Coastal Shochenet

An approach to living within coastal ecosystems

Project Leader: Lisa Greber

[The approach of coastal shochenet described here, and this way of sharing stories more informally, is an experiment at GBHP; we welcome your thoughts and suggestions in developing the idea and process further (please contact us]

The Great Blue heron woke me up on my way home...

The Great Blue heron woke me up on my way home, jolted me out of my computer-induced reverie to stop my robotic walking, lay down my backpack, lean on the granite pillars that line the Harborwalk here at UMass Boston, and watch him and his reflection meditate on low tide and the coming of night. When the tide is out the mudflat that is Savin Hill Cove is marked by a myriad of tiny meandering creeks carved by natural water flow, as well as channeled runs leading to the intake valve for the campus heating and cooling system.  The heron had the observing stance of seeking dinner, but apparently no fish swam by. The water remaining in the cove was still as a pond; the sky fading to pale pinks and grays in the west.  I remembered I lived on the coast.

The heron flew off; the tide continued to meander.  What does it mean to live on the coast, on the borders between land and sea?  It is clear in many cases that we as human beings have not done that so well; we see it here in Boston in the loss of the cod that once grew as large as ourselves, in declining horseshoe crab populations, in the fact that shellfish grown in the harbor are too contaminated to eat.  One of the thoughts implicit in the Green Boston Harbor Project is that a new way of relating to the coast may be necessary to repair this damage. We might consider not simply management of the coast for humans’ sake, or even stewardship in the sense of standing outside or privileged, but instead living within the coast, as Janine Benyus has suggested in other contexts, in ways where human activities become functionally indistinguishable from the ecosystems that contain and support them.

Although this concept is one that is becoming more widespread in coastal circles, there is as yet no single agreed upon word to describe it; we are here proposing the use of the Hebrew word schochenet, meaning “indwelling,” to express this sense of once more being a living part of the tides, the rockweeds, the barnacles, the clear 6 AM light - of asking from the coast only as much as it can safely give.  We would welcome your thoughts on this word, or another one you may be using for the same idea.

What might this approach mean in practice, in the measurable terms of science? This is and will continue to be a long-term collaborative learning process. For now, some questions we might want to consider in developing plans with a goal of coastal shochenet might include:

Have we included holistic content?  Have we understood the geology and the biology, the chemistry and the ecology, the range of scales in time and space that are important to this place? Have we understood some of the ways these layers are integrated together? Here this might include the interlinked history of glacial retreat built into the harbor islands, the well-flushed harbor, the absence of its former eelgrass beds, the mystery of mussel larvae who do not seem to settle, even though there is substrate available for them.

Have we used a holistic process to gather information?  Have we used all the ways of knowing available to us, both the analytical ones (measurement, maps, models) and the intuitive ones (stories, music, art)? On Malibu Beach this summer, we measured the height of the salt marsh grasses, cataloged species, drew, photographed, drummed, told stories.  Particularly in the frequently occurring cases where we dont have all the analytical information we would like to have to make the best decisions, finding formal ways to incorporate our intuitions can guide us to potential ways forward and perhaps reduce mistakes.  Have we also tried to step outside of our human limits to wonder what the place itself or its inhabitants might ask: the mud snail; the cormorant or herring gull; the striped bass passing through the harbor?

Are we representing and creating holistic communities?  Have we included all the human communities in the area that do or might care about this coast,  management plans call stakeholders?  Have we addressed barriers to peoples participation, reflecting perhaps current differentials in power due to racism or classism or language discrimination, or perhaps distrust born of historical memory and pain. The Native communities that harvested quahog here have been decimated; few live here any longer. Have we mourned, if necessary; have we made peace, if necessary?  Have we celebrated as well as studied?

Do we have a vision of coastal shochenet that guides us?  The heron flew from the cove a half a kilometer west to Malibu Bay, on the other side of the boulevard that is a barrier to water flow but not to him.  I walked the long way round on the sidewalk, not having wings.  In the bay, with its mouth constricted, the water moves so slowly the fine particles settle out to become muddy bottom, fifteen feet down of “black mayonnaise” to sink into at low tide.  I watched the heron from the roadway at a respectful distance. At that moment, the fishing was better there; several fish I couldn’t identify swam down the bird’s neck to become at some undefined later point heron themselves. Although it is not advisable because of the contamination of the sediments, I have eaten salicornia europea, the colonists’ marsh pickle, here, which became at some undefined later point me.

When the colonists arrived, so the story goes, there were oysters in this harbor the size of dinner plates. One could walk on their backs out to the islands. Possibly this last is not true. They are scarce now, though at the mouth of the Charles River they are being planted again. These are sacrifice generations, grown to filter the water, not safe enough to eat, though I am not sure who will warn the gulls. Coming into coastal shochenet here, as elsewhere, is not an easy process.  Still we do know the water is in fact much cleaner now, in large measure because -- after a few centuries of the harbor’s service as a sewer -- for the last ten years or so our sewage sludge has been diverted out to sea instead of flushed directly into the harbor.  The benthic communities are recovering, though metals still seep into the water from the sediments, like the memory of trauma years after the wound itself has healed.  Restoration takes time. We will know we have had some measure of success in achieving shochenet when we can without qualms eat an oyster grown here, and know that at some undefined later point it will have become us, and we in turn will have become it, and the harbor, walking.


 Malibu Beach with herons; Photo credit Meredith Eustis

We hope this page will inspire dialog – we have ideas to share in the future on potential ways to address some of the questions raised here, and would love to hear yours. Please email your thoughts and comments to