Author Archives: Betsy Pearson

Why we don’t want to care (and what a relief to find we’re right)

Love your neighbor. Care for one another. Be of service. Has that guidance ever made your heart sink?

Good news: this doesn’t mean you’re selfish or bad. It means the healthiest, most-stream-like part of you has been protecting you from some false idea of caring that was pushed onto you by some part of culture.

Just before a summer storm on The North Fork of the Tongue

Like the North Fork of the Tongue River here in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, and like all rivers, there is no way you will not care, i.e., carry parts of the world you’ve encountered. If a river is moving at all, it will pick up, carry, shape, and set down bits of its environment. How much it can carry is what hydrologists call  the river’s carrying capacity. And if you’re alive, you have a similar dynamics—I call this your caring capacity.

A river’s processing of sediment in this way is the river’s work (literally, in the physics sense of the word). It’s what the river does with its power (also a technical term). And the result of this work is that the river builds itself out of the sediment it encounters.

Specifically, the river builds itself edges and a foundation—what we call stream banks and a stream bed. When hydrologists go out to study a stream, the first thing we do is measure these key features by identifying the stream’s bankfull boundaries. Yes, a river has boundaries. You can see in this above photo how beautiful those healthy boundaries are. The stream veritably shines because of them.Without them, it would be an invisible sheet of water barely slogging anywhere.

The health of the river, its floodplain, and entire ecosystems depends on the stream boundaries staying intact. The North Fork of the Tongue will move back and forth across this valley—it’s not fixed in place. But as any stable stream moves, it maintains its bankfull dimensions and the integrity of its bed and banks.

If those start to erode…

…the river loses its ability to carry its load, dumps sediment in the wrong places, and smothers insects and fish. The stream usually gets over-wide and shallow meaning the water heats up and loses its ability to hold oxygen, hide fish from predators, and perform its many other wildlife-related functions. Worst of all these sediment wedges create exponentially more erosion of the river itself. It will start to cut down into its own foundation, forcing itself farther and farther down away from its floodplain. Then it can’t nourish that habitat. Nor can it disperse its own energy in a flood, so it cuts more into itself. You end up with a gully instead of a river.

It’s easy to see why we engineers used to try to ignore the sediment-carrying role of a river when they were re-channeling streams—building dams, constructing concrete channels, and straightening rivers. Sediment is messy. And if it’s handled badly, it is the undoing of a river’s own self.

The same is true of you.

If you try to care about something or someone without taking care of your boundaries, you will erode your self. And then, well re-read the indented paragraph above, and substitute yourself for the river. Does it sound familiar? Have you ever loved someone or something and then…  lost your own self?

Culture often makes people think that’s what love is: “selfless.” This has especially been a model for women. (But there are men who received this conditioning also.)  You see obituaries using the word “selfless” as praise.

If it truly was good for the rest of the world, I still wouldn’t advocate sacrificing your one precious life. You deserve to be a fully healthy stream for your own sake.

But also: it isn’t even good for others. You won’t be able to care for them well with this model. And you’re bound to make them unhealthy if you’re so determined to add value to their life that they don’t have to do the things for themselves that they need to do to develop their own selves.

If your model of caring has included sacrificing your own projects, values, plans, ideals, values, fun, work, rest, or health, then of course the admonishment to love one another feels icky. You feel like a failure because you don’t WANT to love that scary guy down the street, your ex, the leader of the political party you don’t like, or even one more regular nice person… but that’s a good decision if you think you’d then be responsible for adding value to their life in a way that detracts from yours.

You’re not required to do that.

You’re required only to care:

Value them. Know they are worthy. Wish them the highest good. (And keep in mind that you don’t know what that is for someone else, ever. Phew.) See what is beautiful about them.

And also:

Don’t do anything that’s not okay with and for you.

Love WITH boundaries is the only way a river works naturally and healthily. And look at all the beauty, excitement, peace, nourishment, and ALIVENESS it creates. You too.


Here’s what stable ISN’T

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.

For ideas on how to find dams, click here. To bust dams, click here. And if you’re just flowing along all messy and variable, well, on behalf of the world, I thank you.


“How can I be powerful and relaxed?”

Not much is more powerful than a river — or as at ease in being so.

Most every stream, valley, and canyon is proof of that. And every river manages their relaxed power with the same three-step dance. Here’s how to be like them:

1st step: Move

More specifically, fall — fall wherever you feel most pulled. This is a form of surrender, but it’s surrender to what your heart most desires.

This is the one and the only way every river gets all of its power. It’s pulled to an unknown and unseeable destination (a sea) by an invisible and attractive force (gravity). We call it flow.

Once you or the river move in any way, no matter how small, you can’t help but…

2nd. Have an experience

And you can’t help but use your experiences to shape yourself — to form your bed and your banks. In river-talk, these are your dimensions. (AKA: Your edges and foundation. The definitions of where you stop and the world start. Your preferences, your values. Your boundaries.)

This self-shaping happens automatically because, exactly like a river, as you fall, some of your potential energy converts to movement (kinetic energy) and the rest acts on and with the environment around you, picking up bits off experiences, carrying them, shaping them, laying them down. It’s the life’s work of the river and you to build one’s own self. That’s what the power does.

And once you have your bed and banks, you can’t help but…

3rd. Meander, overflow your banks, and in this way — and this way only — build something out in the world beyond your edges. Something beautiful.

For rivers, this beautiful something is called a floodplain. It’s the level, lush place where the river overlaps with the outside world to their great mutual benefit. The river builds, maintains, waters, and nourishes this critical micro-environment that supports and enriches the lives of so many plants and animals, including people. And that floodplain, in turn, saves the river when it floods. Which, exactly like you,  it inevitably will do. A healthy river will reach or overflow the top of its banks in one out of every two or three years.

For humans, this beautiful something is called creativity. It’s art, i.e., whatever you make out in the world be that a cake, a business, a new way of thinking about or doing something, a cool experience for others, a baby, or a painting.

Every healthy river has some kind of floodplain, and so does every person. It’s what you make, and that not only contributes to the world but is your safety valve in times of personal flooding. It helps to remember that.


And it helps to remember that you can’t help but do #2 (shape your perfectly unique self) and create beauty (#3) because you are SO powerful.

It’s unavoidable as long as you fall. Just surrender to that unknown tug and flow one little step. Something will happen, and the rest follows. This happens naturally to a river and has been happening to you too! (Unless either of you gets dammed. And that’s okay, because then we just bust the dam and flow on!)

That’s the key to the relaxed part of the equation. Hal Boyle sums it up perfectly:

“What makes a river so restful to people is that it doesn’t have any doubt—it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn’t want to go anywhere else.”

IMPORTANT! Notice that he never says the river knows where it’s going! It doesn’t need to, and neither do you. It just knows the feeling of allowing oneself to be pulled into flow by one’s own longing, i.e., bu one’s own destiny. That’s all you have to know too. That’s all of your power, and it’s always relaxed. If you’re unsure, just make any random little movement at all. Go for a walk. Take that job offer even if you aren’t sure its “the dream,” go to a coffee shop, just dance in place in your room right now. Once you move, you have accessed your power and you’re heading to where you’re going. Have no doubt.

… windblown

You know by now how a river gets all its energy, sense of direction, wonder, and belonging: it falls. It falls in the direction it finds most attractive — pulled by the ineffable.

But even rivers can get blow back! This picture currently (ha) blows me away (haha). It’s crazy!

Crazy beautiful, crazy funny, and crazy relatable!

My takeaway: don’t worry! All the water and all our attention is still in the water cycle and finds its way.

I like to think this river is having the ride of its life. Let ‘er buck!

The Fourth Business

There’s your business, other peoples’ business, God’s business, and THEN there’s the fourth business — the floodplain. And that’s the lushest business of all.

[For a practical river practice: skip to the end.]

God’s Business*

A pull by some unseen attractive force:  you fall in that direction.

You flow. And that’s where all your power comes from.

(If your flow’s blocked, you’re not only stopped in place but easily infiltrated by others’ agendas.)

Your Business

That stuff you come across as you flow: the sediment, soil, and rock of the world through which you flow: you carry, shape, and set them down in various turns.

This is your life’s work. This is how you form your edges and your base — the dimensions of your life that make you you and allow you to flow like a river and not just a sheet of water creeping across the land.

(If your boundaries aren’t maintained, you get overwhelmed — we say such a river has lost its integrity and can’t carry its burden. Plus you cut into the world in a harsh, unstable way.)

Others’ Business

The uplands: you’ve no role there.

Its inhabitants may visit you for refreshment; its burdens may wash into your channel; but you’ve no control out there.

(If you’re out there it means you’ve been diverted — dammed or forcibly pumped away from the direction God’s business pull you. All kinds of problems ensue in your channel and even in the uplands since its not built for your energy. Soils may become saline; native plants may be replaced by invasive species; animals that depend on those plants suffer.)

The Fourth Business

The floodplain.

Here is where you and the others and God all meet and co-create.

The result — no matter whether its the narrow shelf of a self-sufficient F-type river or the wide expanse of the delta’s Da- or the sinuous, focused E-type river — is a lush, even, open space.

A river’s best friends — deep-rooted, woody vegetation AKA trees — can grow there. Animals and insects thrive there and indeed require its presence.

The floodplain is built by — and allows — your flooding. It makes your natural, expected overflows safe and, indeed, vital. The floodplain allows — and is built by — your meandering. This makes for a lot more fun and chaos in the world (and increasing that entropy is not only interesting but required by the Second Law of Thermodynamics!).


It all feeds into each other: Your flow allows you to do your life’s work with integrity and then those resulting boundaries allow you to overflow safely into the outside world where, together with that world, you build the richest ecosystem of all, the riparian zone, which gives you and others the ability to adjust to whatever nature throws your way and to do it with beauty.


Like a river, we most naturally and healthily relate to others in a space thats not exactly us and not exactly other. We meet one another in a place between us and make something there together. It’s fun and messy, and that’s probably the point.

~ ~

A practical river practice: Ask someone to make something with you. It will be shared creation — not yours and not their but a separate being. It could be collaborating on a doodle, a song, a dance; planting a plant; cooking some food; writing a naughty limerick or an ecstatic poem; carving a bar of soap, raising a barn, sewing a quilt; arranging flowers. This is especially useful when you need to figure out boundaries. If there’s someone who seems to infiltrate you with their mood or opinions (especially opinions about you) or if there’s someone who you tend to inundate, try this. And please share with me what you make!



* As always, wherever you see the word God please substitute Nature, Universe, Uterus, Mystery, Ineffable, Unspeakable (YHWH), Source, Goddess, Unknowable, or whatever word appeals to you.

Wrenchless Monkey-Wrenching aka How to Bust a Dam From Inside the River (Part II: Block the Spillway!)

Beavers and dam engineers share a secret — they must, right? After all, natural dams don’t last long and neither do most personal dams.

Remember the last time a landslide slumped into your river/life? The ever-present pull of an unseen sea powered the river water and your attention to cut a way over, under, around, or through that blockage within days. (You can accelerate this most basic nuts-and-bolts form of personal dam-busting with the basic practice of inquiry described here.)

But dams designed by clever minds, ah, those can last for centuries IF (AND ONLY IF) the beavers/engineers build and maintain a generous spillway. Let’s exploit that condition, shall we?

The power of the sea’s pull

A river will erode any dam eventually because water keeps flowing into the reservoir behind the dam, pulled by the attractive power of gravity. Pressure increases against the dam and at some point it develops a leak or otherwise overwhelms the structure… no matter how strong the material or deep the foundation. Guaranteed. That’s why a good dam designer incorporates a spillway to bleed off high levels of water.

By the way, the “lizard” or “social self” part of your own mind is a brilliant dam designer. It’s not evil — it just misguidedly decides the safest strategy for surviving and thriving is to divert your energy for some outside interest that doesn’t care for your naturally wild and scenic river-self. I assure you, that part of your mind isn’t right.

*What is some general area of your life where you feel dammed (i.e., not making much forward movement in the direction you desire, not getting your life’s work done, cold, weirdly deep and wide, and often well-used by others or the culture-at-large for recreation, irrigation, drinking water for humans or even livestock, or actual power generation)? Don’t get specific or analytical about causes or anything at this point.)*

To free your river from this or any dam, all you have to do is find a spillway and shut it down.

How to recognize a spillway

The problem is this: a spillway kind of resembles natural flow. You may be fooled into thinking it’s a good thing because, well, it seems some of the river water is making its way downstream, right? No, a spillway is never helpful if you want to be rid of a dam. Remember, a spillway single-handedly allows the dam’s survival.

Careful study of real-life spillways shows exactly how to identify these “faux-joy” culprits:

  • Spillways are not natural occurrences or made of natural substances: they’re always artificially constructed by outside “civilized” forces.

~ Spillways are not built by the river itself. You didn’t “hand-make” this kind of flow in your life. It’s not unique to you, to the flow of your desire, to the particular conditions you find yourself in.

These patterns are meant to disperse energy on the spillway so the water is less “hungry” when it hits the natural channel downstream of the dam.

~ Spillways are always very strong and stable. They don’t erode or change over time. THEY ARE NOT AFFECTED BY YOU.

~ Spillways are either very smooth and straight or have some regular pattern. They’re not randomly bumpy or curvy.

~ Spillway water is unnaturally cold and “clean” — and not in a good way. When river water moves, it has power and does work. And a river’s life’s work is moving sediment. The river carves off, picks up, carries, and sets down little bits of the world it encounters. But the water behind a dam can’t do its life’s work. The sediment settles out at the bottom, and the water that spills through the gates is sterile — devoid of the experiences that healthy rivers and humans carry and care about.

  • Spillways are seen, accepted and maintained by culture — even when culture doesn’t exactly love them and/or even hates and avoids them.
  • Spillways are usually not pretty.
  • Spillways are steep and straight and fast — a rush.
  • Spillways are scary.
  • Your natural channel erodes just downstream of a spillway. There’s always this ugly crash.

Photo from High Plains Fly Fisher — click on photo to visit the blog. Even though they aren’t scenic or healthy, these tailwaters are popular with fishermen because fish congregate there..

Because it’s moving fast and is clean, the spillway water has a lot of power — hydrologists say it’s “hungry.” It devours the first non-reinforced thing it finds: itself. It ravages the banks and bed just below the dam. That’s why you see so much artificial armoring of the river channel just below a dam.

  • Spillway flow does not follow your natural rhythms and cycles. It’s successful flow is ultimately controlled by outside “others.”
  • Spillways may be used to generate power for others.

*Where in your life does your energy and attention SEEM to be directed in the right direction — heck it even feels like you’re embracing risk and doing the hard thing as so often touted by coaches and self-help gurus — but it sounds like the above characteristics and in fact does not seem to get you unstuck?*

If you want to be sure not to confuse a spillway with a leak (which we love because THAT’s how you bust a dam for sure), go here for details.

What do you plug the spillway with?

Short answer: Anything that works.

Typical answer: Close the gate. The thing is, that’s often not doable from inside the river itself. You usually have to have help. Hire a monkey wrencher, a therapist, a coach if you can. It is so worth it.

Long and hopefully more helpful answer: Block the spillway with river sediment, i.e., new thoughts about the past.

I know it’s nice to be forward thinking, but that’s not what sediment is. Sediment is actual pieces of where the river has already been. There are many places in river restoration where we focus on the future and new possibilities, but I find that closing up a spillway requires very specific attention and language that attends to the past.

I also know it’s hard to figure out how to dredge up the past and apply it in a new way to fast-rushing parts of life. Again: hire someone to help you! This is your life we’re talking about; it’s worth the money and time and nerves. Meanwhile, here are some specific bits of sediment — some new thoughts about the past — that I have found work when spoken aloud. These statements are carefully crafted: they are truths about the past, yet, interestingly, they do not have or need content-specific information:

“Doing this — this “spillway” — did/has not resulted in my flowing freely or feeling un-dammed.” (Note: It’s good to remind yourself that if the spillway had worked to make you happy, you wouldn’t be trying to close it. This isn’t about some abstract moral issue or some way to please others. It’s how to truly care for and restore your river. And that will benefit the ecosystem around you, so don’t worry about being selfish.)

“Doing this was a diversion or spillway perfectly designed to keep my internal power low and benefit others, the status quo, or the culture at large but not me.” (Note: I’m not saying it was intentionally designed to operate this way — maybe it was in some cases or maybe not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it DOES perfectly function this way, preserving the dam.)

“Doing this in the past didn’t work to make me feel well and truly happy.”

“This looked like the real thing but wasn’t. It didn’t effectively create a wild and scenic river/life but actually allowed a dam to exist.” (Note: Maybe even a dam you couldn’t identify but could feel.)

“This seemed to taste of freedom but was pseudo-freedom followed by a crash and a ravaging of my bed and banks.” (False happiness and false river flow always has that crash afterwards. Life as a real free-flowing river does not. It’s less dramatic usually, but wilder even while it’s peaceful.)

Once you’ve attempted to plug a spillway, immediately turn your attention back to your longing sensation. Even if you can’t stop sending your attention down a known spillway, don’t despair. In the real world of dams, most leaks and dam failures occur when spillways are still working — it just takes a little longer. So try this spillway-plugging, and then, no matter what, return to playing around with your own delightful little leaks. If nothing else, it just feels good, and that’s success in its own right.

Keep tuned for a fun and simplified dam-busting worksheet — I’m developing it in collaboration with one of the coolest rivers around! Until then, good luck experimenting on your own. Busting dams is the hardest and most profound personal and river restoration work there is. Please get help when in doubt and be gentle with yourself — if you end up staying dammed for awhile more, it’s not a big deal. You are fine the way you are; this stuff is just the gravy. Let me know how it’s going or if I can be of any support to you. I’m delighted to be of service AND your comments will help me with the worksheet I’m developing.

All my best,


Wrenchless Monkey-Wrenching aka How to Bust a Dam From Inside the River (Part I: Let Yourself Leak Longing)

Desire and its small personal joys are all you need to break whatever is damming your river.

The tried-and-true, effective, external, hard way to bust a dam:

Dams are made of compacted earth, i.e., bits of the world that have been shaped a certain way and hardened with careful application of weight, cement additives, memory, socially-cultivated belief systems, or innocent errors in thinking. And whatever other benefits they may have, dams are not good for rivers.

You can demolish ANY dam with dynamite, heavy machinery, pick-axes, or the blessed logic involved in simply inquiring into your own thinking.

BUT. But sometimes the dam is just soooo big. Or it’s hard to get a real handle on exactly where the dam is or what it’s made of.

AND/OR sometimes it’s logistically overwhelming to import enough blasting power or stamina to dismantle the thing. That’s understandable — river and human dams both are exceedingly well-built results of centuries of civilization’s best design efforts.

Happily there is another way to get rid of a dam, a way that is natural and doesn’t require you to conjure up any extra external energy:  let the river’s own attractive force demolish the dam…

Anatomy of a leak (and why it’s a good thing for a river):

Your river desires to move toward the sea, even/especially when your river is dammed. So here’s how you get rid of a dam: Just feel that longing. Let it exist and grow. Eventually, the longing burrows a little ways into the dam. It excavates more and more of the dam until it makes its way through to the other side. Then it’s an official full-blown leak. It begins to grow more rapidly until it finally and easily busts through the dam to continue the free-flowing life it desires.

Leaks should be enjoyed, allowed, and encouraged. Here’s how to recognize a leak:

  • The river — and in this metaphor that means YOU — builds a leak from within its own channel as a natural result of its own natural power, attention, desire. It’s authentic. Possibly quirkily so.
  • It feels right and almost like you can’t help doing it — but it doesn’t relieve the pressure the way a rushing spillway does (that’s why spillways just protect dams despite their seeming drama!)
  • Leaks may be almost tortuously twisty.
  • Leaks start very small and slow — tiny little activities that are less about movement and more about the intense, pleasurable, pressure of the longing. Later they increase, sometimes very gradually for quite awhile, until there’s a certain momentum.
  • Leaks may be here and there, all over the place, not concentrated in one place with a defined focus.
  • Leaks erode bits of dirt or concrete. They are a little messy at first, and increasingly so as they grow.
  • People and cultural institutions that benefit from a dam do not approve of leaks.
  • Leaks are usually private at first.
  • Leaks are not useful to anyone outside the river (at least not until they have removed the dam and the river is back to its fantastic wild and scenic nature in which case the whole natural ecosystem rejoices as well as cool people!).

Where in your life do you feel the pressure of a persistent and maybe somewhat undefined longing? Let it build. Memorize the sensation of that longing — of that which you desire. Drop into that feeling whenever you can. Where do you feel little trickles of energy pushing their way toward your deepest desire — even though they may not be making much headway? Keep doing that.


You’d think that you’d be the first to know that your stream was dammed.


Sometimes a peaceful water surface is hard to decipher: are you in the middle of a natural lake, a healthy lazy river, or a dammed up river? How can you tell?

What others see when we are dammed

We can see dams in OTHERS’ lives pretty clearly. And they can see ours. It’s like they’re looking out an airplane window at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.







But when YOU’RE the river or the canyon it runs through, or even if you’re a human floating in a canoe, you just can’t tell for sure. It can be frustrating not to know, especially if someone hints or you have a vague feeling. 



And there are three further complications:

~ If you realize you are indeed dammed, it can be difficult to find the dam.

~ Once you do, you have to figure out how to get rid of the dam.

~ Unfortunately, it quickly becomes almost impossible to picture life without the dam, and so it’s hard to remember why you should go to all that trouble to deal with the it. Heck, you think, reservoirs are plenty nice.

Here’s the problem with a reservoir: it’s simply not a river.

You can have a perfectly nice tame reservoir.

The reservoir can store water for all sorts of “civilized” uses: certain water sports that need flat water, human and livestock drinking water, irrigation water for crops, and electrical power generating plants.

But it’s no longer a river at that location. Even upstream and downstream of the dam, the river is not its healthiest self. It’s no longer natural or, as hydrologists designate an untamed river, “wild and scenic.”

If you care about a river in any way, then first and foremost you have to be sure it remains a river.

Likewise, it’s best for you to be your actual real self and not be turned into something completely different in order to serve civilization’s needs to drink you up, recreate on you, or harness your energy for its own needs.

There are other ways those humans can have fun, stay hydrated, and power their refrigerators. Ways that don’t involve eliminating your stream’s very identity.

Here are the four most obvious questions I ask myself to figure out if I and/or my river have been dammed:

1. Do I feel myself holding still for a long time — for longer than I ever have before?

Dammed waters don’t flow much. Dammed people find themselves and, most notably, their attention stuck in one place.

As Mihaly Czichzentmihalyi said (when he visited our town!), our attention and how we direct it is the most valuable resource of our lives.

He elaborated that our health and our time are vital — they are “our life.” But then he recommended we ask ourselves why they are so important. It’s because we use them to direct our attention as we want. How we direct our attention is how we “spend our lives.” That’s the truly important resource.

2. Do I feel myself “dropping my load” albeit probably invisibly, far below the surface?

Without velocity, dammed waters have no carrying capacity and no choice but to drop their life’s work, i.e.,  the sediment (the bits and pieces of experience they have picked up along the way). This is why reservoirs eventually silt in.

3.  Have the other life forms who thrive in and around my ecosystem changed?

Do I notice lake fish instead of river fish? Seagulls instead of dippers? Are the minks gone? Are there only very few typical native riparian grasses, shrubs, or trees on my edges?

(This change is part of the reason why reservoir shores are usually raw and not vegetated. Those old friends and support systems with their protective roots are gone.)

4. Do I find the motionless part of my life getting bigger and bigger?

Dammed rivers are much deeper than they were before they hit the dam. They’re also  hugely wide. This is partly because the valley is wider as you go up.

But it’s also partly because flat water erodes the sidewalls of any river channel.

(It’s the only work that water can do; the only way it can increase entropy; and even dammed water must obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics).

Dammed rivers also cut their way upstream into their own natural channel bed, lengthening the flat-lake surface.

This lengthening happens because the river water picks up speed where it drops into the deeper lake. That quick increase in power is directed against the only thing it can access — the river’s foundation. This “head-cut” works its way upstream… pretty much forever.

The problem with these basic questions:

In order to know if your current flow, work capacity, ecosystem, and dimensions are appropriate, you must be able to remember life upstream or envision life downstream .

There is a more subtle and accurate way to know if you’re dammed. It’s also the same process you can use to LOCATE your dam, so let’s get into it. But first, we have to understand…

What a dam is:

A dam is made out of solid, physical stuff. Matter. Usually it’s sediment — concrete or compacted dirt — though sometimes it includes discarded manmade objects like old cars, mattress springs, and radiators.

As you remember, moving sediment is a river’s life’s work.

That’s why dams are confusing. And ironical. Dams are built with the river’s own most basic ingredients: dirt and rocks.

Dams, like the river itself, are made out of bit and pieces of the world that have been picked up, moved, and placed in a particular way — but in the case of a dam, the material’s artificially compacted, smoothed, and carefully shaped into a particular human design.

Humans are similar. We naturally build a healthy life out of bits of experiences we’ve picked up, carried, set down in a new way: thoughts. When we are dammed, it’s by artificial versions we’ve created of our experiences: untrue beliefs.

Don’t feel like a freak.

Almost all rivers have been dammed somewhere at some time.

Here’s a list of free rivers, but remember it all depends on how you define the river. Some/most/probably all of these rivers have tributaries that’ve been dammed.

Likewise, all people have been dammed up at one point. Even supposedly enlightened people rarely say they’ve been free since birth. Tibetan Buddhists may think the Dalai Lama has been always free, but I’ve never heard him say that. Indeed, I’ve heard him talk about thoughts he has difficulty with (e.g., how to handle his anger toward the Chinese government). By far most of us still have some little dams here and there. It’s part of life.

Ok, so now: here’s a detailed way to figure out if you’re currently in a dammed reach of your river + where the dam is:

Step 1:  Is there an outlet — a place where your water flows downstream?

Start by finding your river’s edge or boundary.

What is a river’s boundary? Usually we want to consider a river’s bankfull flow and its floodplain when talking river boundaries, but when looking for a dam, we can be much more general:

~ A river boundary marks what is and is not river.

It sounds obvious, but we rarely consider it explicitly. Find a part of the world, a set of ideas or activities, where you do not go — a place where you can look and say: “I do not go over there, past this spot.” Specifically…

~ A river boundary is where water meets dry land.

The shoreline is where the fluid medium that carries your river’s energy (i.e., water) meets sediment that was set in place by someone else or maybe by your river’s previous flows. Now your water doesn’t go there.

If we extend the river-as-metaphor-for-our-lives, then here’s what we learn about our own human boundaries:

A boundary is a line between where your time and energy go and don’t go. It’s characterized by a solid belief that you don’t actively attend to  — usually because you accept it as truth.

Sometimes you’ve investigated that area-of-no-attention clearly; sometimes you just happened never to have “gone there.” Either way, you currently don’t have to give that cluster of thoughts a second thought.

Trace around your edges, locating your boundaries. Eventually you will find a place where water comes in.

You’ll always find a place where your life’s energy — your attention — is replenished from upstream. Always. Maybe it’s sleep and night dreams. Or day dreams. Maybe it’s a topic where you like to entertain new ideas, person that refreshes you, or place you like to breathe. Maybe it’s just breathing itself. If you’re alive, you’re being fed.

Keep looking around your edges and see if you find a place where even a trickle of water goes out. A place where you spend your time and energy — your attention — moving on toward some often unknown but attracting feeling.

If you find an outlet: go here to find out if you’re looking at your natural channel or a dam’s spillway. Also go here to see if it’s a leak… let’s hope it IS.

If you can find no outlet: you know for sure you’ve been dammed. Go to the next step to locate the dam.

Step 2: Is there a place along your edge where you feel your attention drawn and held in one place repeatedly — as if your energy pushes against it in constant pressure? Most of the edges you find — the beliefs you hold to be true — don’t have a lot of energy or pull. As you identify them, you say “Oh yeah. There’s that.” But sometimes there’s a “fact of life” you just keep running into, turning over and over in your mind.

If yes, that’s most likely a dam you’re pushing up against.

You can block a river’s flow downstream, but the river still wants to go there. It’s pulled there. It can’t help but feel the attraction of the sea though it can’t see or describe what pulls it.

The same is true of you. Even if you’re stopped up, you will feel an undefinable longing. What’s in the way? Look for that thought you keep bumping up against — that solid place accumulating flotsam and jetsam.

To be sure, evaluate it using the next step.

If you can’t find such a spot but you’re pretty certain there’s a dam somewhere, that’s okay. Walk your boundaries again and examine each spot using the next step.

Step 3: Is there a place where your personal boundary feels significantly different than all your other boundaries? If you answer yes to any of the following when considering one of your boundary thoughts, then it is likely a dam:

–> Is this boundary/shoreline/thought more uniform in texture and slope than your other boundaries? Is it exactly tailored?

Most dam surfaces are only one material and they’re compacted and shaped into very specific, very even surfaces.

Sometimes the slope will be more gradual than your other boundaries (if your natural river was in a canyon with steep walls).

In other cases, the dams are obviously steeper than the sides of the original river valley.

Either way, natural river banks are pretty variable. They may have layers of different sediment laid on top of one another, or they may be bumpy and wavy; but they rarely stay even for long. Even smooth rock canyon walls vary more than a dam’s face.

False thoughts are the same way: they’re usually pervasive blanket rules (“everywhere”), absolute permanent conclusions (“always”), or exquisitely personal in application and implication (“because in my case…”).

~ Interesting Note: Testing a boundary’s strength doesn’t necessarily tell you if it’s a dam. Yes, engineers want dams to be strong, but sometimes, as in the rock canyon, a stream’s natural boundaries are equally strong. Sometimes, in the case of compacted earth dams or push-up dams (described below), the natural healthy boundaries (and, in a human, true thoughts) are even stronger than the dam.

~ Alert: There are a couple especially icky exceptions to using the uniformity dam-test:

Junk dams, as we discussed above, are where people have tossed any old inert, unusable, machined object into the river. These dams are way more irregular than your regular boundary and recognizable by their inorganic, jagged, character. Be careful with them, as they not only block you but can cut you or trap you in their disorganized jumble of parts.

Push-up dams are built by people who drive big front-end loaders into the river and bulldoze the river bottom up into a dam. Usually these dams wash out every year and have to be rebuilt. These dams are tricky to recognize because they are made of the exact same material as the river itself and are not particularly compacted or smooth. You have to use the other tests to differentiate it from a healthy boundary.

They are mostly recognizable because the river’s width and depth at the site are unlike any natural river type: the river is abruptly and oddly deep across the entire width of the river, and the water surface drops sharply on the other side of the dam.

–> Is this boundary/shoreline/thought mostly devoid of plants and animals, i.e., is there a marked lack of lively, growing beings with roots and social systems that thrive because of access to your water, your energy, your attention?

Dams don’t encourage much life. No trees or shrubs. Very few grasses. Occasional mosses. Without those places to browse, hide, or build forts, the deer, raccoons, and playful humans don’t hang out there either.

False beliefs you hold also aren’t full of growth, life, or nourishment. Friends and loved ones don’t usually hang out there.

~ Notable Exception

Stubborn folks do love a dam. If the only life forms you find inhabiting a particularly steep, hard thought of yours are goats, it’s probably most certainly a dam.

–> Is there an abrupt drop-off on the other side of the boundary? And when you look down there, do you see a different, attractive version — even just a trace — of your very own energy and attention?

Now go ahead and get rid of that dam.

There are three ways to do so.

~You can dismantle it from the outside with explosives or machinery. Click here for details on how to do that in a human. (Note it’s much much easier to do this in conjunction with a hydrologist, a therapist, or a coach! And if you suspect the dam came from a trauma in your past, a therapist is the hugest gift you will ever ever get as well as being the safest way to go.)

~You can blow it apart from inside the river with longing. Click here and here to see what I mean.

~ Or you can just go around it and create something completely different. That link is coming soon.

The best method? It depends on your circumstances. I’m currently partial to the second way as it’s available to everyone and is the easiest, but try them all out for yourself.

Dam removal is the most important part of stream restoration in many ways, and I’m thrilled to be decoding its meanings for my own life. I sincerely hope you enjoy it and that it helps you with the stuck areas in your life. Please let me know how your experiments go!

Your Reference Reach

If you want to approach restoration of a river — or of the river that runs through you — like a Natural Channel Hydrologist (and believe me, for the most stable and beautiful result, you do), begin with a design pattern in mind. In our line of work, we get a project’s blueprint from nature and we call that ideal our Reference Reach. To get the hang of it, try this quiz:


Which of the following is the healthiest stream — which would be your best Reference Reach?

A                                                                                    BButtermilk Falls, NYNorway





C                                                                                                         D

Stream Type C -- Blue River, ColoradoTimefor Stream Type D'sclose-up!









Other D                                                                                      E

Stream Type Da in Swedish LaplandStreamType E







Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, Arizona



“All of them,” you say. “They’re all gorgeous.” They are nice photos, I know, but if you had to choose one…

“It depends,” you insist? Ah, you are savvy fluvial geomorphologists. EACH of these bits of river is in fact a reference reach — for that particular river.  Just like you, a river’s point of reference is within the river itself.

Looking at the 7 different types of healthy streams above (click on each photo for more info about that type of stream or click here to take the river personality quiz!), it’s obvious that if you applied E’s typical pattern to an A-type river, everything you decided to do would be a Very Hard Thing indeed. But when you pull your reference point back inside the river that runs through YOU instead of the one that runs through someone else (no matter how admirable that someone else may be), nothing is as hard as you originally may have thought. Once you’re operating within your own way of doing things, it’s clear WHAT the ideal things for you are (what is your most healthy width-to-depth ratio, slope, sinuosity, etc.) and it becomes easier to do the ideal things than NOT to.

HOW: All you have to do is shift your attention inside. But sometimes, when you’re out of practice, it’s nice to have some clearer instruction. My teacher Martha Beck taught me and the other coaches in her programs to help humans find their point of reference is the same way hydrologists find a river’s Reference Reach: by tuning into the inside of the body.

Yes, a river has a body and it’s the key to understanding what has happened to it and what wants to happen next — that’s why we call this field fluvial geomorphology: we study the earthen (geo-) body (-morph) laid down by running water (fluvial). We do this by wading up and down and back and forth in the river, surveying with a laser level, observing it, and, yes, picnicking on its banks and floating and splashing a bit. Turns out your grasp of the river increases the more time you spend enjoying it.

Click here if you want to read a post describing one way you can find your own Reference Reach(es). But really all you have to do is go inside. Observe what’s happening in there, enjoy it, and you’ll know what to do next.




Like a River… TIP#3

River TIP #3: Get Dirty

“…I think that the river is a strong, brown god…” ~ TS Eliot, Four Quartets

To live like a healthy, free stream YOU GET TO spend all of your considerable energy doing one thing: playing around with rocks and dirt. That’s all a river does. Ever. Moving sediment is a river’s life’s work.

When you live like a river, you truly encounter whatever you run into in this world — the hard outcroppings, the hidden sandbars, the occasional, surprising downed tree alike. You touch and are touched by those experiences. 

And then, depending on their character, the layout the land around you, and your level of energy at the moment, you smooth, scour, or break off parts of those experiences; pick up some of the pieces and carry them along with you for awhile; put pieces down for another while…. and then you rinse and repeat. 

If you’re a river, a dog, or a physicist, then work and play are the same thing to you, and you might think playing in the mud sounds like a pretty fun way to spend your life. You’d be right. End of story. You are free to go and live happily ever after in perpetual creative response to everything you encounter. (I am not being sarcastic. I agree with Martha Beck: this is the secret.)

The only catch is…

To live like a healthy, free stream YOU MUST spend all your time and power playing in the mud. In other words, you have to do your life’s work. Because if you don’t, you will fall apart.

All of that potential energy that the river’s converting to power HAS to go somewhere.  Without its natural “load,” your river will erode its own bed, banks, and floodplain as well as the immediate surroundings and the entire ecosystem that extends out from there.

You must not do anything that denies your river or your self of this, its life’s work. When it comes to keeping or restoring a healthy riverine life:

It’s really about the sediment.

As always, the science-y details are below, and I’d love to hear from you. Let me know what you think!

Yours in peace, love, and wild rivers,



Why would anyone ever deny themselves or their river of this glorious, playful line of work?

Sometimes it’s because we get it into our heads that rivers should be civilized. Maybe we don’t want any flooding or we want the river to be crystalline in all places, at all times. Sometimes it’s because we or someone else wants to hold our Stream Power in one place and use it for something non-riverine like lighting up other people’s houses or giving them a place to use a motor boat. Often we’re so afraid of erosion that we over-react… and actually make it worse.


Here’s how to keep your river playing/working smoothy:

Don’t dam your river. You might think it’s fun to hold still and do nothing — but not for long. Without following your calling, you have no movement, no power, no ability to carry sediment. You drop your load. When water IS discharged from a dam, it’s so clean and extra powerful and “hungry” for work that it erodes downstream with a vengeance.

Don’t armor your river’s foundation or edges. Sometimes we try to line our vulnerable spots — a damaged turn or an advancing waterfall plunge *– with concrete, sheet metal, wire baskets of uniform-sized rocks, or old Corvettes. This hardened boundary only deprives the river of a healthy sediment meal and often speeds up the water. Once again, you’ve created a hungry river. There are better ways to care for our vulnerabilities.

Don’t pave your river’s watershed. The world around you needs to have some roughness, some growing things, and some places for life and rain to just percolate down into the soil and roots around you. Rainwater that runs off of suburban sprawl is remarkably dirt-free and — since less of it soaked in AND it encounters less resistance from the smooth, concrete surface — fast. Starved.

In other words: keep it wild.

And if your river has been damaged from too much civilization, don’t worry. You’re not alone — it seems to be unavoidable in this modern world — and lots of cool people have developed lots of cool tools for stream restoration and for soul restoration as well. And they LOVE to share those ideas. Weirdly, we can re-wild our rivers and ourselves with the help of our civilization — our fellow villagers. Let me know about the folks and fixes you find, and I’m happy to share those I love with you. Send me a note. Meanwhile, remember you’re as powerful and muddy as any river: fall hard, flood occasionally, and always (and only) play in the dirt.

* Want to know what kind of river YOU are? Click here to take the quiz!