Watershed Awareness – Cairns #1

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 #1 – End of the Long Nights, 1995

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.


Just learning how to play with all of this.

Posted in Cairns of H.O.P.E., Nature, Turning the Prow Upstream, Upward Spirals

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