If you’ve spent some time on a major river then you’ve probably seen eddy lines, where different currents meet together and create a seam. You may have even heard the term “eddy out,” when you take refuge from the downward flow of the river so that you can wait for a friend or head onto dry land to scout the upcoming rapids.
But eddies have more to offer us than just a little refuge. They’re vital parts of a river ecosystem, and wonderful metaphors for how we can all learn to live happier, healthier lives.
Going Against the Flow
We live in a culture (most of us, at least) that values busyness, movement, ‘productivity’, and competition above all else. There’s immense pressure to “Go With the Flow” but the flow is more like a river at 60,000 CFS than a peaceful mountain stream.
Thankfully, every river has its eddies: places where the water slows and stagnates, where you can rest, be ‘unproductive,’ go against the flow for a bit. Each of us will find our eddies in different ways. When I need some time away from the chaos of work, social media, and the news cycle I like to run up the canyon near my house. There, I can find bird song, trees, a (maybe 10 CFS) creek, and that wonderful endorphin high that comes with being amongst nature (when I’m not feeling so energetic, I may find my eddy in my bed watching Star Trek instead!).
No matter how you create your eddy in this river of life, the effects of those moments spent in another, slower current cannot be overstated.
The Benefits of Doing Nothing
When do you feel most creative? How about most at ease? When is it during your day that you tend to have those ‘a-ha’ moments?
If you’re anything like me, then those times don’t come when you’re tapping out your third cup of coffee in the afternoon. They come instead when I’ve just woken up, or when I am meditating, or when I’m lying in bed before sleep. I am at my best when I am doing “nothing” at all.
The science backs me up on this. Dedicating some of your schedule to idleness has been shown to boost creativity, fights stress, and reduce anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
Doing “nothing” is also a good way to fight back against the rising trend of overwork in our society. Given that the average productivity of American workers has gone up 77% the last few decades and our wages have only gone up about 12.5%, it’s probably about time that we stop giving up all our time and energy for free.
Just like us, rivers benefit from the slow, even stagnant, waters of their eddies.
How Eddies Keep Rivers Alive
Eddies are formed in rivers when the regular current is obstructed, usually by a large boulder. Most of the water cruises past the obstruction and continues on its way. But some of the water is diverted into an area directly behind the obstruction, where it runs counter to the current, creating a small, slow-moving swirl of water (check out this video for a better visual of how the current-counter current works). This is the eddy.
Eddies are great places for fish to hangout and feast. That’s because they act as a kind of net for nutrients that are flowing down the river. Insects like to eat these micro-nutrients, and fish like to eat the bugs in turn.
The ‘net’ of an eddy also catches loose sediment, which builds up over time and creates the beautiful riverside beaches that any Holiday River trip guest can expect to sleep and play upon.
A river without eddies would be much harsher for all of the flora and fauna who live there. It would move faster without the diverted water creating a counter current and the sandy beaches to slow it down. A river without eddies would be much like a human who never stopped to smell the flowers: less lively, less creative, and a bit less fun to be around.
Keeping Rivers (and Humans) Wild
Humans love to alter the landscape. This includes rivers. We build dams, artificial channels, and diversions. We remove what we see as “blemishes,” like boulders, beaver dams, large logs, and other naturally occurring obstructions in the river. All of this reduces what’s called the “river complexity.”
Reduced river complexity means fewer eddies. It’s led to a scenario where, as the World Water Forum states, “Freshwater species are disproportionately vanishing. Nutrient-enriched river discharges create eutrophication of coastal waters. Flood damages continue to increase despite many decades of engineering to reduce flooding. . .”
A healthy river, much like a healthy life, is not always the way we’ve imagined it would be. It’s full of boulders, logs, and other debris. It’s full of life that we cannot control. And it’s got its own natural flows: sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes running in the opposite direction altogether.
Easton Smith is a Local Wasatch Front resident and writer. He spends his time community organizing, rock-climbing and playin’ some mean banjo. For more writing from Easton, check out his organizing collective’s blog “Brine Waves” here or stay tuned for future loggings in River Currents.