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 ten 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.


In PAX 120B, 2021, one of my students responded to the above essay. Here’s an excerpt from their piece: 


“As someone who has dealt with anxiety and depression for years, the idea of techniques to calm oneself or going to a proverbial happy place are not new. An instant connection was drawn for me between the flood plain and those techniques as I meditated on the subject… The question where does your consciousness flow when it overflows or breaches its normal confines is one I never knew I had been asking myself. But that thought about how can I calm myself when my mind is racing out of control is a broken record of an internal dialogue for me. Thus, as I meditated, I wanted to not only explore the idea of other “flood plains” but actually navigate and map them, akin to someone surveying new land or explorers traversing untouched waters.

“The most important thing I kept in my mind during this voyage of sorts, was that no two flood plains are alike for different people. For whatever reasons, people handle stress and anxiety and all that mental anguish in vastly different ways. Additionally, flood plains are not inherently good. To keep up the metaphor, bad flood plains such as drugs and alcohol or anger will be known as the bad lands, just like a river bank lined with houses becomes a negative flood plain due to a blockage from where the normal flood plain lies. I sat down, did some breathing exercises and began my exploration.

“The first stop was actually two places. The two offices of the therapist I saw throughout high school and part of college flashed before my eyes with their muted tones, large uncomfortable couch, but the calming presence of someone I had built up trust and a rapport with. Numerous techniques began coming to mind that we discussed: saying a mantra over and over to ground yourself, physical touch such as slowly rubbing fingertips together to remind yourself that you are here, and gradual flexing then release of muscles to get the relaxing effect going. To me they seemed easy and worthwhile enough to keep in my toolbox of potential solutions, but they tried to deal with the issue after the flood already existed and was spreading outwards, a band-aid of sorts until more lasting remedies can be put into use. Let’s call them first responders.

“The next stop was actually not a place. Instead, it was a collection of experiences over the years where I have had to deal with a rapidly overflowing and racing consciousness. From a pasta restaurant on Milwaukee’s east side with my mother, to behind the science building parking lot at Brandeis, this was the mapping and surveying now taking place. As I tried to parse out commonalities that resulted either in triggers or in eventual solutions, I noticed a few things. For me, trying to predict when my mind may overflow is actually more harmful than good, as it makes me more cautious and unable to find happiness. Next, and most important, I found that keeping my mind distracted from even the thought of an out-of-control consciousness with happiness, fun, family and friends was the most impactful flood plain for me, as a river can not overflow if it is stopping to smell the roses, admire the view and smile.

“My meandering exploration of mental flood plains for an overflowing and out of control consciousness felt successful… While, like a fingerprint, everyone’s mind works in their own unique way, maybe taking a voyage to survey the river that is one’s mind and to explore potential flood plains is an important step in meditation and becoming more attuned with oneself.”

I then responded to their response: 

Thank you! You know that our class is rooted in, and centered upon, dialogue—meaning a dialogue toward peace and understanding, or the ongoing dialogue that one can have with oneself, sorting out so many interior matters. My essays in this reader are brief; they are a calling-out for dialogue with my students. You heard the call, and you offer up an essay which is part echo, part rebuttal, part warning, part continuation, of the simple themes in my “Flood Plain” essay.

Your essay shows so many ways to take further what I was thinking about, picturing, and then writing about. You’ve done that with kindness. I must acknowledge that there are always students in the crowd who are anxious. They have had bouts of anxiety; it’s probably some combination of chemical and situational. One possibly very-threatening part of PAX 120B is our assignment to spend meditative time with yourself. It can be scary, and I am not qualified to explain why, although I try to, because I haven’t experienced that level of anxiety in my life and consciousness. So I’m sympathetic and grateful to you for describing the threat inherent in the limitless flood plain space. To me it always seemed like an a priori comfort, and I didn’t really understand until reading your essay that that could be an unfair assumption, and what we all need to do is NOT MAKE ASSUMPTIONS.

I would love to take a big excerpt from your essay and publish it (anonymously) as a “student response” to my flood plain essay. If that would be all right with you.



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