The Rules of the River

AT MIDNIGHT ON THE Toklat River in the Alaska Range, the thermometer recorded ninety-three degrees. The sun, dragging anchor in the northwest sky, fired rounds of heat against the cabin. I was lying naked on the bunk, slapping mosquitos. Next to the wall, my husband lay completely covered by a white sheet, as still and dismayed as a corpse. He would rather be hot than bitten, and I would rather be bitten than hot.

I had come to the Toklat River to think about global warming, and it wasn’t going well. The week’s heat was breaking all-time records, drawing a new spike on the graph of jaggedly rising temperatures in Alaska. The average day is now four degrees warmer than just a few decades ago, and seven degrees warmer in winter. The Arctic is heating twice as fast as the rest of the world.

Furious and despairing, I had no chance of falling asleep that night. So I pulled on clothes and walked to the bank of the river.

The Toklat is a shallow river that braids across a good half mile of gravel beds, dried stream courses, and deep-dug channels. Sloshing with meltwater, it clatters along among islands and willow thickets. Banging rocks on cobblestones, surging into confused swells, the gray currents that night looked unpredictable and chaotic. But there were patterns.

A hydrologist once explained the rules of rivers to me as we walked a river-path. The dynamics of a river are manifestations of energy, he said. A fast, high-energy river will carry particles—the faster the river, the bigger the particle. But when it loses energy and slows, the river drops what it carries. So anything that slows a river can make a new landscape. It could be a stick lodged against a stone or the ribcage of a calf moose drowned at high water. Where the water piles against the obstacle, it drops its load, and an island begins to form. The island—in fact, any deposition—reshapes the current. As water curls around the obstacle, the current’s own force turns it upstream. Around one small change, the energy reorganizes itself entirely.

And here’s the point: no one pattern continues indefinitely; it always gives way to another. When there are so many obstacles and islands that a channel can no longer carry all its water and sediment, it crosses a stability threshold and the current carves a different direction. The change is usually sudden, often dramatic, the hydrologist said, a process called avulsion.

On the Toklat that night, the physics of the river played out right in front of me. A chunk of dirt and roots toppled from the bank, tumbled past me, and jammed against a mid-river stone. The current, dividing itself around the rootball, wrinkled sideways and turned upstream. It curled into pocket-eddies behind the roots. Even as I watched, the pockets filled with gravel and sand. A willow could grow there, and its roots could divide and slow the river further, gathering more gravel, creating a place where new life could take root.

I shoved a rock into the river. The sudden curl of current made me grin. Yes, we are caught up in a river rushing toward a hot, stormy, and dangerous planet. The river is powered by huge amounts of money invested in mistakes that are dug into the very structure of the land, a tangled braid of fearful politicians, preoccupied consumers, reckless corporations, and bewildered children—everyone, in some odd way, feeling helpless. Of course, we despair. How will we ever dam this flood?

But we don’t have to stop the river. Our work and the work of every person who loves this world—this one—is to make one small deflection in complacency, a small obstruction to profits, a blockage to business-as-usual, then another, and another, to change the energy of the flood. As it swirls around these snags and subversions, the current will slow, lose power, eddy in new directions, and create new systems and structures that change its course forever. On these small islands, new ideas will grow, creating thickets of living things and life-ways we haven’t yet imagined.

This is the work of disruption. This is the work of radical imagination. This is the work of witness. This is the steadfast, conscientious refusal to let a hell-bent economy force us to row its boat. This is much better than stewing in the night.

Hear a conversation with Kathleen Dean Moore about climate change and metaphor at www.orionmagazine.org/multimedia.

Kathleen Dean Moore is a philosopher, nature writer, public speaker, and defender of all that is wet and wild. Moore’s nature books have won the Oregon Book Award, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Award, and the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. Her work is published in magazines such as Audubon, Discover, The Sun, and the New York Times Magazine. She serves on the Boards of Directors for the Orion Society, the Oregon Humanities Magazine, and the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska. She teaches writing workshops in beautiful places, from wilderness Alaska to the Apostle Islands.

Comments

  1. This piece is very seductive but the sentence, “Our work and the work of every person who loves this world—this one—is to make one small deflection in complacency, a small obstruction to profits, a blockage to business-as-usual, then another, and another, to change the energy of the flood.” loses me because of its implicit individualistic assumptions. “The work of every person,” that is, every individual, is to make one “small” “disruption”. So, Moore minimizes the responsibility of government for pursuing a better environment and the shared deliberation of republican citizens in this pursuit – and the responsibility of citizens to demand that their political leaders make massive investments in things like solar power and high-speed rail, etc. Although there are no grounds for optimism when one looks at the big numbers, pessimism, naive optimism, despair, and cynicism about politicians and consumers are not helpful. We need to be realistic, of course. But we also need to call one what is best in ourselves and rise to the occasion – in spite of the seeming impossibility.

  2. I’m with you all the way, Samuel C. Porter. Yes, yes, we (individually and collectively) have the responsibility to demand that political leaders make big changes, massive investments, sharp policy turns. But in this essay, I hope to reach the stalled and discouraged, the people who tell me that because they can’t figure out how to make a difference on the big collective projects, they can’t make any difference at all. That’s just not true. Thanks to you for making your difference.

  3. I love the metaphor of the river. So lovely and apt. Ms. Moore, your piece hit me where I live. I still believe that each of us can, through individual action, cause a collective revolution. We have power that, when combined, could move our country to a more responsible, equitable and sustainable future. We have the powers of the purse and the ballot box, but sadly we do not use them. We don’t vote, or write letters. I keep asking “Where is the outrage?”
    My father always told me “Whoever’s got the gold makes the rules.” We have not been selective about whom we allow to hold our gold.
    I buy local, independent, organic, I vote, I write letters to my representatives and my newspaper, I speak up, I volunteer, but I’m tired of being a sole pebble in the river.

  4. The image of small disruptions changing the course of a river is fruitful, and I’m sure I will use it often. (It is more hopeful than Daniel Quinn’s assertion that “sticks in the stream” are worthless, because we need to change the direction of the stream.)

    I look at the movement for divestment from fossil fuels as an example of coordinated, strategic “disruption” that will provide space for new institutions and new forms of community. We may not know what changes divestment will bring, but once we start to shift investment away from coal, oil and gas, we can then be attentive to the opportunities that arise — an ongoing cycle of disruption, change, and encouragement.

  5. I’m afraid that “massive investments in things like solar power or high-speed rail” will not be forthcoming anytime soon. We’ve probably got a good 75 years of cheap oil and other last-gasp alternatives to burn through first. But individual conversion can begin now. If we change our own hearts and behaviors first, we can — with due humility — lead others to do what is right and good for the earth, even without legislative coercion. That’s both a spiritual law and a natural one. It’s also the hopeful possibility that I take away from Ms. Moore wise reflection on a wild and willful river.

  6. I disagree with Springer’s claim and wish I had the skill of concision to make the case against it in this venue. Of course, we have to cultivate individual ecological practices. But I think both Moore and Springer, including myself, are trapped in a language of individualism that undermines our shared ecological and social aims. As Robert N. Bellah, et al., argue, there are deep structural problems in our society: economic, political, social, institutional. But, they suggest, there is also a problem of language–of having lost touch with, or finding it increasingly difficult to express, those impulses, those commitments that really do tie us to one another and to the natural environment, that identify us through those ties and commitments, not against them. It’s a complex argument elaborated in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of Calif. Press, 1985, 1996, 2008) and The Good Society (Knopf, 1991). But it is an rich, textured argument with much force those of us who care about the environment, inequality, multiculturalism, and democracy, etc. would do well to read or reread and use as a kind of handbook in the forest of American democratic and ecological politics, or so it seems.

  7. This is really excellent work -thank you. It appears that a couple of commenters here are suffering what the bulk of modern society suffers -along with other serious maladies, i.e., a failure of imagination. They fail to connect the dots and instead look for contradictions or omissions when there are none. An economy of words in prose is admirable and the expectation that the reader is left some work to do is reasonable. Thanks again, Orion.

  8. The thing about social change is that it requires more than just a spark – it must also have a bed of dry tinder ready to catch the flame. I once read that Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse to move to the back of the bus; there were several people arrested for the same “lawless” behavior prior to Parks’ arrest. But the previous sparks didn’t catch because the social chemistry wasn’t there–the people weren’t ready. But then Rosa Parks happened, and we know the rest of the story.

    To answer Moore’s metaphor with an additional metaphor (which may be more complex than it needs to be), it seems like this essay is an appropriate and thoughtful attempt at seasoning the firewood.

    People get comfortable and complacent; the collective we, unfortunately, seems to need a whole lot of impetus to affect any sort of meaningful change. Perhaps California has to burn, Alaska has to melt, and Louisiana has to drown first, but the fires of change will catch eventually. I thank writers like Moore who are careful to cultivate hope. In the face of the catastrophe that might be, we need to be seasoned with hope.

  9. Another consideration of this analogy is that long running rivers flow in a valley and have a limited range of variation, however avulsive the flow is. It’s hard to imagine what it would take to redirect the Connecticut or Hudson Rivers to empty into Boston Harbor. Whatever changes might be made locally, the river is still going to flow generally where it is flowing now. Rivers, human societies, and biology in general, are local, short term phenomena on a larger, much slower changing geological surface.

  10. During the Pleistocene, a river containing ten times the combined volume of all the rivers on Earth thundered west from it place of origin in a land now called Montana. At speeds upwards of sixty miles per hour, it tore across northwest North America on its way to the Pacific Ocean. This mightiest of rivers was born from the collapse of the glacial dam that had contained it as an enormous water body known as Lake Missoula. And no sooner had the dam burst than it began to reform again to repeat the cataclysm, likely hundreds of times until the final collapse spilled one last torrent into the warming world of the Holocene.
    It was this terminal river that came to mind when I read Kathleen Moore’s metaphor. By seeing her metaphor in relation to this ice age river, the reality of our present global predicament becomes clearer as does the full spectrum of our essential work.
    The human equivalent of Lake Missoula began to grow ten thousand years ago behind the building ice dam of a new human story that had come to fill and chill the hearts of a swelling agricultural populace. Over the centuries, this story of exceptionalism and control grew and grew, and behind it the human waters rose. Strain built against the relentlessly expanding margins of this story until roughly two centuries ago when the pressure became too great and, with industrial force, the dam burst.
    Unleashed, the industrial human flood swept across the Earth, drowning everything in its path that would not or could not join the sweep. And the few generations born of the deluge during this relative geologic instant came to see it as normal. What’s more, they came to depend on it for almost every facet of their existence and derived most of their physical sustenance, self-worth, meaning, purpose, social standing and even identity from their contribution to its continuance. We who have inherited this aberrant normalcy and near-total dependency can now see with unprecedented clarity the compounding and increasingly catastrophic planetary damage our flood has been causing by its very existence. And this vision has produced a heart-wrenching tension too overwhelming for many of us to acknowledge. For those of us like Moore who have the courage to do so, a vital aspect of the work such acknowledgement demands is, as she so beautifully describes, deflection, obstruction and blockage of business-as-usual. But such work must be coupled with an awakening to the true nature of the river.
    Industrial civilization is the river. We are the waters. Our story is the flood.
    This awareness leads to the other work we must do if deflection, obstruction and blockage are to become anything more than postponements of the total ecological erasure in which we are concurrently engaged in the day to day living of our lives as children of the flood. That other work is the conscious withdrawal of our personal and institutional energy from the torrent and the shifting of that energy into local communities integrated into local ecological networks, where the fullness of human life may be met without involving the global industrial technological infrastructure with its insatiable demands for the unending and accelerating drawdown of planetary resilience. It’s as simple (and as difficult) as promoting ways of human living where communication is direct eye to eye and voice to ear, where mobility is accomplished with feet, where the sources of food, water, shelter and all other material necessities can be accessed by those feet, and where the stories, songs and celebrations that matter most are those that bind us, our families and communities to the land which gives us our existence at every level: physical, emotional and spiritual.
    And the time for this shift is now. Unlike the Toklat, the Clark’s Fork, the Columbia, the Mississippi, the Nile, the Yangtze, the Amazon . . . this flood-formed river of human excess (born from the exploitation — in a mere two centuries – of the energy contained in fossil carbon deposits that took hundreds of millions of years to form) is, and can only be, temporary.
    The river will subside. The waters will diminish and settle back into well-worn channels carved by the solar-powered cycle of the seasons spinning their ceaseless rounds. And we will once again live with the trophic integrity that is our deepest birthright, our broadest tradition. Most importantly, our stories will frame this transformation to a stable-state in terms of maturation rather than collapse, stagnation, regression or a devolutionary ‘going back.’ Thus we will stop struggling at all costs to preserve a ten thousand year condition of arrested development (ceaseless adolescent growth) and embrace our long-postponed adulthood.
    In this effort, we have many examples from whom to learn; those who long ago made the shift the citizens of the now-global monoculture of industrial civilization must make. The following quote represents just one, offered by Jeanette Armstrong, an Okanagan from a land now called British Columbia:
    I do know that people must come to community in the land. The transiency of peoples crisscrossing the land must halt, and people must commune together on the land to protect it and all our future generations. Self-sustaining indigenous people still on the land are already doing this. They present an opportunity to relearn and reinstitute the rights we all have as humans.
    As Okanagan, our most essential responsibility is to bond our whole individual and communal selves to the land. Many of our ceremonies have been constructed for this. We join with the larger self and with the land, and rejoice in all that we are.
    This is the essence of cultural maturation. And it is our most vital work whether we’re Okanagan or not. Committing to this work and making it the undercurrent of our every act is how the flood can end well.
    If the notion of the flood ending well arouses incredulity, recall that many of our most respected experts felt the same way about the prospects for life in the blast zone following the 1981 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Some of them even anticipated a silent, barren gray-scape for centuries to come and they had the science to back them up. Yet frog song and green shoots and purple lupine and the dark loamy scrollwork of gopher tailings erupted from the ashen land almost immediately, shocking and awing the experts (and the rest of us) perhaps even more profoundly than the eruption itself.
    Might life’s response to our maturation prove equally shocking and awesome? There’s only one way to find out. And the time of decision is upon us: will we cling to the cresting wave of the familiar industrial story despite ever more undeniable signs that it is about to break or will we engage, with imaginative intention, an opportunity that has not been available in ten thousand years: the opportunity to restore our waters to the long-abandoned channels of our humanity and from there flow on, immersed in stories buoyed by a lasting river?

  11. Here’s an more readable version of my response.

    During the Pleistocene, a river containing ten times the combined volume of all the rivers on Earth thundered west from it place of origin in a land now called Montana. At speeds upwards of sixty miles per hour, it tore across northwest North America on its way to the Pacific Ocean. This mightiest of rivers was born from the collapse of the glacial dam that had contained it as an enormous water body known as Lake Missoula. And no sooner had the dam burst than it began to reform again to repeat the cataclysm, likely hundreds of times until the final collapse spilled one last torrent into the warming world of the Holocene.

    It was this terminal river that came to mind when I read Kathleen Moore’s metaphor. By seeing her metaphor in relation to this ice age river, the reality of our present global predicament becomes clearer as does the full spectrum of our essential work.

    The human equivalent of Lake Missoula began to grow ten thousand years ago behind the building ice dam of a new human story that had come to fill and chill the hearts of a swelling agricultural populace. Over the centuries, this story of exceptionalism and control grew and grew, and behind it the human waters rose. Strain built against the relentlessly expanding margins of this story until roughly two centuries ago when the pressure became too great and, with industrial force, the dam burst.

    Unleashed, the industrial human flood swept across the Earth, drowning everything in its path that would not or could not join the sweep. And the few generations born of the deluge during this relative geologic instant came to see it as normal. What’s more, they came to depend on it for almost every facet of their existence and derived most of their physical sustenance, self-worth, meaning, purpose, social standing and even identity from their contribution to its continuance. We who have inherited this aberrant normalcy and near-total dependency can now see with unprecedented clarity the compounding and increasingly catastrophic planetary damage our flood has been causing by its very existence. And this vision has produced a heart-wrenching tension too overwhelming for many of us to acknowledge. For those of us like Moore who have the courage to do so, a vital aspect of the work such acknowledgement demands is, as she so beautifully describes, deflection, obstruction and blockage of business-as-usual. But such work must be coupled with an awakening to the true nature of the river.

    Industrial civilization is the river. We are the waters. Our story is the flood.

    This awareness leads to the other work we must do if deflection, obstruction and blockage are to become anything more than postponements of the total ecological erasure in which we are concurrently engaged in the day to day living of our lives as children of the flood. That other work is the conscious withdrawal of our personal and institutional energy from the torrent and the shifting of that energy into local communities integrated into local ecological networks, where the fullness of human life may be met without involving the global industrial technological infrastructure with its insatiable demands for the unending and accelerating drawdown of planetary resilience. It’s as simple (and as difficult) as promoting ways of human living where communication is direct eye to eye and voice to ear, where mobility is accomplished with feet, where the sources of food, water, shelter and all other material necessities can be accessed by those feet, and where the stories, songs and celebrations that matter most are those that bind us, our families and communities to the land which gives us our existence at every level: physical, emotional and spiritual.

    And the time for this shift is now. Unlike the Toklat, the Clark’s Fork, the Columbia, the Mississippi, the Nile, the Yangtze, the Amazon . . . this flood-formed river of human excess (born from the exploitation — in a mere two centuries – of the energy contained in fossil carbon deposits that took hundreds of millions of years to form) is, and can only be, temporary.

    The river will subside. The waters will diminish and settle back into well-worn channels carved by the solar-powered cycle of the seasons spinning their ceaseless rounds. And we will once again live with the trophic integrity that is our deepest birthright, our broadest tradition. Most importantly, our stories will frame this transformation to a stable-state in terms of maturation rather than collapse, stagnation, regression or a devolutionary ‘going back.’ Thus we will stop struggling at all costs to preserve a ten thousand year condition of arrested development (ceaseless adolescent growth) and embrace our long-postponed adulthood.

    In this effort, we have many examples from whom to learn; those who long ago made the shift the citizens of the now-global monoculture of industrial civilization must make. The following quote represents just one, offered by Jeanette Armstrong, an Okanagan from a land now called British Columbia:

    “I do know that people must come to community in the land. The transiency of peoples crisscrossing the land must halt, and people must commune together on the land to protect it and all our future generations. Self-sustaining indigenous people still on the land are already doing this. They present an opportunity to relearn and reinstitute the rights we all have as humans.

    “As Okanagan, our most essential responsibility is to bond our whole individual and communal selves to the land. Many of our ceremonies have been constructed for this. We join with the larger self and with the land, and rejoice in all that we are.”

    This is the essence of cultural maturation. And it is our most vital work whether we’re Okanagan or not. Committing to this work and making it the undercurrent of our every act is how the flood can end well.

    If the notion of the flood ending well arouses incredulity, recall that many of our most respected experts felt the same way about the prospects for life in the blast zone following the 1981 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Some of them even anticipated a silent, barren gray-scape for centuries to come and they had the science to back them up. Yet frog song and green shoots and purple lupine and the dark loamy scrollwork of gopher tailings erupted from the ashen land almost immediately, shocking and awing the experts (and the rest of us) perhaps even more profoundly than the eruption itself.

    Might life’s response to our maturation prove equally shocking and awesome? There’s only one way to find out. And the time of decision is upon us: will we cling to the cresting wave of the familiar industrial story despite ever more undeniable signs that it is about to break or will we engage, with imaginative intention, an opportunity that has not been available in ten thousand years: the opportunity to restore our waters to the long-abandoned channels of our humanity and from there flow on, immersed in stories buoyed by a lasting river?

  12. Please allow me to say amen to, and thank you for, the story of hope you have shared. It seems to build or riff, as in jazz, on Ms. Moore’s original essay in a way that extends the river metaphor into a rather astonishing vision. William Blake was already in the late 18th century worrying about the “dark satanic mills”. We need metaphors like Ms. Moore’s and visions like Mr. Fox’s to oppose the massive weight of the dark side of modernity. I still hold my beliefs about how certain forms of individualism have a moral logic that undermines our efforts to see our connections to each other and the natural environment. But I think I better understand the river metaphor. Thank you both Ms. Moore and Mr. Fox.

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