapor here and there and droplets formed around condensation particles that there was such a thing as rain.
    Once we had rain, we had runoff. The classical Greeks, without understanding what we call gravity, postulated that water seeks its own level. Runoff ran from high areas — the land — to low areas — the seas and lakes. Runoff not only fills depressions with water, on its way it erodes hard surfaces, like rocks, and that begins the process of soil making.
    The aqueous slurry running downhill also dissolves minerals like salts from rocks and carries those salts to the seas. The seas, once fresh, become saltier and saltier. Without rain, we wouldn’t have rivers, erosion, and the salty oceans.
    With all that runoff, why didn’t sea level get higher and higher and higher? The water cycle put as much water back into the atmosphere as it dumped on land and on the surface of the seas. An equilibrium of sorts kept sea level on an even keel during Earth’s early years. It wasn’t until the earth entered into long-term cooling and warming periods that sea level began to fluctuate.
    Glaciation lowered sea level; glacial melting caused it to rise. We are in the latter phase at this moment in space and time, and sea level is rising.
    Earth’s surface waters are either saline, fresh, or brackish. Seawater is contained in various natural compartments, the largest, of course, being the oceans, the so-called “seven seas.” The next largest are gulfs and seas, such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea, followed by bays and sounds, like Hudson Bay and Puget Sound. Then come straits, coves, harbors, inlets, tidal creeks, and so on. Long Island has all of them with the exception of straits. Plum Gut running between Orient Point and Plum Island is not large enough to be called a strait. Canals are artificial straits or guts and the biggest are filled with running seawater.
    Oceanography and marine biology are the study of the oceans, while limnology is the study of freshwaters. The latter rank in size from the largest, the Great Lakes, down to the smallest, ponds and holes. Perhaps, because freshwater bodies, with the exception of a few like the Hudson River, are non-tidal and are not interconnected, they have more local names than saltwater bodies. Those that are not quiescent and run always downhill have many, many names — rivers, streams, brooks, rills, rivulets, kills, creeks, runs, sloughs, dreens, swales, and the like.
    Long Island has a few permanent rivers. The Peconic, Nissequogue, and Cannetquot are the largest. They differ from most upstate rivers in that they are more dependent on groundwater than runoff for their flows. The Peconic River is the largest groundwater-fed river in New York State. On the South Fork we have several streams that have different local names — Peter’s Run in Montauk, Tan Bark Creek or Soak Hides Dreen at the south end of Three Mile Harbor, Ely Brook or Alewife Brook in Northwest, Sebonac Creek in North Sea, Ligonee Brook in Sag Harbor, to name but a few.
    Some of these freshwater streams, such as the one that runs south along the east side of Stephen Hand’s Path thence into Georgica Pond in Wainscott, run into bodies of water that are brackish, such as Georgica Pond, or Mill Creek in Water Mill, which feeds Mecox Bay, or the stream from Jeremy’s Hole in Sagg Swamp in Bridgehampton, which runs into Sagaponack Pond.
    Almost all of the standing freshwater bodies on the South Fork are called ponds, while the smaller ones are called “holes,” — Barnes Hole, Wolfie’s Hole, and Wolf Swamp, Daniel’s Hole, Chatfield’s Hole, etc. It has been conjectured that Short’s Pond, or Scuttlehole Pond, north of Scuttle Hole Road in Bridgehampton, was named after a kettle hole left by the retreating ice sheet. In Mattituck on the North Fork, one of these holes is called Wolf Pit. A few of the ponds have more pretentious names, such as Lake Agawam in Southampton Village. Lake Montauk has been tidal since the mid-1920s, but it was once the largest freshwater pond on Long Island.
    Around the world there are a bunch of names for those runoff channels carved out by millenniums of erosion, the intermittent streams that are dry longer than they are wet. In the American West there are arroyos, gulches, swales, sloughs, and such. The larger ones are called canyons. In the Near East and Middle East they are wadis, as in Irrawady.
    There are also artesian freshwaters called springs or seeps that rise from the water table. The shore at the edge of Springy Banks running along the west side of Three Mile Harbor is famous for its seeps. Pussy’s Pond in Springs is fed by the springs that the hamlet is named after. That venerable Bridgehampton centenarian farmer, historian, and celebrated weatherman, Richard Hendrickson, once explained to me how he can find a spring coming up in a tidal cove or tidal creek. You walk around with bare feet until you feel the bottom get cold. Groundwater in the summer is generally 15 to 20 degrees colder than the tidal water into which it seeps.
    In the old days these water bodies and wet spots were only protected by humans out of respect and a sense of good stewardship. In much of the world, including almost all of the United States, water bodies are protected by law.
    Water, we couldn’t live without it, and neither could the millions and millions of different animals and plants with which we cohabit. We all drink from the same bowl.