Cook Brook, July 2001

Cook Brook was realised on July 4th, 2001. 7,500 balls were released down Cook Brook in South Londonderry, Vermont for about a 1 mile stretch of river. My friend Treva Wurmfeld helped - along with many other friends and family members who helped photograph, gather balls, and film the event. The piece was done in preparation for a similar, larger piece.

About Cook Brook......

Treva came up to help me with Cook Brook. Initially I was very discouraged because the balls had to be caught in a net-like structure and I had realized that the ground was way too rocky to hold any kind of posts to which I could attatch the net.

I spent one whole day walking up the stream for about two miles. I started about 3/4 of a mile downstream from our house, right above where it gets to be about 10 feet deep because of the beaver dam. The river turns black and stagnent with the beaver’s living in it. Originally, I had expected to float the balls way down until the beginning of Ohrsel's property, and start them at the top of Hallett’s property so in all they would have floated about 3.5 miles. But once I found the dam I realized that was impossible. Then once I did the test run I realized it was really impossible. I thought the dam could be used as a backup trap anyway, in case the balls somehow broke through my trap.
I followed the river upstream to the point where I wanted to start the balls; a grassy meadow at the top of Hallett’s field where the river seems to flow unrestricted by anything. Then they would flow underneath the bridge at the four corners in the hollow, and then through a dense wooded area by the Krauss’s house and then finally under a smaller bridge into our property, around our field and the horseshoe, and then out of view into the fields beyond. Cook Brook had seemed so small, so unimportant except for to me, and now I thought about the fact that even though it is only a Brook, it is connected to the sea.

As I walked the river though, I realized that there were so many obstacles; branches blocking theway, shallow parts where the balls might just run aground, and places where the river diverged into two or more little tributaries, which would have to be blocked off somehow if they led into little pools, or if they never flowed back into the main stream. My Dad helped me cut some brush back where the balls would be the most visible in the lower part of our field. I also moved and cut some logs and branches that would have acted as a barrier. I didn’t want to just make the river free of obstacles though (although that would have been totally impossible anyway), because I wanted the balls to flow down the river and find their way to the end as a leaf or a stick would. I knew balls would get caught along the sides, but I thought they would eventually flow downstream.

The idea of the net was out because there was no way to secure the net to the river bed in only a few days. So I bought 20 feet of chicken wire and 12 metal fecning posts at the hardware store. The man there tried to understand what I was doing. He kept saying that I would have to clean out the fence everyday because sticks and leaves would get caught in it. When I told him it was not a fence to keep animals out of the stream, but to catch 28,000 plastic balls that were floating down the river, he was slightly confused. He said that I would have to secure the fencing way up the riverbanks on either side so that the balls didn’t overflow around the sides.

I spent $65.00 on the fencing materials and when I got back, I walked the river again looking for a shallow, narrow place in the river. I tried first to install the fencing right above the dam, but the bed was too rocky. I tried in three more places, but the river was either too wide to allow the fencing to be stable, or rocks were in the way. Even when I removed the rocks, there were much bigger ones down deeper. To make sure the fence was stable enough, the posts had to go in at least 6-8 inches. I had no concept of how heavy 28,000 balls in water would be. I did not know if they would pile up on each other, or try to escape around the sides, just sit floating in the water calmly (which I hoped for), or even get pushed under the fence. At any rate, I knew the fence had to be strong enough or else the balls could overflow or push the fence over.

Finally I found a very narrow, shallow part of the river that was right after a bend, and which calmed down after coming out into a shallow pool surrounded on one side by a tall stone wall. Lush green branches hung over the stream. I used the sledgehammer and slammed the posts down hard into the river bed. Then I wound the chickenwire around the far post and stretched it across the stream, and secured it to the other end. When I left, the fence seemed pretty secure, but I still didn’t think it would work. I had concinved myself that the balls would get pulled underneath the fence and spill over the sides.

I was discouraged and when Treva arrived from NYC, I had pretty much called off the project. I needed more time to create a dynamic net that would be secured to concrete blocks in the riverbed, and to tree branches above. I took her down to look at the fence. When she saw it, she said she didn’t understand my being so worried about it. She convinced me that the balls would float calmly on the water and would just get backed up the river for about 15-20 feet, lying in one rippling blanket on the surface.
The next day we did a test run with 2,000 balls (4 boxes). I was nervous about floating even that small amount down the river. I expected the balls to travel so fast that the entire run would only take about 10 minutes. We had a small all-terrain-vehicle which we could ride in alongside the river as the balls floated. I thought we would need it in order to see the balls at each major river bend and especially at the end.

We started the test run at the top of our property, about 3/4 of a mile from the fence. There is a bridge there about 15 feet high and we piled the boxes on the top, opened them up, and dumped them in. At first they just sat there, moving around but not flowing. After about five seconds they started flowing slowly with the current, almost one by one. The effect was so different than I had expected. I had thought they would be swiftly carried away on the river’s surface all at once. Instead they gathered in little organic masses around the big rocks on the sides and slowly trickled down the river, meandering in any direction the river took them. It was much more beautiful than I could have imagined. As you looked from the bridge down the river, all you could see were single pink spheres meandering down like lemmings on a Sunday stroll. If you looked at them on the surface level, you could see a layer of moving pink balls. In the greenery they stood out so well; shocking but still subtle, like a surprise. Like an oversized salmon had laid eggs. Although the effect was completely different than I had prepared for, I liked this way better. It was much more delicate and thought provoking, and in a way, stranger than if they had all moved together in one large mass.

I switched off the a.t.v. which I had left running so that we could have jumped into it and sped away to catch up with the balls down the river. Instead, we walked along the river watching how they moved, gathered, and where they got stuck. In some places they gathered by the hundreds, and then one by one began to flow in rhythm as the current swept them away. Occasionally one got caught in a fast ripple, and just kept spinning and spinning in the ripple until you touched it and it floated away.

Downstream, right before the horseshoe turn, my mother and her friend and my sister waited. It was at least ten minutes before they shouted up to us that they could see the first one coming. Treva and I ran down the river banks, passing my Dad and Brother sitting on separate rocks, watching. Downstream, right before the horseshoe bend, there were several small grassy islands, on the sides of which the balls were getting caught by the long green grasses that bent towards the water. It was good to see the first ones coming down as if they were in a slow and steady bike race. They were either happily racing with no competition, or just exploring the river and playing in the currents. Further on, the river became faster, and the balls rode the whitewater with ease.
When I first checked the fence, a half an hour later, there were about 200 balls floating calmly at the fence. I think it took about 2 hours for the moving balls to reach the fence. But there were still many more stuck along the riverbank. We estimated that there were about 450 balls still upstream, caught along the banks. In the afternoon, we took long poles and moved downstream, dislodging all the balls from the sides. Some were caught under heavy brush or rocks. It took us so long that I realized my idea of floating them down for 3.5 miles was not worth the time it would take us afterwards to get the stuck ones. Also, since the actual run took so much longer than I had expected, it wouldn’t really matter how far up I went, since no one would be able to see them until they got to our fields anyway. I was reluctant to shorten the run so much since I had wanted them to travel a greater distance, but it was so unpractical. I was so happy with the outcome that I didn’t mind shortening it to save hours- even days of work getting them all back. I also realized that it would have been pointless to float all 28,000 of them, since they took so long to float down. If I floated 5,000, they would take about 4 hours to float, and that would last for the whole party. (we were going to have a big 4th of July party and I figured it would be a good audience).

That afternoon, I called the Manchester Journal, a very small local paper, and informed them of the event. I didn’t expect them to be as interested as they were, but they said they would send a journalist over in the morning. More confident but nervous, I called The Rutland Herald, a much bigger regional paper for Southern Vermont. They said they might send over a journalist and a photographer during the actual flow. Now I really had to do it, and successfully. I let the balls stay in the trap overnight, and when I checked them in the morning, they had migrated left, but were safe and still calm. The only thing that I knew could really endanger the piece, was rain. If enough rain fell to raise the river, the fence could get knocked down, or the balls could start piling up on each other.

Mary Bouton from The Manchester Journal came the next morning and interviewed me. She even took off her shoes and waded up the river with me to see the fence. Later in the day I checked the forecast. To my despair there were thundershowers forecast for the late afternoon. I had scheduled the flow for around 6:00, right as the evening light would hit, and everybody would be playing a baseball game in the field.

By 5:30, Treva and I had decided to float 7,500 balls down the river, and we had stacked 15 large boxes on the bridge. It had started to drizzle, but the light was still good. The photographer and journalist were half an hour late, and we had to wait for them to come, all the while, the clouds building in the North of the sky. I was pretty nervous, especially since darkness was only 2.5 hours off.

Finally the Herald arrived and we promptly dumped all the boxes in the river. The moment was hectic and there were many spectators. The reporter was asking lots of questions and I was trying to direct the photographers a bit. All the kids wanted to dump boxes in and finally I just let them, including 5 year old Emma. Thousands of balls hit the water, causing ripples. The flow by the horse-shoe seemed endless. For hours and hours the balls seemed to keep coming. When we thought they were done, there were still thousands more to go. People stood on the river banks and on the bridge watching them flow.

Then it really started to rain. The reporters left, saying they hoped it would make front page. I checked the fence every hour. The balls were cooperating perfectly, beautified even by the rain. They were still flowing steadily at 10:00 at night, and as I found later, they flowed for 3 more days to come.

At 10:00 PM, the river had risen 6 inches, though the balls were still accumulating in blanket formation, as hoped for. I estimated that most of them were there already. It is hard to estimate the amount of balls that float on a surface, and my estimate was very wrong. The balls covered the water surface like a blanket for about 11 feet up the stream, hugging the stone wall, showing the egde between water and riverbank. They moved to wherever the water went. The surface rippled steadily as the water moved, allowing no breaks between balls. All was dark, wet, and glistening green. Treva and I watched as four more balls quickly trickeled through the dark wet green to meet their crowd. That was the most beautiful thing about the whole project. Seeing those few still en route to their destination, glowing pink in the dark green dripping foliage.

Now the rain was steadily falling, and there were still many more balls to come – I was worried about the river rising and the balls breaching the fence. I got my Father’s opinion, which wasn’t what I had hoped for. He stood, thigh deep in the river and said, "I know this river. This river can rise and drop 2 feet in one night. Tomarrow morning you could kayak it." I didn’t want to believe him, since it meant ruining the beautiful blanket, and not sleeping that night. The balls looked so calm at that point, and so innocent. Treva and I somehow convinced ourselves, with the help of Mark and Sunny Wright, that the fence would be high enough, we should not worry so much, and we should go to bed. It had started as a collaboration with nature, and now it was a fight.

I got into bed and tried to sleep. I was exhausted from the day, and cold, and still wet. It suddenly occurred to me just how awful it would have been if the balls went. If the article made the paper, people would be reading it the next morning on their front porch and would be seeing pink balls floating by them as they read it. Cook Brook had seemed so small, so unimportant except for to me, and it became so apparent that even though it is only a Brook, it is connected to the sea. Balls could end up in India. I woke up Treva and she reluctantly agreed that we should just go check one more time.

It was 12:30 AM. The fence was holding strong but I was still worried. The water had risen another 5 inches and had created a large rapid before the balls. The amount of balls had grown considerably, and still more came! It looked like a lot more than I had expected. They were piling up on each other, the blanket ruined. As they came down, however sparsely, from upstream, they were turned violently by the rapid and then spat out, or thrust out with all the others hammering against the fence. The rain poured in buckets and thunder and lightening rumbled. We drove up to the house, and pulled on my Dad’s huge wader boots for fishing. We layered up and went back down. I felt that now I had created a monster.

At 12:30 we started in. It was freezing, and the water was up to my chest, whereas that morning, as I had calmly shown the Manchester Journal reporter the fence, the water had been about mid-shin deep. We took all the balls out with huge garbage bags with holes in them We didn’t finish until 2:30 AM.

In the morning we drove into town early and looked for the Rutland Herald. To our surprise, the story was the headline for July 5th, front page.