A stable river has always been the goal of all river professionals, even when those professionals were building dams! Dam-builders just had the wrong idea of stability.
(The engineering building at the University in my state of Wyoming)
You might have made the same mistake in your own life—I know I have.
So how can we avoid this misunderstanding? Remembering that Natural Channel Hydrology has an objective, technical definition can be a first step:
A stable stream is one that, over time, transports the flows and sediment of its watershed while maintaining its dimension, pattern, and profile – neither aggrading nor degrading.
Here’s what that does NOT mean for a stream. Or for you:
- Stable DOESN’T MEAN under the control of a person or society. Nature—be it human nature or wild stream nature—is free. Free-flowing. Free to follow its own internal rules.
- Stable DOESN’T MEAN holding still. Calm is once thing—but it’s not still. Nor is calm even always the best way to be. Sometimes a river runs fierce.
- Stable DOESN’T MEAN solid. A river’s body is rarely bedrock, and even when it is, that channel will still move laterally and change shape over time. Most rivers are even more malleable than that. They’re made of loose rock or soil; they carry loose rock or soil; they shift their locations. Nothing about them is solid except their own identity they’ve perfectly formed for that time and place.
- Stable DOESN’T MEAN unchanging. In addition to moving and being re-shaped, rivers’ flow changes. There’s nothing unchanging about a river except that it’s changing.
- Stable DOESN’T MEAN tidy. It can’t. when you’re made out of natural materials and undergoing natural processes, it’s messy. The bits of experiences you encounter, pick up, carry, reshape, set down, and then pick up again—all those pieces of dirt and those rocks—are messy. Your fluid medium for energy—be it water if you’re a river or attention if you’re a human—is messy, especially as it increases and decreases in flow during any given day, month, season, year, millennium. The invisible force that pulls you and energizes you is also messy because…
- Stable DOESN’T MEAN straight. Gravity/The Mystery is definitely tugging on you and steering you, but it’s never in a straight line. You/the river have to move in the easiest direction, the direction where you can fall furthest and most easily in love. (Literally: you’re in the love and therefore falling where they mystery pulls you, wants you to go.) Furthermore, because you and a river both must obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics, you must always be increasing the entropy in the world. You must create a little chaos. The most visible example of this is in your lateral meandering and in the vertical curves of your very foundation, up and down: a riffle runs down into a pool and then glides up into another riffle. Over and over.
- Stable DOESN’T MEAN you stay neatly inside your boundaries. You will flood. A natural, healthy river exceeds its bankfull level every two or three years on average. This is how the river builds something out in the world. It’s how it’s creative. And that creative process as well as what it is the river has made are in turn the safety valve that keeps a river well when it’s flooding. It’s one of the most perfect symbiotic relationships you could imagine. On the flip side, you’ll also have low-flow times. Very low. But that’s okay. You can handle it. A natural river develops a low flow channel inside its boundaries. It will survive as will the life forms that depend on it. You don’t need to dam a river to avoid droughts.
- Stable DOESN’T MEAN no work. A river works like a dog—whenever it can and with exuberance. Work is just another word for play in physics. It means having experiences. It describes that process above (see “stable doesn’t mean tidy”) of a river’s carrying capacity, a human’s caring capacity.
When you glance back over this list, you see that if you DID think stable meant those things, you might think a dam was indeed a very good life. In fact, dams just turn a river into a reservoir. They stop its life as a river.
Moving, being malleable, changing location and flow, making messe,s being a mess, meandering, flooding, running low, caring, carrying, and working are how a river not only energizes itself and creates something in the world, but also how it builds itself. Those things are NOT unpleasant. BUT don’t be ashamed if you’ve been scared of them and wanting to avoid them. That’s a very human response and one I’m undoing in myself. Culture trains us thusly; our lizard/caveperson brain does too. But it’s much safer to be a wild river than a dammed one—for you, the ecosystem at large, and other people. It’s the only way to be stable and therefore not only effective and productive but free and wild as well as so beautiful.