Cairns #79 – A Watershed Metaphor

Cairns #79 – Beginning of the Long Nights, 2014

but massively late as days begin growing longer in 2015.


The drought this summer was extreme. The ground was baked hard. Many lower branches died and easily snapped with a crack. Fear of fire rose any time the wind blew stronger. But the winter rains started early with three inches of sustained rains gentle enough to all soak into the parched soil. All the seeds sprouted. Something similar happened last year but then no rains fell for months and all the sprouted seeds withered. But this year, there has been rain every week or so; all the sprouting seeds are doing fine. Minds relax as wildfires become impossible for awhile.

In addition, the temperatures have been warm. That is unusual. Part of the ecological constraints of California’s Central Valley is that our rains come during the winter cold, not during the sunny hot days of summer. Life thrives best in warm moistness. Warm moistness is limited to just a few months in California (unless irrigated). Therefore, decay of fallen wood is slow. But this year, we have already had 3 months of warm moistness with probably four more to go. Mushrooms are popping up throughout the oak woodlands. Dead twigs no longer snap; they just bend. The soil is soft and open.

Moment of Glory

I love Frisbee and I try to pass the joy onto Chrysalis kids. One game I play with them is Moment of Glory. It is the last play of the Super Bowl and we are down four points. A touchdown would win it and here it is, a long pass, your chance for a Moment of Glory. A kid runs long and I throw the Frisbee way out in such a way that the child has to really run and stretch to catch it. If they do, my arms go up in the air as I bellow a loud Yes. However, most of the time, they don’t catch the Frisbee because these throws are not easy to catch. If they try hard but don’t quite catch it, I give an exultant groan of “Almost” and they come trotting back to try again.

My dad sometimes played something similar with us using a football. There was no Super Bowl fantasy imposed on the game (Super Bowl did not yet exist) but we would line up and run out. He would pass the football on the edge of our ability to catch it. There were many times when my fingers were able to touch the football but not catch it. Dad’s stock response was “you should have had it.” That made me feel like I had failed so that my effort was associated with not being good enough. Instead of joy with occasional moments of triumph, I experienced failing with occasional moments of adequacy. I did not want to pass that feeling on to the next generation. I want them to come back to the line eager and joyously determined to try even harder next time. “You should have had it” was in my cultural DNA but it evolved into a more encouraging “Almost.” Often when I shout it out, I think, “This is how culture improves.”


I’ve used the autonomy of a charter school to transform my eighth grade history class into the “What is Possible?” class. One strand is the process by which the medieval belief that the Earth was the unmoving center of a small universe transformed into our current understanding. I grew more aware this year of what a protracted, fascinating process that was. More than a century passed between Copernicus’s mathematical presentation of a heliocentric model and Newton’s precise description of a universe knitted with universal gravitation. So many disparate assumptions and experiences were so intertwined, creating such inertia, that the shift could only happen slowly, gradually.

For example, Johann Kepler who first worked out how planets actually orbited the sun was a court astrologer. How much of the careful observations and complex mathematics that developed his new model were in service to refining astrological predictions of the movement of the planets, thought important because of assumptions that emerged from the former model: that we are the unmoving center of the Universe both physically and spiritually so that it made sense that the skies we see around us would somehow record and communicate God’s intentions and could be used to more precisely align our actions with His Will (astrology).

My favorite example of inertia was one of the objections to the Copernican notion that the Earth revolved around the Sun. If the Earth orbited the Sun, then that should cause the apparent position of the stars to shift as we circle around – just as moving your head from side to side makes things near at hand appear to move back and forth in relation to their background. This is a completely accurate, scientific objection. The kicker is that the Earth at the Center created an assumption of such a small universe that “scientists” back then could not comprehend that the stars could be so far away that their “parallax” could not be measured with the instruments of their time. And so false assumptions of distance based on a false model led to a seemingly accurate refutation of a more accurate model. Things would have to wait decades until Galileo, with his telescope, observed that Venus went through phases (like our moon), a phenomenon that could only be explained if Venus orbited around the Sun.

Chrysalis note

I continue passing Chrysalis’s administrative duties off to more competent hands. I was part-time teacher, part-time administrator. I love teaching. I did the administration because somebody had to do it. The part I enjoyed the most was taking responsibility for seeing how much of the purpose of a school could be fulfilled without the need for administration. How far can a school get with just teachers concentrating on teaching? Surprisingly far. But there are administrative needs and as the school grew larger, it was growing increasingly hard for me to keep all the balls in the air and teach at the same time. It became time for the school to evolve to a full-time administrator who could still respect the teacher-led aspect of Chrysalis. Irene is doing a wonderful job of that. But she also brings a lot of administrative skills which have been eye-opening for me. Because I was focused on teaching and getting the school along on minimal administration, I was blind to ways that more active administration could help the school. Irene continues to delight me as she keeps pulling administrative rabbits out of her sleeves. She will help Chrysalis grow stronger and hopefully more influential within public education.

A Watershed Metaphor

One of the delights of having written a book is encountering how different people respond to it. To come upon a group doing urban gardening in New Jersey that drew inspiration from my book feels like allies emerging, making me aware of new possibilities that I could never have conceived on my own. So two or three times a year, I do a Google search on my works and name to see what new things pop up. This time I came upon a recent “Watershed Metaphor for These Times” that, after an introductory paragraph continued with:

“I first heard of the watershed metaphor applied to social change back in the 1990’s. At that time, co-intelligence pioneer Tom Atlee drew my attention to a little book called Shifting: Nature’s Way of Change, by Paul Krapfel. Here’s a very abbreviated version of the watershed metaphor: high up on the mountainside of a watershed there are a lot of tiny little rivulets. When it rains, they fill with water, and then that water creates little streams, then bigger ones, and finally real rivers. At last, they all flow together into one huge river, the one that flows by a great city near the sea. As the water swells that big river more and more, it starts to flood the city. Then the people there say, “Where did that flood come from?” We never saw it coming!”

“We all know in our bones that this process of grass roots revolution is really how change comes to America. The question for us is what is in that “water” that suddenly “floods the city,” surprising everyone there. I say it needs to be a growing awareness that what’s wrong with America is the way corrupt corporations rob and poison us all to feed their own bottom lines….”

Though I sympathize with some of the feelings of the writer, the watershed metaphor graciously credited to me is not the watershed metaphor I intended. So I sent the following email to the writer.

This is Paul Krapfel, author of Shifting, that you credited for the watershed metaphor in your recent article. Like you, I deeply believe in the power of metaphor and, like you, I believe the current direction of our culture towards increasing concentration of wealth and power is dangerous and must be redirected. However, I write you because you are interpreting my watershed metaphor very differently from the way it is intended. I would not want my name associated with the way you are interpreting it. I do not want all the rivulets in the watershed to flood the big city; such a thing would create great erosion throughout the watershed. On the other hand, I would love to explain what the metaphor means to me because I believe it offers a productive perspective on our current dynamics.

Fundamental to my watershed image is something I call The Two Powers of Water. When rain falls, some of it soaks in and some of it runs off. The water that soaks in nourishes plant life. The plants grow roots that help hold the soil, send up leaves that absorb the impact of the pounding rain so that the rain touches the soil more gently, and when the plants die, they decay and add humus to the soil and feed worms that tunnel and aerate the soil. All of this contributes to what I call an upward feedback spiral in which the soil now has greater capacity and volume to absorb even more of the rain that will then nourish even more plant growth. In addition, the plants transpire much of this soil moisture back into the air where it can fall again, nourishing yet more photosynthesis and soil creation. (In the global water cycle, the water that evaporates from the ocean and falls onto land is recycled through transpiration almost two more times before flowing back to the sea. That makes the difference between desert grasslands and forests.)

The rain that can’t be absorbed runs off. As it runs off, it converges. With each convergence, its speed and kinetic energy increases. (It’s like raindrops on windows slowly sliding downward until they connect with other raindrops and then they quickly flow down to the bottom of the window.) As the runoff’s energy grows, it gains the power to erode and carry away soil. This can create a downward feedback spiral. Less soil nourishes less plants so that more of the rain pounds the soil directly, compressing it so that it absorbs less. Less humus feeds less tunneling worms. More of the rain runs off. Erosive power grows, cutting gullies which drain the watertable so that there is less soil moisture upon the slopes, reducing creative photosynthesis throughout the growing season.

Water has the power to create soil; water has the power to wash it away. It can go either direction. What happens depends on how much of the rain can be absorbed on the slopes and how much runs off. The work/play that I do (which helped develop this whole metaphor) is going out into the rain and finding ways to lead the runoff onto slower paths so that it will have more time to be absorbed higher in the watershed.

The watershed metaphor for me is that we, the people, that each one of us is one square inch of a large landscape and each of us has power coming through us into the world. What do we do with that power? How much do we absorb to nourish creative actions and how much do we let flow away to contribute to erosion downstream? A wise culture wants to hold its power (including its wealth) high in the watershed, spread out over the slopes where it can nourish and be recycled many times. Rather than rivulets flooding the city, I want to see the rain absorbed deep into the soil, held high on the slopes. In such a watershed, there are few floods and few droughts. Groundwater smoothly sustains river flows.

The corporatization that troubles us both is like paving over parts of the watershed so that less rain is absorbed so that more of it can be concentrated downslope, in Wall Street if you will. It is easy to curse the downslope 1% and start thinking in terms of us vs. them. But I believe that is one of the little ways in which we let some of our personal power run off to contribute to erosion. One powerful implication of the watershed metaphor is that water does flow downslope. The land does take on the shape of a drainage system. Those parts of the land that are lower in the drainage will have access to more groundwater and will be able to grow taller trees. And that’s OK. Those of us who are adapted to the drier ridges won’t grow as tall but we are just as valuable in our own contribution. It’s not us vs. them. It’s a question of what direction do we want the entire watershed to develop towards. Right now our culture is going in a direction driven by desire for greater wealth than others. But we can alter our course and explore a new direction driven by desire for greater wealth for the entire culture. (For more on that, you can read two piece I wrote. and

The second powerful implication of the watershed metaphor (and this, I believe, is part of what drew it to you) is that the “power” flows from the headwaters down to the river. From the people, not from Wall Street. We live within so many top-down organized hierarchies that it is easy to think of oneself at the bottom. No, we are at the top of the drainage. Power comes through us to flow into the watershed. We have more power than we realize. Because power is diffused over millions of people, we don’t realize how much power resides within the slopes. Part of the power of the watershed metaphor is to help us all grow more mindful of this power and that each one of us has responsibilities for our contribution to it. The wise contribution is to help one another absorb ever more of our power so that more possibilities emerge within the diverse watershed. This is very different from water pouring down to flood the city.



Just learning how to play with all of this.

3 comments on “Cairns #79 – A Watershed Metaphor
  1. Thanks for this Paul. Wonderful.

    I love the “Almost” from the frisbee game! Our oldest is occasionally toying with learning to read and I’d like to provide a similarly joyful experience during his attempts. Do you have any ideas on how to frame learning to read to set the stage for fun rather than failure?

    • pkrafel says:

      Hi, Brandon,
      I just remember how much of early childhood is using imagination to playfully extend one’s understanding. I remember Zephyr as she learned that numbers have real-world meaning talking as we walked down the driveway to our mailbox of how the mailbox was eight dollars away.

      Adults tend to think of learning to read as learning to say the right word when pointing to a printed word. But there is a whole lot more going on. What is the front of the book? What kind of voice do you read with? How are stories sequenced? A child’s early reading is often a swirl of practicing all these different attributes. To cut it all off by focusing on the correct pronunciation of each word is to miss the miracle of learning.

      I think you let your child take the lead. When they want to know for sure whether they are reading accurately, they will turn to you. Otherwise, let them practice with their imagination.

  2. Thanks for the reminder that imagination and shining eyes go hand in hand. I’ll try to get out of the way and create space for Sequoia to take the lead with reading. So far the reading he likes best is the “being read to” reading 🙂

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