Category Archives: Stream Type G

Moderation may not be

Play my new game! Rank these eight rivers in order of moderation. Go ahead; I will wait.

1Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Iceland. 2Stream Type B... somewhere in my great-grandparents' homeland of Norwegia

3Stream Type C -- Blue River, Colorado 4Stream Type D

5StreamType E: Meandering. 6Stream Type F -- Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, Arizona

7 8

So, looking back at your ranking decisions, what were your criteria?

Most people instinctively do not choose #1 as the most moderate: so steep and fast and wildly beautiful.

Number 7 is usually eliminated for sheer rawness, as is #4.

Here are  other  common responses:

Number 8 looks too complicated to be considered moderate.

Number 6 looks rather… something. Way down there? But on the other hand it looks kind of under control, so maybe it’s moderate.

Number 2 — very exciting and fun! But that’s not what we associate with moderate.

Maybe #3 is the moderation star — seems so classic, after all.

Or #5 — meandering along like a river “should.”

Before I reveal the hydrological answer, let me throw in an extra credit question: which river do you think is the most stable?

And just for interest, though there is no such thing as an ugly river, what is your favorite in terms of beauty — right this moment?


Fluvial geomorphologists look at rivers in terms of four basic characteristics:

    • entrenchment (when flood waters come, an entrenched river stays in its channel and gets deeper — as opposed to spreading way out),
    • width-to-depth ratio (relatively “wide and shallow” vs “narrow and deep”),
    • sinuosity (how curvy is the channel?), and
    • slope.

Only one of the above eight river types is moderate in all those areas: #2.


Moderation is not the same as slow (#5) nor does it go with a classic workhorse beauty (#3). It’s not isolated and independent like #6.

The most moderate river type is the one we call “rapids.” It’s the one river runners flock to. It’s fun — not boring even in low flow and not full out terrifying even in high flow. It interacts with its surroundings — getting somewhat wider in a flood and definitely benefiting from nice stream side vegetation — but doesn’t dominate the neighbors (by overflowing at the slightest increase in its energy) or completely depend on them (a little over-grazing or watershed paving won’t reduce its banks to raw smithereens).

As for the most stable* river type? Yes: also the rapids. Moderation may not be…

At least it may not be what we thought it was.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of — or inordinately obsessed with in any way. But for sure it’s not dull. It’s vital and engaging.

No, it’s not the only way to be well. What I love about rivers is that any type can be stable (well, except one.. and it can be healed), and they’re all gorgeous — even the immoderates. Even the moderates.

I invite you to take the “What Stream Type Are You?” quiz to investigate your own nature (“for now”… because, thankfully, rivers/we are always changing) and consider tips for maintaining your own particular beauty. Meanwhile, my wish for you (from John O’Donohue’s poem Fluent) is that you may continue to:

“live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of [your] own unfolding.”

* I define stable as resilient when insulted. (For a river, an insult can be: big change in flow/energy, either up or down; big change in the river’s sediment/load, either more or less; alteration in width or depth or slope/speed, like someone digs a hole in the river or fills it or tramples down the bank or narrows up the edges; or interference with the flood plain, reducing the amount of area a river can use for overflow. Um, does it amaze you how EACH ONE OF THESE IS A METAPHOR FOR OUR HUMAN LIVES?! I know. Me too.)

Healing your gully — Part 1

“I’m a gully! I don’t want to be a gully! Please advise.”

– You Know Who

Dearest You,

Your request may be the most concise one I’ve received, but it’s not the only one. Gullying seems to be going around. It’s the second most common result in people who have taken the Stream Personality Quiz. I am happy to reassure you all — gullies can be healed.

But first let’s make sure you ARE a gully.

A gully’s most defining trait is isolation. Vertical isolation.

Most gullies began as healthy streams that were stressed in such a way that their only immediate choice was to cut down into themselves. Now they’re flowing down deep — lower than their surroundings — and closely contained by steep walls. Gullies can’t spread out or slow down when life overloads them with a flood. They can’t reach up to their safety valves — their floodplains.

Madagascar, Photograph by Pascal Maitre, National Geographic

Do you feel like you have nowhere to go in a crisis except down inside yourself? Then you indeed may be gullying.

But remember that not all vertical isolation is active gullying.

Don’t confuse the following healthily entrenched rivers with gullies (you can click here to take the Stream Personality Quiz and see what stream you might be):

  • A-types: Waterfalls and Cascades are much steeper and straighter than gullies. They don’t meander around much. If your life’s characterized by abrupt steps alternating with calm pools, you may be an A-type. Tres scenic!
  • F-types: Self-Sufficient streams often are even more vertically isolated — “deeper” —  than gullies, but they’re less steep, they meander more, and they’re proportionately wider. They can be quite stable if they’re fully evolved or have a solid foundation. If your life moves moderately slowly and evenly, you might be an F-type. And quite grand.

Next let’s consider whether or not there’s really anything “wrong” with being a gully. Why do they have such a bad name?

Because gullies are not “stable.”

Wait, wait, wait before you freak out or judge! Let’s look at what we even mean by “stable.” Happily, Natural Channel Hydrology has an objective, technical definition.

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.

A gully’s considered unstable only because it’s adjusting. My grandmother would say it is “shaping.” And she would be very literally accurate. Something happened that was a game changer, and now the stream is changing its width and depth (dimension), where and how much it meanders (pattern), and how fast it flows (profile). The river is finding its own personal, stable form.

But for rivers and people to shape themselves, they must move and rearrange the sediment that has defined their edges and their very foundations. An outside observer will call this “erosion.” All that dirt muddies the water:

Finding oneself creates a mess.

And of course it’s worth it!

So when is gullying a problem?

Gullies are“natural” in that the laws of physics required the stream to adjust in this way after being stressed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help. I think it’s usually wise to assist a gully in its healing.

BUT. Only you can know if your current gullying is okay with you. The best way to tell is by consulting your Body Compass. Click here for details.

If you, dear You, think you don’t want to be a gully because it’s an ugly word BUT your gut says you’re okay, then you are okay — just as you are. I only hope the Stream Personality Quiz and profile didn’t made you doubt yourself.

But if you feel yucky, then my next post will (finally!) answer your question about ways to begin restoring yourself. It’ll be up tomorrow, I promise. Until then,

All love,


… 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: