Category Archives: disaster

… traumatized.

My Dear Readers,

A friend of mine’s family recently went through an ordeal — a human version of when a river “gullies” into a raw chasm.

An extreme example.

I am not saying my friend’s situation is this injurious, but either way – for rivers AND humans – even a “small-scale” trauma is painful.

She fears that neither she nor her beautiful son will ever be the same.

On some level, we never are the same after ANY experience, day, or moment.

But this family is dealing with something acute and damaging, so my friend’s specific fear is that they each will be changed for the worse — messed up.

It can be tempting — especially when you are not the one involved in a crisis — to assert that no event is inherently bad or damaging but rather part of life in ways we can’t understand and that we must adjust our thinking about the event.

In river work, it is certainly true that healthy, natural processes always involve change and sometimes look decidedly not-pretty to a cultivated aesthetic. For example when a river bumps up against a high terrace, an exposed, vertical bank is to be expected. This is not problematic.

But such a default assessment negates the very real experience of trauma – to rivers AND to people.

Hydrologists know that rivers can indeed be harmed:

And hydrologists define a destructive event as one that destabilizes the river.

Stability and instability:

A stable river is one that maintains function — transporting its water and sediment load — without changing its basic form and type.

A stable river does change and move. You can see how the Pecatonica River [a classic E-type stream] migrates back and forth across its valley over time in a gradual manner. But the old channels show that the stream maintains the same pattern (curve shapes), profile (slope), and dimensions (width and depth) everywhere it travels:

[Image credit: Louis J. Maher, Jr. photo 156-07.]

Alas, ugly events can destabilize any river, altering its form and function in ways that most typically include degradation. The stream is scoured down through its very foundation in the affected spot. Layers of earth are exposed in an entrenched, narrow space.

That’s trauma.

The Great News:

Even the most significantly damaged river will heal. Always.

How quickly a stream recovers its stability will depend on what happens after the initial damage — it’s possible to speed the process along – but, even without assistance, the stream will mend over time.

How a gullied stream heals itself:

1. A recovering gully first evens out its slope. Ironically, this natural accommodation actually causes MORE erosion in the short run as the channel “head-cuts” through its bed.

The first and crucial step in healing human trauma is also to smooth out the jagged edges — that panic gouged into the body by a cocktail of stress hormones designed to make us fight, flee, OR freeze. As Belleruth Naprostek describes it: “These biochemicals in the bloodstream don’t dissipate quickly, but instead they swing back and forth like a pendulum, between releasing alarm and sedation neurohormones, in an automatic recalibration to get the body back into balance. People can be furious or terrified one minute – that’s the alarm biochemicals – and numb and disconnected the next – that’s the natural opioids.”

In the first 72 hours following a trauma, it’s super helpful if the person who experienced trauma can clean out those hormones and the associated residual biochemical gunk: move a LOT, rest a LOT, and relate the story of what happened. Perhaps many times.

2. Once its profile regains a uniform average slope, the stream will begin widening its gully to provide room for meanders and a flood plain. It craves spaciousness. The stream achieves this breathing room through the benign-sounding process of lateral migration; however, once again, the short-term reality of the healing process actually causes more erosion since the stream must cut into its side walls. It carves bigger boundaries.

As I do more research into healing human trauma, I hope for a clearer idea of the human parallel – of how we broaden our lives after a trauma and how that more expansive life allows us to meander through different explorations and to build places where our lives can safely overflow in future times of flood. I want to learn how we can support one another in such restoration. I will keep you posted.

For now, I am content to know that healing is inevitable. And that traumatized rivers end up functional once more, fully restoring themselves albeit at a much deeper level. Literally. Which is why they are so gorge-ous and beloved by us all, even while they are still in the midst of restoring themselves… like the [F-type]  river pictured below and some of my very favorite people:

… avulsed.

Dear LAR,

In reflection of my quite spectacular blowout of the established way I had been living my life, I was thinking in river terms of a flow of water bursting its banks to re-form a new path. Does this ever happen in real life?

— The Daughter of the Vineyard

My Dear Grape Girl!

ABSOLUTELY. When a stream abandons its channel to form a new one, we rather onomatopoetically call it avulsion. Here’s my neighbor, the Yellowstone River, and a note in which she describes her experience:

Dear Daughter,

See how my floodplain is dotted with semi-circular “oxbow ponds?” I used to flow slowly right through those big bends, but (gulp) I left each of those channels to jump along my journey more quickly.

It happens like this: I get HERE and I know I’m going right over THERE — I mean I can see the next destination, almost touch it — and this long, flat, winding slog in between is doing nothing for me, so… I just go there. NOW.

It’s wonderful for everyone in the long run – animals love the oxbows. In the short term, well… the whole thing gets a bit disheveled. But you can’t make wine without crushing a few grapes, am I right?!


If it’s so chaotic, WHY avulse?

Rivers flow downhill, pulled by the earth to meet the ocean. That’s what they do.

Picture yourself hiking down a mountain: the shorter path is always STEEPER. Take it, and gravity pulls you so strongly that you can’t help but barrel onward.

Just so with rivers. Slope determines a river’s power. The river will always pick the more direct way downstream because it has more energy.

I suspect you can identify, dear friend. I suspect that your “established way” felt NOTHING LIKE a bee line toward your best life – your oceanic bliss – and that your energy felt flat.

WHEN, then?

Avulsion-perfect conditions develop over a long period of time:

  • The river gets flatter, and then
  • it finally draws near some topographic feature that would provide a significantly better drop. (The Yellowstone’s enticing feature is usually another part of her own active channel. It can also be some other channel, an incline’s edge, a cliff.)

But healthy rivers and people are woefully tolerant, rarely avulsing UNLESS the new direction offers at least six times the gradient. Six times! Explains a lot of years, huh!?

And even when the circumstances are temptingly ideal, one last requirement prevents a shift: power.

Wait, you ask, isn’t the avulsion itself ALL ABOUT getting more power? Yes, but it takes a lot of energy to make the change, as you probably remember. A Catch 22.

Luckily, slope is only one of two variables that directly determine stream power. The other is flow. Avulsion happens during high flow, like spring runoff, when it seems the WHOLE WORLD is bearing down on the channel. It’s easy to think of the floodwaters as overwhelming the river. In fact, that deluge is the one thing that can and DOES gives the stream exactly what it WANTS: the energy to do what needs to be done!

I wonder, beloved Grape Girl, what kind of flood may have assisted your own “blowout.” And of course I wonder about what came next, because HOW a river like you typically carves her new channel surprises many people. We’ll cover that tomorrow, I promise. Until then, thank you so much for your letter and for your brave example. “Spectacular” indeed. XXX