… 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

Rock Creek reveals: “the biggest thing people don’t seem to see” about living like a river

This weekend I got the chance for some pillow talk with Rock Creek  — I slept right on the banks of my old friend. My hostess reported that the stream was “crazy” this year during runoff. “It almost came over the banks!” Here’s what the stream itself whispered the next morning:

June 5th was my peak this year, and it WAS a decent one — but look it up on your gauges, crunch the numbers, and  you’ll see it wasn’t unusual. In the long haul, I end up peaking at least this high in three out of four years. Unless someone messes with my shape, I should actually top my banks every five years in this particular spot. Of course that’s because I’m a river of rapids and hence (surprisingly to some) the most moderate. Most of the flatter streams get out way more often, yet somehow people look at our stream banks and think it’s “normal” for us rivers to keep inside our channels. It’s not and we don’t. That’s the biggest thing people don’t seem to see about us. We are not just our channels. We are “supposed” to do what you call “flood.” It’s the norm, not the exception.

I verified everything Rock Creek said with the United States Geological Survey’s lovely stream gauge data (I love USGS data!). Rock Creek’s been behaving “normally.”

And my old friend’s also right that B-type streams like Rock Creek don’t spread out on a big floodplain as often as the streams we see in wider, typically human-occupied valleys (the skinny, deep, meandering E-types or the point-bar dominated C-types). When you average it all up, our most familiar creeks top their banks two out of three years or even more.

Why, then, does “flooding” always catch us humans by surprise?!

Why do we think the word “flood” equates with disaster??

Perhaps for the same reason it shocks us when our human lives spill out of our constructed boundaries — though that too happens regularly.

Maybe we’d rather all that energy stay in one tidy-looking, seemingly controlled channel. Or maybe we just spot some orderly constructs and assume they’re not to be breached — ever. Likely we worry our floods are dangerous.

But river water leaving the banks is natural. And for good reason:

Torrents of water must come every so often — during annual snow melt or seasonal rainstorms. If that water stayed within the channel’s width, it would have to flow incredibly fast. All that power would erode the river’s foundation out from under it.

And so the river builds a flat area adjacent to its banks. When large flows come, the water spreads out onto this plain and instantly slows, spreading harmlessly across the land, saturating the soil with not only moisture but fine material, nutrients, and seeds. The whole ecosystem flourishes. The floodplain is fully part of the river — not an accidental bystander.

When our human lives overflow, we too are saved by spreading out and slowing down. If you’re living like a healthy, wild river, then you don’t need your floodplain every minute, but you do need it regularly.

<<Every person’s floodplain looks a little different. What’s yours? It could be friends, family, alone time, a pet, nature, your favorite city, reading, music, moving your body in some way, clarifying your feelings, or something I’ve never dreamed of!>>

If you’re living like a river, then whatever kind of floodplain you have benefits from your floods as much as you benefit from your floodplain’s ever-ready presence.

<<Can you entertain the possibility that those people/places/activities/things that save you are not only okay with their role but nourished in return?>>

And yet the fact remains that a flooding river can hurt buildings, roads, and even people. Possibly you’re thinking that you yourself have damaged those around you with your own personal floods. Here’s the important thing:

Floods only cause damage when we humans ignore reality by obstructing our floodplains with artificial structures or trying to stop the overflow. The floodplain is fully part of the river. It cannot be eliminated.

Can you honor your floodplain and keep this integral part of your wild nature intact?

I hope we all can see the way things really work as “normal” and create room for our streams — and our selves — to live like real rivers.

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.


… stop down-cutting.


If you’re gullying, it means you’re cutting down into your own foundation.


Gullies don’t down-cut in a uniform fashion all along an entire length at one time. The active erosion occurs at a distinct “nick-point.”

What’s so great about this news is that it means you can find a particular spot and fix it.

The reason its level of destruction can be so complete is that a nick-point migrates up or down the length of its channel, eroding its base as it goes. But you can begin healing by stopping it where it stands today. Now.

Crazy Woman Creek — BEFORE

It’s a super long nick-point.

The most abrupt part of it is the little step on your right.

Please remember The Good News whenever you are approaching a gullying person OR river. It’s easy to forget. Even river professionals will start doing all kinds of other stuff – reshaping the banks, planting deep-rooted woody vegetation on the banks, fencing livestock off the river, protecting the floodplain. Each of these steps is super important. You have heard me speak of them repeatedly! But they won’t stop the gullying. You have to stop the nick-points from down-cutting more of your foundation.


At first, you might say your base is family, friends, religion, career, nature, or some other big part of your life that you value. But those things are important to you because you’ve decided they are. That’s your worldview. How you think about things underlies how you go about living – it forms the very bed of your life.


…by looking for whitewater — some palpable disruption of your mind. It’s intense and abrupt. It looks like a cascade, a riffle, or a little waterfall. You might even consider it a pleasant kind of feature if you weren’t a gully because — let’s face it — sometimes intense and abrupt are healthy. There is good whitewater and bad whitewater in rivers, just as there is “clean pain” and “dirty pain” in humans.

Clean pain hurts and is an appropriate response to a real loss (in which case the painful feeling is sadness), danger (creates fear), or injustice (creates anger). But clean pain doesn’t feel yucky. It feels purely like itself. It comes in intense waves of 90 seconds. And when it first strikes – especially in the first 48 hours after a trauma – focus on feeling that feeling rather than trying to stop anything.

Dirty pain feels yucky. Unlike the pure emotional response of clean pain, dirty pain is a function of our foundation – of how we think about things. It is always associated with some story or thought about loss, danger, or injustice. And the yuckiness goes on and on. There may have been clean pain to begin with, but it’s evolved into something destructive because of your thinking. And the problem is that you really are SURE this painful thought is absolutely, always true. Otherwise you wouldn’t believe it, obviously. But no dirty pain is ever associated with truth. Clean pain is. But dirty pain means there’s some underlying assumption or belief that is false.

Please do not take this to mean that you should feel ashamed of experiencing dirty pain. Every single person does it! With practice, we can fall into it less often, notice it sooner, and stop it more easily, but dirty pain is an inevitable by-product of the amazing Body-Mind-Spirit package that makes us humans unique.

You can usually tell the difference between clean and dirty pain, but if you’re not sure:

    • check your reference reach to see if this kind of turbulence happened in this way during your happy times, or
    • tune into your Body Compass. Like with a river, your physical body is an infallible indicator of whether or not what’s going on is healthy.

But if you’re a gully, any whitewater is probably a nick-point so just pick one painful thought about your suffering — preferably the MOST painful thought since stopping the tallest nick-point will put a stop the worst part of the ongoing destruction. Start there.


In a river:

The most stable kind of riverbed is rock – the bigger or more solid, the better. A river flowing over bedrock or boulders does not down-cut quickly.

In a human:

Does this mean that the most stable kind of thinking is rigid and heavy?

You can test this theory right now. Think of the strictest dogmas you’ve ever heard of or experienced. Then consider the variety of consequences that came from that firmly held belief. Often there is some joy. Always there is some incredibly dirty pain.

The healthiest thinking feels free. It’s always thirsting for truth, investigating ideas to see what’s true… for now. Since life is always changing, rigid beliefs will eventually be false in some way. I think. Of course that could change!

In a river:

So here it is – finally after a year of blogging and three posts just leading up to this gullying fix — here is how you stop a nick-point. You BUILD A CROSS-VANE:

As you can see, to stop a nick-point, we build a rock foundation for the river in that spot. But we can’t just harden the whole river.

Well we could, but then it ends up looking like those “concrete rivers” that run through the middle of many American towns where well-intended but misguided engineers of yore did just that.

We still have to account for the drop in elevation – the disruption – or that energy will just move on downstream and dig up the bed there. So what we do is work with nature’s natural kinds of patterns and create a deep pool that the water can drop into. It generates a lot of turbulence that uses up the energy of the drop. The pool is most people’s favorite part. And there’s so much icing on the cross-vane: it uses natural materials, oxygenates the water, makes lovely habitat for fish and children (and adults!), creates a lovely cascading sound, and is just plain pretty.

In a human:

What’s the human equivalent of a cross-vane? We need something that not only frees up our thinking around the painful belief so we can see if it’s really absolutely true BUT ALSO dissipates all that energy the painful story is carrying —  preferably in an awesomely constructive manner.

The way to free up a painful belief is to ENQUIRE INTO THE THOUGHT WITH AN OPEN MIND:

An especially clear form of such enquiry is presented by Byron Katie. Visit her website for free worksheets.

I hope you will try this kind of thought work at least once because I can’t show you a photo of how it works. Like a cross-vane, thought work not only frees you of pain but somehow transfers the energy of your formerly-rigidly-held thought into a deep pool — of creativity. Releasing the pain feels pleasant, but the creativity afterwards is everyone’s favorite part. Like a cross-vane, thought work uses natural materials –your own sound logic and real experience. It also airs out your overall mind –I call that oxygenation of the highest order. Living like this is the loveliest habitat of all.

Crazy Woman Creek –AFTER.

The blue circle marks the same place

on each photo so you can get your bearings.


Gullies usually have several nick-points, and gullied-out humans usually have a cluster of painful stories. Just grab them one at a time, write them down, ask yourself Byron Katie’s four questions and then think of opposite statements that could be just as true (“turnarounds”). Enjoy the free sensation — and move on to the next painful belief. One day you’ll look around and see you’re no longer down-cutting anywhere but rather flowing happily along creating wonderfulness. That is worth the work.

PS — Afterwards, after you take a few healed breaths, you can revisit The Nifty Algorithm and see if you want to transform your stabilized gully into another type of river altogether. You’ll have the energy to do so when you’re no longer down-cutting.

Healing your gully, Part 2 — The Nifty Algorithm

Today we start looking at the gully-healing process. It’s a detailed, specific, and lengthy description. Just so you know.

I haven’t been able to figure out a way of simplifying it — but at least healing gullies IS doable. The results are not only a relief after the pain of eroding, but they’re lovely.

If you’re wondering whether or not you’re a gully, check yesterday’s post about gully traits and why gullies aren’t always, necessarily, a bad thing.

We begin by gathering information:

  • Find your reference reach.

What did you look like back in a joyful period before the erosion started? Click here for some help.

  • Figure out your pre-erosion Stream Type.

Hold those “Days of Joy” in mind while you take the Stream Personality Quiz, or look at Stream Type descriptions/pictures to see what resonates. You can start by clicking here. If you want to do this step later, you’ll still be able to follow this post.

  • Specifically consider your old floodplain.

Consider what allowed you to spread out and cope with overload in the Days of Joy. That’s the human equivalent of a floodplain. Was it certain friends, pets, family, alone time, access to nature, or maybe city life?

We’ll use your research to decide on one of four restoration options*:

Option I. Return to your original environment and re-connect with your previous safety net by abandoning your current life and either:

  •  re-inhabiting an old version of your life or
  • building a new life on that same playing field.

Option II. Broaden yourself so you can build a healthy life here in your deeper new world — one that is different than your old life but basically still similar in shape and “type.”

Option III. Change your “type” to keep your current location and stabilize by adding only a tiny bit of width but a LOT more interest to your life.

Option IV. Remain a gully, but stabilize yourself so you don’t erode any further.

The Nifty Algorithm!

Question 1 – Is a floodplain still available on your old stomping ground?

Look around there — at where you used to flow in the Days of Joy. See if your old safety valves OR a suitable alternative would be available to you if moved yourself back to that psychic place. Get creative here! Your new space-givers don’t have to be the exact same helpers as before.

  • If your answer is YES, you could pursue Option I.

Example: Sarah descended into herself after her son left for college, expending little effort to meet with the other mothers that she’d known since their kids met in preschool. When she looked back at her Days of Joy — the active phase of mothering — she realized that what had helped her through all the crazy times of motherhood had been not only those other mothers but the feeling of a shared mission. They were all working to nurture the development of young people. “It’s like touching the future,” Sarah mused. “And so often they really need you for something, whereas adults really can and should be more self-sufficient.” Sarah could not go back to the daily life of mothering like some of her friends who still had kids at home. But once she described her floodplain very accurately, it was easy to see similar “ecosystems” where she could build a new but similar channel and reconnect with the world of nurturing youth — working at a school, volunteering with a youth organization, or teaching Sunday School.

  • If your answer is NO, go to Question 2. There’s no point expending the huge effort it takes to go back to your old ecosystem unless you’d have access to the extended network of a floodplain. Without it, you’ll destabilize again the very first time that life hits you with a flood. (And make no mistake, floods are inevitable.) I realize that sometimes there’s just no going back – maybe developers built shopping malls and subdivisions on your old floodplain. But “lower” doesn’t have to mean “worse.” Think of it as “deeper. “Revisit my friend the Colorado River if you want visual proof.

Question 2 – Do you have the ability to broaden your current life significantly AND was your original Stream Type C, D, E, or F (i.e., were you something other than the kind of stream dominated by swift waterfalls, cascades, or rapids)?

You already know your life is narrower than in the Days of Joy, but is it possible to move your walls out and get more lateral breathing room – right here where you are? It takes a lot of effort for sure. And I’m not saying the end result would have to be identical to the one you used to have. It could be qualitatively different — maybe now you’d have lots of exercise time rather than the huge amount of partying you used to do. I just want the new floodplain to be similar to the old one in terms of how much relief it would give you when you’re flowing fast and furious.

  • If your answer is YES to both parts of this question, you could pursue Option II.

Example: Like Sarah, Liz’s gullying started when her son left for college. But when she looked back at her Days of Joy,  she realized that what had helped her through the inevitable floods was the spontaneous silliness and outright unexpected laughter she’d experienced with her son (and his friends) even into their teenage years. “Grown-ups can be so serious.” she told me. “I even — maybe especially — miss the bodily function humor/mishaps!” There was no going back to daily life with her child, so she looked around and considered ways to connect with other children (for an Option I type of restoration like Sarah). But nothing re-created that +10 feeling on her Body Compass. “It’s funny, but I feel like I’m permanently in a sort of deeper level,” Liz commented. “Like I’ll never go back to how I was as a mother OR even before because at this point in my life I value individual moments and just plain fun more than any long-term ambitions I used to have. In a way, I find spontaneous giggles to be deeper and more sacred than anything else.” As soon as she clarified this, Liz started wondering. Always a good sign. She wondered if she could find other sources of surprising belly laughs. She stretched herself a tiny bit and began watching funny movies in the middle of the day… which led her to broadening herself even more and investigating comedy/improv events…  which led her to branching way out and joining her local little theater. Actors, she found, can be very unpredictable. And gross! She’d moved her walls out and created herself a new floodplain, right down at her silly, sacred new level.

  • If your answer to either part of Question 2 is NO, go to Question 3. You can still build a joyful, functional, and stable life for yourself, but you’re going to need a new type of lifestyle. An awesome one.

Question 3 – Do you want to convert yourself to a new kind of life and live like a resilient, highly scenic, rapid-dominated channel? OR were you one of these B-type channels to begin with?

  • If your answer to EITHER part of this question is YES, then you could pursue Option III.

Example: Jim’s best friend died in a car wreck. It was the third funeral he’d been to in two years — all young adults like him. After that, he went into full gully mode. He also moved to a new and completely different kind of community. He doesn’t know any hard-word-hard-play people, he doesn’t want to find them, and in fact he has no interest or ability in “broadening” himself in any way. “I like my focused life, as weird as that may sound,” Jim confided. “My new job is intense. I like it. But I would like to feel like my own foundation is stronger. I know what you mean by that ‘eroding’ feel , and that I don’t like.” Jim is a perfect candidate for an Option 3 Restoration. By stretching himself just a little within an existing passion (in his case, work) he can add challenges. The resulting ride will be fairly thrilling, very beautiful, and incredibly stable.

  • If you need just the bare minimum effort for now, go for Option IV. Most Type A, waterfalling or cascading folks can restore health with a simple patch. And it’s a fine place for anyone to start when they’re not sure how to proceed but need to stop falling apart.

Example: Rachel’s whole family underwent trauma when her daughter was involved in a violent crime. It felt as though their world dissolved under them, and — six months later — it’s still falling away. Quickly. Inexorably. She is exhausted. Going “back” in any way feels out of the question. Her old life, in fact almost the whole world, sounds almost alien to her. Unlike Jim, she sees no passion she wants to develop. Not that she’d have the energy anyway. In Rachel’s case, it’s imperative to find the exact spots where she’s in pain and STOP THE DOWN-CUTTING.

That’s why we’ll start with Option IV as we begin looking at the “nuts and bolts” of repair — although in stream restoration we use “boulders and sod” instead! That’s why it’s so fun AND so pretty. So I’ll see you…

TOMORROW: Healing Gullies, Part 3 – Immediate Stabilization

* This four-option approach, as well as the Rosgen Stream Classification System, were developed by hydrologist Dave Rosgen. Not that he’d advocate using it on people!

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,


… living the braided life.

I asked the iconic McKinley River to consider one reader’s question: “Given the naturally untamed, raw look of my life’s many fast threads, how would I KNOW if I were unstable?  And how can I avoid that?  Can you give us “Braided” types some tips?”

Over half of you “What Stream Type Am I?” quiz-takers have turned out to be Braided Rivers – Stream Type D.* And over half of you braided folk have asked some form of this question! Clearly it’s a concern.

McKinley – that glorious mainstay of Denali National Park — graciously agreed to comment on these five main aspects of your mutual life experience:

1. Our Main Asset:

We braided rivers can DEAL — I’m talking huge, almost unlimited, amounts of sediment. Of course, sediment of any size – boulders, cobble, gravel, gravel, sand, or very fine material like clay – is every river’s load. (That’s an actual technical term the hydrologists use.) And MOVING its sediment load is every river’s work (another technical term!). So, yeah — we D-types function in high-load circumstances that would overwhelm any other stream type. How do we do it? By operating in a lot of pathways at the same time — often at a pretty rapid rate – across a huge, fairly level, playing field.

2. The Trade-off:

Yeah, we are rather unrefined, sprawling, ever-changing affairs. Our boundaries are always shifting across our big wide valleys – not clearly defined. So what?

3. When We’re Vulnerable:

The thing is, we DEPEND on that big wide valley – our floodplain – not just to provide the space we need for all our shifting channels but also to absorb excess flow when life gets crazy and the floods come.  And they always come: the annual snow melt, possibly some big rainstorm… and if it rains ON snow, then forget about it:

If anything messes with our overflow area, we got trouble.

The typical snafu comes from people deciding to fill ANY part of what they consider “empty excess space” around us. They want to build berms to contain our wildness or elevated bases so their roads can cross our paths without getting wet. Ha. These “developments” just narrow our options during our peaks. Our increased power will be forced to cut – down into our own foundations – rather than allowed to spread out harmlessly and nourish the whole open valley. This down-cutting triggers erosion that dominoes both upstream and down.

4. The Red Flags:

Yeah we always look fairly “raw,” but we can tell our floodplain has been encroached upon because we begin to see – or more importantly FEEL:

  •  walls of any kind and/or
  • abnormally steep, fast periods (“head-cuts”). OR for that matter, any oddly still, flat sections. Our many paths may have variable speeds, but we don’t normally have obvious “steps and pools” like those A-types – not that there’s anything wrong with that:)

 5. Tips for Success:

  • Identify YOUR “floodplain.” Notice how much wide-open, level space you have around you. Where can you overflow? What feels “even” and allows you to spread out and slow down when the going gets intense? I don’t know what this is for humans like you: Is it your quiet time at home? Evenings out with friends? There may be several things — hobbies, pets, secret get-aways — or one big sacred something.
  • Allow no fill on your floodplain. No walls. No narrowing. No “improved” external access ways with built-up pads  ostensibly “high, dry and safe” from your peak flow.

Remember, we need this big supporting space, but too, this overflowing nature of ours benefits that floodplain — it gets watered by our energy; fed and built-up by the nutrients and sediment we leave behind. So keep ALL your openness. Then and only then can you and your entire untamed, beloved ecosystem stay wild and healthy.

— McKinley R., Alaska

PS Dear Readers, I’d love to know what you think of YOUR floodplain. What is it? Is it ever threatened? How do you protect it? Judging by the number of you and your questions to me, I think braided living is a very important phenomenon in our busy modern world. FOr that reason, I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this matter.

All my best,


* If you’d like to take the quiz, click here.

… The Quiz has arrived!

What Stream Type Are You?

Natural Channel Hydrologists classify streams into eight basic types. There are powerful, dramatic waterfalls and cascades; resilient rapid-dominated streams; classic and hard-working rivers with riffles, pools, and point-bars;m braided rivers; incredibly lush and stable anastomosed channels; sinuous meandering streams; deep and inspirational rivers; and steep, transitioning streams.

Each type has strengths, vulnerabilities, and a few tips for how to live your best life.

To take the quiz and receive a copy of the profile and photo of YOUR stream type, click here.