Order and Chaos

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’ll get.  – Forest Gump

I got the kayak on the river for the first time this year on that 50 degree day we had on Saturday a few weekends ago. Paddled upstream about a mile and a half. The river was up several feet, but still not over the banks. The current was flowing strong, but still it wasn’t too difficult to paddle upstream (it rarely is).

About a half mile upstream I saw that the sycamore that had been hanging low over the river finally gave up and fell in over the winter. Now it’s lying across the river, bank to bank and backing up all manner of river debris.

That’s the thing about the first paddle of the season. After a long hard winter, you never really know what you’ll get.

Since the river was up, I was easily able to paddle around it on the east bank and continue on, but seeing that old sycamore down in the river got me to thinking.

My mind often opens up while kayaking solo on the quiet river. And I thought about the nature of chaos; or more accurately, the chaos of nature.

The Sangamon, as it winds and curves its way around its bends, perpetually erodes its banks, causing trees to fall into the river. Does it do this on purpose? Depending on how they fall, they can really jam up the river, that creates significant blockages.

And these chaotic log jams are a real pain, messing up the river, making it very hard to get around, over or under or whatever. Naturally, being human, our first instinct is to clear this chaos. We want our river clear and clean, unimpeded by these stupid huge trees that randomly fall into it.

Humans like their nature orderly and neat and scientific and predictable, not chaotic. We like it nice all the time, not beautiful one minute, and mean and unforgiving the next.

Just watch the farmer plant his field. I’m told that the most innovative big planting rigs are steered not by a human hand, but a GPS linked to a satellite, so the rows of corn and beans, in taking out human “error”, are as arrow-straight and unbending as possible. Personally, I wasn’t aware that there was a problem with crooked rows before satellite and GPS-steered farm equipment, but this just has to be an improvement I’m sure, maximizing yields.

Despite the fact that we live on a sphere, our north-south country roads are so unerringly parallel that every so often they all have to shift a half mile or so east in lockstep to account for the curvature of our planet itself as these parallel lines make their way toward the north pole.

Personally, I find it relieving to know that with all of the sophistication of our scientific measurement capabilities we still can’t predict something as simple as the exact moment at which a drip from a faucet will break free and fall, even if the flow of the water is precisely controlled. It is always chaotic. And I like chaos. Chaos has a purpose.

Computers give order to our chaotic world and that’s why I rather dislike them (although to be honest, there are many things I really like about computers; my Ipod Classic for one). But the fact that computers can’t deal with chaos is also why I don’t think the machines will ever be able to take over our planet, despite what the movie plotmakers say. Computers, like most people who program them, don’t deal with chaos well.

Nature does. A randomly fallen tree in a river like the Sangamon serves so many purposes in the river that it’s difficult to imagine that it’s not chaotic by design.  Fallen trees in the river, wherever and whatever they are, slow the flow of the Sangamon, and this slows the erosive current that can cause more damage. In this way, the river protects itself with chaotic treefalls.

Fallen trees create eddies and irregularities on the river bottom that become habitats for the many fish that populate the river. In slowing the current, it allows more sediment to settle and allows the water to be just a little cleaner, a little clearer. And the fallen trees that block and slow the flow ensure that there’s always enough water in the river for float trips for the entire summer, even during low water.

And most fallen trees, unless they are locked in place by falling upstream of a tree on the opposite bank, slowly turn themselves parallel to the river current, heavy trunk upstream and lighter branches downstream as they lie along the bank. And this controls further bank erosion. In this way, the dead tree that falls in the river is, in its death, helping to ensure a more stable bank for its still living comrades up above.

Chaos enriches my experience. In chaos, things happen without rhyme or reason. And sometimes things don’t need a reason; they don’t need predictability. Reacting to our chaotic world makes us stronger, enhances the diversity of our experiences, makes us more accepting and perhaps even more tolerant and forgiving as well.

On some level we want a non-chaotic world, we want our corn planted in neat little satellite-guided straight rows. And I’m sure this serves some purpose that in my ignorance I’m currently unaware of.  And some predictability is good. Planning is good. Acting and understanding what the consequences of our actions are is good.

But some things, like the sycamore in the river or picking a chocolate from the box are just plain random. And in their randomness they are also enjoyable and thrilling. And maybe even necesssary.

If you don’t believe how chaotic the river can be, summer river season is your chance. The USRC plans sponsored river float trips on the first Sunday of the month and on the first Saturday after our monthly USRC meeting (which are always the third Monday). Don’t be confused, you can check out our monthly calendar, sign up for our friends list, and join the USRC today to keep up to date. All trips are at no cost to USRC members ($20 per year for your entire family), with canoes and transportation to and from put in and take out free of charge.

You may have to help out a bit, though. And you may end up struggling over or around a few log jams, too.

After all, you never know what you’ll get.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, April 3, 2014, by Scott Hays

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