Jun 2011: Be the River, Not the Levee

by Brad on June 1, 2011

“Life accepts only partners, not bosses, because self-determination is at the root of being.”  — Finding Our Way, Margaret Wheatley  

One of the top stories in the news lately concerns the unusual amount of rainfall in the Midwestern U.S., and the subsequent flooding of the lower Mississippi River. The situation has become dire in terms of consequence to human life, resulting in a choice by “authorities” to divert river waters in an attempt to save the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge from inundation. The “price” is the intentional flooding of hundreds of square miles of farmland and towns. It’s a sad yet poignant lesson in our relationship with nature, and an amazing metaphor for our own lives as well. For years, I’ve been a student of this interplay, so I can’t help being drawn to how its lessons have been renewed.

The river’s story: Rivers are living things; the word river is perhaps better thought of as a verb than as a noun, a process more than a result. Nature loves simplicity; she finds “least-energy” paths for everything. Because such paths are rarely straight lines, rivers continually meander and branch, all the while depositing rich silt along the way. Flooding is a natural aspect of the life of a river, too; much of our rich farmland soil came from thousands of years of flooding. Flooding is one of the ways nature renews and refreshes. As a matter of fact, most of southern Louisiana was created through these processes – meandering, branching and flooding. Look at a map; it’s clearly visible. The “underlying issue,” from the human perspective at least, is that the river has long wanted to change course; it wants to branch to the west, joining the Atchafalaya River well north of Baton Rouge. The river wants that; people don’t.

An inconvenient truth: The human view of this story introduces complications. Because river meandering occurs over time frames too long for us to appreciate (more to the point, acknowledge), we often make choices about how we live that conflict with nature’s way, choices that are unsustainable in the long run. We build cities on river banks, ignoring the facts that floods are natural and that rivers change course. Having made investments, though, we “need to protect them.” Since the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been attempting to control the flow of the Mississippi, billions of dollars spent “telling the river where to go.” Most of the time, levees keep river flow contained, but when the river fails to cooperate, levees are enlarged. When lack of cooperation reaches epic proportions, as is true today, elaborate flood control tactics are used to restore “compliance.” This month, intentional flooding of farms and towns was “deemed necessary” in order to protect New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Although flooding is natural, the decision to intentionally flood out people designated “not as important” is surely unnatural. Southern Louisiana was created, by the way, before the Corps of Engineers stepped in. New Orleans, by the way, has been below sea level for decades. The river, by the way, is oblivious. It just keeps working at the simplest path to the sea – the “natural essence” of every river. Unlike humans, rivers can’t be taught bad lessons very easily.

A metaphor for life: we are meant to live as rivers – flowing creative energy into the expression of life, meandering as opportunities arise, branching when conditions allow, leaving behind the rich fruits of our labors as gifts to others. Yet we’ve often become levees instead, holding onto the water of life, controlling its flow to the point that our energy is completely expended in control, leaving none left for living. We’ve become trapped between the levees of “society’s consensual structures” – the way it is according to someone we’ve never met. We live more like the Army colonel on news video, claiming success for the control efforts, even as the river is quietly proving otherwise in the background. Yes, there in uncertainty in a natural, untamed river. Yes, there is chaos in its flow and in its choices. Yes, there are consequences to its choices. Yet at the same time there is unlimited creative potential, pure aliveness, balance, sustainability, community, and meaning. Between the levees, there’s simply not much of that going on.

What’s your life like? The river or the levee? If it’s the river, can you celebrate uncertainty as an opening to your own creative essence? If it’s the levee, can you name the value you accrue by living within constraints? What price do you pay for adopting society’s unnatural structures? Do you have the courage to jump the levees and roam free?

A River Runs Through It  [Life lessons offered by nature] 

It’s springtime. Time to be outside. And a perfect time to experience “life as a river” all on your own. Here are a few simple “science experiments” you can try this month. These are not intended to turn you into either a nature lover or a scientist (although a dose of loving nature is good for anyone, and thinking just a bit like a scientist won’t hurt either). They’re intended to offer personal felt experience of ideas and issues presented this month … life lessons from nature. 

Exercise #1: Watch a river: Take a little vacation close to home for a few hours, and go visit a nearby river. It’s better if it’s a smaller stream, where the water flows around and over rocks. Sit on the riverbank for a few hours … in silence. Aside from the spiritual value of quiet time in nature, you will learn a lot about yourself from the river. Notice how the stream flows over and around the rocks. It won’t be long before you see that water rarely takes exactly the same path from one moment to the next. If you can find a little side channel joining your stream, notice patterns made in the river bottom, and how those, too, change from one moment to the next. (The stream here is near Amherst, Massachusetts. I did this exercise last week.)

Exercise #2: Create a river: OK, so maybe you choose not to go visit a river as suggested above. You can create one in your driveway. It’s fun, and won’t be a big project. Toss some sand on your driveway or sidewalk and go after it with a garden hose. You’ll see every single natural process at work in the Mississippi River, right before your eyes. Meandering, branching channels, breaching of the banks.  You can even construct your own levees and then see “how much the river can tolerate” before the levees blow. And if even this seems like too much work, wait until it rains and let the rain do the work for you. If you have no rain, come to Cape Cod; we’ve had nothing but.

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