… already

Dear Like a River,

I hope you will get to writing about renovation soon because I seriously need to get a grip and would love to hear your advice on makeovers, river style!

— Ready for Renovation

My Dear R&R,

You’ve come to the right place. Folks of my professional persuasion have been fixing rivers for a long time. In fact, guess who our federal government deems “responsible for investigating, developing, and maintaining the nation’s water and related environmental resources.”

Yup, engineers, and not just any old engineers — the above quotation is the Google blurb for the ultimate authority over our waterways:  the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

The Department of Defense Against Rivers?

You may wonder why aquatic oversight falls to the army. Partly it’s because navigable rivers have been critical to our country’s political and economic success since our first battles for freedom, and, later, flooding rivers seemed to necessitate defense. But also it’s because our pioneering mindset cast all of nature as a battle-worthy foe.

How do I know this? It’s etched in stone on Engineering Hall:

The Control of Nature

Such was the ethic back in the day. Some people still believe it. Some people hate it — until confronted with the flooding of Venice, a tsunami, or the loss of a culturally and economically critical seaport.

In his 1989 book titled…. drum roll…. The Control of Nature, my science/nature writing idol John McPhee chronicles three “places in the world where people have been engaged in all-out battles with nature.” All three battlefields involve water. The frontline is Louisiana, where “the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has declared war on the lower Mississippi River, which threatens to follow a new route to the sea and cut off New Orleans and Baton Rouge from the rest of the United States.”

What would happen if we didn’t try to stop the Atchafalaya River’s natural progression — if we let it “take all of the Mississippi and become itself the master stream?” New Orleans and Baton Rouge would fail, at least according to one human definition of success.

The Most Dubious Nature of All

Is Nature – i.e., reality — our enemy? Must we fight to control it? Can we ever “win?” I mean, Southern Louisiana seems to be having troubles despite our fierce stall tactics.

I suspect that you, my honorable friend, have a more objective and empathetic view of the way of the world. I doubt you’d ever deem yourself omniscient enough to dam a river with concrete or straighten a stream with dynamite:

(I have been looking for this old ad for awhile and found it on the rather spunky geomorphology blog for “emriver.” You can go there to view a clearer .pdf file.)

How ridiculous that anyone ever believed a naturally meandering stream to be “a menace to life.”

Yet.

I know that you, RR, like most of us, battle hard to control one particular part of nature – your own unique and human nature. What would happen if we didn’t?

I wonder why you want a makeover. Are you as unhappy with your innate nature as Dupont was with “crooked streams?” I’ve been there. Or are you looking to repair damage, perhaps even damage caused by ill-advised past interventions? I still do that.

But sometimes fixes don’t.

The damage the Control Ethic has wrought on our natural world, especially on rivers, is famous. Just so with our modern fixation on “self-improvement.”

And still…  I LOVE renovating a river.

This time around, hydrologists and engineers are using a new, HOPEFULLY improved, ethic: studying wild streams’ natural tendencies in order to work WITH a damaged river in restoring its health.

I hope we humans can be as kind to ourselves. My personal quest has led me to study with Martha Beck, in part because her overall philosophy IS that we’re all basically okay, we’ve all been through some ordeals, and we all can trust our own wholeness as we navigate along.

I applaud your desire to be the best person you can be, dear RR. And I’ll definitely be posting some stimulating parallels in stream restoration – it’s my passion. Until then please know that the primary recommendation for stressed streams echoes your own pen name: R & R! So relax. Rest yourself from overuse AND ESPECIALLY from past “improvements.” And thank you SO MUCH for contributing to this work in progress.

Love to you,

Betsy

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