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!