Category Archives: sediment (aka experiences)

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.


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!