The Settling Rate

The Settling Rate

Authored by Thomas Steinwinder

In his book Rivergator, John Ruskey describes the “Wild Miles” on the Mississippi River. “These are the places where the landscape is filled with giant islands bounded by endless muddy banks and sandbars, where the river is overseen by big skies and where the sun sets uninterrupted by buildings or wires and where the big river predominates with wild creative beauty.” As a Mississippian and fellow water lover, this account resonates deeply, like the drone notes in the delta blues. However, it is the very next sentence that strikes the chord, a full thumbed strum in open tuning. “Each high water results in shifting sand dunes and remade sandbars.” This sentence moves beyond describing the Mississippi; it begins to hint at the process, the foundational forces that drive every interaction we have with rivers.

The rate at which a particle settles is dependent upon a grand battle between gravity, drag, and suspension. Gravity accelerates the particle toward the center of the Earth at 32 feet per second squared – about the same acceleration as a Formula One racecar from 0 to 60 miles per hour. However, the moment the particle begins to move downward, a drag force is applied in the opposite direction. The density of the particle, size, shape, and viscosity of the surrounding water all affect magnitude of drag, slowing the particle like a base jumper tossing a parachute. Now enters a third combatant, suspension velocity: the speed of flow that overcomes gravity and keeps the sediment suspended. One pulling down, one pushing up, and one moving laterally.

These three engage in a contest that shapes the most beautiful of the Earth’s fluvial features: boulder strewn mountain streams, cobbled braids of the highlands, the white sandy deposits on the inside arc of a meander, the two-toned progression of sandbars, the beached banks, the coffee-colored fertile flood plains, and ultimately the marsh where river, bayou, and sea are indistinguishable.

Roughly 500 million tons of sediment are carried down the Lower Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico each year. This is enough to add 300 feet of coastline to Louisiana. The mountains of Montana and the farms of Mississippi alike all migrate down river in an epic journey to a final state of rest. The entire continent is flattening as the high points erode and low points fill in. Rivers are the mechanism for this grand balancing.

Standing beside the great rivers, we cannot avoid or deny the connection. We know the epic journey well: the deep pull toward quiescence, the internal revolt against calm, and how the velocity of our surroundings keeps us in suspension. We look out to the mid channel and see the drift wood racing downstream, undirected and uncontrolled. We have an uncomfortable empathy for the debris. It reminds us of our own chaos. We move our gaze to the shallows and appreciate the relative calm, the increased clarity. Our shoulders begin to drop, clenched jaw relaxes, breathing slows, and that one string is finally brought into tune with the rest – resonance. We begin to fall out of suspension and gravity overcomes our aimless attempts at drag. We look down at our own feet, at the billion grains of sand that surround us on the bank and realize that finally, we too have now settled.

Photo Credit: David Hanson, www.davidhanson3.com

The Border Between “Us” and “It”

The Border Between “Us” and “It”

Authored by Austin Kiessig

“There is no distinction between ourselves and the so-called environment. What we live in and from and with doesn’t surround us—it’s part of us. We’re of it and it’s of us, and the relationship is unspeakably intimate.” –Wendell Berry

What’s the story we tell ourselves about our relationship to nature? Us versus it? Clean lines, demarcated territories, occasional encroachments punctuating a relatively stable détente? The newspapers would make us think this way. “Flood ravages farming community”; “wildfires consume housing development”; “shark attacks surfer.” Shots fired across the bow, reminding us that The Wild is lurking just beyond the walls we have built against it. Nature: ever-ready to rain strife upon our ordered existence.

Stories, as it turn out, are important. They shape the way we see the world and define ourselves in it. The narrative that pits us against nature’s directives — or positions us beyond nature’s reach— evolved from a collective reality in which nature’s stock of armaments far outstripped our own. Yet over time, with an exponential increase in resource utilization, engineering sophistication, and exploratory ambition, the balance shifted in humankind’s favor. In America, we settled the West on the shoulders of massive dams whose scale staggered even the brashest visionaries of Manifest Destiny. Our crops flourished in the desert. We engineered buildings against earthquakes, floods, wind, and rain. We erected barriers. We conquered the land.

On a smaller scale, we advanced our defenses against predators, pests, and pestilence. If a living thing harmed our crops, our livestock, or our bodies, we contrived a way to eradicate it. Any creature outside of our perceived corpus fell into one of four categories: threat, food, pet, or afterthought.

We strove to make the fight fair. And then we were winning.

The victory, taken as an amalgamation of successes on multiple fronts, was stunning in its rapidity and scope. We gained unprecedented control over our terrestrial fate. Lifespans were extended, needless deaths averted, painful existences palliated. To all but the cynics, these changes were unequivocally good.

But our newfangled freedom from the Natural Order brought a host of fresh complications. Food webs were pitched into imbalance, and lynchpin species began to die. Resources once thought to be infinite were emptied in the space of a generation. Pollution eddied and pooled. Our entire planet warmed. And we got sick.

At some point, our story started to change along with the shifting relationship between the characters. In our own awareness, we were no longer just another of nature’s playground dupes: we became the schoolyard bully. Tales of our luxuriant slaughter (the passenger pigeon) and images of our prodigal imprudence (the Exxon Valdez spill) proved haunting. Our social ombudsmen hinted that in our quest to evade a life that was nasty, brutish, and short, we had become nasty, brutish, and shortsighted. This was an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth.

We got creative with ways to assuage our guilt. Instead of killing polar bears before they killed us, we featured them in soda commercials and fashioned them as doe-eyed cuties so we could raise money to…save them? We created non-profits, trusts, Whale Wars, and high-minded legislation.

Now, a contemporary class of thinkers whisks up a story that melds the Victim and Bully narratives into something entirely different. Nature and humankind are not distinct, but threads of the same fabric. Our relationship is one of inextricable symbiosis that, if not thoughtfully stewarded, can veer towards parasitism. Our dominance of the Natural Order is, at best, a short-lived tipping of the scales that will, in time, (over)correct. Our myopia cannot serve us well in the historical arc of an ancient world that was born long before us and will long outlive us.

The deeper we dig, the more we find that we are in nature and nature is in us. We see our most noble tenderness in the social loyalty of Humpback whales; our most aspirational ingenuity in the labyrinthine tunnels of ant colonies; and our most unyielding alliances in the microbial confederates that fertilize our soil, produce our food, and protect our bodies.

Indeed, one of modern science’s most exciting exploratory frontiers — the human microbiome — must give us the pause in defining where the border between “us and it” begins and ends. Every human being plays host to ten trillion microbes, which play a more important collective role in our survival than some of our own organs. If 99% of the DNA present in our body belongs to other creatures, did it ever make sense to speak of dividing lines in the first place? Turns out that “us” is “it.”

The new (old) reality is one of ecosystems that blend together and interdependence as a form of freedom. This insight leads us to extend our technological tendrils into the global ecosystem and its microcosms to become better observers, partners, patrons, and saints. We cannot ignore our mandate: cultivate instead of extirpate. We acknowledge that our soil must be fertile for us to be fertile; top predators must remain fed for us to have food; and our newest information systems must be used to preserve the oldest living orders that birthed us.

So, what to think, and how to live? One of the most elemental virtues and curses of human existence is that we are able to entertain contradictions. It is coincidentally true that, at turns, we are part of nature, a sufferer of it, and a persecutor of it. We must, on an individual level, perpetually re-evaluate what we stand for and how our actions support our identity narratives.

Which is where “I Am Coyote” enters the equation. The book is a symphonic stockpile of prose, dedicated to exploring our reverence for, fear of, and integration with nature. In its stories, we delve into hallowed venerations and wretched torments. We revisit these stories so that we are better equipped to live and record our own. They are the music we listen to as we dance. Without them, we are left with scattershot notes and no chords.

“I Am Coyote” is a composition of the highest order. By virtue of its thoughtful curation, it stirs the itinerant soul. Even after the pages have all been turned and dog-eared, they inspire new chapters. When we mark our own experiences in nature by delving into the consciousness of our forebears, we sustain the ecosystem. The integrative bonds deepen. The dance continues.

Photo Credit: David Hanson, www.davidhanson3.com


Who Owns Water?

Who Owns Water?

In 2013 when I began work on I AM COYOTE: Readings for the Wild, I was fortunate enough to meet David Hanson, an acclaimed writer, photographer, and outdoorsman. David and his brother Michael recently completed “Who Owns Water,” a documentary film about the decades-old battle among Georgia, Alabama, and Florida for the rights to water from the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. To document the clash, David and Michael spent a month paddling (and portaging) canoes from the Rivers’ headwaters to its terminus in the Gulf of Mexico.  Here’s the little-known story about an intense struggle for water rights in the American South, an area once considered invincible to drought.

“Water Wars! Give me another drink of whiskey and I’ll tell you something different.”

Uncle Tony of Columbia, GA told my brother Michael that at Tony’s riverside cattle ranch in south Georgia. Tony works at the Farley Nuclear Plant in nearby Dothan, AL. He’s like a lot of folks who live along the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Tony’s a southern outdoorsman, meaning he works with cattle, grows hay, hunts some. One time he grabbed a small alligator out of a roadside ditch and carried it into a nearby restaurant. They asked him to leave.

The water war Tony is talking about has been grinding away for two decades. It began when the Corps of Engineers planned to build Buford Dam in the worn-down Appalachian foothills near Gainesville, GA. That was 1950. The project would provide power and flood control, but, the feds imagined, it could also become a water resource for Atlanta’s growing population. The Corps asked Atlanta’s mayor William Hartsfield if the City would contribute. His response: “Certainly a city which is only one hundred miles below one of the greatest rainfall areas in the nation will never find itself in the position of a city like Los Angeles.”

And that’s the problem. Western river advocates have long battled thirsty, misplaced municipalities that have all but drained the Owens River in eastern California (piped to LA) and sucked the Colorado so hard it no longer reaches its natural mouth at the Sea of Cortes. East coasters with their week-long spring rains, summer thunderstorms, and fall hurricanes have historically been a saturated geography laced with streams, rivers, lakes, and aquifers, and a sense of never-ending water supply.

When Hartsfield turned down the Corps, Atlanta had a population of half a million. Now the city holds 5.5 million residents and relies on Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River, the smallest watershed for any major metropolitan area in the US. When severe droughts roll on for years, as happened in the late 2000s, Atlanta retains water in Lake Lanier, choking the vital flow for downstream users. At the Chattahoochee’s terminus in Apalachicola Bay, 427 river miles below Atlanta, the river’s freshwater influx creates one of the nation’s most productive (commercially and ecologically) fisheries and marine nurseries.

I grew up in Atlanta drinking (treated) Chattahoochee River water. It tasted fine. We used it to water the lawn, run the dishwasher, wash clothes. Once a year or so we’d spend an afternoon picnicking along the riverbank. Mainly we ignored it. Most of Atlanta does, unless the “Hooch,” as we call it, is flooding, polluted with e.Coli when heavy rains overwhelm the sewage system, or drying up during drought.

But the Hooch and its sister river to the east, the Flint, have been tied up in a legal battle that is slowly gaining the attention it needs. The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) Rivers flow through the three states, and each state needs the freshwater for reasons all of America needs freshwater: industry, power, development, drinking water for growing populations, agriculture, a healthy ecosystem, and recreation.

Currently, the state of Florida is suing Georgia over the amount of water it releases to Florida where the river crosses the border at Woodruff Dam. It’s certainly true that the minimum amount allowed to flow into Florida during times of drought (5000cfs) is too low for the health of the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay ecosystem, but Florida’s lawsuit seems more politically motivated than in tune with grassroots work taking place in the watershed among the various users. The Apalachicola Chattahoochee Flint Stakeholders group is a watershed-wide coalition of industry, conservation, community, and business interests who have been aggregating resources to devise a scientific plan for sharing the water. Something that all stakeholders can agree with. A Georgia Tech hydrology study has been completed but it’s rendered ineffectual with the court case restricting access to information.

Uncle Tony, like most people we met along our month-long canoe trip down the watershed, doesn’t watch documentary films and he doesn’t read the Huffington Post. My brother and I paddled the rivers from source to sea in 2013 and we’ve made a 48-minute documentary film about the journey and the water wars, not from the perspective of talking heads, but from the voices of people like Tony who know the river.

David Hanson



Map - ACF Three States - flat with icons

The View from My Desk

This is the view from where I sit at my desk, typing this post:


From my vantage, I count 721 windows but only 13 trees. Actually, I didn’t count the windows (but I did count the trees). There were just too many, which should serve to reinforce the point: I am surrounded by humanity, by a world of human infrastructure, of human creation.

My view includes a couple schools, a police department, a power plant, several churches, restaurants, and a parking garage. There are advantages to living this way (convenience, stimulation). But there are costs. Among those, I count abstraction from the natural environment very highly. My view of the river is obstructed by many, many apartment buildings.

Jay Schoenberger, compiler of I AM COYOTE, is my best camping buddy. Before he left the east coast, he and I would periodically escape whatever cities we were living in and meet for a long weekend of backpacking at a mountain range half way between (the White Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Adirondacks to name a few). While these trips were often too short to go as deep into the wilderness experience as the writings describe in I AM COYOTE, as deep as Jay’s formative experiences in NOLS, there was undoubtedly a therapeutic aspect to them for me.

On those trips, Jay would always bring along a fire starter: a worn printed out passage from McKibben or Stegner or Dillard, sealed in a Ziploc bag. After stimulating so many good conversations deep in the woods, Jay has bound these passages and shared them with us all. I AM COYOTE is a book I’ll be throwing in my backpack for future trips, trips that reconnect me with the natural world from which I spring, trips that remind me of the importance of time spent in the wilderness that exists beyond the bounds of my man-made environment.

JB Reed