Watershed Metaphor – Cairns #79

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.  http://krafel.info/a-story-of-two-investments-cairns-59/ and http://krafel.info/the-difference-between-more-wealth-and-more-wealth-than-cairns-78/.)

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.

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