Building thoughtful, interactive communities with the Cape Fear River Watch
Last Saturday morning was foggy around 7:30 when I turned onto Surrey Street to look for Cape Fear River Watch’s headquarters. In their driveway a flattop griddle sizzled with blueberry pancakes as men kibitzed and cooked.
“I like to put seven berries in each cake.”
“Why are your cakes oval shaped instead of round?”
“The spoon is oval shaped—that’s why.”
When they saw me trudge up, they offered a pancake and each shook my hand. I rollled a hot cake into my mouth and burned my lip on a steaming blueberry. It was perfect for a balmy autumn morning.
For the 35th anniversary of Riverfest, I decided to spend some time actually learning about the Cape Fear River. Somehow, for many citizens, the river has become something decorative at the foot of Market Street, which it is. Yet, it provides our drinking water and fuels the shipping industry, which built this town from the Colonial days. Kemp Burdette, the riverkeeper for the Cape Fear River Watch, invited me to sell some books at River Watch’s First Saturday Seminar. Their monthly guest welcomed UNCW professor and hailed local author Philip Gerard; Gerard talked about his new book, “Down the Wild Cape Fear.” He was an obvious guest for the organization to invite.
The First Saturday of every month, the Cape Fear River Watch hosts a pancake breakfast at 8 a.m., followed at 9 a.m. by an educational seminar about some aspect of our local ecology.
Burdette helped me unload a box of Gerard’s books from the car. I was to set them up in the seminar room for him to sign and for people to purchase after the event.
“Some First Saturdays it’s standing-room only,” Burdette noted. “We almost always have it at least two-thirds full.”
I marveled at that kind of turnout in a room that easily seats 60 or more people. Because we live in an area with a constant full calendar of events, it seemed burdensome to worry over attendance. Cape Fear River Watch need not worry about such and that’s impressive!
The guest of honor arrived with his signature grin and chuckle. The sweet smell of pancakes permeated the room. Burdette’s beautiful daughters waved syrup-sticky fingers enroute to the bathroom with grandma to wash their hands. Around them, adults caught up on local happenings, and concerns about the river and our environment.
Maggie Parrish bought a copy of the book “Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean” the day before. She passed it around, and when she handed it to me, she mentioned, “There’s a chart in the back about nuclear power plants that have been shut down because of jellyfish.”
“Oh—is that the answer?” I asked, flipping through it quickly.
Burdette moved down the aisle to the front, and people started to find seats. “I just want to welcome all of you to our First Saturday Seminar…” he began. After some quick Cape Fear River Watch-related announcements, he tied in two current events from the week’s news with his organization’s mission. Before introducing Gerard, he recognized Tom Tewey, who announced UNCW’s Dr. Roger Shew lecture to be held at the 2013 UN Day Luncheon.
Nancy Buckingham mae an announcement about another nature and conservation-themed book event, before Maggie Parrish brought out a sign that said: “Vote Early.” She talked about the importance of voting and outlined the opportunities to vote early or on Election Day.
Burdette introduced the honored guest and Phillip Gerard took the floor. As he began to talk, something ticked over in the back of my mind. I hadn’t put my finger on it yet. Gerard briefly spoke about how the book came to be, the process and a little history of the river (all news to me), then read a passage from near the end, stopping on enough of a cliff hanger that would encourage people to want to get the book to read more (he is a pro).
During the lively Q&A that followed, Gerrard noted how we have thought so long about the Cape Fear River as only the section right in front of us. So, maybe it was time to convene a conference of the Cape Fear, and get planners and stakeholders from all along the river together to discuss a long-term vision for the river as a whole.
Burdette stood to thank Gerard before mentioning Old Books on Front Street stopping by to sell some of Gerard’s books. (Bless him. What a sweet thing to say).
“So how’s this going to work, Gwen?” Burdette asked me.
“Get the handsome author to sign your book, and I’ll get your money before you leave.”
The line grew instantly and Gerard was eager to talk and give autographs. I wandered farther down the aisle, and with no trouble or fanfare, everyone paid and I met some truly, lovely new friends.
Could it be more perfect?
In the car on the way home, something still ticked over in my brain. Finally, it clicked. What just happened was exactly how it is supposed to work—the theory as it were, put into practice.
I just walked out of a room containing Margaret Mead’s thoughtful group of concerned citizens who can change the world. Most of my adolescent and adult life involved nonprofits, citizen’s boards, political demonstrations and planning events, as well as meetings/summits/conferences about the pressing issue of the day. But what happened that morning at the Cape Fear River Watch is what all of those other meetings aspire to be:
1. It was mulit-generational.
2. The audience fully engaged with the speaker about the topic.
3. Community announcements were made that pertained to the topic at hand, and the floor was open for the assembled to not only make announcements but also ask for more information.
4. Specific actions for the topics discussed were offered to the assembled.
5. The cook was recognized and thanked.
6. The community businesses that partnered with the organization for the event were thanked quite genuinely.
7. Cash was left in the donation jar.
That is a long way of saying that rather than a lecture, Cape Fear River Watch hosted a community communication event that was specific, empowering and embraced not only the community of people in the room but the community in which we live. It might sound obvious, but it’s surprising how hard it can be to get that recipe correct.
And that is what local nonprofits set out to do: create change by bringing together the will and action of the people in our community. They partner with businesses to make the most effective, positive impact possible across the board.
If Cape Fear River Watch can do this on a simple Saturday morning, maybe it is time to start planning the Cape Fear River Summit. Imagine if, as Gerard suggested, we connected with communities all along our river in the same manner? Even if that summit hasn’t been announced yet, please consider picking up a copy of Gerard’s book, “Down the Wild Cape Fear.” It’s highly informative, and will change the way you look at that large body of water at the foot of Market Street.
Cape Fear River Watch
10/19: Paddle Series at Smith Creek, 8 a.m.; Native Plant Garden Club meeting, 2 p.m.
11/2, 8 a.m.: First Saturday Seminar
617 Surry Street
Gwenyfar Rohler is the author or ‘Promise of Peanuts,’ which can be bought at Old Books on Front Street, with all monies donated to local nonprofit Full Belly Project.