The Importance of River Walking

A note on learning and teaching the wild

The wild is contrasted to the cultured, a contrast echoed in the difference between giant hogweed and carrots (both of the family Apiaceae), mountaineers and gardeners.

The wild refers to uncontainable, irrepressible biophysical forces and dynamisms, a reference that makes us think of howling wolves and earthquakes, Cape Horn and microbursts like the one that flattened Mt Tom’s trees.

The wild refers, too, to natural laws that are more fundamental, infusive and permanent than laws determined by human cultures, a reference that brings to mind sea-level rising (in accordance with laws of thermodynamics) due to our overheating of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, an economic behavior central to our cultural life and protected by our laws.

The wild is dangerous to creatures who are unaware of its powers and laws. Even more so, the wild is dangerous to those who, through ignorance and/or bravado, attempt to govern or silence it: a fact that brings to mind the Californian drought-disaster, and the annual appearance of a new form of avian flu, both caused by ignorance and bravado.

The wild needs to be learned, then, for safety reasons, as practical knowledge of it better ensures survival. What needs to be learned is its biophysical manifestations, and the laws that enstructure them.

“River walking” is an excellent way to teach the wild, b/c rivers are alive, and can be understood as superorganisms composed of diverse biological beings, basic chemical elements, and thermal energies. A step into the river immediately catalyzes an awareness of its biophysical power, as the step is never quite steady in the kinetic flow and on the uncertain bottom: an unsettling that calls forth an existential (“I’m threatened”) and muscular (“but I can stay balanced”) response, that leads to a psychological state of emotion, cognition and ratiocination that, to the extent it concords with the biophysical reality of the river, is wild—and ensures safety.

Rivers are everywhere, everyone of them dangerous. Imagine a world, where people stopped using them for resources and recreation—good luck, because that will never happen. We are more reliant on rivers than we are presently aware, and our dim awareness is due to the values and behaviors of our culture, which looks upon them as less important than, say, stock markets, emails and sports scores. Our ignore-ance of rivers, and the natural laws that govern them, causes us to treat them with careless bravado (pollution of flowing and aquifier waters, over-drawing of water, dams, annihilation of species, large-scale development in flood plains). This ignorance and bravado is actually more dangerous to us than the rivers themselves, because it undermines the foundations of our own human culture.

Herein we can contrast the wild, governed by natural laws, from the crazy, governed by cultural laws that do not concord with natural laws; what makes the crazy crazy is that it follows no laws except its own, & by disregarding natural laws, exhibits behaviors both destructive and self-imperiling if not suicidal. Presently, our culture is not wild; it is crazy.

River-walking, then, is education in how to relate to the biologies and energies that comprise it in a way that is life-affirming and empowering. Each part of a river presents a different character, as in swiftly or slowly flowing; yet that character is comprised of recognizable biophysical signatures—substrate and kinetic flow patterns that, through the practice of river-walking, become as recognizable to the walker as lawns and pavement are. Learning to read the river for these signatures is a fun intellectual activity that leads to many perceptions of river “vital signs”—that are categorized and shared in the rhetorics of natural and cultural history. A story of a river is always a story of the people who depend on it, even if they don’t have the slightest clue of how much they depend on it.

The ultimate result of an education in the wild, that I strive for as a biosopher, curriculum-creator and teacher, is that of wild character, or as I termed it above, a psychological state of emotion, cognition and ratiocination that, to the extent it concords with the laws of nature, is wild—and ensures safety. When a student is, with care, brought to the edge of their conceptual, perceptual and cultural boundaries through the activity of deep biotic immersion that is river-walking, they are positioned 1) to look back upon and review and judge those boundaries, and 2) to expand beyond them into the natural structures and laws those boundaries have occluded. It is this emerging and evolving-human-species character I devote my career to—the character we call the “biocitizen.”