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Your Reference Reach

If you want to approach restoration of a river — or of the river that runs through you — like a Natural Channel Hydrologist (and believe me, for the most stable and beautiful result, you do), begin with a design pattern in mind. In our line of work, we get a project’s blueprint from nature and we call that ideal our Reference Reach. To get the hang of it, try this quiz:


Which of the following is the healthiest stream — which would be your best Reference Reach?

A                                                                                    BButtermilk Falls, NYNorway





C                                                                                                         D

Stream Type C -- Blue River, ColoradoTimefor Stream Type D'sclose-up!









Other D                                                                                      E

Stream Type Da in Swedish LaplandStreamType E







Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, Arizona



“All of them,” you say. “They’re all gorgeous.” They are nice photos, I know, but if you had to choose one…

“It depends,” you insist? Ah, you are savvy fluvial geomorphologists. EACH of these bits of river is in fact a reference reach — for that particular river.  Just like you, a river’s point of reference is within the river itself.

I was reminded of this last week, when Master Coach Bridgette Boudreau reminded those of us in her teleclass (awesomely entitled “How To Do The Hard things”) to shift our reference point inside. It turns out that she is a Natural Channel Hydrologist for the soul (which is no surprise to me!).

Looking at the 7 different types of healthy streams above (click on each photo for more info about that type of stream), it’s obvious that if you applied E’s typical pattern to an A-type river, everything you decided to do would be a Very Hard Thing indeed. But when you pull your reference point back inside the river that runs through YOU instead of the one that runs through someone else (no matter how admirable that someone else may be), nothing is as hard as you originally may have thought. Once you’re operating within your own way of doing things, it’s clear WHAT the ideal things for you are (what is your most healthy width-to-depth ratio, slope, sinuosity, etc.) and it becomes easier to do the ideal things than NOT to.

HOW: All you have to do is shift your attention inside. But sometimes, when you’re out of practice, it’s nice to have some clearer instruction. It’s awesome and almost weird, really, that the most common way coaches such as Bridgette, our mutual teacher Martha Beck, and I help humans find their point of reference is the same way hydrologists find a river’s Reference Reach: by tuning into the inside of the body.

Yes, a river has a body and it’s the key to understanding what has happened to it and what wants to happen next — that’s why we call this field fluvial geomorphology: we study the earthen (geo-) body (-morph) laid down by running water (fluvial). We do this by wading up and down and back and forth in the river, surveying with a laser level, observing it, and, yes, picnicking on its banks and floating and splashing a bit. Turns out your grasp of the river increases the more time you spend enjoying it.

Click here if you want to read a post describing one way you can find your own Reference Reach(es). But really all you have to do is go inside. Observe what’s happening in there, enjoy it, and you’ll know what to do next.




… turning your potential into what you want

Potential is not some abstract your Mom and your 6th-grade teacher agreed that you had a lot of and needed to work up to — it’s physicists’ technical term for a kind of energy. Yup, the stuff that makes things happen for real and big time.

[Note: Feel free to skip to the bottom if you want the RIVER TAKE HOME LESSON FOR HUMAN BEINGS minus the geeky goodness that follows! I won’t mind!]

Potential is energy stored in a very specific kind of place — in a system where physical things interact with each other and their location is important:

System Example 1: the earth’s river-ocean system

System Example 2: your life.

Listen up: Potential energy is very useful. It completely powers every river. And it can power your life in just the same scenic-AND-always-gets-its-way way.

“But,” you might be saying, “isn’t potential a lot like intelligence in that”, as my grandfather would say, “together with 25¢, it will buy you a cup of coffee?” Of course now it’s more like “together with $2.50, it will buy you a latté,” so, yes, the point is even more vital: potential isn’t worth much unless you can put it to use.

And when you’re feeling stuck, transforming your potential —-> the actual work required to build the life you want SEEMS like a leap.

Well, it is.

Literally. Let’s look at Astonishing Thing #1:

How a river converts potential energy to getting-stuff-done:

It falls. Toward what attracts it.

The river simply feels the direction in which it’s pulled and flows there. This one rule — this one way-of-going-about-things — powers and steers everything a river does.

The river’s particular flavor of potential energy is gravity. That’s why river water will waste no time getting to whichever direction feels most like downhill. Now, the higher it is above sea level, the more potential the river water has. Which means that as it flows downhill — following the pull of the sea — the river’s potential energy decreases.

BUT wait a second! Isn’t energy always conserved? Ah, yes — you’ve heard how energy can be neither created nor destroyed. So how can a bit of potential energy just… go away? It can’t. BUT energy CAN change form.

As a steadily flowing river drops in elevation, its potential decreases, and that potential energy is converted to friction energy — in other words into energy that is dissipated against the stream bed and bank. This friction energy is called the “stream power” because its “shear stress” (I never tire of how these very technical terms get imported into our daily conversation with great meaning.) literally shears or shaves sediment from the stream bed and banks. The river shapes its channel in this way.

In summary, Astonishing Thing #2:

As potential decreases, stream power increases.

(Kind of interesting. When the river water meets the sea, it has no more potential. Does the human parallel seem a little depressing? I don’t know. If the sea is — as the great sages of all traditions agree whether they call it God, the Tao, enlightenment, the Beloved — complete oneness with love, then I guess we wouldn’t care if we had more potential. And of course there’s the ever-famous water cycle Soon those drops will be evaporated waaaaay up high and carried in clouds over to be dropped on the tip top of a mountain with the most potential EVER. And start the creative building again.)

 More fully, Astonishing Thing #3:

As it follows what pulls it, the river converts its potential into its life’s work: building itself.

A river converts potential energy into its pretty, earthen stream channel: That’s why Luna Leopold ended his classic book A View of the River with the soaring, almost rhapsodizing, statement, “The river is the carpenter of its own edifice.” Of course he got rhapsodic — because it’s pretty crazy. The river is one giant self-making potential convertor. Just. Like. You.

And did you happen to notice Astonishing Thing #4:

The river’s cool creative stuff gets done through things that sometimes get a bad rap: Friction. Stress. Work.

Don’t even worry about it. They’re just words. Remember that in physics there’s no difference between work and play, and experiment with the TAKE HOME RIVER LESSON FOR HUMANS:

All you have to do is let yourself follow what attracts you, and your potential WILL be converted into an energy that immediately starts shaping your life.

Keep me posted!

Our inevitable destination

“God makes the rivers to flow. They tire not, nor do they cease from flowing. May the river of my life flow into the sea of love that is the Lord.”

~ Rigveda #2 excerpt, translated by Eknath Easwaren

A rives never tires or ceases because it’s always pulled by an ever-present force — gravity. The earth is a hugely strong attractor. Nothing a river does can change its destination. It WILL get to a sea.

And none of us can avoid the pull of love, according to the Sanskrit text quoted above. No wonder that text’s title translates to “Praise Knowledge,” for this is indeed a deep and praise-worthy thing to know. You know it by feel — from experiencing that pull, moments of falling into that sea of love*, and the cycle of emerging only to flow in that direction once more.

The journey always involves beauty/messiness — meandering; erosion; friends, family, lovers, and loss; moderation and eccentricities; abrupt steps; floods. Thanks be.

* This quotation provides maybe my favorite definition of “God.”

“… a trembling that is all delight.”

Have you ever seen an ugly river? No. Even the most eroding or channelized streams — those considered unstable or unnatural by hydrology standards — are beautiful. I’ve seen homes sited to capture a view of a head-cut, calendars featuring photos of streams so channelized they would make a fluvial geomorphologist weep. I’m sorry to say it, but the above picture — from a fishing site highlighting wonderful rivers — would be a great lecture slide for illustrating the classic ways in which degradation begins and evolves along the South Fork of the Tongue near my own hometown. AND it’s beautiful anyway.

Objectively, a particular river reach may be damaged. But…

But objective definitions of beauty — like those based on proportion, symmetry, or the golden ratio — have been suspect as far back as 600 BC when Saphho considered “the most beautiful sights the dark world offers” and famously concluded “I say its whatever you love best.”

What’s your beauty sense?

Do you, like Sappho, find that what you love is what you consider beautiful? Kant added two more options when he noted that beauty triggers not only:

  • a loving response but also/or
  • pleasurable response [if you think this is the key then you’d get along with Locke who thought pleasure was THE origin of beauty], and/or
  • profound response.

Still these beg the question of WHY a particular thing triggers such a response. Or maybe the question is HOW.

G.E. Moore tried to get super-practical when he decided that we consider something beautiful when it is a necessary element in something which is good.

But then what is “good?”

And surely the “profound” calls for something more cosmic. Or intimate. Happily — to satisfy my desire for both at once — along comes Alexander Nehamas. In Only a Promise of Beauty he specifies that beauty is “not to be regarded as an instantaneously apprehensible feature ” but rather as:

an invitation to further experiences, a way that things invite us in… to explore, interpret... Beautiful things don’t stand aloof but direct our attention and our desire… they quicken the sense of life, giving it a new shape and direction.”

The river is right in front of us — available, open, transparent. We can wade, dive, swim, or float submerged in its channel, yet, the next morning, the river invites us once more.The same is true of beautiful art, beautiful music, and our beautiful beloveds. That sparking of our own vitality helps explain how:

“This is the spirit that Beauty must ever induce: wonderment, a delicious trouble, longing and love and a trembling that is all delight.”

~ Plotinus

Running dry

“Can your rivers tell me what to do when I have dried up? ~ SS”

Dear SS,

I know you, and I see you, and — although I know it’s scary to feel that empty flowless parch — I am not worried about you. Because here’s what I see of your life: your honed love for clear thinking; your crisp, lush edges developed by years of doing work you value; and your large, even ability to rest when need be. That makes you like a river: you have a foundation, edges, and a floodplain.

Remember that a river channel — just like a life as shapely as yours — requires, and therefore proves, the existence of perennial flow.

When desert dwellers are hiking and happen upon a dry river, they know not to camp in the nice clean channel because it for sure will flow again. And it could be that very night — no matter the season. You will flow again too. I guarantee it.

Until then what should you do? Nothing. Or whatever you want. It doesn’t matter that much.

(Other than don’t give up and think you’re NOT a river. And let’s hope others don’t forget your long-term power and camp out in the middle of your life! But if they do, oh well — you’ll get yourself cleaned out during spring runoff. <insert semi-evil giggle>

And as you while away the time, I hope you re-read a short linkage of the beautiful words of Albert Szent-Gyorgi and the Tao Te Ching here.)

Your energy will return no matter what you do. No need to worry — although you can if you want. Even worrying won’t keep your flow away. So don’t worry if you worry, ok? I won’t. X

… kindness creating

Last week I got a chance to watch my friend out there amongst it all, and I couldn’t look away. I’m not sure I have ever seen such straight up kindness in action. I can’t really describe it.

My friend wasn’t exactly beaming the kindness into people. But almost. Nor taking everyone in. But kind of.

I saw it was more like an interconnection.

Like a meandering E-type or Da-type stream enjoying its floodplain.

Most of all, I saw that being kind is creative.

Like how a whole valley is fed by a stream energizing and  its accepting.

This is heart. And it makes mine glad.

… More Body than Water

“Life is water dancing to the tune of solids.”

~ Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

A river isn’t always wet.  In the high desert of my childhood, most of our streams “ran dry” for a good part of the year.  My brother and I loved them.

They were our superhighways, free of brush and full of stories:  tracks and scat, pottery shards, and, most clearly, the stream’s own contours, for the bare river revealed every contour of the last spring runoff.  We could see how deep the it ran by looking at bank heights, how fast it flowed by gauging the rock sizes in its bed, how wide it sprawled by tracing debris settled on the floodplain.  The river divulged all this – without water.

For even without water, you recognize a river. You see this assembly – bed, banks, and floodplain  – and know it as the body of a river.  It’s hard to envision what a river could look like without those bones.

Water alone, as Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi proclaimed, is “the Hub of Life.. its mater and matrix, mother and medium.”  Yet this essential ingredient can’t live as a river – moving earth, supporting elephants and mayflies, flowing to the sea – without a container.  Even a Hub needs shape to engage with its power:

We join spokes together in a wheel,

but it is the center hole

that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside

that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space

that makes it livable.

We work with being,

but non-being is what we use.

~ Lao Tse, Tao Te Ching

translated by Stephen Mitchell

Your life assembles itself the same way a river does, with the same three elements.

The bed of your being may be a favorite hobby.  Or it may be your loved ones, your spiritual practice, your vocation – there is no right or wrong foundation as long as your thinking is clear and clean.  Streams are dominated variously by bedrock, cobbles, gravel, sand, silt, clay.  In fact one waterway may ply each of these in different reaches of its singular journey.

But no matter what your life is made of, you must have banks to define your edges.  Don’t worry, they’ll not completely or irrevocably limit you:  a healthy river’s annual peak-flow overtops its banks in one out of every two or three years.  Nor must you run clear out to your edges on a daily basis:  much of the year,  a river’s low flow occupies only a small sub-channel.  What the stream banks define, and hence allow, is the channel’s full-on, working flow.  Similarly, without edges, your own working energy can never achieve a depth sufficient to power your life.

So then, how do you create the stream banks of your being?  River banks rise above the bed on each side.  The river accomplishes this fortunate structure not by erecting little walls to separate it from the world, but rather by carving a place for itself, down into its very foundation.  By keeping to its work – moving sediment – the river naturally finds itself sheltered in a channel of precisely the right shape for its needs.  Your life’s work, your passionate calling, does the same favor for you.

The final physical component of your life as a river is your floodplain, that rich flat adjacent to the stream banks.  When a river overflows those banks, the channel current continues raging onward, but the water that escapes immediately spreads out, losing depth and therefore velocity.  Floodwater is not fast.  This relatively slow, less powerful water can carry only smaller sediment onto the floodplain.  As it spreads further and loses yet more speed, the floodwater drops its fine material, building the floodplain with increasingly level, increasingly nutrient-laden soil — perfect for sprouting and growing the seeds that each river bears and sows right along with its sediment.

A floodplain is the river’s most precious contribution to the natural world.  For some river types, like the steep, straight mountain brook, a narrow shelf is sufficient floodplain.  For others, like the gently sloping, meandering meadow stream, an entire valley is at its service.  No matter the floodplain’s natural size, its abundance creates a singularly magical, diverse ecology.

You do this too.  When you exceed your regular capacity, you are “spread thin.”  Something has to give and it does, and in slowing down and dropping some of your load, you inundate and seed a lush, level haven that sustains not only you but those around you.  Savor your place of ease in times of overflow.


What flows through every river, and what flows through each of us, is energy.  Water energy.  Soul energy.  Its power manifests most fully when that energy constructs and inhabits its own unique presence:  an exquisitely carved foundation, happily defined edges, and a waiting refuge for the inevitable overflow.

This reality you create is recognizable even when you’re running dry.  It is your solace in the middle of an empty day or an empty life.  For just as a river channel requires, and therefore proves, the existence of perennial flow, so too the very form of your life means your spirit will flow again… like water dancing to the tune of a grassy stream bank.