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“… 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

… 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.

Stream Type Tips

In response to your requests — thank you for the feedback! — I’m working on a table that summarizes all eight Stream Types, along with their strengths, vulnerabilities, and tips for how to thrive. You can find the new page here. Any comments you want to send me will be welcomed! And if you want to take the short “What Stream Type Are You?” Personality Quiz, it’s here.

… crossing

“What is this nonsense about water under a bridge? I keep thinking about that – like I’m just supposed to let everything go… after all, the bridge/river metaphor is so strongly present in all my stories. What does it mean? What do rivers have to say about bridges? What do rivers have to say about liminal space?”

~ Taescach

Beloved Taescach wrote that a year ago. A lot was happening in her life; even more has happened since. I asked perhaps the most bridged river ever, the Mississippi, to respond:

Dear Taescach,

Bridges do look different from the bottom up. And yet this is the first time I’ve heard of a person asking one of us streams for our view of them. You clearly have an artist’s curiosity about how to see things.

Your easy insertion of the word “nonsense” shows you have discernment as well.

The idea that difficult bygones are like water under the bridge may be accurate — but not for the reasons people think. It’s because the water under most bridges is having a problem AND creating problems. And it’s the bridge’s fault.

“Bridge” seems to have constructive (yes, we rivers often gush puns) connotations for many humans. To them it symbolizes a way  to get over some obstacle on the way to where they want to go. Or a way to link two sides of a gap.

It assumes there IS a gap.

And when someone builds a bridge over me, they are saying I am that gap — an obstacle.  I’m in the way. It’s saying “we’re going to go right over you to get past you.” They don’t want to go through me or in me or even on a boat across me. No interaction. They don’t want to get wet.

I like how you open the possibility that I am less like a problem and more like the middle, ambiguous, disorienting part of a rite of passage — a threshold between old and new ways of structuring identity. As you have no doubt experienced, the quintessential trait of the liminal is its fluid and shifting nature. In that way nothing could be more liminal than us rivers. And whenever/wherever people try to fix a threshold in space — to harden it — they often create trouble. “Permanent liminality” can mean endless acts of separation, meaningless ceremony, or violent alienation.

Trying to harden any part of us rivers is a very delicate situation.

 In some ways, the concept of a bridge could be fine with me. If a LOT of folks were coming and going right through me, all that traffic would muddy my waters or wear down my edges. Unfortunately bridges are usually just way too narrow and/or too low, and then:

  • The reduced cross-sectional area means even my crucial, annual “bankfull flow” can’t fit through there unless it speeds up. The higher velocities generate unnatural power for my current setting, and I have no choice but to do something with that power. I down-cut right into my own bed — my foundation — and banks.
  • While my waters wait their turns to fit through the small opening, they back up. There’s a “backwater” effect where I eddy and scour the shore AND dig a sort of abnormal reservoir — a place that starts gathering sludgy gunk.
  • As I shoot out from under the bridge — back into a free-er state — the transition means a lot more turbulence and more erosion of the stream banks.
  • The situation’s even crazier when the bridges have vertical piers right in my channel. Getting through the whole ordeal is usually a definite rite of passage for me — a wounding one. In extreme cases, my erosion actually makes the bridge fail.

Obstacles and even  liminality turn out to be a matter of perspective.

So — whether you are a river or a human or both — if you find a fixed threshold eroding parts of your life or getting you stuck somewhere, then I have two ideas for how to deal with said bridge:

1. Burn it. And don’t forget to take out any pilings or head walls built down in the channel. Just let wading through, boating over, or swimming in this fluid gap be an integral part of life. Alternately:

2. Make the bridge very high and wide.  It’ll be more archingly beautiful and exciting for people AND leave room for all kinds of riverine transitions.

You have my thanks — more than you know — for asking.

~ The Mississippi

Thinking like a river?

“We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations.”

~ David Brower

When my friend and colleague Kanesha Lee Baynard sent me this quote, it reminded of why I want to read Mr. Brower’s book Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run AND of why I have to ask rivers and hydrology to interpret river adages for me! Today I turned to my closest stream and asked it — how do you think, anyway? Here’s what I got:

I build my life — my own edges and the shape of my very foundation —  using what’s around me, constantly adjusting to new changes, and sticking to two rules. 1) Always and only follow what pulls me, and 2) increase chaos while doing so. All other details follow from there. — Big Goose Creek

Wow. Do you think we’d leave a beautiful living legacy by thinking in these five ways?

1. “We’re building ourselves.”

In the final sentence of his book A View of the River, Luna Leopold concludes:“The river, then, is the carpenter of its own edifice.” Can the same be said of us as individuals and as a species? Is it useful to acknowledge that?

2. “We use what we encounter and adjust to changes.”

Streams work with the geography they encounter — specific slopes and geology — and with the rainfall. Both the “lay of the land” and the “climate” can be counted on to change in human terms as well. Our economies, communities, bodies, energies, personalities, and loved ones will never stay the same. The changes may be slow or cataclysmic. Either way, like river channels, we adjust. Sometimes the adjustment includes a messy-looking period of what hydrologists call “instability.” Does that ring true with your life experience?

3. “Follow what pulls you.”

A river is pulled by gravity to a sea. Every decision’s based on that urge. What tugs on you?

4. “Chaos is unavoidable.” [And perhaps desirable?]

The Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that our every action increase entropy (i.e., disorderly energy no longer available for getting anything done). I can’t see that anyone knows for sure why this is so, but I have my pet theory. It’s based on the idea that IF the universe makes sense AND  everything in that universe boosts one kind of stuff, THEN that stuff must be important. Have you ever had chaos lead you to a higher level of order?

5. “Every other decision — whether to turn, which way, when to fall, and how to heal when changes wound us — will follow from the above four thoughts.”

In the physics of rivers, this is true. Can it be extended to people? Is there any other choice? I would like to know what you think. I hope you’ll comment below or email me. Meanwhile, I’m off to visit Big Goose Creek and see if we can’t increase us some entropy. Baaa.