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Here’s what stable ISN’T

A stable river has always been the goal of all river professionals, even when those professionals were building dams! Dam-builders just had the wrong idea of stability.

(The engineering building at the University in my state of Wyoming)

You might have made the same mistake in your own life—I know I have.

So how can we avoid this misunderstanding? Remembering that Natural Channel Hydrology has an objective, technical definition can be a first step:

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.

Here’s what that does NOT mean for a stream. Or for you:

  • Stable DOESN’T MEAN under the control of a person or society. Nature—be it human nature or wild stream nature—is free. Free-flowing. Free to follow its own internal rules.
  • Stable DOESN’T MEAN holding still. Calm is once thing—but it’s not still. Nor is calm even always the best way to be. Sometimes a river runs fierce.
  • Stable DOESN’T MEAN solid. A river’s body is rarely bedrock, and even when it is, that channel will still move laterally and change shape over time. Most rivers are even more malleable than that. They’re made of loose rock or soil; they carry loose rock or soil; they shift their locations. Nothing about them is solid except their own identity they’ve perfectly formed for that time and place.
  • Stable DOESN’T MEAN unchanging. In addition to moving and being re-shaped, rivers’  flow changes. There’s nothing unchanging about a river except that it’s changing.
  • Stable DOESN’T MEAN tidy. It can’t. when you’re made out of natural materials and undergoing natural processes, it’s messy. The bits of experiences you encounter, pick up, carry, reshape, set down, and then pick up again—all those pieces of dirt and those rocks—are messy. Your fluid medium for energy—be it water if you’re a river or attention if you’re a human—is messy, especially as it increases and decreases in flow during any given day, month, season, year, millennium. The invisible force that pulls you and energizes you is also messy because…
  • Stable DOESN’T MEAN straight. Gravity/The Mystery is definitely tugging on you and steering you, but it’s never in a straight line. You/the river have to move in the easiest direction, the direction where you can fall furthest and most easily in love. (Literally: you’re in the love and therefore falling where they mystery pulls you, wants you to go.) Furthermore, because you and a river both must obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics, you must always be increasing the entropy in the world. You must create a little chaos. The most visible example of this is in your lateral meandering and in the vertical curves of your very foundation, up and down: a riffle runs down into a pool and then glides up into another riffle. Over and over.
  • Stable DOESN’T MEAN you stay neatly inside your boundaries. You will flood. A natural, healthy river exceeds its bankfull level every two or three years on average. This is how the river builds something out in the world. It’s how it’s creative. And that creative process as well as what it is the river has made are in turn the safety valve that keeps a river well when it’s flooding. It’s one of the most perfect symbiotic relationships you could imagine. On the flip side, you’ll also have low-flow times. Very low. But that’s okay. You can handle it. A natural river develops a low flow channel inside its boundaries. It will survive as will the life forms that depend on it. You don’t need to dam a river to avoid droughts.
  • Stable DOESN’T MEAN no work. A river works like a dog—whenever it can and with exuberance. Work is just another word for play in physics. It means having experiences. It describes that process above (see “stable doesn’t mean tidy”) of a river’s carrying capacity, a human’s caring capacity.

When you glance back over this list, you see that if you DID think stable meant those things, you might think a dam was indeed a very good life. In fact, dams just turn a river into a reservoir. They stop its life as a river.

Moving, being malleable, changing location and flow, making messe,s being a mess, meandering, flooding, running low, caring, carrying, and working are how a river not only energizes itself and creates something in the world, but also how it builds itself. Those things are NOT unpleasant. BUT don’t be ashamed if you’ve been scared of them and wanting to avoid them. That’s a very human response and one I’m undoing in myself. Culture trains us thusly; our lizard/caveperson brain does too. But it’s much safer to be a wild river than a dammed one—for you, the ecosystem at large, and other people. It’s the only way to be stable and therefore not only effective and productive but free and wild as well as so beautiful.

For ideas on how to find dams, click here. To bust dams, click here. And if you’re just flowing along all messy and variable, well, on behalf of the world, I thank you.


“How can I be powerful and relaxed?”

Not much is more powerful than a river — or as at ease in being so.

Most every stream, valley, and canyon is proof of that. And every river manages their relaxed power with the same three-step dance. Here’s how to be like them:

1st step: Move

More specifically, fall — fall wherever you feel most pulled. This is a form of surrender, but it’s surrender to what your heart most desires.

This is the one and the only way every river gets all of its power. It’s pulled to an unknown and unseeable destination (a sea) by an invisible and attractive force (gravity). We call it flow.

Once you or the river move in any way, no matter how small, you can’t help but…

2nd. Have an experience

And you can’t help but use your experiences to shape yourself — to form your bed and your banks. In river-talk, these are your dimensions. (AKA: Your edges and foundation. The definitions of where you stop and the world start. Your preferences, your values. Your boundaries.)

This self-shaping happens automatically because, exactly like a river, as you fall, some of your potential energy converts to movement (kinetic energy) and the rest acts on and with the environment around you, picking up bits off experiences, carrying them, shaping them, laying them down. It’s the life’s work of the river and you to build one’s own self. That’s what the power does.

And once you have your bed and banks, you can’t help but…

3rd. Meander, overflow your banks, and in this way — and this way only — build something out in the world beyond your edges. Something beautiful.

For rivers, this beautiful something is called a floodplain. It’s the level, lush place where the river overlaps with the outside world to their great mutual benefit. The river builds, maintains, waters, and nourishes this critical micro-environment that supports and enriches the lives of so many plants and animals, including people. And that floodplain, in turn, saves the river when it floods. Which, exactly like you,  it inevitably will do. A healthy river will reach or overflow the top of its banks in one out of every two or three years.

For humans, this beautiful something is called creativity. It’s art, i.e., whatever you make out in the world be that a cake, a business, a new way of thinking about or doing something, a cool experience for others, a baby, or a painting.

Every healthy river has some kind of floodplain, and so does every person. It’s what you make, and that not only contributes to the world but is your safety valve in times of personal flooding. It helps to remember that.


And it helps to remember that you can’t help but do #2 (shape your perfectly unique self) and create beauty (#3) because you are SO powerful.

It’s unavoidable as long as you fall. Just surrender to that unknown tug and flow one little step. Something will happen, and the rest follows. This happens naturally to a river and has been happening to you too! (Unless either of you gets dammed. And that’s okay, because then we just bust the dam and flow on!)

That’s the key to the relaxed part of the equation. Hal Boyle sums it up perfectly:

“What makes a river so restful to people is that it doesn’t have any doubt—it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn’t want to go anywhere else.”

IMPORTANT! Notice that he never says the river knows where it’s going! It doesn’t need to, and neither do you. It just knows the feeling of allowing oneself to be pulled into flow by one’s own longing, i.e., bu one’s own destiny. That’s all you have to know too. That’s all of your power, and it’s always relaxed. If you’re unsure, just make any random little movement at all. Go for a walk. Take that job offer even if you aren’t sure its “the dream,” go to a coffee shop, just dance in place in your room right now. Once you move, you have accessed your power and you’re heading to where you’re going. Have no doubt.

… windblown

You know by now how a river gets all its energy, sense of direction, wonder, and belonging: it falls. It falls in the direction it finds most attractive — pulled by the ineffable.

But even rivers can get blow back! This picture currently (ha) blows me away (haha). It’s crazy!

Crazy beautiful, crazy funny, and crazy relatable!

My takeaway: don’t worry! All the water and all our attention is still in the water cycle and finds its way.

I like to think this river is having the ride of its life. Let ‘er buck!

The Fourth Business

There’s your business, other peoples’ business, God’s business, and THEN there’s the fourth business — the floodplain. And that’s the lushest business of all.

[For a practical river practice: skip to the end.]

God’s Business*

A pull by some unseen attractive force:  you fall in that direction.

You flow. And that’s where all your power comes from.

(If your flow’s blocked, you’re not only stopped in place but easily infiltrated by others’ agendas.)

Your Business

That stuff you come across as you flow: the sediment, soil, and rock of the world through which you flow: you carry, shape, and set them down in various turns.

This is your life’s work. This is how you form your edges and your base — the dimensions of your life that make you you and allow you to flow like a river and not just a sheet of water creeping across the land.

(If your boundaries aren’t maintained, you get overwhelmed — we say such a river has lost its integrity and can’t carry its burden. Plus you cut into the world in a harsh, unstable way.)

Others’ Business

The uplands: you’ve no role there.

Its inhabitants may visit you for refreshment; its burdens may wash into your channel; but you’ve no control out there.

(If you’re out there it means you’ve been diverted — dammed or forcibly pumped away from the direction God’s business pull you. All kinds of problems ensue in your channel and even in the uplands since its not built for your energy. Soils may become saline; native plants may be replaced by invasive species; animals that depend on those plants suffer.)

The Fourth Business

The floodplain.

Here is where you and the others and God all meet and co-create.

The result — no matter whether its the narrow shelf of a self-sufficient F-type river or the wide expanse of the delta’s Da- or the sinuous, focused E-type river — is a lush, even, open space.

A river’s best friends — deep-rooted, woody vegetation AKA trees — can grow there. Animals and insects thrive there and indeed require its presence.

The floodplain is built by — and allows — your flooding. It makes your natural, expected overflows safe and, indeed, vital. The floodplain allows — and is built by — your meandering. This makes for a lot more fun and chaos in the world (and increasing that entropy is not only interesting but required by the Second Law of Thermodynamics!).


It all feeds into each other: Your flow allows you to do your life’s work with integrity and then those resulting boundaries allow you to overflow safely into the outside world where, together with that world, you build the richest ecosystem of all, the riparian zone, which gives you and others the ability to adjust to whatever nature throws your way and to do it with beauty.


Like a river, we most naturally and healthily relate to others in a space thats not exactly us and not exactly other. We meet one another in a place between us and make something there together. It’s fun and messy, and that’s probably the point.

~ ~

A practical river practice: Ask someone to make something with you. It will be shared creation — not yours and not their but a separate being. It could be collaborating on a doodle, a song, a dance; planting a plant; cooking some food; writing a naughty limerick or an ecstatic poem; carving a bar of soap, raising a barn, sewing a quilt; arranging flowers. This is especially useful when you need to figure out boundaries. If there’s someone who seems to infiltrate you with their mood or opinions (especially opinions about you) or if there’s someone who you tend to inundate, try this. And please share with me what you make!



* As always, wherever you see the word God please substitute Nature, Universe, Uterus, Mystery, Ineffable, Unspeakable (YHWH), Source, Goddess, Unknowable, or whatever word appeals to you.

Wrenchless Monkey-Wrenching aka How to Bust a Dam From Inside the River (Part I: Let Yourself Leak Longing)

Desire and its small personal joys are all you need to break whatever is damming your river.

The tried-and-true, effective, external, hard way to bust a dam:

Dams are made of compacted earth, i.e., bits of the world that have been shaped a certain way and hardened with careful application of weight, cement additives, memory, socially-cultivated belief systems, or innocent errors in thinking. And whatever other benefits they may have, dams are not good for rivers.

You can demolish ANY dam with dynamite, heavy machinery, pick-axes, or the blessed logic involved in simply inquiring into your own thinking.

BUT. But sometimes the dam is just soooo big. Or it’s hard to get a real handle on exactly where the dam is or what it’s made of.

AND/OR sometimes it’s logistically overwhelming to import enough blasting power or stamina to dismantle the thing. That’s understandable — river and human dams both are exceedingly well-built results of centuries of civilization’s best design efforts.

Happily there is another way to get rid of a dam, a way that is natural and doesn’t require you to conjure up any extra external energy:  let the river’s own attractive force demolish the dam…

Anatomy of a leak (and why it’s a good thing for a river):

Your river desires to move toward the sea, even/especially when your river is dammed. So here’s how you get rid of a dam: Just feel that longing. Let it exist and grow. Eventually, the longing burrows a little ways into the dam. It excavates more and more of the dam until it makes its way through to the other side. Then it’s an official full-blown leak. It begins to grow more rapidly until it finally and easily busts through the dam to continue the free-flowing life it desires.

Leaks should be enjoyed, allowed, and encouraged. Here’s how to recognize a leak:

  • The river — and in this metaphor that means YOU — builds a leak from within its own channel as a natural result of its own natural power, attention, desire. It’s authentic. Possibly quirkily so.
  • It feels right and almost like you can’t help doing it — but it doesn’t relieve the pressure the way a rushing spillway does (that’s why spillways just protect dams despite their seeming drama!)
  • Leaks may be almost tortuously twisty.
  • Leaks start very small and slow — tiny little activities that are less about movement and more about the intense, pleasurable, pressure of the longing. Later they increase, sometimes very gradually for quite awhile, until there’s a certain momentum.
  • Leaks may be here and there, all over the place, not concentrated in one place with a defined focus.
  • Leaks erode bits of dirt or concrete. They are a little messy at first, and increasingly so as they grow.
  • People and cultural institutions that benefit from a dam do not approve of leaks.
  • Leaks are usually private at first.
  • Leaks are not useful to anyone outside the river (at least not until they have removed the dam and the river is back to its fantastic wild and scenic nature in which case the whole natural ecosystem rejoices as well as cool people!).

Where in your life do you feel the pressure of a persistent and maybe somewhat undefined longing? Let it build. Memorize the sensation of that longing — of that which you desire. Drop into that feeling whenever you can. Where do you feel little trickles of energy pushing their way toward your deepest desire — even though they may not be making much headway? Keep doing that.

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.

Looking at the 7 different types of healthy streams above (click on each photo for more info about that type of stream or click here to take the river personality quiz!), 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. My teacher Martha Beck taught me and the other coaches in her programs to 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. AND they’re 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