6 The River and the Flood Plain

Peter Gould

When you drive the secondary roads around Vermont, you can still see leftover devastation from Tropical Storm Irene, even after seven years. In my town of Brattleboro, the Whetstone Brook tapped into its superpowers on August 22, 2011. Just down hill from my house, it took out part of a concrete bridge by hurling tree trunks at it. Then, it sped away to turn sharp to the east and hurtle toward the downtown and the waiting Connecticut River.

At that sharp turn it should have been able to overflow its banks and reach its flood plain, a fifteen-acre flat ground that Nature built to dissipate the energy of a once-in-a-hundred-years rain storm. But it couldn’t. It couldn’t leave its own stream bed. It was prevented by a 300-yard-long berm that the owners of a lumber yard had built a while ago. Blocked on its starboard, the river flipped angrily to the port side and accelerated and grew higher, taking out half of Williams Street, flooding basements and first floors, carrying off half of a newly-restored barn (now called the Whetstone Arts Center), and aiming its increased destructive force toward some of Brattleboro’s most important signature buildings.

When a flood plain is denied, that makes trouble for folks downstream. Or, if humans have built up a flood plain with residences and shopping centers—taking advantage of that easily buildable level ground–that’s trouble, too, trouble right here in River City. In an emergency, if you have time, you can try to prevent the river from entering these built-up areas, even though it wants to; even though it needs to. That’s when you sand-bag.

That’s a long introduction to my metaphor of sand-bagging. It came to me quickly, as metaphors always do, but this one takes time to explain–

If you live on a river, you want the flood plain to be there. If the river uses it, that big, flat, low spot may get real muddy and hard to clean, but for the times when pressure builds and the current threatens to overflow the banks, that’s where you want the river to go. The structure of the river’s course will tell you where and how. It’s better not to build on the flood plain, and please don’t permanently berm up the bank just at that point!

Rivers make such great metaphors. If time is like a river (see the last line of Great Gatsby), if peace flows like a river, like it says in the songs, and if my own stream of consciousness flows like a river, then I want there to be a flood plain for that flow. I want to know that it’s available. When pressure builds within my mind, or even just as a routine event, I want the river of my life and consciousness to be set free of its normal banks and the access offered to its flood plain.

Most of the time as we construct our identities in the actual world, we want our map to look the same every day. We form our own banks and run between them. When our identity or our routine become threatened for some reason, we call for the sand bags! We try desperately to hold on to our familiar shape. Meditation is completely different, and proactive. It’s like the deliberate removal of those mental sandbags, the berms we have built, allowing our mental current to overcome its levees and reach the always defusing, always surprisingly fertile, flood plain.

When we meditate, for a short time we let go into an infinite, unmeasured space. We get beyond our usual shape and size. Then that space–that flood plain–has done what we needed it to do. The pressure has dissipated, and we return to our usual self. And, no one downstream is threatened or harmed.


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The Inner Peace Outer Peace Reader by Peter Gould & John Ungerleider is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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