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The Life of the River

The source of the Wien River in Lower Austria

The source of the Wien River in Lower Austria. Image courtesy Werauchimmer

Perhaps it is the sweeping power of the iconic waltz composed by Johann Strauss the Younger, that most people associate the Danube with Vienna. In actual fact, the Donau flows along the north-eastern periphery of the city and the river that runs through its heart, from West to East is the Wienfluss, a 34 kilometer-long stream that gives Vienna its name in German, Wien. Although the stream is often overlooked, its catchment area lies in hilly country to the west of the city, so in case of heavy rains, its level can rise very quickly. Despite this risk, the stream is normally so placid that the city has built a concrete bicycle path along its dry bed beside the water. In 2009, the stream’s depth rose by 1 meter in just 10 minutes during a rainy spell. The stream becomes a raging river and its water flow has been known to increase more than 2000 fold (from the normal 200 liters per second to 450,000 per second).

The river is covered up at Hietzing in Vienna's 13th district

The river is covered up and flows underground from Hietzing in Vienna’s 13th district… (Image by Doris Anthony)

...and emerges into the open again where it joins the Donaukanal.

…and emerges into the open again where it joins the Donaukanal near Schwedenplatz.

Cycling west along the bicycle path, the stream flows along a paved channel with very little vegetation. At the outskirts of the city, the paved channel is wider and attempts have been made to naturalise the banks and dismantle some stretches of paving. Immediately, the stream takes on character. A profusion of plants, reeds and trees have taken root along its banks in the space of a few years. It’s amazing how quickly life has returned to this stretch of river, how the river meanders once man-made constraints are removed. There are more birds and, presumably, insects and other forms of small animal life in the new undergrowth beside the stream.

Seeing this changed stream evoked the thought that perhaps the life of this small river was a metaphor for all of us, for the rivers of our lives. How many of us are locked into barren channels, afraid of change; perhaps stuck in a 9 to 5 rut, afraid to break free or change jobs, trapped by the need for money to feed a family, or fearful of unemployment, of abandonment; the reasons are endless. There is something wrong with a world awash in industrial and consumer goods, where food is wasted while millions starve, where millions are unemployed and those that have jobs are more overworked than ever. So here again, without going into the interminable discussions of classical economists, of trade flows or balance-of-payments, is a river metaphor for our lives. A meandering life will indubitably be richer. If we dare to break free, life will become richer, more full of meandering turns, with lots of unexpected surprises certainly, but we will be better equipped to cope with surprises.

Thoughts along these lines reminded me of a book by Mark Boyle entitled “The Moneyless Man,” a courageous year-long experiment in living without money. I highly recommend buying this book, but if you don’t want to commit to buying the book just yet, take a look at the book-length sequel, “The Moneyless Manifesto,” which is available free online at the link below.

Moneyless living by choice is a form of grace. I will return to the other Grace, the one in the South China Sea, in my next blog.

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