Thinking Like a River

Editor’s Note: This post was inspired by Aldo Leopold’s seminal Thinking Like a Mountain (which you can read HERE). We’d suggest you give it a read before continuing.  It is short and worthwhile. Worst case scenario, you will have knocked out one of the most important pieces of 20th century literature.  

Tonight the river is trembling. Out of sight I can hear coatis playing, their chirps staccato against the droning cicadas. The warm air consumes me as the water envelopes my legs. I can feel it pushing me, slowly in some places and quickly in others. Regardless, the current beckons.

It wasn’t always like this. Some time ago I was young and, as the best among us would say, full of trigger itch. I spent a great deal of time reading the classics and I had many ideas. I went off to find mountains I could think like.


Over the years I’ve been lucky to find a great many mountains, some even with wolves to keep the deer in check. I have loved them all.

I have also seen change, some for the better and some for the worse. I have watched good intentions ruin land through the fires that are due, at least in part, to our attempts to keep fires from ravaging the land. I have also seen bad intentions ruin land through the deep and permanent scars of strip mining. I’ve seen us genuinely protect through good policy and genuinely damage through horrific stupidity. And, perhaps most tellingly, I’ve also watched strange and wonderful species from the south of move north without any of us doing anything at all.


To state the obvious, 21st century life is life on a world that seems to be turning, and is certainly warming, faster than it should. More than anything my lifetime has been dominated by change, and neither you, nor I, can hold back the tide. What we can do, however, is prepare for change, plan for it and adapt to it. And so, I’ve begun to think that old Aldo chose the wrong geography for us to think like: we need to think like rivers, not mountains.

The struggle of a river is to find a way to maintain its character while dealing with the fact that the water in it’s banks today will be long gone tomorrow. Rivers flow, after all, and in flowing the are shaped. This shape gives both character to the water, whether it will be a riffle or a pool, and is molded by the water as it passes by. Mountains, on the other hand, are born of a single act, the inexorable forces of geology, only to be ground down by wind and rain once the pressure of their birth dies. Mountains provide a vernier of permanence. Yes, they will outlast you and I, but don’t be fooled: all mountains end their lives in pieces.

Rivers, on the other hand, change because they must– Gravity demands it. They are malleable by nature but they are not invincible. Pull enough water out from underneath them, cut enough vegetation from their banks, or divert enough water to other uses and quickly a river becomes something else– perhaps a stream, perhaps a swamp, perhaps just a different kind of river. Rivers change, and they are always changing, but push them too far and the river you have will cease to be. The struggle of a river is to dance between change and persistence where banks shaped by the past must struggle to hold the waters of today.

In the end, Aldo was right. “…Too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.” However the ultimate safety, for those in power at least, is stability, knowing that the world will be the same tomorrow as it is today. But the world will change, whether we like it or not. Our struggle, then, is the struggle of rivers: to adapt, to accept change and bend it so that it does not destroy the land or us, to hold onto ourselves and our values in the face of uncertainty.

Regardless of whether we are up for the task the current beckons.


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Max Wilson is a born and raised Arizonan with a love for all that is beautiful and strange about the Southwest. He studied at Arizona State University, where he received his PhD in ecology. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

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