The Ripple: The River Knows the Way

Following Water

Part of our local Deerfield River watershed in Western MA

Part of our local Deerfield River watershed in Western MA

Teachers often repeat the same lesson; in fact, they have to because, in the act of renewing civilization, they carry the past into the present and hand it off to the future.

One thing I find myself teaching again and again is: “It is impossible to get lost in the woods—all you have to do to find your way is follow the water.”

Follow the water and you’ll never be lost. That maxim has a zen-ish, new-agey ring to it, even a poetry. But it is based on the hard physical fact that all places on the terrestrial earth are composed of watersheds.

Watersheds are leaf-shaped; a river is the stem of the leaf, and all the sub-stems and capillaries are brooks and streams. To find the river, all you have to do is find a stream and follow it downslope. Once you get to the river, keep walking along its side and eventually you’ll come to road or a house.

Sometimes, I get a little sad while teaching this lesson because it demystifies the world. Getting lost in the woods is a premier way of getting to know one’s own character, and the realization that I might be depriving students of that experience seems, in general, like a loss of … magic.

The thing is, lostness is a state of mind, much more than it is a strictly a issue of having one’s body in an unfamiliar place. Lostness implies a feeling of panic, wherein the mind becomes paralyzed by fear.

It is this paralyzing fear that I, as teacher, try to help students objectify and overcome. All too often we live in fear. These are fearful times—and one way to find courage is to follow water. Take a walk in the woods and go off trail, knowing you can’t get lost; water will bring you home every time.

More importantly, follow water through your every day. Find out where the water you consume comes from, and then protect it; for it is actually the source of your life, of you. By following water, we can’t get lost and we can know and cherish the source of our being. Following water, then, is more than just a strategy to know where you are—in an age of fear, it is a source of courage.


Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

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