Cairns #83 – Beginning of the Long Nights, 2015

My Metaphysics

About 1 ½ years ago, I realized that the book I’ve been trying to write had to include “my metaphysics.” For the last six Cairns, I’ve intended to have an article that addresses at least some of this but when I tried to write it, I got bogged down for a variety of reasons and kept opting to postpone it to the next issue. But I took a vow after Cairns #82 that Cairns #83 would include my metaphysics, no matter what shape the writing was in. It continues to challenge me, hence the two month delay with this issue but here is where I am in my writing at this point. Many sentences could be expanded into paragraphs and all the pieces don’t quite fit but hopefully you will find a narrative line through a 27 page essay. I would appreciate your constructive feedback to help me better express (or lay to rest) these persistent thoughts.


Start with this graph concerning the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The dot represents a defined system’s total overall entropy at a specific time. (Entropy is a measure of what portion of a system’s energy is unavailable to do useful work. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy is neither created nor destroyed but the Second Law states that the ability of energy to perform work gradually declines as some of it is “leaking” into the random molecular vibration of heat.) By defined system, I mean closed to any inflow from beyond it. One of the implications of the Second Law is that the entropy within such a closed system can not decrease.

The solid vertical line through the dot with shading to the left of that line shows that the system can only move forward, to the right, through time. It can’t move back. It can’t stop and mark time for awhile. The only possible movement is ahead. And when the system gets to that future point, the only movement then will be ahead even more. Time can’t stop. The defined system will always be moving “forward” through time.

The dotted horizontal line with shading beneath it shows that entropy within this defined close system can not decrease. It can remain steady, moving neither up nor down so this dotted line is different than the solid vertical line. That solid line meant that remaining steady is not a possibility. Time must proceed. Entropy, however can theoretically remain steady (hence the dotted line) but in actuality, it always increases. Closed systems run down. Therefore any dot representing this defined close system in the future must lie somewhere in the unshaded space bounded by the two lines through the first dot.

This leads to the second graph with a second dot which represents the same defined system later in time. (For simplicity, I removed the two lines through the first dot but those constraints will always apply.) This creates an arrow (vector) from the first dot to the second. This arrow expresses one of the implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: in a closed system, the entropy will increase over time. The system is “doomed” to “run down.”

However, because an arrow pointing upward does not graphically match our sense of “running down”, we change our y-axis from “entropy” to “negentropywhich is “negative entropy” or free energy, the opposite of entropy. This changes the graph by flipping everything upside down so that now, the dot’s movement through time slides down, fitting with our sense of things running down.

Next, we add another dot at the same future point in time, creating two possible arrows extending into the future. This illustrates that the Second Law does not specify how quickly a closed system must run down. (Theoretically, it can hold steady forever.) The decomposition of a desert bone can be extremely slow while a detonated bomb is explosively fast. The closed system can move downhill at different rates.

Then I make the first “stretch” that leads me to think of this as “metaphysics”; I change the y-axis from “negentropy” (a precise concept, capable of being measured in specific situations) to the very loose but poetically more suggestive concept of “possibilities”.

My image for this phrase is two skiers high in the mountains stopping to pick out a beautiful route of descent. One skier is higher on the slope than the other. The lower skier has many routes down available to him. However, the higher one has more possible routes than the lower person because one of her many routes is to descend down to the other skier and accessing all the routes the other skier had. But she also has available all the additional routes branching out on all the routes angling across the slope above the routes of the lower skier. She has more possibilities because she is higher on the slope. This image of how many possible paths lie open to a system is what I mean by “possibilities”.

This is the graph that underlines what I think of as the heart of the Second Law. Energy, the ability to create change, is flowing towards less possibilities. The universe flows in a direction, just like a river. Upstream lies in the past and downstream lies in the future.

In physics, if an object changes position, it has a velocity (the change in position divided by the change in time required for that change). This velocity has both a rate (the speed) and a direction to it. In the second “stretch” of my metaphysics, I will be thinking of this change between the two dots on our graphs as defining a “thermodynamic velocity” and thinking about that system in terms of the mathematics of velocity, acceleration, and force. The bone decomposing in the desert, for example, has a very low thermodynamic velocity downwards while a detonated bomb has an explosively large thermodynamic velocity downwards.

Everything, if isolated within a closed system, will flow down to thermodynamic equilibrium. Without evaporation from the sun, all fresh water would gradually return back to the sea (or other land-locked basins). Without winds from the Sun’s differential heating of our globe, ocean waves would quiet into a globe-spanning mirror of smooth water before freezing over. Life would fade out.

Open Systems

But this is not happening. We live within an open system. Yes, things are flowing down like a river but also, like in the water cycle, solar energy entering our system is evaporating fresh water from the sea and moving it back over the continents. The Second Law still applies, still strongly shapes the structures of life, but it does not prevent life and other enterprises from creating possibilities within the Earth’s open system. The only constraint is that whatever is built up has to be thermodynamically less than the amount of solar energy that flowed through the system to create it. Change can not be 100% perfectly efficient. Some of the possibility-creating energy has to end up as heat (random vibrations in the surrounding molecules).

Flows that are open to outside energy can become cycles. The Second Law defines the direction towards which things will spontaneously flow but incoming energy can do the work of lifting some of that material back “up” where it can flow “down” again. The water cycle is driven by energy flowing from the Sun and fresh water becomes possible. The rock cycle is driven by the heat energy flowing from the center of the Earth and dry land becomes possible. Cycles become the flowing foundations from which many possibilities emerge.

The constant challenge every living thing faces is to find a way to “swim upstream” in order to maintain its position within this thermodynamic flow. Can a warm-blooded creature, for example, maintain its internal temperature within the downward flow of energy as the chemical energy within its food becomes metabolic heat that flows away into the cooler air around it? Our lives are a series of temporary solutions to energy loss, putting on insulating clothes, eating more food, lighting a fire. If we run out of temporary solutions, we will cool down to death.

How does life solve this constant need to swim upstream against the flow of entropy? Every introductory biology textbook asks this question and then gives the same reply. Living things survive by harvesting sources of energy around them. Plants harvest sunlight. Herbivores harvest plants. Predators harvest prey. Decomposers harvest carcasses. Through harvesting, upstream is possible.

It’s like a roller-coaster. The Second Law does not prohibit a roller coaster from coasting uphill. It just requires that the coasting up has to be preceded by a larger rolling down. The up by itself is not possible but the two together as a down powering a smaller up is possible.

The image of this reality, for me, will always be the dead deer I watched over the months as it turned from a freshly-mountain lion-killed intact body to a few brown bones and leather. An orgy of blowflies gathered within hours and then gradually dispersed over a couple of days, followed by the bursting forth of their seething maggot children. Soft parts of the deer transformed into maggots which, as they grew, became food for rove beetles and other maggot predators. Mature maggots wiggled away from the carcass and dug themselves into the ground to pupate and emerge as adult flies, setting forth to hopefully cross paths in the future with another freshly-dead carcass. Near the end, all that remained of the original deer was hide, hairs in the soil, and scattered bones. A variety of insects, few in number, occasionally showed up in some restrictive, specialized part of the carcass for a while and then moved on.

The deer ate the desert plants. The maggots ate the deer. The rove beetles ate the maggots and little remains. Like a roller coaster, each transfer of possibilities “up” required first a greater “down” of animals consumed. This is the reality of our existence. We must harvest the possibilities of others in order to maintain and grow the possibilities within ourselves – all the while doing our best to remain unharvested by others. Each of us is a subsystem of a much larger, planetary open system. Incoming solar energy allows plants to create biochemical energy possibilities which then are harvested over and over again through food chains from producers through decomposers. This is the structure we live within.

Structures Create Behaviors

One of the great insights of systems thinking is that structures create behavior. Many times, behavior that we might find fault with arises, not because of some fault in the people involved, but because of the kind of structure they are involved in. People within that structure will tend to behave in that way.

Here is an example I use with my eighth graders to help them understand this idea. If we are walking back to the bus at the end of field study and a teacher is not at the front of the group, there will almost always be a stampede of running children near the end of the walk back which can grow “mindless” enough to be dangerous. It doesn’t matter who the kids are; the dynamics are created by the situation.

The situation is that the “back seat of the bus” is valuable real estate to kids. Of all the rows of seats on the bus, there is only one that is “the back”. Other ones can be “near” the back but only one row is “at the back”, furthest from the bus driver and the adult world. So it is cool to be sitting in the back seat. The first people in line at the bus are the first people to get on the bus and are therefore the people who can sit at the back of the bus. So when we get close enough to see the bus, some of the kids start to walk a little faster. This moves them past the other kids towards the front. These kids, being passed, become aware that those faster kids are making a move to be first in line back at the bus so these passed kids speed up, which leads the other kids to speed up which leads other kids speed up. This can escalate amazingly fast from a walk into a full-speed stampede. I’ve seen it happen enough times to know that the stampede is not because a couple of the kids had “bad behavior”. It’s just the structure they are operating within.

Systems thinkers say that if you don’t like the behavior that arises within a structure, then change the structure rather than trying to change the behavior. Many teachers stay in front of their class for this reason. But I want kids to be leaders, not followers. So I have a banner that’s held by the group leader (a position that kids rotate through over the course of the field study) and no one gets in front of the group leader. If you don’t like the behavior that consistently arises within a situation, change the structure of that situation.

Gradient of Wealth

Having said that, we now have to see how certain structures have arisen in response to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. To remain alive and reproduce within a universe shaped by the Second Law, one must harvest other subsystems while avoiding being harvested oneself. Our species has been able to satisfy this requirement spectacularly. One of our main tools for doing this has been the creation of a money system that allows us to convert things that are not directly necessary to our survival into something that can be sold for money that can then be used to obtain something that is necessary. Furthermore, we have created ways to let money accumulate so that it can be stored up for the future. Many animals will lay up food supplies or fat reserves to make it through a winter but we can accumulate far more money than we will ever need within this year to be banked against future years. This allows our economic activity to grow beyond “mere survival”. Building a church or playing golf or restoring old cars become possibilities.

If you have more money than is necessary for survival, you can use some of that money to, in some way, raise yourself above the crowd. For example, the top of a hill has a better view but less space than the bottom of the hill. Therefore, through supply and demand, the top of the hill will become more valuable real estate than the bottom of the hill. People with the extra money to be able to pay this higher price will, literally, look down on the people around them while those people down there will be looking up to you. But the next hill over is a bit higher so wouldn’t it be nicer to have bought there instead? Nicer view and it will be apparent to all that you have more wealth than almost everybody else, even more than the people on the top of the shorter hill over there.

The tool of money allows a structure to grow that I call “the gradient of wealth”. This is like the initial kid starting to walk a bit faster in order to be at the front of the line to get on the bus. You want to be seen as having more money than those around you but, as you move up the gradient of wealth and leave some behind, you find that more of the people who are still around you are trying to get in front of you, wanting to be the one who owns the house on the top of the highest hill. They are motivated by the same zeal and have absorbed similar value systems of what brand of clothes and cars and alcohol are higher on the hill than other brands. A 28 foot boat is bigger than a 21 foot boat. As one moves up the gradient of wealth, the things you buy become more expensive. It costs more the higher up one moves. That’s where the gradient of wealth gets tricky. One can never get to the top; it extends upwards for billions and billions of dollars. But as one strives to position oneself higher than others upon the gradient, the more one is surrounded by people striving to position themselves higher than others upon the gradient of wealth, measuring their position in terms of increasingly more expensive items. Therefore, one’s wealth does not necessarily secure a sense of “enough”.

The higher people move, the more people’s income will come from investments made with the wealth they have already accumulated. Therefore, if a person wants to keep moving higher within the gradient, it’s necessary for their wealth to generate a higher rate of return than the invested wealth of those around them. So there is a push for higher rate of return, higher rate of return.

If you are smart enough to develop an investment that generates a higher rate of return, you can manage the money of others and take as commission a percentage of that higher rate of return. So the gradient of wealth nourishes lots of smart people looking for ways to generate a higher rate of return.

The main way to generate a higher rate of return is to externalize costs and internalize profits. Almost by definition, this means that you benefit at the expense of someone else – in the same way that the blowflies benefit at the deer’s expense and the rove beetles benefit at the maggots’ expense. Therefore, some of your investment will probably intrude into areas that others will object to as being wrong. So you need power to counter this moral resistance. Getting lawmakers elected who will write laws that make your high rate investments legal becomes a good investment. “A million spent here on these politicians allows me to make ten million over there. Good rate of return.”

Unfortunately, striving for the highest rate of return leads to harvesting other systems faster than they can sustain themselves. The soil erodes. The fisheries collapses. The savings of a life’s work in a pension is looted by those who did not do the work. The term “citizen” is degraded to “consumer.” More and more people feel disenfranchised. The military becomes more “mercenary” in the sense of poor people enlisting to get access to opportunity – rather than fighting for what is right. A shared sense of national unity fades. One’s wealth might increases but at the expense of the wealth within the world. But that’s the way it works because of the Second Law. One can only maintain one’s position by harvesting others. It’s harvest or be harvested. In this stampede for the best seat in the bus, one orients by one’s position within the group and loses touch with the world beyond that, like a kid so intent on the back of the bus that they run blindly into the street. In both cases, kids striving for the back and adults striving for wealth, systems theorists would say that the problems that arise are not because of a malicious intent of the people but in the dynamics of the structures they live within. The solution to the problem lies in changing the structure.


A watershed moment for me was reading James Lovelock’s book, The Gaia Hypothesis. He is an atmospheric chemist who was contracted by NASA to help develop instruments for detecting life on Mars. What chemical processes might reveal the presence of life? He concluded that there was no need to go to Mars in search of life; we can already tell from Earth there will be no life because the Martian atmosphere is at thermodynamic equilibrium. There are no processes that are using incoming solar energy to cycle some of the planet’s gases back up to a higher energy state.

Earth’s atmosphere, on the other hand, is dramatically far from thermodynamic equilibrium. The best example: the atmospheric oxygen that makes up 21% of our atmosphere. Oxygen is highly reactive, sometimes explosively so, and will oxidize many things. Atmospheric oxygen is constantly being drawn out of the atmosphere. It will only remain in the atmosphere if there is a process (photosynthesis) that is cycling it back fast enough to maintain it in dynamic equilibrium.

The Earth is not at thermodynamic equilibrium which means that, after many billion years, life has actually moved the entire planetary system “upstream”.

How is this possible? Since the Earth is an open system, open to solar energy, this is theoretically possible. There is no violation of the Second Law involved. But how does this entire planetary uplift actually happen? What lessons can we learn to help us turn the direction of our planet’s thermodynamic velocity up- wards? That is the question underlying the rest of this essay.

How do we change the downward direction of our planet’s thermodynamic velocity upwards?

The water cycle is the major illustrator of this for me. I have written about this over the years so I will only briefly sketch it here. 90% of the water that evaporates from the ocean falls back onto the ocean before it ever reaches the land because it takes a lot of energy to move water through the atmosphere. The annual amount of rain that reaches land from the sea is only around 11 inches of rain, barely enough to sustain a desert grassland. But some of this rain that falls upon the land is transpired by plants back into the atmosphere where it can fall as rain again. The gift of fresh water from the sea is recycled almost two times before flowing back to the sea, so that around 29 inches of rain on average falls per year, enough to sustain forests.

Photosynthesis requires water. This recycling of rain allows plants to conduct more photosynthesis which creates more plant surface area. This has multiple effects. (1) It leads to additional transpiration and photosynthesis. (2) This makes more biochemical energy available within the biosphere, increasing the amount of life that can be supported. (3) This increased vegetative growth slows down the rock cycle. More plants cushion the ground from the pounding rain. More roots cling and hold soil particles against erosive forces. More plant materials decompose to enrich the soil. As the soil part of the rock cycle slows down, the flow backs up. Soil grows “deeper”, capable of nourishing more plants and holding more rain so that more of the rain can be recycled back. This flow of intertwining cause and effect between rain, soil, plants, oxygen, and solar energy forms a positive feedback spiral that I have come to call an Upward Spiral.

“Ecological services” is a phrase that refers to all the activities that various species have evolved to contribute to these upward spirals. They harvest energy from the greater system but they then use that energy to do the work of altering flows so that even more energy from the sun accumulates within the greater system, creating more possibilities. The textbook explanation for how life can exist within a universe shaped by the Second Law explains how individuals can sustain themselves by harvesting others. But the full answer is larger than that. What work do we do with the possibilities we harvest from others? Salmon transport nutrients from the sea back up to the forests in the headwaters. Earthworms aerate the soil so that soil-forming process can occur at greater rates. Beaver retard the mountains’ spring meltoff with leaky dams that reduce the erosive surge and maintain a more even flow longer into the summer growing season. Though they are harvesting some of the possibilities from the subsystems around them, they are then using that harvested energy to do work that changes rates of flows so that more opportunities for plants to grow more surface area that can absorb more of the sun’s energy into the biosphere.

My life brought me into a sandstone canyon that had once had aspen but now was gashed with a massive arroyo. This gully contributed to a downward spiral that was draining possibilities from the canyon. It provided a much faster route out of the canyon for groundwater that had been percolating slowly through sand so that groundwater diminished. Less groundwater fuels less photosynthesis. Plant cover diminishes which removes some of the soil’s protection from summer sun and pounding rain. Less of the rain soaks in; more runs off which increases the kinetic energy that washes soil away.

In that canyon I attempted the ecological service of reducing soil erosion. Most of my checkdams failed but one of them had the unintended consequence of splitting a channel of runoff into two smaller flows. An accumulating deposit of sand marked this split where the runoff lost velocity and therefore lost the energy to transport some of the sand and silt it was carrying. I discovered that I could then split each of those channels into two more channels and each of those into two more until all the runoff was observed into the sandy soil of the canyon.

Since then, my hobby for the last thirty years has been to go out in the rain to eroding areas in the West where moisture is Life’s main limiting factor and try to shift downward spirals of erosion to upward spirals of healing and increasing life. Certain principles have emerged from this work. Start high in the drainage where the runoff is just starting to acquire the energy for erosion. If I follow a channel of runoff upstream as it splits into tributaries, I know I will eventually find an opportunity for making a “play”. The play is a place where I can shift some of the runoff onto a slower route. It’s usually a two-step play. First, with my trowel I slice a deeper channel at the shallowest point where some of the runoff is overflowing into the slower channel. That increases the amount of water that can flow that way. Then, second, I take this piece of turf and place it in the main channel in a way that forces more of the runoff into the path I just deepened. (Offer a new path before opposing the old path.) As the runoff splits into two broader channels, it slows which reduces its energy exponentially.

Occasionally I find a place where I can make what feels like a major play but most of my plays appear inconsequential. I can see the diverted water creeping its way down through a more vegetated, absorbent path. I call all of these tiny plays “probabilistic shifts”. None of them create a 100% change in a flow. I can’t predict where a particular water molecule will end up. I’ve just shifted the probability of where it will end up. But I know with mathematical certainty what the overall effect of these changes in probability will be (more of the runoff flowing slower) in the same way a casino knows that the odds set in its favor will lead to money accumulating for the house, despite the occasional big winner. The runoff diverted onto the slower channel will flow slower because some of it will be absorbed by the vegetated soil and cease being runoff and the rest will have to push through resistant vegetation and flow even slower. Meanwhile, the runoff still flowing in the main channel will flow slower because with less volume following the split, the smaller volume of water flows thinner, more subject to adhesive forces slowing its passage.

As my probabilistic shifts accumulate downstream, the surge of runoff is both reduced in volume (because more is absorbed) and spread out through time (because more is slowed down and so converges at a slower rate). Erosive energy is related to both the volume and speed of the water. As the pulse is spread out, the erosive energy subsides with mathematical certainty.

I am changing the rate at which runoff flows so that more soaks in and less soil is moved downslope. Because of this, balances shift and soil and life begin to accumulate in places they couldn’t before. As this happens, they create opportunities for new plays. The work grows on itself. I think of this as allies emerging, creating more possibilities than one can on one’s own.

One of the key concepts arising out of all of this is “backing up”. When a flow is slowed down, it backs up. When the rock cycle is slowed, it backs up. It flows slower, allowing more time for weathering processes to crack and chip the rocks into smaller fragments with greater surface area which allows the volume of rocks to retain more groundwater which allows more plants to grow among the slow flow of rocks which helps the rock fragments develop into soil that holds more groundwater that can fuel more photosynthesis, more life.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics does not allow things to flow up but it does allow flows to back up. By changing the rates at which things flow, possibilities emerge and accumulate. Ecological awareness comes from seeing how everything around us – mountains, air, soil, whales, food, money, smog, toxic wastes – are the current expressions of rates of flows. Change the rate of a flow and something downstream will change. Nothing is a given. Anything can be changed by changing the rates of the flows that sustain it.

I find that this point of view gives an interesting overarching view of the ecological situation we are in. For example, forests, fossil fuels, soils, groundwater, and high atmospheric oxygen and low carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are examples of the possibilities that life has banked up over hundreds of millions of years. In the Industrial Age, we have been harvesting this immense bank of possibilities to lift ourselves up. We are ripping through them at an incredibly rapid rate. Many of the ecological crises we face can be understood as the depletion of possibilities – either of the possibilities themselves or of the processes that create those possibilities. So climate change – which focuses on carbon burning/sequestration altering the flow of heat energy within the global system – can also be seen as the burning of possibilities, leaving us with the exhaust waste millions of years of accumulated possibilities. This “rush” has warped our virtues, our sense of why we are here. I teach history to my eighth graders. Each year I try to deepen my historical sense and I keep running into war after war. A tragedy of history is how much of this harvested possibility has been consumed in armaments and short-sighted war, monarchs and emperors trying to expand their territory so they can get a bigger harvest and move higher on the gradient of wealth.

Intermission – Daylength

My 8th grade math class graphs how daylength changes through the school year. Each week, we graph that Friday’s daylength. What develops over the months is a sinusoidal curve that drops through 12 hours a day on the autumnal equinox (equi-equal, nox-night) and reaches its lowest point (around 9 hours, 15 minutes for our latitude) on winter solstice and then begins to rise again and crosses the 12 hour mark again on the spring equinox and is still moving up towards its summer solstice high when the school year ends. Kids can relate to this graph. It makes sense with their experience of the shortening and then lengthening day. (For this article, I’m using a graph that extends from Spring Equinox to Spring Equinox.)

However, each Friday we also calculate how much this Friday’s daylength has changed from the previous Friday’s daylength. We graph that on a graph lined up below the daylength graph. This graph is the mindbender which is why we do it the entire school year so it has time to percolate in slowly.

These two graphs have a different y-axis. The Daylength graph’s y-axis shows the length of day in minutes. The 12 hour day of Equinox is 720 minutes. (I’ve left off the unused portions of the 24 hour day so the y-axis extends from 9 hours up to 15 hours. If we were above the Arctic Circle, the graph would need to stretch the full distance from 0 to 24 hours.) All the times are positive because all the daylengths are zero or greater.

But the Change in Daylength graph is a two-quadrant graph. The y-axis records the change in minutes between each week’s daylength. There is the positive section above for graphing when the days are growing longer but there is also a negative section below for graphing when the days are growing shorter.

The other difference is the scale. The distance from the bottom to the top of the first Daylength graph (9 hours to 15 hours) is 6 hours while the distance from the bottom to the top of the second Change in Daylength graph (-20 minutes to +20 minutes) is only 40 minutes. So the bottom graph is bringing out something smaller, more subtle. (If we were using Sunrise/Sunset times that were accurate to the second, the Change in Daylength graph would appear smooth like the Daylength graph but since we are using times just to the minute, there is a bit of “chatter” in the graph.)

It takes several months of weekly graphing for these two graphs to “fit together” in my 8th graders’ minds so if this is new stuff for you, you might have to reread this section over a couple of times.

Both graphs are sinusoidal wave graphs. However, the Change in Daylength graph is offset a quarter of a year ahead of the Daylength graph. This is easiest to see with the lowest point on the graphs. The lowest point in the Daylength graph is Winter Solstice but in the Change in Daylength graph, the low point has shifted over to Fall Equinox.

The quarter-year offset between the two graphs is easiest to understand for the shortest and longest days of the year. The shortest day of the year, December 21st, is the shortest day of the year. The day before is not quite as short so the change in daylength is going to decrease from the day before to the shortest day of the year. The day following the shortest day of the year can’t be shorter. It is a bit longer so the change in daylength is going to increase. So the shortest day of the year is the day when change in daylength shifts from growing shorter to growing longer. On the Change in Daylength graph, this has to be where the line crosses up through the Zero Line from the negative half of the graph to the positive half of the graph. So when the Daylength graph is at its lowest point, the Change in Daylength has to be at its midpoint.

The same logic applies to the longest day of the year. Because the longest day of the year is the longest day of the year, it has to be the day where lengthening days changes to shortening days which means the Change in Daylength graph must cross down through the Zero Line on the longest day – precisely because it is the longest day.

Once you understand these two points, then you can understand why the two graphs are shifted with the peak in Daylength coming 1⁄4 of a year after the peak in Change in Daylength. Then one can start to understand the dynamics of why the two equinoxes (when day and night are balanced) are the times of greatest change in daylength. In November, when the Daylength graph is moving down, the Change in Daylength graph is moving up. Why? How can this be? And in May, when the Daylength graph is moving up, the Change in Daylength graph is moving down. Why? How can this be? As Lane, one of my students once famously explained in May, “The daylength is growing longer shorterly.”

End of Intermission

How do we change the downward direction of our

planet’s thermodynamic velocity upwards?

What does physics have to say about changing direction?

One of the first things Sir Isaac Newton would say is that an object in motion will continue in that motion unless acted upon by some force. If we want to change our direction, we will need to apply “force”. What does that mean? What does physics say about force?

The physics of force starts with a “body” at a certain position at one time and then, after a certain period of time, that body is now in a different position. The change between those two positions is a change of distance in a certain direction. If that change in distance is divided by the amount of time required for that change, the result is velocity. (A car that two hours later had moved 100 miles to the east would have a velocity of 50 mph to the east.)

One of the things that my introductory physics class hammered into us over and over again is that velocity is not the same thing as speed. Speed is like 60 mph. But velocity is both speed and direction. 60 mph to the east is different than 60 mph to the west. One needs to always remember these two different aspects of velocity. For example, if we want to change a car moving 60 mph south to 60 mph to the east, we don’t have to bring the car to a stop, turn it 90a, and then accelerate it back up to 60 mph. We just have to turn the wheels of the moving car until we are going east. The car wheels are exerting a force against the ground to turn the car but it is a more manageable force than one might first realize. So when we wonder how to change the direction of our culture, we don’t necessarily have to slow down or stop the momentum; we just have to turn it.

Again, one of the acknowledged “stretches” in my metaphysics is applying the physics of velocity of objects to something I call the “thermodynamic velocity” of our culture or our planet.

The most effective way to change the direction of something with whatever force you have is to apply your force perpendicular to that thing’s current velocity. So often we get so focused on resisting, opposing, stopping that we forget about the possibility of turning something. That was one of the first lessons working with the runoff taught me. I tried to stop the runoff with checkdams but they held back only a tiny percent of the total flow. Once the checkdam overflows, the water’s energy is concentrated upon the plunge pool at the downstream base of the dam, undercutting the dam. Trying to oppose the flow did not work. But splitting the water, in effect turning some of it onto a new path, had more effect than I would ever have imagined because it reduces the kinetic energy of all the water flowing past the split. My limited force was more effective in slowing the runoff.

In addition, this strategy can lead to a fascinating dance because it is the recipe for a feedback spiral and in that dance lies power to sustain change. You want to change the direction of something, so you apply your force perpendicular to that direction. This will nudge the angle of that thing’s velocity slightly which now changes the direction that is perpendicular to this new direction. As the thing’s direction changes, one keeps changing the direction of one’s force to be perpendicular to that new direction which keeps nudging the object’s velocity ever more towards the desired direction. This feedback between direction of velocity and force applied perpendicular to it can get very curvy and swoopy like a good dance. A sustained series of small applications of force to the direction of an object or a flow can result in a change of direction without having to exert great force at any particular point.

The second thing that Sir Isaac Newton would say about changing direction is F=ma, force equals mass times acceleration.

Acceleration is any change in velocity. Acceleration is interesting because it exists within a mathematical cascade deriving from position. An object begins at some initial position. If it moves to a different position, then this change of position is of a certain distance in a certain direction in a certain time. These three aspects of the change in position determine its velocity. What if we want to change the direction of that velocity? Since direction is part of velocity, a change in direction is a change in velocity which means that this change is an acceleration and will, by Newton’s Second Law of Motion, require Force. Force, the ability to change the universe, operates at the level of acceleration, at the level of changes in velocity.

So Acceleration, the change in Velocity, has the same mathematical relationship to Velocity as the the Change in Daylength graph has to the Daylength graph. (Mathematically, the “change in” graphs are both graphs of the slopes of the other graphs.) And for the same reason, a velocity graph that oscillates will follow a quarter cycle behind an acceleration graph just as the Daylength graph will lag the Change in Daylength graph by a quarter year. This time lag of a quarter cycle is hard to understand. It creates a confusing time lag between the cause of accelerating force and the effect of velocity. This confusing time lag is important to be aware of if we are trying to change the direction of something.

I once saw this lag between cause and effect in a memorable way. My class was walking back to school down the gentle grade of a newly-paved, not- yet-open-to-traffic road. Two of the oldest boys asked if they could try to roll down that gentle grade while sitting on a skateboard. So, like kids on a sled, one sat behind the other and they started rolling along at little more than walking speed.

They started out fine but their combined weight was not quite centered so they started to veer to the left. This led them to lean to the right which brought them back around until they were going to the right but now they were swerving towards the right so they leaned more strongly to the left which brought them around too quickly so they leaned again to the right and rolled off the skateboard onto the pavement. I remember this well because they tried four or five times and every time the same slow motion rolling off onto the pavement inevitably happened. It all happened slowly enough that I could empathically feel the shifting of weights and the swerving growing out of control. Over and over again. There was something out of balance that they couldn’t get right. What was it? They weren’t turning out of their turn soon enough. Each swerve inspired a greater shift in weight from them that was harder to shift back in the other direction in time to avoid the next swerve.

Here’s an image to help think about these time lags: Why is it that when we are steering a car around a tight turn to the right, we start turning the wheel back to the left halfway through the turn?

If we kept the wheels turned all the way to the right until the car heading in the direction we wanted, then the car would still be turning further to the right and by the time we had straightened the wheels, the car would be heading off to the right of where we intended to go. We would have to then swerve back towards the left. One of the marks of my beginning driving was my car swaying back and forth within my lane. The car will oscillate back and forth until we learn to start turning away from our goal before reaching it.

Learning to navigate the time lag between the turning of the wheel (cause) and the turning of the car (effect) is part of a fundamental challenge of life. Learning to turn away from one’s goal before reaching it is paradoxically confusing. One needs to have a clear image of what direction one really wants to go so that one knows when to start turning out of the turn. This challenge of life grows harder if it involves many people because different people have different ideas of where they want to go. Expand the number of people into a culture and the time lag can lead to a history of cultural swerves and crashes that requires thousands of years of communication to finally figure out.

Those two boys on the skateboard have become my image of humanity over thousands of years crashing ecosystems and empires over and over again. There is something hard to understand, learn, master. They couldn’t learn the dynamics of the time lag in order to start turning back before they reached their goal of heading straight down the road.

That is the great danger of the gradient of wealth. When you are in competition with others to be the one at the front of the line, there never comes a time when you can turn back before reaching your goal because if you do, the competition will catch up and pass you. Those racing for position in the gradient of wealth are locked in; they can’t turn away on their own. Unfortunately, the gradient of wealth concentrates political power on those who are most resistant to changing direction.

Historically, these people tend to use this power in three ways. They use it to privatize the commons and harvest its ecological services. Their wealth (and hence power) grows from doing this, but they are altering the rates of flows that shape the land and culture so that a lot of things once taken for granted start to flow away. Soil. Drinking water. Coastlines. Glaciers. Belief in the economic value of higher education. Faith in one’s government. Hope. Less becomes possible within the larger culture.

The second thing they do with their power is to insulate themselves from these growing consequences. Bottled water is cheap for them and actually presents an investment opportunity as poorer people lose access to local drinking water. Gated communities and private security firms insulate one from the growing consequences of one’s actions in the pursuit of wealth. They don’t feel the full force of the Earth giving the feedback to change direction. Thinking this resistant feedback is a cost, they externalize it on to others.

The third thing they do with their power is to try buying off or suppressing the feedback that is increasingly shouting to turn the wheel back. Suppress information showing a link between smoking and cancer. Cast doubt on climate science. Suppress information on football-related brain trauma. Those caught up in climbing the gradient of wealth don’t want to “turn the wheel back” because they are not navigating by a direction; they are navigating by position – their position in relation to others in terms of “acquiring more wealth than others”. Therefore, we need to realize that our “leaders” will not lead the culture to turn out of the curve. They will be some of the last; they will be the followers in this regard. It’s just part of the structure of the gradient of wealth. Realizing that the force to change our culture’s direction must come from elsewhere is a step in absorbing more of our own power, not letting it flow away to “leaders.”

What the fields have taught me is that the wise direction to steer by is “creating more wealth within the entire system”. It’s the difference between the left graph and the right graph.

The goal is not to ride the steepest rising arrow possible for oneself. The goal is to do the work of helping the entire planetary system move in a direction that is upward, even if only slightly, so that possibilities can begin to accumulate.

Another way of thinking of this is the difference between “up” and “upward”. To live within increasing possibilities is a reassuring and pleasant experience. The faster the possibilities increase, the more fun becomes the experience. One can seek “up” at an increasing rate. But if the “up” comes through harvesting the greater system at a rate that is decreasing its possibilities, then the experience of “up” becomes tainted; one has to draw a curtain around oneself so as to not see how one is decreasing possibilities in the surrounding world. One has to build walls around you to fend off the growing resistance and hostility.

Instead of swerving off into unlimited personal gain, wisdom lies in turning the wheel back earlier so that finds a balance between personal gain and systemic gain as one heads in the direction of helping the largest system increase in possibilities. One uses the energy one has harvested from others to do the ecological/cultural/interpersonal service that helps increase possibilities in the world around one.

Another way of thinking of these two paths is the contrast between a gully and mats of moss up at timberline. A gully converges runoff upon itself so that it has far more water flowing through it than the surrounding land. That water erodes the gully deeper which allows it to pull more of the runoff towards it ever stronger while depleting the surround land of possibilities. On the other hand, a mat of moss up at timberline that has access to flowing snowmelt grows faster, pushing itself higher. This redirects some of the flowing water to the lower areas around that mat. In effect, the successful mat of moss gives the gift of water to other mats of moss lower than itself. They can now grow thicker, taller and when they overtop the original mat of moss, they will give the gift of water back to it. Help others rise and then they will pull you up as they rise and evermore of the gift of water will be held in place, transpired, and recycled. On this path, one surrounds oneself with allies.

The wise culture navigates by “More possibilities within the entire system” rather than “More possibilities for me.” This idea began forming as I did my erosion work up in the fields. I decided then to try making my life an experiment of this idea. When I wrote Shifting, I gave it away free to forty people, asking them to pass it on and I ended up selling 1500 copies plus having Chelsea Green publish it as Seeing Nature of which I sold another 1000 copies. I didn’t make much but I wasn’t doing it for the money; I was doing it to try spreading ideas I thought could help. I’ve done the same thing with Cairns. No charge. No advertising; just wanting to help my culture steer a wiser course.

Alysia, as an ambassador for teacher-powered schools, talks with other teachers who want to transform their school or create a new one. There are many obstacles they must overcome. One of the biggest is the need to earn a salary during the school’s uncertain start-up. Alysia and I realize we got around this obstacle because we had decided earlier to live on my one modest income so that Alysia could be home with our young children. This allowed us to start Chrysalis as a home-school program where Alysia was teaching our children and three other children for free. This allowed Chrysalis to grow to where, in the second year, she could earn a salary and still be with our kids.

Almost every day, I feel the blessing Chrysalis has created in my life. To watch children come into Chrysalis with damaged spirits at half-mast and watch their light grow stronger and know you are part of this process of healing spreading through a culture into new families is such a blessing. It’s a blessing not in a loud rah-rah way but in a quiet sense of enough-ness and a grounded sense of hope. (Last week, Chrysalis celebrated our 20th year with a reunion gala. It was an uplifting rush for Alysia and I to talk for three hours with families who were saying Thank You and knowing that the Thank You’s were genuine and deserved.) All those involved with Chrysalis are not getting rich. We keep putting the kids first, choosing small class sizes over large salaries. You can buy stuff with money but being part of something that grows the world upward is a whole different category of possession.

This personal experience leads me to think of “income inequality” as an example of turning rather than opposing. It should not be framed as an us vs. them issue. Where we want to go does not pit poor against rich. We want to go towards greater possibilities and hope for all. It’s not taking from one group to give to another. Instead, it is probabilistic shifts in the flow of money so that it converges more slowly, has more opportunity to recycle within the community. One’s intent in this regard is important because when it comes to politics and rule-making, the regulations can be seen (and will definitely be perceived by some) as an attempt to harvest others for the benefit of my group. If it has this spirit, it can contribute to the “running for the bus” escalation that spirals downwards.

Instead, we should turn our focus from money as an object to wealth as a flow. What are the sources of our wealth? Natural resources are major sources. Fresh water, fertile soil, petroleum, minerals, trees and the inflow of solar energy. Human skills and creativity are another source of our wealth. A wise culture holds these flows of wealth high on the slopes where they can soak in to nourish structures that can recycle the flows over and over again, so that the soil grows deeper, the fresh rains increase, the human spirit grows hopeful.

The main problem with income inequality is that, like a gully system channeling rain out of a watershed before it has a chance to soak in, it drains creative hope out of the culture and turns people against one another in struggles for limited resources. The highest rates of return are found in short- term arbitrage so rather than soaking in high on the slopes to nourish cultural wealth, huge reservoirs of capital slosh in and out of countries and economies, destabilizing them and creating further arbitrage opportunities. This direction reduces creative hope – and creative hope is one of the sources of a culture’s wealth. A wise culture inspires people to focus on creating more wealth rather than gathering more wealth than others. Gathering more wealth than others is what the gradient of wealth nourishes and as wealth concentrates, it turns into the political power to concentrate wealth even further at the expense of the culture until the system dwindles away. Will we swerve and crash empires once again on a global scale or will we finally have a sense of direction that helps us learn to start turning out of the curve earlier than we’ve tried before?

(I do not wish to imply that the only challenge facing us is income inequality. Human population density exacerbates every other challenge we face. The loss of pre-scientific explanations that anchored many cultural wisdoms has left many spiritually adrift and allowed the gradient of wealth to assume a larger meaning in our lives.)


My kayak has a foot-operated rudder which I love using. My foot applies force against a pedal which, through a cable, holds the rudder in a certain position which then exerts a force against the water we are gliding through. Depending on the rudder’s position, the force of my foot is holding the kayak on course or turning the kayak. My eyes and body can detect how the kayak is moving. My mind is assessing whether this movement is what I am wanting. my eyes, mind and foot are dancing with the rudder, kayak, wind, and current in an oscillating glide through the water (in the same way my students’ eyes, mind, and hands dance with the poles they practice balancing on their hands.)

As I do this steering dance, I think of the levels. There is the level of position that I am constantly paying attention to and how it changes which is its velocity. I am constantly changing that by adjusting the force of my feet on the rudder pedals. That force through the rudder changes the direction of the kayak, which is a change in velocity, which is acceleration. That is third level down. Position, then velocity, then acceleration. But there is another level below that because my mind is constantly assessing whether this force is accurate and changing the force that my feet are exerting. This changes the direction of the force, the direction of the acceleration. That is a “change in acceleration”, which is the next level below acceleration.

Classical mechanics starts with position. Change in position is velocity. Change in velocity is acceleration. But change in acceleration is …? My introductory physics class never mentioned this. On the internet I learn that “change in acceleration” is called “jerk.” As I kayak, I find this level below acceleration fascinatingly potent. It’s the level where feedback from the boat’s direction is flowing through my mind to adjust the force of my feet. In my metaphysics, I think of this, not as Jerk, but as Intent. It’s the level where one starts to turn out of the curve before reaching one’s goal in order to go the direction one wants. It’s the level where the shift from “gaining more wealth than others” to “creating more wealth for all” happens, where the shift from “The world is doomed to run down” to “Upward is possible” happens.

The same quarter cycle shift happens when we drop to the level of Intent as happened when we dropped from velocity down to acceleration. This adds up a half cycle shift between what we see on the surface and what is currently changing future dynamics. One level is opposite of the other. (On the next page, I show the two Daylength graphs again with a third one added to show how each level adds a quarter cycle shift.) We need to learn to navigate this very large, confusing shift just like those kids needed to learn to navigate their skateboard.

One result of this half cycle shift is that if one is successfully acting at this level of intent to turn a downward velocity back upwards, the situation will always get worse first because the growing worse has to slow down before it can reverse. As it is slowing down, the situation continues to grow worse. Another implication of this is that one can’t wait until the last minute to try reversing a situation. Far wiser to start acting on the new intent much earlier than that.

It’s easy to get confused by which level to navigate by. We are tempted to steer by the uppermost level of position (and we are immersed in advertising that tries to focus our attention almost exclusively on that) but change happens several levels down and can be moving in opposite directions. (I often think that the dynamics of all these different levels moving in different directions might be the taproot of the wisdom within the ancient I Ching – advice for how to live a straight life amidst the confusion of these levels.)

If we don’t understand the quarter and half-cycle shifts, we make the mistake of looking to the glory days of an empire for inspiration. We like our houses to have white pillars like classical Greek and Rome at their peak but by then, the rot was setting in. The virtues in history are not associated with cultural peaks. The virtues are more humble and earlier in the cycle. Steer by those.

This idea of steering is central to this essay because this is what we are trying to do, trying to steer an upwards course into the future. So when I am kayaking, there is a constant shifting back and forth of my feet against the rudder pedal, a constant change in force, an oscillation in acceleration and all the levels of velocity and position arising from that. They are all bound together in a dynamic equilibrium between what is actually happening and my intent.

Similarly, as a naturalist, I see the world as dynamic equilibriums of relative balances of underlying flows. Oscillations driven by balancing feedback spirals characterize dynamic equilibriums. (The classic image of oscillations is created by young children when they pretend to drive a car. Their hands turn an imaginary steering wheel back and forth.) The system, starting to move too far in one direction generates counteracting forces that swing it back in the other direction which then generates other counteracting forces to swing it back the other way. It’s the oscillations back and forth that make the equilibrium dynamic, that keep the feedback spirals swerving the shaping forces back and forth. There are already underlying forces pushing dynamic equilibriums towards the direction we wish to steer. We can change directions by altering the flows that underlie the current dynamic equilbrium. Reduce some forces, increase others. There are a series of turning points (inflection points) at the lower levels that one can navigate by to sustain hope during the period in which things are getting worse before change is detectable.

I’ll close with my memory of learning to ride a bike. Dad would hold the bike as I got on and then push and steady the bike as I started to pedal. He could keep up for only a few steps into this process. As I pulled away beyond his steadying hand, I would crash. Over and over again. And then one time, I told him to let go but I didn’t feel him let go so I glanced back to discover he had let go long ago. I promptly crashed. But the next time, I kept on pedaling and that was it. I had somehow learned the fundamental lesson of how to ride a bike. There was no intellectual “aha” moment preceding this. One time, it just happened; my mind/body had learned it and it never forgot.

This memory is one reason I remain hopeful no matter how dire the news from the world becomes. Humanity has crashed so many times in so many horrible, tragic ways. Some complex lesson of balance have eluded us for so many thousands of years that we can slip into an assumption that we are doomed to crash again. But maybe we are on the verge of learning how to ride the bike of civilization and this time we won’t crash but instead keep on pedaling and ride off into a whole new, empowered phase of history. This is the hope that underlies this article.

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Cairns #88 – End of the Long Nights, 2017

Cairns #88

End of the Long Nights, 2017


Lessons from the Fields

Winter is my season for rain walks and we’ve had lots of rain this year. I feel like my rain walks are leading me to a whole new level of understanding that I strive to articulate. Without the fields around me, let me try describing (with lots of images) two explorations that are enchanting me.

Much of my initial work in this new area has been along an old abandoned ranch road that cuts across a mile-wide slope, cuts across all the subtle vegetated drainages seeping down the slope and drain them onto this road. Now, instead of continuing to seep down the slope, they follow the road ruts, flowing on the surface, converging with all the other runoff seeping onto the road into a stream that follows the ruts quickly along to the low spots which are where the road crosses one of the larger streams in the area that drain quickly down to the Sacramento River a mile away.

Aerial view of area I’ll be describing with location of my porous dams

In “Moving a Boulder” (Cairns # 84), I described the first (indicated above by Moved Rock) of many moves where I’ve opened the downslope side of the road so that the runoff captured by the road can flow back onto the slopes before it converges with those streams. I am amazed at how much of the runoff that I lead out of the ruts is being absorbed into the ground as it seeps its slow way downslope, free from the momentum of any stream channel.

This is the setting. Now let me describe the play that has taken me towards a new level. We are looking down on what I labeled above as First Dam. A drainage flows through a culvert under the abandoned road. The narrow culvert has created a gully at either end of it. To the right of the culvert, most of the road runoff drains into a grassy gutter that borders the upslope side of the road. The grassy gutter leads all this water to the gully just a few feet upstream of the culvert.

During a heavy rain, the grassy gutter swelled and a bit of the surge oozed onto the tracks of the road. (This is a low spot so the road is not rutted here.) The ooze led me to scratch a shallow path across the road to see if I could lead a bit of the water across the road rather than have it all go under the road through the culvert.

Then I realized there was another way to send more of this runoff across the road. What if I piled up some large rocks at the far end of the grassy gutter just before it dropped down into the gully of the culvert? It wouldn’t be enough to stop the flow but it didn’t have to be. It just needed to reduce the rate of flow in that direction so that it would back up, hopefully onto and over the road. It worked. Over the intervening weeks, I’ve added more rocks to the “dam” so that now, even during a mild rain, the situation looks like this.

Now, instead of flowing down the “gutter”, the majority of the runoff crosses the road and oozes broadly down the grassy slope towards the stream on the left without any runoff moving over the surface. This play has nourished two strategies.

The first I call “porous stone dams”.

I’ve never thought of dams as a viable play. I found with small check dams, as the water backs up behind the dam, the hydraulic pressure exerted against the base of the dam increases until it finally blows out the dam. This usually happens when it overtops the dam and falls into a turbulent plunge pool that erodes and undermines the dam. And rock dams are clunky. They don’t fit together. You need lots of big rocs but they don’t stack stablely. Round rocks are easily moved aside by the force of the water. But what emerged in this situation led my mind in a new direction.

In this situation, as the water level rises, more and more of the flow is flowing across the road and down through the gentle slope, far away from the dam. This dramatically reduces the force the dam has to withstand. The second outlet gives strength to the dam.

First Dam

Here is the current situation from the other direction. You can see in the foreground the structure of the dam. I thought I needed large rocks but I don’t. It is layers of mostly small and medium rocks. Each time I walk by, I add a few more. I’m not trying to block all the water. The dam is porous; water still flows through it. I observe the flow and place a stone so that it clogs one of the places where water is pushing through between the current stones. Small rocks can fit in between the cracks. It might not seem like much but I know that through probabilistic shifts, each placement means the water won’t be able to flow through the dam quite as fast which means it must rise a little bit which means a bit more water will be flowing along on the new path across the road instead.

I call this a stone dam because, in my mind, a rock becomes a stone when you consciously come to know it in its unique identity. The process begins with picking up rocks that are lying on the ground, not rising up out of the ground. These rocks lying on the ground can not absorb either rainfall or sunlight. By removing them, I am opening more of the surface to these possibilities. I feel the balance of the rock’s weight as I carry it. I examine its angles and shape as I study where best to place it within the dam. In this process, it becomes a unique stone, not a generic rock. Placing each stone into a place that it fits gives the dam both a structural integrity and a beauty as the water flows thinly yet smoothly over the length of the dam.

The structural integrity comes about through a water-guided dance between height and length of the dam. If a stone raises the height of the dam, that causes the water level to rise which increases the pressure against the dam which pushes the water through the chinks with a bit more force, revealing new places for my next stone. If I stay focused on placing each stone on where the flows are strongest, the water will guide me to lengthen the dam in greater proportion than raising it. As the dam lengthens, any turbulent flow in its original configuration gradually smooths out into a non-erosive laminar flow as it flows through the length of the dam. And then the water reveals a place where a stone can be placed on the crest of the dam, raising the dam’s actual height a bit more.


The other place this play has led me to this winter in much harder to describe. This is my first attempt to capture some of it in words so it might get murky. I’ll start with this picture of two of my basic “plays”, a pattern I’ve made a thousand times.

For decades, I’ve enjoyed how ripples on the surface of the water flowing through my divergence channels guide my trowel to the precise point where lowering the bed of the channel will increase the rate of water flowing into the divergence.

The ripple happens right where the water accelerates. It accelerates because beneath the ripple is the high point in the channel bottom. The flow backs up behind the high point until it overflows. Once it overflows, it accelerates down past the high point. My trowel removes this high point; now the water can flow along without any backing up. There is now a smoother grade leading runoff away from the original flow.

In these generic instances, the “offer a new channel” has always been close to the “opposing the old”. But with my porous stone dam, the new channel was fifty feet upstream. This dramatic split led my thoughts onto a new path which included being able to recognize other examples for such a play. Here is a second example.

Second Dam

The stone dam is only a few inches high but it reroutes runoff many tens of feet away. The reason it is so effective is that I built it where the surface of the water rippled as it flowed out of that puddle. The dam raises a high point in this channel.

Building it there brings up the geological concept of base level. Base level is the lowest point a flow of water can drain. Sea level is the ultimate base level for most streams. However, there can be temporary base levels upstream of the ocean. A dam is one example. The mouth of a lake is another. Upstream erosion can not cut below this level. An outcropping of hard, resistant rock is a common third example. My little stone dam was built on the local base level for that puddle and raised the base level a few inches higher.

The dam works because there is another place along the new shoreline that is lower than the raised base level so that most of the runoff now flows that way. What was that point before? It was a pass, a low point along a low, rounded ridge that divided two drainages. The main drainage runs straight towards us and is a couple of feet wide. In about twenty feet, it will converge with other road runoff and flow quickly down and out of the watershed. The drainage to the right is a broad grassy slope. That grassy slope will eventually converge with the other drainage in about a hundred feet. But much of the re-routed water will have soaked in before that point.

On the scale that we usually think of drainages, these two routes are in the same drainage. But drainages are fractal and the higher one goes towards the headwaters, the drainage diverges into smaller and smaller drainages in which the channels and divides grow less pronounced, more subtle, and easier to shift from one to the other. And in examples like this, one can see what a major difference this makes on how much of the gift of rain is retained upon these slopes.

Base levels made a deep impression on me back in my college geology classes because of their important role in the dynamic equilibrium of stream grade. If a section of stream is too steep, the water accelerates, increasing in erosive power and wearing that section down more quickly. If a section of the stream is too gentle, the water slows down, loses its kinetic energy and drops some of its suspended. That section builds up. The steep sections wear down; the gentle sections build up. Given enough time, they will eventually form a smooth curve (when seen from the side).

The lower end of this lovely curve is determined by the local base level. Because erosion can wear this base level down only slowly, the stream equilibrium is more gentle here. The top end of this curve occurs as the stream drops over the edge of the next local base level upstream. Therefore, when we look at a stream’s grade (from the side), we see that it is a series of long concave stretches alternating with short convex stretches over the lip of the local base level.

Mathematically, the place where concave turns into convex (and convex turns back into concave) is called an inflection point. Inflection points have major metaphysical significance for me because of the dynamics of shifting balances that underlie them. But this article is hard enough for me to organize without going into that also. Suffice it to say that the base level is flanked by an inflection point on either side. {For river runners, the upper inflection point is marked by the tongue accelerating into a rapid. The lower inflection point is often marked by a hydraulic.}

As a college student, I conceived of these base levels as major features with miles of stream between them. But as I kayak and go out on my rain walks, I observe that a consistent visual pattern of flowing water is it’s always oscillating in width. Wider then narrower, then wider again. This oscillation in width forces an oscillation in speed. The water speeds up coming into the narrower section and slows down as it passes into the wider section. But if I change how I see cause and effect, then the water is speeding up (and therefore narrowing) as it accelerates over a base level and then slows down as it glides into the next concave (therefore gentling) stretch. The narrow stretches in the water flow are the small-scale base levels. Just as ripples guide my trowel to the high points within my divergences, so stream dynamics focus the stream’s power to erode on the high points, all the tiny base levels.

Every narrowing place now has me examining the upstream shorelines to see if there is a low pass in the divide between the small drainage of this baseline and its adjoining, possibly more absorbent, drainage. Even during heavy rain, much of the surface of the land is not underwater. It can slow and absorb more water if the water is led to the right places.) If I do see a low point along the shoreline, is it lower than the height of a stone dam built on the base level?

Or, conversely, if I see a promising low spot along the side of the runoff, I look for the first set of ripples downstream of it. If I start a porous stone dam at that point, would some of the runoff then diverge onto that now-available path? This new perspective is opening up a whole new terrain of possibilities.

Because of the rocky terrain I am working in, I have the opportunity to respond to many of these possibilities. Most of them are small but here is a third example that exceeded my expectations in a visually amazing way. To show this, I will use two pictures to show how the water flowed before and after I made the dam. I’m using the same post-dam picture so focus on the arrows, not the appearance.

Water Flow before Third Dam

Water Flow after Third Dam

The small flow reversal to the right was predictable but the massive reversal in the road leading beyond the dam extended more than one hundred feet and now leads much of this runoff onto the slopes in the background rather than heading down the steep, narrow channel that my dam is on. As the dam took shape, water always kept flowing through it. But I could see the water flowing from different directions starting to slow down as they encountered the pool forming behind the dam. And then there came this moment when the water within sight of the dam started flowing away from it. It felt like water flowing uphill because the water had been flowing downhill towards the dam and now it was flowing in exactly the opposite direction. It felt like all of natural law was reversed, however, it was a delight to observe closely how natural law still held when a base level was raised.


Back to the inflection points. As I said earlier, the upper inflection point lies where the water starts to accelerate into what river runners call the tongue, the narrowing smooth acceleration of the water arcing towards the heart of the rapid. The lower inflection point is often marked by something called a hydraulic jump. This is where the water has to slow down (because the slope is gentling) but if it slows down, it will get rear-ended by the flow behind it. But it does slow down because it, itself, is rear-ending into the water ahead of it. The jump is a major slowdown of velocity and a conversion of kinetic energy into turbulence. It’s called a jump because in order to keep the same amount of water moving downstream through this sudden slowdown, the depth of the water has to suddenly increase. So the surface of the water suddenly jumps upwards. Dam spillways are engineered to create hydraulic jumps near their base in order to dissipate the energy of the plunge before it’s erosive power reaches the base of the dam. The point of these structures is to convert strong kinetic energy into (from a thermodynamic point of view) heat, a turbulence of dissipating random motion. (Wikipedia has several images in their article on “hydraulic jump”.)

But from the point of view of Gaia, every spinning of potential energy into turbulence is a loss of possibilities for creating yet more possibilities. The last thing Gaia wants (I’m anthropomorphizing) is for potential energy to get turned into kinetic energy that is then “deliberately” wasted in turbulence. This turbulence happens at the lower inflection point downstream of the base level. I’m experimenting with two responses to turbulence there. If there is hydraulic action at the lower inflection point, I start the porous stone dam growth process by laying a large, flattish stone at the heart of the turbulence where it prevents the swirling turbulence from touching and deepening a plunge pool. Then each time I come back, I bring some stones and extend it further.

The second response is where the inflection point has already drilled what I call a gully head down through the sod, forming a narrow, steep-walled, foot-deep gully for a stretch of what would otherwise be a grassy swale where the runoff would flow broadly and smoothly through all the grass stems. Here I am into my second year experimenting with what I am calling stone wedges. Instead of a porous rock dam atop base level, this is a porous rock “dam” that is wedged into the abrupt face of the gully head and then extending downstream to stretch the drop over the gully head into a several foot long cascade. Here is a picture of a two-year old stone wedge. Grass is growing up through the rocks which I take as a good sign.

Stone Wedge

Notice how smoothly the water flows without a hydraulic jump at the end.

Rock by rock, a wedge of stones rises against the steep descent just below base level. Their porous length smooths the lower inflection point into a laminar flow so that base level is not eroded down as quickly and grass can fill in some of the gully’s volume. Less of the potential energy within the rain is dissipated as erosive turbulence. More of its potential energy soaks into the land, some of which will be photosynthesized into (a) atmospheric oxygen which fuels so many organic processes and (b) leaf surface that will absorb yet more of the solar radiation that is streaming onto our world and transpire more of the ground moisture back up to fall as rain again.

So a three-part strategy seems to be emerging for possible intervention around each base level.

  • The upper inflection point, if it is not entrenched, often offers the best place to create a divergence to split a flow. “Offer a new path before opposing the old.”
  • Base level itself offers the best place to use a porous rock dam to raise the base level (but only if it allows the runoff to back up and into a higher, gentler outflow route.)
  • The lower inflection point, if it is turbulent, can be a place for stone wedges to split and slow the stream current multiple times so there is no hydraulic jump generating turbulence.

I’m starting to metaphorically see my work as similar to an enzyme. Wikipedia says that “Like all catalysts, enzymes increase the rate of a reaction by lowering its activation energy.” By raising the base levels, my stone dams allow runoff to flow along higher, slower paths than they would otherwise be able to access. These higher paths allow more of the rain’s potential energy to be held upon the land. Similarly, I start to think of the base levels as membranes containing gentle stretches of runoff. As the runoff passes through membranes, potential energy is lost. As the lower base levels rise, more of the runoff can be spread out and contained so that more potential energy can be held on the land within the membranes. (Hillside rice terraces are an extreme form of this.)

Cairns #86 – End of the Long Days, 2016

Painting your own classroom
A conference on teacher-powered schools sent out a request for presentation proposals. In response, Alysia and I put together a proposal in which we share some of the problems we encountered with Chrysalis in order to help others avoid them. One point we wanted to make is that a top-down flow of power is so deeply embedded in the public school system that it has created, over time, a vast web of assumptions that have become unconscious. To make this conscious for the attendees of our presentation, we were thinking of specific decisions that arise within the school year. Who has the power to make that decision? As we were working on that list, an interesting thing happened at Chrysalis.

One of our teachers bought some paint and painted her classroom a color she liked. Other teachers wished they could do that so Irene, our new administrator, obtained a small grant of interior paint in various colors that teachers could use if they wanted to paint their classroom at the end of the school year. I would never have spent my administrative time doing that because (1) it didn’t seem worth the time to pursue a grant worth about 50 cans of paint and, most importantly (2) I would never consider proposing something that would require teachers to do something unpaid above and beyond during their summer vacation. So I would never have even thought of that possibility. But Irene did and the result was amazing. It turned into a joyous bonding time. On the last day of classes, kids helped their teacher move everything away from the walls into the middle of the room. The week after graduation, almost all the teachers were at school, helping paint one another’s rooms and helping each other with color schemes and space design. And now, each classroom is a different color. One walks from one unique room into another. Each classroom is that teacher’s classroom. That is the heart of it; that it declares that this classroom is that teacher’s.

In most schools, this would never happen because principals have and use their power to move teachers around, from grade to grade, from room to room. So a classroom is never yours. It’s always on loan from the system. “Who decides the color of your classroom?” will be one of the questions we ask at our presentation to help make conscious some of the assumptions that develop within a top-down power structure.


Summer Vacation
Alysia and I spent a wonderful month on summer vacation visiting the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Glacier national parks. When I was in my twenties, I prided myself on getting far away from national park crowds as quickly as possible, spending most of my time out in the backcountry. But this time, forty years later, we had reservations in the official park campgrounds and spent most of our days on the shorter dayhikes. I was delighted at how often I was uplifted by the human interactions. The national parks (especially those three) have great power to lift up the human spirit so people from all around the world are having the fundamentally human experience of having one’s spirit uplifted – while in the presence of many others who are also having their spirits uplifted. In the midst of that, smile a lot. We take care of one another. We delight in being helpful. We are more open in sharing our inner state and so are more sensitive to the inner states of others so there is a warmer feel to social interactions.

We met many teachers because it is Summer Vacation. We would talk shop together. Had a deep conversation with a young couple leaving a known teaching job in search of a kind of teaching that would better satisfy his soul.

There were throngs of Chinese in Yellowstone. We had a long conversation with a couple from China about how in China, you pretend to be happy and just concentrate on doing your best in the immediate world around you and you don’t get involved in or talk about politics. What happens when all these Chinese tourists go back home and talk about experiencing a different way it can be?

We talked with a doctorate student searching for what correlates with the high density of mussels in North Carolina streams around millraces.

I had an delightfully amazing math lesson with Charlie, a seven-year old,  who loved math. We did a spontaneous lesson, me following his light but leading him always out along his edge. We started with how many fingers would there be counting his mother, his younger brother, and himself. He got that: 30. That led to how many fingers between all of us (mother, father, brother, himself, me, and Alysia who was engaged in a long conversation with the mom about how to homeschool math). He calculated that as sixty fingers between the six of us. But when I added toes, we stepped over the edge into the exciting “not sure”. He knew the answer should have 12 in it but in a way that is more than a hundred.

102?     No.
When we worked our way slowly up to 120, his eyes lit up and we were off and running with place value and names for big numbers and number of needles in a cluster on different pine trees and all sorts of fun stuff. Throughout I was telling him that the important thing was not just getting the right answer but understanding why that was the right answer.

Another time, I said something that afterwards I thought profound. We were hiking back past a very popular viewpoint. Lots of people buy tickets and take a boat across a lake to take a short hike to this viewpoint. However, part of the trail is rugged with irregular steps cut into a steep bedrock slope with a fifty foot exposure. Two ladies were descending ahead of us. One lady was having a slow time of it. She kept one hand on the uphill rock face and leaned upon it as she very carefully descended one step at a time. The other lady was beside her, helping her, so there wasn’t room to pass for awhile. The slow lady kept apologizing and I kept saying it was all right. Eventually there came a place where they could pull over and I passed. She was apologizing again and I said in an understanding voice, “You’re on your edge.” Then as I passed, the following words just popped out. “That’s a good place to be.” Afterwards I realized that was pretty good. “You’re on your edge. That’s a good place to be.”

I spent a lot of our vacation time working on Roaming, trying to outline gnarly sections that have deflected me time and time again. In Roaming, I am trying to interweave two themes. The main one is describing a way of seeing the world that I believe our culture needs to practice (taking Shifting further). This way of seeing has developed through many experiences such as my ranger experiences, teaching, and rain walks. I believe this way of seeing needs to be founded on the actual experiences that taught me; that way the ideas are specific and alive, not generalized concepts. The second theme is how my life has been a dance of feedback with the world that has drawn me into life-steering experiences. The world can be trusted for guidance. “Beauty is not on the map…. Seek and ye shall find.” The book would be an autobiography except the editorial focus is on lessons learned, not chronological completeness.

The sections that frustrate me are those that are so conceptual that I bog down in lectures. On this vacation, I was trying to break these concepts down into their components and trace them back to their origin stories. How did they come to live within my life? I spent one day camped by a lake trying to work out how reading about systems thinking as a park ranger in Denali changed my relationship with the natural world around me. One assumption of systems thinking is that every system is composed of subsystems and every system is actually a subsystem within an even greater system. This leads to seeing structure as the boundaries of sub-systems that fit together to form a larger working system.

At the end of a productive afternoon of writing, we went kayaking. I tried putting myself into the mind of a reader. If I tried consciously looking at the world in terms of structures, what would I see? I came upon a stream flowing into the lake. In the clear water, I could see the delta that had formed as stream-tumbled rock dropped out of suspension in the still lake waters. I paddled around the delta, observing its structure.

The easiest structure to notice was with the water. A series of small standing waves extended about twenty feet into the lake as the narrow stream’s current deaccelerated into the slack water. Velocity was being rubbed off on either side, powering large eddies that slowly circled around both sides of the current. The standing waves diminished downstream as the current faded into the slow eddies.

Beneath the surface lay the delta, comprised of three different structures. Directly beneath the current stretched a narrow lane of fist-sized, lightcolored rocks that extended almost to the furthest reach of the delta. These larger rocks are the ones that can hold their place despite the water’s kinetic energy streaming past them.

Bordering this lane on either side was a foot-wide pavement of darker, smaller rocks. This structure lay beneath where the sides of the current were rubbing off its kinetic energy into the eddies. Some of the current was flowing off to the sides, sufficient to push along smaller rocks but this sideflow was weaker and short-lived so that this structure of smaller rocks faded away after a short distance.

The enormous bulk of the delta, however, lay in a third structure of sand. Maybe rocks lay beneath its surface but all that was visible was the lightcolored sand covered in a light green haze of algae. This structure extended outwards from the other two structures for many feet, forming an almost level surface that reached to the edges of the delta. And then, there on the edge, the delta plunged down at the sand’s angle of repose to the lake
bottom. Near the shore, this might only be a foot but out at the outermost edges of the delta, this steep slope of sand dropped five feet to the lake bottom.

I knew these steep slopes were at the angle of repose because I played with them. If I took my paddle and disturbed the sand four feet below the surface, the sand immediately upslope would slump into the disturbance, creating an opening for the sand further up to slump downward in a progressively upward cascade of downward slumping until the slumping reached the top edge of the delta. That upper perimeter of the delta represented the point where the current had slackened almost to zero, with only enough energy to barely push sand grains over the edge. Over that edge, they dropped into slack water, dropping and sliding so slowly down the delta slope that they could come to rest on any slope angled at less than the angle of repose, building it up, steepening it closer to the angle of repose. If the entire slope was already at the angle of repose, then the sand grain drifted all the way to the bottom of the slope, coming to form the bottom-most grain of the next grain-sized layer of sand to build up as the delta slowly extended further into the lake.

There was a sense of dynamic balance within this shape. In the main force of the current, only larger rocks could settle out. Smaller stuff would be pushed further. The next layer to settle out was the smaller stones. They lay just beyond the larger stones. The layer of smaller stones was narrower off to the side because any flow leaving the momentum of the straight-ahead current quickly slowed, dropping any small rocks it was carrying along. The momentum in the main current could carry small rocks straight ahead several feet further before the rocks tumbled to a rest and the sand dropped out just beyond the third structure.

One of the beauties of the delta was its smooth transitions throughout, thanks to the same dynamics I have seen in leaf jam dams. If the current spreads new sand out over the top of part of the delta, that raises the surface there enough to shunt the current off to the sides. Less sand will be carried that way. It will be carried onto some other part of the delta surface that is a bit lower, raising it until it, in turn, shunts the flow to the next area. Because of this dynamic, the delta surface is uniformly smooth to within a few sand grains thickness. Smooth, smooth, out to the edge and then down at the steepest angle possible.

Paying attention to the structure of the entering current and the delta beneath it reveals the relationship between the rock sizes within the delta and their location within the current. The dynamics of the current shape the delta. But on the other hand, I can also see that as the delta slowly extends out into the lake, the delta will allow the current to flow further before it is slowed by the still lake water. So the delta also shapes the current.


Similarly, when I looked at the mountain above the lake, I noticed that the forest covered its lower flanks but as the mountain steepened on its mid7 flanks, the forest broke up into “islands” of green upon a grey bedrock “sea”. The larger the island, the more trees it had. Also, the larger the island, the gentler that particular part of the slope was. The higher on the mountain, the smaller the islands tended to be. Then I started to notice how the location of the green islands fits with the angled bedding and dikes of the metamorphic rocks making up the mountain. Some bedding held the green islands better than other beddings. On the upper flanks, the tree islands are replaced with patches of snow. Their distribution is different. They lurk in the “shaded during the day” places which highlights subtle differences in the directions the craggy mountain slope faces. The geologic structure shapes the biological structures. But the biological structures also act as sponges or nets that catch rocks tumbling down from higher up. The green islands can grow and explore their edges so the biological structures alter the surfaces of the mountains in a never-ending dance.

Assume that every system is also a subsystem within a larger system. I look out across the lake at distant mountains and notice how clouds float above them. Clouds are a structure lying above the structure of the mountains. Two systems, “mountain clouds” and “cloud mountains” are parts of a greater system that shape the mountain biome and the continent’s hydrology as rivers flow from the forested mountains.

When I see the world this way, I welcome in the awareness that I and everything I identify with is a subsystem within a larger system and I feel blessed to be part of this vast oneness. And then I remember the wonderful quote by Henri Bortoft (that Dr. David Seamon gifted me) and that I’ve quoted in Cairns before.
“The primal phenomenon is not to be thought of as a
generalization from observations, produced by abstracting from
different instances something that is common to them. If this
result were the case, one would arrive at an abstracted unity
with the dead quality of a lowest common factor… In a moment
of intuitive perception, the particular instance is seen as a living
manifestation of the universal.”
“As an authentic discovery, this moment can only be
experienced directly; it cannot be ‘translated’ adequately into
the verbal language of secondhand description.”
Henri Bortoft’s essay “Counterfeit and authentic wholes:
Finding a means for dwelling in nature” (included in Dwelling,
Place, and Environment edited by Seamon and Mugerauer,
1985, Columbia University Press)

As a practiced way of observing the world, this “moment” of discovery can be stretched into extended periods of awareness. (That’s what hooks scientists.) However, Bortoft is eloquently right when he says that “it cannot be ‘translated’ adequately into the verbal language of secondhand description.” As he states, when one tries “abstracting from different instances something that is common to them”, one ends up with “an abstracted unity with the dead quality of a lowest common factor.” In my case with the mountains and delta, the abstracted unity is “It’s all one” or “Everything is connected” – which is true. It’s so true that this has been expressed a hundred ways by so many people that, as words, it becomes a platitude that can evaporate in the economic heat of the day instead of soaking in to nourish a wiser culture. That is why I strive to write descriptions of ways to look at the world that lead to experiencing these moments directly.

My Hubris Fence
Twenty years ago, in the midst of a meditation retreat, a wonderful idea came to me on how to engineer a solution to a cutbank along the streambed that flows across “our land”. (The streambed is dry except in the rainy season. It “floods” during heavy rains.) So I built it. I drove concrete stakes into the upstream side of the cutbank and then securely fastened welded wire fencing to it so that the fencing stretched along the face of the cutbank. That way, I realized, some of the erosive energy that formerly rubbed against the cutbank itself would get caught up in the wire matrix of the fencing a few inches away from the cutbank. It seemed to work after the first storm; there were leaves and twigs entangled in portions of the fencing so things were accumulating there rather than being washed away.

I went down after the next storm to discover a mess. I had thought only water and leaves and such would flow by the fencing. I had forgotten about logs. One had hooked onto the fencing and, with the full power of the flood behind it, ripped my structure off the bank and tangled the fencing into a god-awful tangle just past the turn where it was now half-buried in the streambed gravel. Over the course of the next month, the piled-up mess deflected flood currents strongly against the base of a beautiful oak, collapsing it into the stream which then pushed the current against another part of the bank which undercut and collapsed another lovely oak tree into the streambed. By now, the fencing was a complete mess of wire and gravel within the mass of two fallen trees. I came to think of it as my hubris fence. Instead of being content to go high in the drainage where I could find a place within my power to shift relative balances, I had over-estimated my powers and the world slammed me back down with the loss of two beautiful trees and a mess of trees and fencing that I have had to walk by for the last twenty years.

I have accepted its presence all this time, partly because it is a spiritual reminder but mainly because there is no way I can extricate the tangled fencing buried within the sands. But yesterday, I had a new thought about my hubris fence. If I cut out and removed whatever part of the fencing was sticking up out of the streambed, then the next flood might uncover another little section that I could cut free. Maybe, gradually, piece by piece, over the next twenty years, I might be able to remove my mistake from the streambed. So yesterday I started and cut off all that I could.

Cairns #85 – Beginning of the Long Days, 2016

Just a few more days to the end of the first school year of simply being a part-time teacher at Chrysalis. Been an interesting year. I aided Alysia with her 6th grade math class. For the first month, I worked a lot with a table of four boys (two of whom were new to Chrysalis) who were behind in math. They kept sabotaging each other. I’d be working with one of the boys, getting him to explain his thinking and leading him towards the answer when one of the other boys would make some inappropriate comment and the table would laugh and the momentum towards understanding would be lost. It was very frustrating for awhile. But the same pattern kept occurring over and over again with the same timing, irregardless of which boy I was working with. Then one time it happened again with the same timing and I suddenly saw it all with a different interpretation. They were rescuing one another.

If you don’t understand math, math class can be horrible. The teacher asks a question that usually has a specific number as the answer. You can’t give a vague explanation like you might be able to in an English class. The answer is a single number and you have one in a hundred chance of guessing it. And until you say a number, you are on the hook. What I noticed was that the disruption would come when our discussion had come to a point where the boy needed to say a number. Questions before then about what was going on within this problem were OK but when it came time for a number as an answer, one of the other boys would create a distraction. Once I understood that, I grew intrigued by the dynamic rather than frustrated. It still took around two months to assure them that they weren’t being graded and that all we were interested in was helping them understand math. It was OK to give an answer because it would help us understand where they were in their thought process so we could adjust our teaching to where they were.



We received twice our normal rainfall this El Nino year so I went out on lots of rainwalks, seeking opportunities to spread runoff over broader, more absorbent ground. When I make a diversion, my trowel creates two actions. First, I scoop sod out to make a diversion channel. Second, I lay this sod just downslope of the channel to form a berm paralleling it. This increases the functional depth of the channel. Each scoop achieves two things.

Similarly, when I divert water, I increase the amount of water flowing off to the side to soak into more absorbent ground. But this move also decreases the amount flowing in the existing channel, thereby decreasing its erosive power exponentially.

Every new action is two actions – there is doing the new action and there is not doing the old action. This is another reason not to underestimate our power. Our actions are twice as powerful as we tend to think of them.


Which way is our Earth rotating?

Last month, I had a chance to teach college students in an Environmental Sciences for Liberal Art Students course. Almost all of the students were planning on becoming teachers themselves. One of the opening activities I did was marking the shadow of a lamp post and then coming back ten minutes later and seeing that the shadow was now in a different position. I mentioned that we are taught somewhere in grade school that the explanation for this is that the Earth is turning but that most of us have put that in our brain as an explanation but never really connected it to our actual experience. So based on the two marks of the lamp post’s shadow, which way is our planet actually rotating?

Most of the students started with their mental map of the world and tried fitting the shadow into it – instead of starting with the phenomenon. So there were lots of different opinions. I went with this diversity and encouraged discussion with different groups presenting their explanation and then sending them back to the phenomenon again. It took around twenty minutes for the group to come to agreement on which way we are rotating.

The students write reflections after each class and the instructor sent me copies of their reflection of this class. This shadow activity figured prominently in their reflections. The general tone of their reflections was nicely expressed by one student as, “I have never had a teacher not give me the answer to something before, unless it was a test, which this wasn’t!”

We tend to teach the way we were taught, so teacher telling tends to lead to more teacher telling. There is nothing wrong with teacher telling. And there could be an institutional feeling that if I am being paid to educate these students, then I have an obligation to be giving them the answers to as many things as possible. But taking in, on authority, and memorizing well-organized material is a very different intellectual skill than creating understanding from raw experience. Both are valuable but the latter is important in a culture where all sorts of interest groups are packaging their ideas in well-organized forms that they hope will be easily taken in. I am still amazed at how naively unaware I went through sixteen years of education. Not until two weeks before college graduation did I realize I was totally clueless about what I was supposed to do with this education – and took me another year to start figuring it out.

The difference between these two skills remind me of an anecdote from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! in which the physicist, Richard Feynmann, first saw the cyclotron at the graduate school he had chosen. His undergraduate college had a brand new cyclotron that filled an entire room and that had an adjoining control room. But the cyclotron at this graduate school was a mess. “In this room there were wires strung all over the place! Switches were hanging from the wires, cooling water was dripping from the valves, the room was full of stuff, all out in the open. Tables piled with tools were everywhere; it was the most godawful mess you ever saw…. I suddenly realized why Princeton was getting results. They were working with the instrument. They built the instrument; they knew where everything was, they knew how everything worked, there was no engineer involved except maybe he was working there too…. It was wonderful! Because they worked with it. They didn’t have to sit in another room and push buttons.”

I have copied excerpts from the students’ shadow reflections as a footnote if you are interested. [*]


The Hand Game

I played the Hand Game again with this year’s eighth graders. (See Cairns #29 and/or   from playing it seven years ago). We had a really good discussion that deepened my understanding of the game.

Quick recap: It’s played like Rock, Paper, Scissor except there are only two plays: open hand and fist. Both players look at the same chart to determine how many points they get.

I play Fist I play Open Hand
Other player plays Fist I score 1 point I score 0 points
Other player plays Open Fist I score 5 points I score 3 points

It takes awhile for them to understand how their partner, looking at the same chart, figures out their points. So I let them play for a while until they figure it out. They are free to talk during this time. Several of the kids come up to me excited that they have figured out how the points work and how they could always win. Once the students understand the point structure, I have them play ten times and total up their scores. Most of the groups come in with 10 and 10 because they both have figured out to always play Fist. I let them explain their thinking and they are always so delighted to explain how they figured out that if you always play Fist, you can never lose.

After this discussion, I share with them the first lesson of the Hand Game. “I have never told you how you win the game. I explained the rules and the scoring but I never said how you win. You have made an assumption about how you win.”

That creates a shock wave and we discuss that. Why did you assume what you assumed? Kids are perceptive about this – but this year I keyed in on their claim that they had assumed that the goal was to get the most points. I told them that that was not true. Getting the most points was not the assumption they used and I would prove that to them later. The class was confused by that; they were sure that was the assumption they were working with.


Then I told them that the way you win the Hand Game is to score the most points together. Then we play another round. Some of the groups play Always Fist and Always Open Hand and score 50 and 0. Some alternate their play and score 25 and 25. But most of them discover that the highest score is obtained by both playing Open Hand, 30 and 30.

That’s when I was able to bring it around to pointing out that this solution led to three times as many points as when they were trying “to get the most points”. Why was this possibility invisible to them? It’s then they realized that their assumption had not been “getting the most points”. It had been “getting more points than the other person.” Or, more accurately, fear of the other person getting more points.

The lesson concludes with pointing out that the 30/30 solution was always there within the chart but invisible to them when the 10/10 solution seemed the smart, delight-bringing choice. How many 30/30 opportunities exist around us that are invisible when we are working with assumptions that lead us to think of 10/10 as never losing?

Reflecting afterwards, the game opened up to a deeper dimension. The 10/10 strategy seems logical when you can’t trust others. Once you start down that path, then you confirm to the other that you can’t be trusted and both of you come to trust that the other person can not be trusted. The thirty point path is only available for people who can trust that the other person can be trusted.

The difference between when you trust that others will not be trustworthy and when you can trust others to be trustworthy made me realize that much of the culture of the “free market” (zero-sum games. caveat emptor. externalize costs and internalize profits) practices seeing others as not trustworthy. You see the world in a way that leads you to be untrustworthy to others, thus helping create this reality with one another. The karmic price is that you live within a world where all you can see are the 10/10 possibilities. All the 30/30 possibilities are invisible.

However, my experience with Chrysalis is that it is possible to trust that the world is filled with 30/30 opportunities. Steven Covey in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People sums this up as “Go for Win-Win or No Play.” He means that your intent in all interactions is to create a 30/30 working relationship where both parties benefit. If this can’t be worked out, if the only arrangement that seems possible is a zero-sum game where one party wins at the expense of the other losing, then you don’t play. The refusal to sink to a zero-sum game relationship is part of what makes the 30/30 possibility visible.


Big Bend and the Wall

For our spring vacation, I took Alysia to Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas where I first started working for the National Park Service forty years ago. The most unexpected change is that the Chisos Mountains now have 15-20 black bears. Bears weren’t there when I was there. They had all been killed during the ranching era. But a few found their way across the desert from the Mexican mountains in the 1990’s and now there is a breeding population within the park.

We attended an evening program at the amphitheater where I had given my first evening programs as a young ranger. My first program had been on the geology of the park in which I told the geological history of the park in 40 minutes using slides. It was well-received and I was quite proud of it at the time but now I see it as falsely empowering the audience. They might think they now know the geology of the park but they only know it as words with very little application to world around them. I found myself now beginning to design an evening program that would use slides to teach people how to notice certain revealing details. The black streaks on the desert mountain faces, for example, indicate where water flows during a storm. Knowing this pattern helps your eyes start seeing the drainage patterns within the mountains. Lots of small, illustrated specific examples like that helping people start noticing more on their own as they drove within the park – and beyond. Give them the power to start seeing stories on their own.

As we drove around the rugged desert landscape, we began talking about the specific difficulties of Trump building his Wall. I’ve written before that we need, as a species, to learn to not cheer or applaud when a politician says any variation of “All shall” or “none shall” (“100%”, “0%”, “every child”, “none”, or “no child”). Trump’s Wall is an example of this because it promises that no person shall get across. Most of the commentary against his wall has been directed at the politics of it. The few engineering-type questions have focused on “how high?” and therefore “how much concrete and how much water is required?” Good questions. As far as I can tell, Trump answers with images of precast concrete slabs lined up across the land. But in Big Bend, we found ourselves asking, “How do you build a wall across an arroyo?”


The Rio Grande forms almost two-thirds of the U.S.-Mexican border. What this means is that every tributary flowing in from the Mexican side (since that is the side Trump wants to build it on) has to flow through this wall. Or, put another way, the wall will have to cross every single Mexican drainage along more than 1200 miles of the river. We were counting drainage crossings as we drove along various stretches of Texas desert and estimated them at about three per mile. At that rate, there would be about 3500 drainage crossings. More than half of these would be small. A few would be full-size rivers. But a lot of them would look like the picture below.

This fairly typical arroyo within the park flows towards the Rio Grande. The cutbanks on the right (along the outside bend where the water erodes the strongest) are about twelve feet tall. The main thing to note is that both the stream bottom and the stream banks are alluvium – unconsolidated stream deposits of sand, silt, gravel, and cobbles. Within the arroyo are found many plants including a dead cottonwood tree in the background. These arroyos form natural trails through the desert so the wall has to block them. How does it do this? This is desert and the arroyo is usually dry but if there is a thunderstorm up in its watershed, runoff will flow. It hopefully won’t be a dramatic flashflood but it will flow for several hours.

The wall must stop anybody wanting to walk along the arroyo but it can’t stop water. If it tries to stop water, the wall becomes a dam. As the runoff backs up, the water pressure increases with depth and can buckle a dam. Dams handle this by being much broader at the base than most people realize – which makes a dam much more expensive than a wall. Also, because of this pressure, dams must be anchored in place to solid bedrock so that the water pressure won’t push them out of place. But that is not what we have here. Bedrock might be fifty feet beneath the arroyo. This alluvium is unconsolidated which means that if water backs up behind the wall, the water pressure will force the water through the alluvium, the silt and sand grains will start to flow and the water pressure will eventually blow a hole underneath the dam. To prevent this, one would need to excavate down to bedrock and build upwards from there. But if the alluvium is tens of feet thick, grounding the “wall” to bedrock becomes very expensive.

One runs into a similar issue with the banks of the arroyo on either side. You can’t simply abut the wall up against the arroyo bank. Water pressure will force the water through the alluvium around the edge of the wall and blow a hole on the side. Therefore, one would have to trench back into the bank a long way to anchor it in place. In other words, each arroyo crossing is an expensive proposition.

The solution might seem obvious. Let the water pass through a culvert or overflow channel. But overflow channels have to slope to prevent the water from hitting the bottom of the dam so hard that it plucks out a plunge pool that undermines the dam and this slope can be climbed by people. Similarly, culverts can be crawled through. Again, the solution might seem obvious, weld grates across the culverts or overflow channels with openings smaller than people can crawl.

This is where we run into the other problem about building a wall across an arroyo. Water is not the only thing flowing. The runoff carries debris: leaves, dead bushes, broken branches, and, eventually, the trunks from those dead cottonwood trees. Each item stuck against the grate divides the openings into smaller-sized openings which allows smaller things to get stuck which divides the openings into even smaller size openings. The floating things pile up, pinned against the grate with increasing hydraulic force as the runoff backs up. Within a few hours, this wall with grated culverts turns into an under-designed dam and it fails.

This picture conveys a sense of this. The bridge I stand below has channels twelve feet wide and ten feet high to let the debris safely pass and even still, debris is piled three feet high and six feet wide against one of its abutments. Imagine what would happen against grating that has just one-foot gaps.

Culverts need to be maintained, often during the height of the storm when tree trunks are washing down and everything is backing up. If the wall is wide enough for a backhoe to drive onto, this work can be done during the storm. But a wall wide enough for a backhoe is expensive and there will be many hundreds of these arroyo crossings that will need to be patrolled. That creates a permanent maintenance cost that needs to be factored in. You can clear the debris out by hand and chainsaw after the flood subsides but if the flood overtops the wall, the wall might wash out before then.

I once had a ride on a highway that the Mexican government had built, I’m sure with much fanfare, to connect the small villages south of Big Bend to the interior of Mexico. The highway had several concrete bridges crossing the arroyos. But the truck kept turning off the highway and dropping down into the arroyo and up the other side back onto the road. As I looked up, I saw that the bridges had not been anchored into the banks and erosion had worn the alluvium away from one or both ends of the bridge so that there was now a five or ten foot gap between the highway and one end of the bridge. The bridges had made the government look good for a year and had enriched some contractor but now they were just expensive landmarks to incompetence.

We really have to learn to hold our applause whenever politicians promise “all” and “none” and ask serious questions. “Mr. Trump, what is your design for building your wall across the many hundreds of arroyos that your wall must go across? How will your wall let the water and all that it carries through without letting the people through, year after year? Ranchers have struggled for over a century with how to maintain a simple barbed wire fence across a stream. Please share your design, if for no other reason, to help them out.”


I wanted to end this article with a picture of a barbed wire fence that crosses a “dry” streambed in our neighborhood. It survives by having an easily crawled under three-foot gap beneath the lowest wire. However, when I walked there to take a picture, I found that it was down.

You can see a fencepost standing on the left. You might see the strands of wire lying on the ground across the 10 foot wide streambed. On the right hand side of the streambed is a small log. It hooked onto the wires during high water and the force of the water against the log was sufficient to pull the fence down.

Here is a stronger fence built by a long-time ranching family who has the experience and equipment to build a quality fence across a usually dry streambed.

But understand the scale. This is not barbed wire; it is steel cable. The posts obviously are sunk deep. It will hopefully survive decades of flood surges. Its four layers of cable will stop cows but they won’t stop people. My dog is about two feet tall; my half-sock camera “bag” is draped over the cable. A person can easily crawl beneath the lowest cable.

“Mr. Trump, how are you going to build people-stopping walls across arroyos?”



[*] “At a point I was starting to get frustrating and began losing attention. I learned though that through discussion we can achieve an answer.”

“If we would have been given the answer immediately, we would not have generated such a good discussion about this.”

“I loved how it made me think extra hard into the subject matter.”

“I really liked how Paul did not give us the answers to anything he had us discuss straight away. This caused me to continue to talk about the questions he was asking and have discussions with multiple classmates. It also caused the class to use materials, such as sticks, to create a model of shadows, the sun, and more. I ended up googling “which way does the earth rotate” later that night because I was still so curious.”

“Upon beginning the activity I was very confused as to what the point of it was. I loved the fact that it was such a simple concept, yet it legitimately had us all second-guessing ourselves, discussing possible answers and REALLY taking in the information. What had somewhat irked me was that he would not explicitly tell us the answer!! But in retrospect, I believe that THAT is what made the activity great and cause so much questioning!”

“What really got us thinking was how he left us with open-ended questions and gave us the opportunity to investigate the question through hands-on learning to try and develop an answer. My only inner conflict came to me as I was looking back at today, I just don’t know if I would be able to leave my class on such a cliff-hanger of a question and not want to NOT tell them the answer!”

“By not giving an answer it sparked everyone’s curiosity about the topic on hand…. Teaching students to take the time and observe what is around them is important because they could lose sight of what is important or may not know how to look for fine details.”

“I think the open-ended questions were frustrating for some people but I think it provoked conversation throughout the class. I like how the teacher gave the topic of conversation then simply stood back and let students work through the conversation together.”

“I think the moving shadow debate was the part of the class that I was the most engaged because I really wanted to know the answer. At the beginning I did not care that much about the answer at first, but as the debate went on I became more intrigued by what could be happening to the shadow. Since this was a new style of thinking than I am used to I became easily frustrated. It sometimes felt as though I was sent on a scavenger hunt, but I was not given the list. So I felt as if I was just hoping to be observing the right thing, or coming to the right conclusion.”

“Many of us were asking for the answer, but he did not tell us and encouraged us to keep discussing with our peers…. Although he decided not to give us the response on the different questions he asked us in class, he was trying to show that teaching can be effective without always giving a definite response. His teaching method was simply to give students into an inquiry-based discussion. This is what science is all about!”

“Very frustrating! (But learning!)… Really challenged our thinking and how we think about our earth. We had a heated/frustrating conversation about the Earth’s rotation and finally came to a conclusion about it turning EAST! We took a while to talk about this topic to make sure we heard everyone’s opinions… Today was one of the funnest days because it was so hands-on and gave us so much to think about and why. I had fun talking to my classmates and figuring things out on our own even though it was pretty frustrating not finding out the answers right away.”

“I had so much fun trying to figure out how the shadow moving showed us where we were going. I still think I figured it out pretty fast and correctly. He would not tell us the right answer.”

“One thing I found very powerful was him not telling us the answer. Before this I had never thought about it. I knew not to just give the answer the first time, but having us argue as a group to find the answer was a big deal. There were a few who were adamant that they had the correct answer and they were trying to convince the rest of us. Even though this was just a small part of the class, it was the part I got the most out of – where my learning occurred. He made me think about what I hadn’t before.”

“Our guest professor prompted us to think about what way we thought it was moving and then checked in and had people share out what they thought like four or five times. He never told us the answer because he said it would keep up engaged and curious about what the answer was. We did more thinking because of this. At first I thought I knew right away what the answer was, but after hearing all the other ideas my mind changed like five times. I like this teaching method because it does make students think about a complex idea in a relevant way.”


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Cairns #84 – End of the Long Nights, 2016

Moving a Boulder

An old ranch road traverses the upper regions of this area’s watershed. Its ruts capture many small drainages coming down the slope and gather all of their runoff onto the road where the runoff flows quickly towards the main drainages of the area.

I look for places to lead this runoff out of the ruts, onto the slopes below where it can spread out and slow down. But it is hard to find these places. The road was formed by a small grader that scraped the rocks and dirt off the roadway to create a berm defining the downhill side of the road. In the backbone of this berm are two-foot boulders that I can’t move. I found one likely spot where I could at least open a narrow channel between two large boulders but I couldn’t move the boulders. So I went back another day with a crowbar, expecting that with its help, I would easily pry the boulder out of place. But I couldn’t. The center of gravity of the boulder was down too deep; I could only lift it up an inch. No matter what angle or position I tried, the crowbar could lift it only an inch. I didn’t expect that; that stopped me for a while.

DSCN0222Looking downslope from the road. Crowbar is sticking up in front of the boulder.

Eventually, I realized the problem. I was trying to move it out with one pry. I gathered smaller stones. I pried up the boulder and slipped one rock under  where ever I could. Now the boulder couldn’t drop all the way back down which allowed me to slide the crowbar a bit further under it.

DSCN0225I lifted it again, slid a second rock under the other side, and let the boulder settle down upon these two rocks. Now I could slide the crowbar in further which allowed me to lift the boulder higher than I had been able to before. I pushed the two rocks in further, preventing the boulder from settling down as much.

Boulder 2

I moved around the boulder, prying it up from different angles and slipping small rocks under that side until the boulder’s center of gravity was above the mire it had been sunk in.

DSCN0228Then with just my hands, I was able to roll the boulder out of the berm.

Boulder 4 - Final

This gradual process felt like a metaphor for how small changes can accumulate into a large change that was impossible before.

Each time I return on later rain walks, I check out the play for the smile it inspires in me. That play is leading a significant amount of water off the rutted road back onto the gentle slope below. What is amazing me is how quickly that stream of water is absorbed into that slope. After a month with 13 inches of rain at home, the water flowing through that opening spreads out and flows for only about 20 yards until it has all been absorbed into the soil. That soil was thirsty!

Formerly it would have flowed along the ruts to the main drainage and probably have reached the Sacramento River within an hour. Now it is settling in, going to ground, a mile upslope of the river. Ever since this dirt road was graded decades ago, this downslope area has been deprived of the small flows of runoff that the road ruts have shunted away. Now it is receiving runoff once again. In terms of my metaphysics (Cairns 83), I see this play as creating possibilities. Runoff that previously contributed exponentially to erosion, carrying soil particles to a lower energy state, now will rise up through the plants back into the sky to fall again. On its upward way, it will fuel photosynthesis that will create more plant surface area, allowing that area to absorb more solar energy into the biosphere so that more possibilities will come into existence. I am curious to see what will emerge in this area in response to my play.


Negative Stream Orders

Back in college, I fell in love with stream orders in my Geology 101 course. Stream order is a way to mathematically organize the dynamic changes within a watershed of converging drainages. (The dynamics they reveal underlie my adage of “Go high in the drainage. Up there you will find a place within your power to shift a relative balance.”) First order streams are the smallest streams near the head of a drainage. When two first order streams converge, they form a second order stream. When two second order streams converge, they form a third order stream and so on. However, when something like a first order stream converges with a second order stream, the second order stream remains a second order stream. Only when two streams of the same order converge does the order number go up. With this system, it is possible to use stream order as the x-axis to graphically organize a lot of watershed data. As one moves downstream:

the stream order increases

there are less and less streams of the higher order

the distance until converging with a same-order stream grows longer

the amount of water flowing in the stream (its discharge) increases

steams, after a storm, take longer to crest.

the stream gradient becomes less steep

This way of organizing one’s analysis depends on what one classifies as a first order stream. All the higher orders are built upon that. I think I have a pretty good idea of how a hydrologist would classify the streams within the area I work. If I locked their classification in place, then the flows of runoff I am playing with during a storm when runoff is maximum would have a classification more like -1 or -2. Seeps that converge together to form rivulets that converge together to form streamlets.

Extending the x-axis into the negative realm gets interesting because the y-axes tend to be logarithmic. You can see some representative graphs at the bottom of this page on the internet. (

Notice that the y-axes does not go up by steady units. It’s going up by multiples of ten (1, 10, 100). Extending the graph to the left, out beyond the y-axis to a -2 stream order would extrapolate the graphed line up to around 1000 -2 order streamlets within the area. A first order stream already has a lot of kinetic energy and is hard for one person to work with. But -2 order streamlets are easy to work with and they offer a thousand opportunities in an area where, if one focused on first order streams, one would face forty frustrating challenges that require more massive intervention than one person can achieve. This is because one runs out of space as one moves downstream. Up high in the drainage, there is lots of space off to the side to lead excess runoff but by the time the water is down into the channel of a first order stream, the shape of the land tends to funnel the water. Changing the dynamics of the water becomes a significant challenge.

When I go walking in the rain, I soon realize that almost the entire watershed is composed of -2 drainage basins. The large streams capture the attention but the watershed lies upstream of them. This reminds me of an observation about how our culture opted for fish hatcheries over healthy streams because fish hatcheries only require a few acres of technological wonder while a healthy watershed for fish requires tens of thousands of acres to be left intact. The fish hatchery “mitigates”, allowing the conversion of those tens of thousands of acres to some other economic use. Thinking of this led me to think about how, in an intact salmon watershed, tons of nutrients from the sea are defecated throughout the watershed to nourish future growth. The carcasses from our local hatchery, however, go to pet food, much of which might end up in poop scoop bags in our landfills. No poetry in that.


Concerning Charter Schools

A New York Times article about a charter school controversy with special education elicited hundreds of reader comments. Many of the comments coalesced into three criticisms of charter schools: charter schools don’t teach all kids; charter schools violate special education law; charter schools are being used to bust the teachers’ union and allow a corporate privatization of public education. Chrysalis gives me an “in the trenches” perspective on these three criticisms that I share below.

Charter schools don’t teach all kids, only those who apply to them

True. For me, that is the heart of why charter schools are such a wonderful idea! I have watched too many educational reforms be pushed from the top down to all schools, all teachers, all students. This top-down push is coordinated with standards, frameworks, new textbooks, new tests and funding for teacher inservices. It’s part of the “business” of public education – meaning much money is spent, much money is earned by those involved. And within two years of the push, the reform is grinding to a stop – opposed by parents who don’t want their children to be “guinea pigs”, who want their children taught the former way. It doesn’t make any difference if the reform is conservative or liberal; it will be opposed by some because it is imposed on all.

That was the genius of charter schools. Let’s create a place for small-scale experimentation, a place where people with ideas can try them out. However, since they are experimental ideas, participants have to give their “informed consent”. The family has to actively opt-in to the experiment; they have to apply to the charter school which has to declare its experimental intentions within a charter that is publicly available. The fact that charter schools teach only those families that apply to them is an “of course”. What would opponents propose instead? That families are enrolled in charter schools against their will? If we want to create opportunities for public education to evolve within the evolving culture, we must create opportunities for small-scale change (similar to my lifting up of the boulder).

One consequence of this “opt-in” approach to experimental evolution is that charter schools will have only families that have gone out of their way to research options and submitted applications. This skews the population in an important way. Kids whose parents are involved in their education tend to do better in school. So this should make charter schools “perform better” than traditional schools.

But this shouldn’t be accepted as a criticism of charter schools. It is simply a consequence of creating a more viable path for creating innovation than top-down impositions. But it does have two implications. First, it means that charter schools had better “perform better”, that “performing better” might have nothing to do with the actual program of the charter school and might be due to a skewed sample size. It is not legitimate for a charter school to say that their program is “better” than other schools just because of higher test scores. (In fact I shy away from any comparisons with other schools. I prefer to focus on specific stories that arise from my experiences, pointing out things that are or are not working for us – so that others can learn from our experiment.)

This leads to the second interesting implication. Apparently, many charter schools are not performing significantly better than their traditional counterparts as measured by test scores. However, families keep applying to these charter schools. Why? I would hypothesize that it is because those families are evaluating the school by a different measure than test scores. As I have mentioned before, resource agencies that try managing their resource by a single measure find that, invisible to their measure, their single-measure management is making the resource “brittle.” Similarly, our public schools have allowed test scores to dominate their management. Examining why families continue applying to the charter schools can shed light on possible problems beyond the measure of test scores. For example, several families whose kids transferred to Chrysalis from other schools would say that the reason they love Chrysalis is because “I feel like I have my child back again.” The kids would say that they feel free to be themselves at Chrysalis. What is that about? What was happening at the test-managed schools? These other factors that are hard to quantify need to be taken into account by anyone intending to comparatively assess different schools.

In conclusion, the genius of charter schools was to move reform out of the imposition from above, one size to fit all students and teachers. Let experimental reform start small with a school that embraces the idea and teaches it to those students whose parents have knowingly chosen that school with its approach. If the idea works, other families might also choose it, which will lead other teachers and schools to experiment with the idea.

Because of my admiration for this original intent, I laugh ironically when charter schools are now criticized because they don’t teach all kids. That was part of the original point. The critics want to paint the charter schools into the same corner public education keeps painting itself into. “Use this new educational approach on families that don’t want that approach used on their children.”


Charter schools violate special education law.

I can understand the possibilities that some charter schools might discriminate against special education students. The federal government underfunds its enforceable special education mandates and the federal No Child Left Behind required that 100% of special education students in a school would be proficient at grade level. If not, that school will be labeled a failing school and subject to take over. That 100% requirement is absurd, especially for special education. I remember one student who had been bright and cheerful as a young child who then got encephalitis. Though she survived, her math sense thereafter was only a shadow of what it had been before. She was never going to be proficient. And, for these same reasons, a district superintendent or principal might be tempted to suggest to the parents of a low-scoring student that they might want to transfer out of the regular school over to a charter school because it is smaller and might better serve their child. So special education is a messy area for all of public education and with the fading out of NCLB, hopefully the area will grow less messy.

However, there is another part of special education that makes it potentially messy for charter schools. Special education is the most top-down, mandated, recipe-driven part of public education I’ve encountered. What drives it is not the needs of the child but case law driven by special education lawyers bringing cases to keep expanding the interpretation of that case law. Special education is an area where families can bring a suit against a school and encumber the school’s general education budget with compensation and lawyer fees. If a suit is brought, much of the case depends on the school’s paperwork so paperwork plays a central role in special education. Hours are spent documenting meetings and services. Much of it is defensive, “just in case.”

Most of the case law has arisen within traditional schools and so the case law tends to prescribe traditional school solutions for everybody. The most significant example of this for Chrysalis is grade-level instruction. Special education law requires that a child with an IEP receive grade-level instruction. This arose out of cases where schools were parking some of their special education students on hold and not really teaching them – so I understand the intent behind the requirement of grade-level instruction. But Chrysalis questions the assumption underlying standards-based grade-level instruction as a way of organizing a school. Age should not be the determinant of what content a kid should be “fed” so that all kids of the same age receive the same fare. Our field studies, our camping trips are not found in state standards. The freedom of a teacher to swerve off-topic in response to an opportunity can lead to learning that is not in the state standards. The more rigid one becomes to state standards, the less creative freedom a teacher and his/her students experience and “learning” loses its zesty edge. For us, the emotional/cognitive experience of the learning is more important than the specific content because the learning experience is going to shape the neuronal networking that develops from the lesson. Therefore we resist all attempts to force us into the box of grade-level standards – for any student – as a model for how the teacher’s interaction should progress. But our dedication to this model can run us into conflicts with special education law.

Therefore, I pause before reading an article about charter schools and special education. I summon enough detachment to stay aware that there will be two sides to this story and that the charter school side might involve foundational issues beyond the details of the specific child and that article.


Charter schools are being used to bust the teachers’ union and allow a corporate privatization of public education.

Unfortunately, this is a legitimate concern, especially if legislatures start favoring or requiring charter schools to be capable of being “scaled up.” But here I just want to comment on the role of the teachers’ union. I believe that the union has allowed its role of collective bargaining to lock it into an “adversarial” relationship with the administration rather than evolving beyond that towards teacher-control of the schools. Though the union will criticize administration, the unions need the administration in order to justify the union’s primary role in collective bargaining. Moving beyond that to where the teachers actually run the school with assistance from administrative support (like in other professions) will require the unions to move beyond collective bargaining which, currently, is their main justification for existing.

There are messy issues involved in such a development but those are the issues that the union should be exploring. One issue that teacher power brings up is how teachers are hired. At Chrysalis, teachers watch candidates do an actual lesson with our students and then actively discuss which candidate is best. We view this power as fundamental to a teacher-led school and take it very seriously. The current union stance is a teacher with higher seniority within the larger district has priority over someone with less seniority. But if a group of teachers organizes a school with a special emphasis, should skills and enthusiasm related to that special emphasis trump seniority?

Another issue is setting salaries. Salaries are part of a larger budget. Teacher powered schools I’m familiar with tend to have smaller class sizes, more aides, better resources. This leaves less money for teacher salaries. But it allows one’s teaching to be more effective and hence more meaningful and joyous. That is what attracted teachers to the profession and that is what they navigate by when given the power.

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Cairns #82 – End of the Long Days, 2015

School has started so teaching is dominating my mind, including this issue of Cairns.


I recently read “Schooled”, an article in The New Yorker by Dale Russakoff <>. It describes what happened when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s donated one hundred million dollars to the city of Newark to jumpstart reform of their school system. According to the article, much of the money went to consultants and union salaries. The families of the students resented changes being made by outside consultants who did not understand the city so political opposition to the “reforms” increased. The article leaves the impression that public education is so entrenched with so many factions that change is almost impossible.

The article reminded me of ten years ago when Chrysalis was losing our site and had to find a new facility. I was advised to meet with a development (fund-raising) person. She asked me what was special about Chrysalis. One of the things I mentioned was our small class sizes which led her to ask whether I thought I was smarter than Bill Gates. I was taken aback by the question. She said that Bill Gates had already experimented with small class size and it didn’t make a difference so why should I think it would.

Billionaires try to improve public education without much success. In my experience with Chrysalis, I’ve come to deeply know that one of the most important ingredients for student learning is responsiveness of the teacher to the input of the students. I start every year with my eighth graders balancing sticks because it is such a perfect image of what learning looks like, this dance between student and teacher. The teacher does something and the student responds and the teacher responds to that with something that could not be known until that moment, leading the student to respond in an unknown way.

Over and over again, politicians and wealthy philanthropists and people who have worked their way high into the educational hierarchy try reforming education by requiring (perhaps without awareness) something that restricts the ability of the teacher to respond to their students in the moment. It happens over and over again in different forms.

President Bush’s No Child Left Behind set the impossible goal of having 100% of students to test proficient on standardized tests. Once, when giving that year’s standardized tests, I looked at my students taking the test and thought “Two of them had restraining orders placed on their dads in the last two weeks. One boy’s brother died last week. Probability is that at least two girls are on their period and, being early in their womanhood, they might be experiencing bad cramps. Yet 100% of my students are supposed to perform proficiently.”

In pursuit of this impossible goal, schools turned the school day into mostly math and language arts. One school that was placed in “program improvement” had outside consultants come in and tell the teachers they should not have students’ art on the walls because the school shouldn’t be using limited time for doing art. They needed to be doing math and language. And instead of reading books, they practice reading short (no plot or character development) selections and answering multiple choice questions about them so they can improve their language scores.

Being high in the hierarchy or creating great wealth can create an invisible arrogance: that the view one sees from on high gives you the perspective and insight to see how things really are. You are in the unique position to see how to really reform the system. If only the schools and teachers would do …, the system would get improve. We will make them do …. things like standards-based learning. Teach to the standards. Some schools require their teachers to begin each lesson by writing on the board the objective from the standards that will now be taught. To require that of a teacher’s every lesson is to confine them to the paved walkways of our Earth. It signals the student that what is happening at this moment was determined by some committee years and miles away without any knowledge of you. It signals to the student that your teacher is responding to that committee, not to you. If you wall knowledge into compartments, much of the life ebbs away.

These top-down reforms have been so obviously wrong that the language has changed. “Top-down” is not used anymore. The new phrase is “scaling up”. Reformers are looking for innovations that can be “scaled up.” Replicated in thousands of schools. Which still means that those of us up high are looking for ideas that we’ll make all teachers down there do. We will curtail their ability to be responsively unique by scaling up this technique and require them all to do something that we know will work.

This reminds me of a point Donella Meadows made in her classic “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” “The systems analysis community has a lot of lore about leverage points. Those of us who were trained by the great Jay Forrester at MIT have all absorbed one of his favorite stories. “People know intuitively where leverage points are,” he says. “Time after time I’ve done an analysis of a company, and I’ve figured out a leverage point — in inventory policy, maybe, or in the relationship between sales force and productive force, or in personnel policy. Then I’ve gone to the company and discovered that there’s already a lot of attention to that point. Everyone is trying very hard to push it IN THE WRONG DIRECTION!” In education, everyone is trying to push standardized test scores higher, not realizing how that effort leads to deadened teaching and turned-off students. People high in the hierarchies require teachers to do the wrong thing and then blame the teachers when wrong things happen. Teachers are required to use ineffective curriculum to achieve inappropriate goals; not meeting those goals will mark the teacher as “ineffective.”


It’s easy to complain and criticize. But what do I mean by responsiveness? How is it like balancing a stick? Let me share an experience that captures the magical power of responsiveness.

One of my former eighth-grade students transferred to us from another school where she had been bullied, partly because of low grades, especially in math. She was pretty much defeated in math, lacking confidence. I was helping her, one on one, with a math problem she had not understood. I was doing my usual practice of asking questions rather than telling her what to do. At some point in our back and forth question-reply-new question requiring a new reply–new question, I realized that almost all of her energy was going into figuring out what phrase she could say that would protect her from giving a reply that would once again reveal her slowness in math, expose that she was stupid. (It’s OK to be smart and not try but it’s not OK to be stupid. Acting dumb can be cool but stupid is never cool; it makes you a target for teasing.) None of her energy/attention was thinking about the actual mathematics within my question; it all was going into deflecting the question. I looked up from the paper into her eyes and I said, “Math is hard for you, isn’t it?”

Her irises brimmed with an upwelling of tears. Just before they overflowed into tears, I could see a clenching of her tear ducts. The brimming stopped and gradually “soaked” away until the danger of crying was past. Her eyes started to relax which allowed the tears to again fill her eyes. Again she clenched and shut them just before they overflowed and again the tears subsided. I told her that I could see her tears (which made them well up again) and could see how she was trying to hold them back. When I acknowledged her tears, she no longer choked back the tears as strongly as she had before.

What followed was a beautiful dance of our eyes, an oscillation of tear ducts letting loose and clenching back again, of tears brimming and subsiding as my eyes, in response to her brimming tears, showed that I was seeing her tears and it was OK. I understand. There was no need to be afraid, no need to hold back her tears. And then when her tear ducts clenched, my eyes showed that it was OK to hold them back because she had needed to in order to survive the bullying. The oscillations became gentler, subsiding to eyes filled with tears, neither brimming over nor shutting down, eyes relaxing within a veil of tears that expressed so much, expressing a new equilibrium between us.

Our last day of school, the class was sitting in a Sharing Circle talking about the year, and she shared the story of crying in front of me and how it bonded us together. It was an important moment to her and it was an important moment for me too. Just as importantly, after that relaxing of her eyes, her concentration shifted from diverting remarks to actual engagement with the problem and she started doing mathematics. Several times in the remainder of the year, she successfully reached the answer to a complex hard problem, one that was challenging other kids, and I could see confidence and pride glowing in her eyes. She is now taking CP (college placement) math classes in high school.


A spiritual dimension lies at the heart of teaching, connecting teacher, what is being taught, and student. This spirit can’t be replaced with required techniques and procedures. It can’t be scaled up. It needs to be acknowledged and nourished. It needs to be given space and air to grow. That’s why Chrysalis’s mission is so important: “to encourage the light within each student to shine brighter.” Almost every teacher who has read that mission responds with a “Yes!” but no other school yet says it. Those not in the classroom will tend to say “but you can’t measure it?” You don’t measure it; you navigate by it every minute of the day and that leads into wonderful growth that can be measured. Most teachers everywhere long for the opportunity to really teach and connect with their students. They need to be allowed to teach in response to their students.


P.S. Interestingly, the New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece just before I emailed this Cairns out. “The Stranglehold on French Schools” by Peter Gumbel, Sept. 11, 2015, discusses the top-down centralized administration of France’s public schools. The following is from the last three paragraphs.

“The most surprising experiments are taking place within the decaying public system, especially in the worst schools in the toughest areas. Groups of highly motivated teachers, seeing that the prescribed curriculum and methods simply don’t work, are taking matters into their own hands, and convincing local education officials to grant them exemptions from the rules.

“A small network of so-called “micro-lycées” that help school dropouts get back on track and take their baccalaureate has sprung up. The results are spectacular: kids written off as complete failures suddenly end up with commendations and are going on to university. I also spent time in a suburb of Lille in a primary school that was threatened with closure 15 years ago because it was failing so badly. Today, its results are above the national average.

“These breakaway movements are still few and far between. But the system could and should learn from them. The key to solving France’s education crisis is to empower teachers and give schools far more autonomy. Let them teach Latin if they want. When teachers are motivated and work together for the good of their pupils, it makes all the difference.”


Here is another example of responsive teaching.


Chrysalis produced a wonderful example of place-based education this last school year. We often take kids for field study to a local park a few blocks away. Beyond the park is private property that includes riparian vegetation adjoining the main creek in the area. Teachers have thought it would be great if our classes could access that area (they referred to it as Narnia) but I, as administrator, didn’t do anything about it because the property owner was the president of the board of the neighboring school district. We represent competition to them.

But I was practicing stepping back from administration and our middle school language arts teacher (with support from our new administrator) had an idea. One of the main goals of 6th grade is writing a persuasive essay. Usually kids practice on made-up topics. But our kids worked on persuasive essays in the form of letters to the landowners asking permission to do field studies on their property. The class gathered information and discussed arguments and then each student wrote their own letter. The teacher then put all the letters together in one package and sent them to the landowner.

The husband and wife responded with enthusiastic delight. They invited the kids to come meet them and walk the land with them. They gave permission to utilize the riparian area. One of the things that moved them was the uniqueness of each letter. They could really sense the individuality of each child in each letter. They invited the school to come at apple harvest time and help harvest from their apple orchard. What a great demonstration of the power of a persuasive essay!

(It is also a reminder for me that it is right for me to step aside from administration and let new perspective come on in. I was there at the beginning, when we struggled for months seeking sponsorship and being turned down again and again because of the competition that a charter school might bring into the region. (Chrysalis was the first charter school north of Sacramento back in 1996). So I think I developed an image of ourselves as the barbarians at the gate of public education, persona non grata. Plus, as a part-time administrator of a school that was growing to a size that needed a full-time administrator, I was concentrating only on what I quickly judged offered the most return on my time, letting other things go. So I never imagined Narnia could turn out like this. It’s good to step aside and allow others to reveal new possibilities.)


Finite but Immense

Once I was flying back from England. The plane was cruising close to 40,000 feet over the ocean. Looking out the window, I was amazed that I could see the curve of the Earth. The horizon was almost a straight line if I looked at one part of it but when I focused on the entire horizon, the curve was very slight.

That slightest of curves was so smoothly beautifully. Seeing the curve brought tears to my eyes because that slightest of curves contained two simultaneous pieces of information lacking in a straight horizon. One is that the Earth is finite. The second is that the Earth is immense. It is really, really huge on our scale. It contains far more adventures than can be had in a lifetime. Those two truths, seemingly contradictory, embraced in that curve was so beautiful.

I am feeling something similar with my mortality. My heart continues to have its issues and makes me aware I might not be here ten years from now. I am at a high enough point in my life that I can see its curve. My life feels finite. But also the gift of life is so vast in potential. Vast but finite. The beauty of it often brings tears to my eyes.

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Cairns #80

Helping turn the prow of our entropyship, the Earth, back upstream so that Earth’s evolving consciousness may explore the vast headwaters of the Universe for billions of years to come.

Cairns #80

End of the Long Nights – 2015

 Alysia has become, officially, an ambassador for teacher-powered schools. She even gets to go to Washington next month, all expenses paid, to be on a panel at a conference. I was reading the webpage of the group sponsoring the conference. It contained a link that had a link to a blogger writing about teacher leaders. He opened with reference to remarks Arne Duncan, secretary of education, had made about how we need to change our current organizational model in which a master teacher, worthy of more influence and salary within public education, must leave the classroom and move up into the district hierarchy to gain that influence and salary. Secretary Duncan was saying we needed to develop ways that teachers could become leaders while remaining within the classroom.


This brought to mind an experience I once had in the early days of Chrysalis. I was giving our annual report to our sponsoring district board shortly after the governor had declared that all eighth graders would take algebra. I said somewhat self-righteously, flaunting the independence of charter schools, that we did not believe that all eighth graders were ready for algebra and we would not be teaching algebra to all of our eighth graders. The superintendent cut me off, saying this was not appropriate for a board report; that he thought that all eighth graders could succeed at algebra and that the district, with proper instruction at the earlier grades, would achieve this goal.


We continued not putting all of our eighth graders into algebra. A few years later we heard from the high schools of too many freshman ending up in remedial algebra classes and often failing it again and repeating it again because they had been pushed too fast in previous grades to get them ready for algebra and they had no secure foundation and the high schools couldn’t take the time to go all the way back to teach fractions.


Many years later, at a meeting, that same superintendent remarked to the group that the latest research showed that not all eighth graders were ready for algebra and should not be required to take it. He acknowledged that he had thought it was possible and they had attempted it and they had been wrong. (He turned to me when he said that which I thought was very gracious of him.)


That district had many good teachers and some of their very best had been promoted into the district hierarchy as curriculum specialists to inservice the other teachers in the district. I know that many teachers benefited from their knowledge. But they also went along with implementing the governor’s declaration that all eighth graders would take algebra. Surely they must have known it was not right but they had to go along because that is how the chain of command works. You assist passing the command from the top down to the teachers.


So when I read that Arne Duncan wanted a way to create ways for teachers to become leaders without having to leave the classroom, I have to ask the question: what do you mean by leader? Do you mean fitting into the hierarchy of command, helping pass down the “one model fits all” solutions originating from on high? Or do you mean leading the teachers to take more of the power of deciding what happens within their classrooms, to overrule top-down commands that cause harm, and be able to send corrective feedback back up a chain of command that is open and responsive to it?




I keep picking away on my next book. I hope to achieve a balance between interesting life stories and the lessons learned from those experiences. The chapter that follows describes my 24th summer. The summer before, I had discovered Alaska and found my dream of becoming a seasonal naturalist in Denali National Park. But I hadn’t yet felt worthy of this high calling so to develop myself, I set a goal of floating a thousand miles of the Yukon River the next summer. The only way I could think of for doing this as a hitchhiker was to use a small, inflatable raft.


On the Yukon

My plan was to float the river in two parts. I would put in at Dawson City and float 400-500 miles down to the new Alaska Pipeline Haul Road northwest of Fairbanks. Then I would revisit Denali. Later, I would hitch back to the Whitehorse area and put in on the Teslin River which would join the Yukon downstream of Lake Laberge so I wouldn’t have to paddle its 30 miles of slackwater, an impossible feat in my soft inflatable raft, especially if there was a headwind.


But first I hiked out to that tombstone of a mountain and touched the cliffs at its base. All alone out in dark rock mountains. It rained the first days and gray-crowned rosy finches hopped upon the melting snowbanks plucking insects lying frozen upon the snow. Then I came back to Dawson, bought my food, blew up my raft, packed my supplies aboard to form a soft, somewhat level, deck, sat down on top of my 4’ x 6’ raft, paused to look around, pass through any fearful reluctances, savor this moment, and finally push off. My raft started moving with the current. I was on my way.


It was mostly a very quiet time, just lying on my raft floating on a large, gentle river through the long arctic days. There were occasional abandoned cabins to walk around, probably built by the men who had lived along the river chopping wood for the steamboats that had plied this river for sixty years. But almost all my waking time was spent on my raft – because if I ever landed, I was quickly swarmed by mosquitoes. Except for occasional explorations, I’d come to shore only to get drinking water out of a clear side stream or to defecate. Otherwise I simply smoothly floated all day. Occasionally the current would carry me near a high cut-bank filled with burrowed swallow nests and for several delightful minutes I’d be in the midst of hundreds of swooping, chattering swallows, some hovering a few feet from me and then the current carried me beyond.


Sometimes I’d rescue drowning insects from the glacial silt gray-brown water and place them along the top of the tubes of my raft, up to five or ten of them if I was into it at the time. I’d get down close and watch one dry itself through a process that made sense as I watched it unfold. The first big effort was to drag its body out of the drop of water it was caught within. When it finally burst free of the bubble, then it would rest. It was still enshrouded in water but it was no longer that large confining mass. Next, it would drag itself along the surface, leaving a damp trail, leaving behind more and more of the water adhering it to the surface. It would rest. Then there would come the moment – when – with great effort the legs were able to lift its abdomen up, free from the surface and stand! The front legs would wipe off the face and pull the antennae through its claws. The next stage of drying off the wings varied among the insects. For beetles with smooth wing coverings, it was easy. For open-winged insects, it was slow and laborious with occasional rests. Gradually, the drying wings rose higher into the air, filling out, regaining their loft. Usually there would then be a couple of experimental flits of the wings and then – flit – the insect was gone.


I would sit cross-legged atop my “deck” of pack and raft tubes, then shift to my legs extended in front, then lay on my side, all 6’ of me extending the length of the raft, sometimes lay on my back gazing upward. When I was ready to camp, I’d drift down onto the head of an island, jump out, pull my raft onto shore, and then set up my tent with a mosquito-inspired speed and precision that improved day by day. I’d throw my supplies into the tent, dive in, zip the door shut and hunt down every mosquito that had made it into the tent. Then I would roll out my sleeping bag, eat dinner, go to sleep. Sometime in the increasing light of the perennial arctic day I would wake, eat breakfast, pack up my supplies within the tent. Then I would come out of the tent, take it down fast, pack it up, load the raft, push off, and float all that day.


Very little happened. One day a porcupine crossed my path. He was paddling across the Yukon. He was only about a fourth of the way across with a long way to go. But his hollow quills acted like a life jacket, holding him high in the water so all he had to do was a slow dog paddle to keep moving across the current. He would reach the other side miles downstream of where he had started. For awhile, we gradually drifted towards one another and passed a few feet away. I looked into his brown eyes. He continued on his way while I continued on mine, slowly diverging from him.


One day, while floating, I heard a sound in the forest. I interpreted it as the short squeal of a hare caught by a hawk or fox. I’m not sure what it was about that moment, that exclamation at the end of a life, but I suddenly felt at home within this world. “This world” in the big sense. Not just this day on the river in the arctic but this world with its billions of years of lives ending in death within a vast universe – something that I had always thought of as outside of myself was now me within it, in a comfortable way. It wasn’t a big moment like my first walk in bear country. It wasn’t an epiphany. It was just this subtle but noticeable shift in feeling between me and the world that happened at that particular place now far back upstream along the Yukon. I was now part of this world in a way I hadn’t been before.


The most dramatic thing in that part of the trip happened as I approached the town of Circle. I was out in the current, assuming that I would see the town up ahead on the left bank in enough time to paddle my raft over to it. I was planning on stopping for an hour to mail some postcards and buy some decadent food treat. The river, which had always been flowing as one channel with occasional small islands, opened in a quiet sudden way into three channels and I could the town of Circle about a quarter mile down the left channel but I wouldn’t be able to paddle fast enough to make it across to that channel so I floated past Circle and into the Yukon Flats. The Yukon is turbid brown, heavy with glacial silt and the Yukon Flats are the first place where the river can really spread out and drop some of it. As the silt settles out, it fills the channel, forcing the water to flow along a new path which it will, in time, clog with more silt. The river keeps reworking itself, splitting into channels flowing in different directions. For a day I tried to track my progress on my maps until I realized that the channels were rearranging themselves faster than any map could keep up with.


There came a point where I simply had to surrender to faith that the current couldn’t flow to a dead end, that all the channels would eventually have to inevitably gather together back into one channel before I reached the haul road bridge. Those became magic days, floating with no sense of where I was at all, far from any road, just floating on channels that would split and turn. Sometimes I floated along channels only a few yards wide; sometimes on channels that spread and shallowed to a few inches and I’d have to get out and pull my raft until it deepened. Sometimes the current grew so smooth and slow that I learned to tell which way I was moving by noticing how something in the foreground appeared to move against something behind it. Did it glide to the right or the left? I drifted by sand bars with colonies of Arctic Terns, the most buoyantly beautiful flyer I’ve ever seen, flying above me. As the Yukon Flats implied, the land was of low relief so there was no sense of progressing through a landscape, just the unpredictable twists and splits of channels that would occasionally rejoin a large channel of the Yukon but then later split again. (To sense this reality, go to Google Earth, go to Circle, Alaska and then follow the river north to watch this happening.) The currents carried me northwest just up to the Arctic Circle and then turned southwestward. Floating through the Flats from day to day for two hundred miles until the channels merged into a larger and larger river and the Yukon was one channel again and soon thereafter I came to the haul road and that part of the trip was over. I got a ride with a trucker into Fairbanks, took a shower, washed my clothes, and headed back to Denali for a few weeks of roaming.




In August, I did the second, upper part of my Yukon Trip. I hitchhiked with my 110 pounds of equipment back near Whitehorse to the Teslin River which would join with the Yukon River downstream of long Lake Laberge. This was a different trip. Night now existed and was growing quickly longer. There were no more mosquitoes. The Teslin was a much smaller river. Its shores were closer, the river shallower. There were less islands so I camped on the shore more. The water flowed clear though brown. Later, the Teslin converged with the Yukon, flowing very clear after its slow passage through Lake Laberge and now I was on the Yukon and it was growing bigger with each new tributary. And then the well-named White River came in laden with glacial silt from the St. Elias Mountains a hundred fifty miles away and the Yukon became opaquely silty for the rest of its way.


I stopped at Fort Selkirk, a ghost town from the steamboat days. In the school house were some old reading primers from the British Commonwealth empire. Stories with pictures of white girls in party dresses having tea parties in their rose gardens, all so proper. What thoughts would have arisen in the native kids out here in a wilderness where winter dominated the year as they read these stories? There was a non-native cemetery with headstones and a native cemetery. There was a stone memorial in the Mounties section of their cemetery inscribed with verse from Robert Service

“This is the law of the Yukon,

and ever she makes it plain:

“Send not your foolish and feeble;

send me your strong and your sane”

I chanted that, sometimes proudly bellowed it strong and sane as I floated on down the river. Now I felt worthy of the high calling of being a seasonal naturalist at Denali National Park.


Migration was on. Flocks of birds passed low overhead as they followed the river upstream towards the south. Flocks of robins. A large flock of nighthawks. The spotted sandpipers that had been a constant presence, bobbing along the shore, faded away. Near the White River, a large flock of five thousand sandhill cranes circled and clamored at the end of the day, perhaps voting whether to stop for the night or keep going. They eventually decided to land on a sandy island just downstream of my camp.


My main memory of that trip was a hike I took. I floated the Yukon because I wanted to go far beyond the roads, to get way out there, out possibly to that mythical place where no other person had stood before. I wanted to be bold and adventurous and be in a situation where I was completely on my own, just myself and the world. As I floated, I realized I could get there by hiking away from the river. So I studied my maps and selected an area ahead where low mountains lay close to the river. I landed at the mouth of one of the streams flowing from those mountains, packed my pack for an overnight hike, stowed my supplies and raft and went hiking up, following the stream toward the top of its drainage. Bear scat appeared within the first half mile but it was probably just black bear scat. I hiked cross-country throughout the day and by late afternoon, I was following the final rounded tundra ridges towards the summit ridgeline. Communal piles of wolf scat were common atop every rock outcropping that stuck out along the ridge. I was out there. I sauntered up to the final low summit where I could gaze in all directions. About three miles across the next wide drainage on the next dividing ridge was a mid-size, 20 to 30 man mining operation. It was too far away to hear but through my binoculars I could see the bulldozers at work.


We live and move within a gradient that stretches thousands of miles to Out There and, more importantly, stretches back tens of thousands of years to a situation that has deeply shaped our souls. Maybe it’s a young male thing – I don’t know – but I imagine youth, like fairy tale heroes in search of their fortune, leaving overpopulated birth places devoid of opportunity, in search of a place they can call their own like that porcupine swimming across the Yukon. Some die in the search but those aren’t our ancestors. Our genes come from the ones who were successful, the ones for whom the search led to a wonderfully exotic mate, hills to roam, and secure places for one’s children to romp. Our ancestors from the deep past have shaped within us a siren call that lures us towards horizons. Out There calls from deep within. Out There lies new worlds, new possibilities. If the world of people gets too much, head for the hills.


But on the next ridge over from Out There sits a mining operation. And that was 35 years ago. Another mine might be strip-mining Out There at this very moment. We have populated and so changed the world that the Out There we imagine no longer exists. The urban-wilderness gradient still exists so we can still have the experience of heading out into the wild but the wild is becoming domesticated as we fill the world in. To those of us who have sought the shaping influence of the wilderness, we humans are losing one of the greatest gifts that being alive on this Earth has to offer us – the opportunity to be completely responsible for every step.


But my main memory of that hike was of a place. That first afternoon, after having climbed above treeline, I stopped by the now small stream to rest. No mosquitoes. All was still. (In fact, in a few days, I would be spending the day beside the river in my tent as the first wet snowfall dripped brown slush from spruce branches.) The stream curved in a way that created a low sheltered spot. It was warm. I was alone, where no one would ever find me. The rippling of the stream was the only sound. Around me, was the tundra brush in full autumnal colors. Oranges, reds, and golds beneath blue sky. It was very peaceful. Way out in the wild beyond. . . it was peaceful. I sat there a long time, letting its peace flow through me. Nothing remarkable happened but that orange place remains strong in my memory.


And then one day, Dawson City came into view. I came to shore a few feet downstream of where I had pushed off from in June. As my raft deflated, I sorted my supplies for the hitchhike back home. I carried my trash to a garbage can. I dropped the first load in and the bang of it hitting the bottom was so painfully loud that I had to gently lay the remaining trash onto the bottom. My ears had dilated wide open to the quiet world.
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Cairns #81

Helping turn the prow of our entropyship, the Earth, back upstream so that Earth’s evolving consciousness may explore the vast headwaters of the Universe for billions of years to come.

Cairns 81

Beginning of the Long Days, 2015


The school year is over. I am officially passing off my administrative duties now so I will have more of my time and energy available for the teaching that I love. Alysia and I will try a semi-retirement of team teaching at Chrysalis next year. Could be really sweet. This is a short Cairns to give me time for some other writing.


Staying Found

This year the middle school teachers tried an all-day field study called Staying Found. Four of us took about 45 students 6th through 8th grade out to a large BLM reserve of oak-grassland savanna strongly shaped into a visible watershed. From the ridges one can look out for miles. We each had a group of about eleven students. We had the kids lead the way, orienting by the shape of the land, with two objectives of (1) roaming wherever they decided but also (2) needing to be able to return to our starting point. What follows are some of the reflections that my eighth graders wrote about that day.


While exploring the world beyond a glowing square, there is so much. People only see the gist of it in pictures, and on TV, and don’t get the full affect. People always trap themselves in their little house and don’t see the beauty of life. The feeling of seeing green grass and trees go for miles is an incredible thing! You have the power to go and walk wherever you’d like and find your way back. True freedom doesn’t always seem to show at every second of our lives, but last Friday for me, it did. … I believe that giving young adults the power to wander on their own and let them decide their own paths to wander down, rather than someone else making the decision for them, will help them in the near future.



Running over the rounded ridges was very fun. As we were coming over a ridge we had a sense of curiosity to see what was on the other side. Then we were surprised to find what was on the other side. There was more ridges. After awhile we finally came over a ridge and found the creeks that we were looking for.



I think when given the opportunity, when given the chance, to purely be yourself we take the chance. … And on Friday I felt this chance handed to me. I’m not sure what prompted it, maybe it was just nature itself, but I felt as if someone was saying “Hey, it’s okay. You’re okay. You’ll be okay. You’re safe.”

And I don’t know, I sang with all that was within me, I sang with all that my sore throat would let me. [Kids selected different groups; one group was a group for those who wanted to sing during the day.] There was just a feeling, like someone was telling me I was safe there. (I am struggling trying to express it through words.)

Something else, I felt that we carried the Chrysalis Spirit with us as we roamed and sang. We as a school, I think, are set apart. We are not like other schools; we don’t go by the book, the rule or the guide lines. We think outside the box, “How can we change it, do it differently, do it more “Chrysalisy”?

We don’t just go look at a museum; we go pull their weeds. We don’t go look at the river; we study it and it’s inhabitants. We don’t just do a math lesson; we make sure that our students understand it to the fullest. And we don’t just go hike by the river; we roam and sing. So as we were walking along, it hit me. We are Chrysalis, and we were singing and announcing our presence.



On our Staying Found field study. I discovered something great about nature. You never know what you’ll find. I’ve had this feeling before but never knew how to describe it. When we were on the hike, we climbed up a really big hill. I expected there to be more trees and a long way down. But, that wasn’t it. On the other side there was a small creek, an open plain with trees scattered around, and even a tiny cave. This changed me, and made me want to experience nature, instead of just looking at pictures of it on google.



When we went to our field study I was thinking “Oh great, we get to go hiking”. But when we got there and actually started hiking, it really changed my view of hiking and nature.

When I was hiking up one of the hills, we got to the top and we were on a ridge and I could see everything for miles. I looked around and saw the water down below and the other ridges across from us and it was beautiful. I used to think that outdoors was cool and all but I never really had a good experience out there, but when we were out there, everything seemed so beautiful and real. I’ve come to really appreciate nature because it can be so peaceful and quiet. Nature can be a place where I go if I need to blow off steam or if I just want to have fun.

Also, if I’m out in nature there seems to be a lot of places I can explore. Before we went on this hike I hated walking/hiking uphill but after we went on this hike, I really want to go uphill on mountain ranges because while you’re walking up the hill, you never know what’s going to be on top or what’s below.



My favorite part was at the end where we stopped at a pond for 25 minutes just sitting there watching the water. There at the water, looking back at that day, there was a very interesting part. At the pond I learned about the tadpoles and how small they were but, more importantly, on that day was the entire staying found idea. At the pond I found it fascinated me beyond explanation, creating a deeper understanding in nature in which I cannot word. I can almost word it by saying that the critters, bugs, lizards, and insects were all in this connection, a connection that is easily breakable. Their connection was like glass. The insects were able to float and kind of had a personality where some stayed close to another and others stayed in the wide open. In my preference this day at the pond really deepened my understanding of nature and its beauty like a fresh flower out of spring.


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Cairns #64

HOPE_CurveThe mission of H.O.P.E. is to turn the prow of our entropyship, the Earth, back upstream so that Earth’s evolving consciousness may explore the headwaters of the Universe for billions of years to come. The work of H.O.P.E. is to make visible the larger relationships we live within – relationships that inspire visions of wonder and works of hope.

Cairns #64

End of the Long Nights, 2011

Wolf Howl

Most schools use bells to signal changes to the students but Alysia picked up the idea of wolf howls from the Wilderness Awareness School. Near the end of recesses, any one of the staff starts to howl like a wolf. When you hear the howl, you join in. Within five seconds, the wolf howl has spread across the school yard and the kids are heading in, ending the recess with an affirming experience of “pack” camaraderie.

Shadows gliding over the ground lift my eyes to birds flying overhead.

March 20th Talk at Arcata/Eureka

I’ve been invited to give the Spring Equinox Sunday talk at the Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at 24 Fellowship Way, Bayside, CA. I give the talk at two services, 9 AM and 11 AM, in case any of you in the area wish to come.

I’ve decided to open that talk with the following memory.

I think it was in second grade. I know it was early because in my memory, I am eating my school lunch at a table next to the stage and the youngest grades ate next to the stage. As you grew older, you sat at tables further away from the stage. So sometime when I was around 8, I remember sitting, surrounded by other kids, with a strange two-fold feeling. Somehow, I had recently learned, in whatever manner allowed it to sink in, that our Sun would die in a few billion years and that all life on Earth would then cease to exist. I doubt I understood the true meaning of billions of years. But I remember sitting there with this feeling that there was no point to life because it was all going to come to an end. Some irretrievable magic of childhood had drained out of the world, leaving me beached upon a pointless world. That was one part of the feeling. On the other hand, this new world – I saw it as the world of the grown-ups. It was a bleak world but it was also the “true world” and I had entered it. The draining of purpose felt like an initiation in an intriguing way. A certain pride of maturity and noble resolve was the second part of the feeling. “So this is what it feels like to be a grown-up.”

As I reflect upon that memory, I realize how private each of our existences can be. Now I am a teacher seeing kids sitting at their lunches. What is going on inside their minds and souls? How often are transformations we are going through so profound that we can’t even understand them enough to speak of them? Which leads me to ask you: do you have a similar memory of an emotional passage into “a sheerly mechanistic world” (Joseph Campbell’s phrase)? If so, I would appreciate hearing about it.



While learning about meteorology via a Great Courses lecture series, I encountered the word “diffluence” in relation to the jet stream. It refers to a spreading out and consequent slowing down in a flow. I’ve been expressing that idea with the word “divergence.” In meteorology, divergence refers to when a flow has to flow around an obstacle. It compresses together as it flows around, speeding up. I’ve noticed this with the willows I first planted in a streambed more than 15 years ago. I thought the willows would slow stream flows down and they did in some ways, but they also create jets of water between the willows which create deep channels, not deposition. So in this fundamental sense, the “divergences” I’ve been creating in headwaters are not divergences. They are diffluences.


Fallen Leaves

This runoff event finally floated the leaves that had fallen into the stream channels this year. Leaves have high surface areas and wet leaves adhere to one another to create strong yet malleable structures. Fallen leaves within runoff are like clotting factor in blood, able to quickly create light yet resilient structures to staunch the flow. In the following image (taken about 36 hours after the storm), you can see how the fallen leaves began adhering and accumulating to the side of the runoff. Each leaf created a wet surface for the next floating leaf to stick to and soon leaf levees many centimeters high were constraining the runoff within two specific channels. (Classic feedback spiral: does the flow of water shape the levees or do the levees shape the flow of water?) If I’m out there during heavy runoff, I can push large stretches of the levees around to lead more of the runoff where I want. TE08-11:02:19 70

Part of what makes this particular spot interesting is that a large streambed lies at the top of the picture, flowing from left to right. Though you can’t see it, a one meter high cut bank lies just beyond the green grass about three meters beyond the furthest leaf levee. This whole side drainage used to flow about five meters to the left of this view, straight to and over the cutbank into the stream, eroding a gully into this terrace. All the runoff and all the floating leaves used to end up in that stream where they flowed away. But now I have diverted almost all that flow this way so that the runoff now flows to the right for about two hundred meters along the terrace, slowly soaking in. Hardly any of it contributes to the surge of runoff within that streambed during a storm. Now, all the leaves “get stuck” in this area. Year after year, a leaf delta is building up, decomposing into a deeper absorbent sponge. You can appreciate this when you compare the above picture with one taken almost exactly two years ago when I first diverted the runoff onto the terrace. This second picture faces a bit more to the right, allowing you to see how the runoff turned to the right and flowed along the terrace, rather than pouring over the cutbank (which is outlined by lines of rocks I had recently placed along its edge to help turn the runoff to the right).

TE08-09:02:21Notice how thin the vegetation was back then and how the leaves were washed out over a broader area because the terrace originally had less surface area for the leaves to adhere to.

The deeper idea behind these specifics is that though we must accept that water will flow downhill (because we live within a universe shaped by the Second Law of Thermodynamics), we (and allies) can influence how that water flows downhill. The runoff can flow quickly and definitively back towards the sea, carrying away leaves and other products of the earth’s fertility. But we also can lead that runoff onto slower paths along which much of it soaks into the ground, never reaching even the nearest stream. In the soil, the water (and the decomposing leaves) nourish life to grow more richly which, in turn, makes the soil more absorbent so that increasingly more of the runoff will soak in. This fundamental idea underlies the next section…


Three Approaches

Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winning economist and columnist for the New York Times whom I hold in highest respect, recently wrote:

“One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

“The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft….

“There’s no middle ground between these views.”

His “no middle ground” crystallized thoughts that have been brewing up in the fields for years. There is a middle ground. It lies with seeing money flowing within an economic culture as like water flowing within an ecosystem. In past Cairns, I have often brought up this analogy between water and money. Krugman’s comment led me to focus on a new aspect of the analogy. Analogies don’t prove anything but they are great for inspiring hypotheses and experiments. I know a lot about how water flows in a storm but I’m neither physicist nor economist. I’m sure my analogy has limits so please read the following with a warning light flashing “analogy ahead.”

The new part of the analogy between water and money is “why do they flow?” By flow, I do not mean water’s ability to be pumped through pipes. I mean water’s tendency to flow downhill. When I am digging channels with my trowel, there is a fine but fundamental difference between one that successfully leads water along a slightly downhill direction and one that futilely attempts to lead water along a slightly uphill direction. Flowing downhill is spontaneous; it does not require an input of energy. The spontaneous flowing of water reveals a direction which the Second Law interprets as moving towards an increase in entropy, towards “less possibilities.” Things spontaneously flow towards greater entropy. A sound spontaneously fades away. A ball spontaneously bounces lower and lower until it comes to a stop.

In this sense of the word, does money flow? Is there such a thing as “slope” in the economic landscape? Is there an economic equivalent to a “direction” so that unconstrained money would spontaneously flow that way? I hypothesize there is because I see money converging in ways that remind me of runoff converging within a drainage network as it flows down from the ridges into the increasingly larger channels. Greater concentrations of money gather into a smaller area. Some people will be situated downslope where flows have converged into great abundance washing over them while many, many others will live high on the slopes or the ridgetops where the only “moisture” they receive is from just the rain and dew that falls upon them. The rich grow richer is a pattern common through history. Some celebrate this pattern; other deplore it. In this discussion, I simply note it as suggestive that there has been a direction of spontaneous flow within money which leads to the heart of the analogy: that money, like water, flows towards greater entropy. In thermodynamics, the amount of energy does not change as it flows. What changes is that the amount of work the energy can accomplish declines. This leads me to wonder: does the amount of “potential energy” within money decline as it flows towards greater convergence?

I can think of at least two ways in which this appears true. First, money undergoes inflation as it converges so that money becomes worth less further downstream. A simple example that you might think facetious: it will take several thousands of a wealthy person’s downslope dollars to clothe that person (sometimes for a single event) while it takes only a few hundred upslope dollars to clothe a poor person for a year. One rich person’s downslope dollar buys less of the “clothing need” and is therefore worth less (inflation). Some will say there is no equivalency between a high quality suit and thrift store worn-out clothes. True in some ways. However, when I examine the relationship between cost and value, I conclude that a significant amount of the cost of a shirt bought with downslope dollars lies in announcing that this product was purchased with large quantities of downslope dollars. Part of the “value” in a two hundred dollar shirt as opposed to a fifteen dollar shirt is that wearing the expensive shirt distinguishes one as having enough money to be able to spend two hundred dollars on a shirt. The two hundred dollar shirt might last longer and fit better but that difference does not account for the entire $185 difference between the two shirts. Part of that $185 price difference lies in the value of the higher price itself. As money converges, a greater percentage of each purchase goes towards demonstration of wealth rather than the product itself. We usually think of inflation as applying equally to all money within an economy but I think that location within the “watershed” also influences it. Money has a different “potential energy” depending on its location within the “watershed”.

A second way money decreases in “potential energy” as it flows towards convergence is that more of it flows into leverage and speculation which creates economic bubbles. This loss of potential energy is currently glaringly obvious in billions of dollars worth of half-built housing tracts. Why does some of the converging money flow into leverage and speculation? Because as money converges, some people acquire far more money than they need so what are they to do with it? The answer that has evolved within our culture is to invest it – and industries have arisen to help one do that. Concentrations of money have financed many worthy projects that would otherwise be difficult to accomplish. I acknowledge this. However, the financial industry is strongly shaped by a powerful reinforcing feedback spiral: those firms that can earn a higher rate of return on an investment attract more money to invest. (This feedback spiral is similar to one with water. A stream that gathers more water can cut downwards, steepening adjacent slopes so that more of the rain runs off into the stream.) This reinforcing feedback spiral can focus investment companies to do solid research that lead to culturally-enhancing, profitable investments. But the same reinforcing feedback spiral can also twist off into another direction. The easiest way to increase rate of return is through leverage. Therefore, the more that money flows towards highest rate of return, the more that some of it will flow into leverage. This reinforcing feedback spiral can be hijacked by speculation. Bubbles develop when rates of return on an “investment” are driven by how much money is flowing into that investment which is driven by perceived rates of return. Leverage increases the amount of money flowing in which increases the perceived rate of return which increases the amount of money flowing in. Money flowing into bubbles is another way it loses its “potential energy” within a culture.

Once we start thinking of money as flowing towards less “potential energy,” then the water cycle becomes illuminating. Only about 40% of the rain that falls on the land came directly from evaporation off the sea. 60% is “recycled rain”: fresh water that, as it flowed downslope back towards the sea, evaporated or, more likely, was transpired through plants back into the clouds to fall again as rain. This almost double recycling of the fresh water changes the average terrestrial rainfall from a desert amount (what it would be without recycling) to enough rain to support forests. This is an appropriately powerful image to focus our economic discussions. Do we want to evolve a richly-cycling economic system that is capable of sustaining an economic forest or do we want to settle for a draining economic system that sustains only an economic desert? It is in the self-interest of an economic culture to develop ways to keep as much of its money cycling high in the drainage as possible.

This is where I see a middle ground between Krugman’s “two sides.” His “two sides” both see wealth as dollars which are possessed rather than as potential energy which is flowing. This creates a zero-sum game in which every transaction, every “game” has a winner and a loser. Both sides are arguing whether some of the dollars of the rich should be transferred over to the poor. The one side justifies this transfer as creating a more “morally right” society. The other side resists this transfer as theft, something they see as morally wrong.

But in the middle ground, we look not at dollars but at the amount of potential energy within an economic culture, its true wealth. In the middle ground, the emphasis is not on transferring amounts of money currently in the possession of one “faction” into the possession of another “faction.” The emphasis is on developing and shifting the paths by which money flows and cycles through the system so that, like fresh water, more of the potential energy within money accumulates within the system – to everyone’s benefit. The discussion fundamentally shifts away from a zero-sum game mentality of winners and losers toward something more expansive in which all can experience benefit.

A cat can twist in mid-air without violating the conservation of angular momentum. In a similar way, my plays in the rainy fields feel like runoff flowing towards greater potential energy – without violating the Second Law. I lead runoff from areas of saturated ground (usually channels) to areas of unsaturated ground (somewhere on the adjoining slopes). I do this with channels sloping gently down across the slope. Much of the water is absorbed into the soil as it flows across the slope. So though the water is always flowing downward along my new path, the water ends up far higher on the slope than it would have. From this point of view, the runoff seems to have moved up the slope. The same thing can be done with money, leading flows to accumulate higher within a culture’s economic drainage, increasing that culture’s “potential energy” to bring new possibilities into existence.

Alysia’s Retirement

Alysia began experiencing some heart problems in October. She is on cardiac medicine to control the symptoms but their side effect is lowered energy so that she can not carry the responsibility of a classroom teacher reliably. Therefore she will be retiring at the end of this school year. That is a few years earlier than we had planned. This abrupt change poses a spiritual challenge to her and us. I am proud of the way she is full-heartedly and mindfully grappling with it, trying to transform this change into an opportunity for something new to come into our lives.

New E-mail address – and domain

In Seeing Nature and on early versions of The Upward Spiral, I gave my email address and domain as and The renewal time for that domain came up when things got really busy at Chrysalis. Renewing it never made it to the top of my “to do” list because I figured no one else would want the domain “”. That’s because I didn’t understand our brave new world.

When I finally got around to renewing, the domain was taken. I typed in to see who possibly could have bought it and it went to a men’s fashion site that had absolutely nothing to do with “krafel”. A couple of months ago, I resigned myself to buying the new domain of Then a week ago, while surfing the internet, I came upon this: Overview has 15596062 traffic rank in world by alexa. is getting 70 pageviews per day and making USD 1.94 daily. has 751 backlinks according to yahoo and currently not listed in Dmoz directory. is hosted in United States at THEPLANET.COM INTERNET SERVICES data center. is most popular in . Estimated worth of is USD 1416.2 according to websiteoutlook

I assume that what’s happening is that computer programs monitor domains that have expired and calculate their “worth” based on the amount of traffic generated by the site and the amount of revenue that could be generated by hits on ads. If I understand what this means, some tech-savvy person bought the domain for $10 or so a year and might be making $1.94/day from ads now connected to that domain and that if I wanted to buy that domain back, they would ask for $1416.20. Do that with a couple hundred unrenewed sites and you have a nice revenue stream.

Ah well, moving on to a new domain. I bought this one for ten years and I’ll be sure to renew early. If you have your own website and it has a link to my old domain, I’d appreciate it if you could update it. It’s too bad that there are lots of versions of Upward Spiral posted on the net that give as the way to contact me. Maybe that’s why the other site is logging 70 pageviews per day. I’ve updated my Upward Spiral DVD with my new domain; if any of you put my video on the net and would like to update it with this new version, let me know and I’ll send you a free updated version.

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Business Stuff

© 2011, Paul Krafel, 18080 Brincat Manor, Cottonwood, CA 96022
Permission is granted to copy and distribute (for free) this material as long as you attach this copyright notice and my addresses so that a future reader can track down the source.

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Cairns #01

HOPE_CurveThe mission of H.O.P.E. is to turn the prow of our entropyship, the Earth, back upstream so that Earth’s evolving consciousness may explore the headwaters of the Universe for billions of years to come. The work of H.O.P.E. is to make visible the larger relationships we live within – relationships that inspire visions of wonder and works of hope.

Cairns of H.O.P.E. #1

The following is part of a closing talk I gave at an Adopt-a-Watershed teacher inservice. I allude to some watershed concepts presented during the preceding 5 hours. However, if you have read my book, Shifting, you will be able to follow along.

My family hangs our laundry out on the line to dry. I collect it by walking out to the clothes line, and moving out along it, gathering the laundry. When I get to the end of the clothesline, I carry the basket back into the house.


One day I wondered whether it made any difference if I did it another way. What if I walked out to the other end of the clothesline first and gathered the laundry as I worked my way back toward the house. When I get to the end of the clothesline, I carry the basket back into the house.

Is there a difference between these two paths? (In the ensuing discussion, most people think there is no difference.)

The walk from the house to the near end of the clothesline with an empty laundry basket is the same in both routes. The walk back from the near end of the clothesline with a full laundry basket is also the same in both routes. The walk along the line gathering the laundry is also the same. The direction of this walk is different along the two routes but they both begin with an empty basket, cover the same distance, and end with a full basket of the same weight.

The last segment to compare is the walk along the clothesline when I am not gathering laundry. In the first route, I walk back along the clothesline with a full basket. In the second route, I walk out along the clothesline with an empty basket. On a big laundry day, this difference could be 30 pounds of laundry being carried 100 feet. There is, indeed, a difference between the two routes.

Now, let us examine two different ways water can flow through a watershed. I pass out six toy blocks to each pair of people. Let’s pretend that each of these blocks represents a unit of water (say, an acre-foot) that fell on our watershed and is going to flow off it. There are many ways this water can flow off the watershed. It can flow off one block at a time – let’s pretend that means that one unit of water is flowing off every hour. Or it could flow off two units per hour and take three hours to leave the watershed. It could all flow off in a stack of six and be gone in an hour. Does it make any difference how that water flows off the land?

Before we answer that question, let us apply something we learned today. Erosive power is an exponential function of stream volume. There are different ways to measure the ability of flowing water to erode and each has its own mathematical relationship. But let us simplify that and for this example, let us assume that the erosive power within our stream is to the fourth power of the volume that passes each hour.

For example, if we had one unit pass each hour, then the erosive power of each unit is 1x1x1x1=1. Since there are six units of water, there will be six units of erosive power acting in that stream.

Now imagine that two units of water flow past each hour over a three hour period. Then the erosive power flowing each hour is 2x2x2x2=16. In three hours, there will be 16×3 or 48 units of erosive power. Same amount of water as in the first case but eight times as much erosive power. Test other situations and find out how much the erosive power can vary.

After a few minutes discussion with their partners, the teachers report that the greatest erosive power happens when all six units flow off in one hour. There are then 6x6x6x6 = 1296 units of erosive power.

The same amount of water. But flowing out of the watershed in a different way gives it very different erosive power. Now, can you think of something people do that changes how fast rain flows off of an area? Discussion.

A very common way is to pave an area. 0% of the rain soaks in. It all runs off and runs off almost instantaneously. The larger the paved area, the more dramatic the effect. This winter, several people died in the L.A. area when the first big rain fell. The papers said the storm drain system hadn’t been able to handle the runoff. And yet it had handled it the last time a big storm had fallen. In truth, what had happened was that a massive amount of that area’s watershed had been built on and paved in the time between monster storms.

The same thing happened in the Philippines several years ago. A large storm fell on an area and a surge of runoff wiped out a streamside village. The water came up so fast that many of the inhabitants were drowned without warning. The crucial point was that the storm was not a record-breaking monster storm. The village had been there for centuries and many storms had fallen on the watershed. The village had never been wiped out before – which is why the inhabitants drowned without warning this time. The only difference was that since the last large storm, the watershed had been clearcut.

So, like gathering the laundry, the path rainfall takes off the land does make a big difference.

Here is another laundry story. I break up “doing the laundry” into four jobs. The first part is putting the laundry in our washing machine. The second part is hanging the laundry on the line to dry. The third part is gathering the dry laundry and bringing it back into the house. The fourth part is sorting the laundry and putting it away. This fourth part is my least favorite (especially matching the socks) and so is often put off for some time after the third part. Often the first three jobs have been done to several loads of laundry and I have a large pile of dry laundry before I finally get around to doing the fourth job.

One day last summer, I was doing job three, “gathering the laundry off the line”. I was proceeding mindlessly along, dropping each item into the basket when I suddenly noticed a pair of matching socks hanging close to one another. I hesitated…and paired the two socks before dropping them into the basket.

I realized my mind made a transition – from “gathering the laundry” to “doing the laundry”. From doing “job 3” to awareness that each of these jobs was a subset of a larger job. By being aware of the larger job, I could do the smaller job in a way that harmonized better with the larger job.

Watershed awareness is like that. When we see our actions as part of a bigger work, we can see more opportunities for our work to harmonize with the larger work. So I would like to take several minutes to describe part of the bigger picture we live within.

I then spent about 10 minutes describing the process described in Shifting by which life has created soil and by which soil holds and slows the rains which creates more opportunities for soil to grow and which allows more of the rain to be recycled which creates more opportunities for life to expand. Here is one segment of this part that is not in Shifting .

One problem with having different scientific disciplines is that it decreases the chances of viewing the same phenomenon from different perspectives. For example, photosynthesis is usually restricted to biology classes so we learn it like this: 6 carbon dioxide molecules + 6 water molecules + light = 1 glucose molecule + 6 oxygen molecules (O2). But to consider it from a geological point of view, let me do some poetic rounding off to transform the equation to this: Atmospheric gas + liquid water + sunlight = a solid + atmospheric gas. Realize that the glucose molecule produced by photosynthesis is the precursor to cellulose, lignins, humus – all the special structures of life that, upon their decay, mix with weathered rocks and change it to soil. Therefore, one last round of poetic rounding off yields: air + water + sunlight = soil + oxygen. Where does soil come from? Most of it comes out of the atmosphere. Photosynthesis is a process that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide into soil all over the world….

So we are a small part of a vast process of life which has, over a half billion years, covered the bedrock with a soil that absorbs and recycles the ocean’s gift of fresh water that permits life to grow ever more vigorously. Life has created possibilities that were unimaginable a billion years ago. This is the bigger picture of the work we live within. “Making a living” is to this great work what “dropping dried laundry into the basket” is to “doing the laundry”.

I want to share one last story with you, a story from when my oldest daughter was two years old. I was playing with some blocks when she came along and started knocking them down. A game developed where I would stand them up and she would knock them down. She laughed as she tried knocking them over as fast as I could stand or stack them. Her laughter grew until it became almost fiendish with its delight in destruction. I was growing a little dismayed by her destructive streak when I suddenly had a cosmic insight.

Zephyr had never played with these blocks before. They had never held interest for her before because she lacked the dexterity, the patience, the strength to do anything interesting with them. But my standing and stacking the blocks put them into a higher energy position which made dramatic changes (knocking them down) easy to accomplish. Her weak, clumsy hands were capable of creating dramatically significant changes in the blocks when they were standing up. The blocks became interesting. She begins interacting with the blocks. As she plays with them, she will develop the dexterity, she will build the strength, she will cultivate the patience to stack them and build higher.

We humans are like a two year old. We find ourselves in a world full of things like those standing blocks. Things like deep soil, magnificent runs of salmon, wind-baffling trees, and 27″ of recycled rain. In our toddler-like explorations, we discover that we can knock these things down. And we delight in knocking them down faster than they can be stacked back up. This is a cause for both despair and hope.

Hope because we are discovering that we have the power to change the environment. If previous generations had been asked whether they had the power to change the environment, they would have said “no” (if they could even understand what the question meant). But we now know we have the power. True, we discovered this by destroying the environment. But now we know we have the power. And once we know we have the power to knock things down, we can start wondering “do we have the power to build things up? What would “building up” look like? What would it feel like?” And we can begin developing the patience, the dexterity, the strength, the understanding to ally ourselves with all the other lives that have been building and stacking for hundreds of millions of years. Surely, if bacteria, earthworms, and beaver can do it, we can do it too.

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I am beginning this quarterly newsletter (next issue will be early May) to both give me a regular deadline that will help me be more productive in my writing and to engage more actively in dialogue with a broad network of people doing good work in a diversity of ways. There are a host of visions welling up within. Communicating them is an important step in helping the worthy visions become part of this world. I will introduce some of these other visions (including what H.O.P.E. is) in future issues.

If you are reading Cairns for the first time and wish to continue receiving it by e-mail, just e-mail me at

© 1995, Paul Krafel, 18080 Brincat Manor, Cottonwood, CA 96022-0609
Permission is granted to copy and distribute (for free) this material as long as you attach this copyright notice and my addresses so that a future reader can track down the source.

Back to Cairns of H.O.P.E. page