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.
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.
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: