New York City, esthetically mesmerizing Hooded Mergansers
grace the clean waters of Central Park every fall, winter
and spring. They also serve as a quaint metaphor for human
behavior in our glossy yet fierce, urban environment - as
in "duck-paddling", the habit of sharing a calm and tranquil
exterior, when in fact we're kicking like crazy just to
stay afloat. The Suitors, Hooded Mergansers, Central Park
NYC © Alan Messer.
12: Watershed or Waterworld?
Rethinking the life aquatic.
"It is a tragedy that we in our western culture have
been conditioned by our religion stories to believe that
we are fallen sinners incapable of goodness and unworthy
of salvation except by divine grace"
- David Korten
"The major problems of our time... are all different facets
of one single crisis, which is essentially a crisis of perception."
- Fritjof Capra
A point of similarity: days in the Amazon can be just like
days in Manhattan in August, they're hot and sticky and
miserable. You sweat a lot, you dehydrate, except in the
Jungle you don't breathe in carcinogens you just collect
sandfly bites the size of pancakes - no need for nose rings
here, arthropods will take care of the personal aesthetic.
In both places, the lay of the land is largely a product
of water. The jungle is defined by flooded forests and horrendous
rainfall. Likewise, the New York landscape, its bridges
even, are a gift, directly or indirectly so, of compound
aquatic forces. The city's islands, moraines, sandpits,
beaches…all molded in the past and present tense by rivers
and waves and riptides and their frozen alter ego of prehistory,
the glacier. Water, water everywhere. Not just the 100%
humidity and the drip from the dying air-conditioner in
the corner of the room or the scorching steam that travels
around underground and surges up to heat our apartments
in winter. No, our topography, too. As well as our history.
Why was New York City founded here, like, in New York City?
Because there's water right here and lots of it, making
it a nice place to live, and because the harbor (read 'enclosed
pool of water connecting river inland to Atlantic ocean")
was spacious and calm enough to park a lot of trading boats
in the 17th century. Remember, we didn't have trucks back
then. Nor FedEx. Just Iron men and wooden ships. The good
Then there's our drinking water, our bath water. Come kitchen
or clean-up time, where do you think it comes from? In the
city you swing open a tap and out flows a steady gurgle
of H2O straight from the Cascades or the Delaware or the
Croton watershed. Watershed? In our case, a huge chunk of
upstate land, 2000 square miles of empty space to be precise,
poke-a-dotted with collecting dams and reservoirs, with
no one living in it, set aside for the needs and requirements
of a relatively small slice of real-estate with 9 million
human sardines living on it, who together consume 1,3 billion
gallons of water a day. Take out the watershed, no shower.
No infrastructure. No New York even.
Today, thanks to 300 miles of tunnels and aqueducts and
6,000 miles of distribution mains, we have good H2O.
We also have gravity, in our case, an extremely influential
and ecologically and financially correct bonus. Water pours
down to NYC from the Catskills. No electricity is needed
to get it here, which saves a lot of cash and a lot of pollution.
Yep, we are geographically well endowed (notice, too, how
the minute you act with the environment you become sustainable).
Experts add that our water is the champagne of tap waters,
as well, thanks to the forests of Upstate New York, giant
bio-engineered water filters.
I beg to differ: H2O doesn't come from Upstate New York,
it just lands there, after circulating the globe via the
atmosphere. So what if it's full of mercury and cadmium
from coal-powered power plants in the Midwest? Today American
drinking water contains traces of everything from caffeine
to vitamin C to the Pill to antibiotics to endocrine disruptors
and some if not all of the 80 000 compounds we have invented
and/or released into the world around us. "Our" watershed
means you drink all of that, too. The whole system has been
permeated. Water just helps transport the stuff, ship it
door to door. True, we live in a world of mass distribution.
If, on the other hand, you're living in the Venezuelan Amazon,
say with the Ye'kuana people, as I did and continue to do
so, once a year, there is no shower. Nor faucet. Just a
river. A very big and powerful river. Now, you can either
bathe in the river with the villagers at dusk, refresh and
cleanse and reboot as a collective, and fetch your drinking
water with a bucket right next to the soapy kid swimming
in the water in front of you, or go it alone, after dark,
when a thick canvas of a billions stars come out and the
cane toads rev up their engines and the jaguars step gently
on leaves that go crack in the night and you lay there,
on your back, floating in the brown water of the Ventuari,
as the village falls asleep, silhouettes of dark jungle
trees around you, like the sides of a cradle, and look straight
out into the all-encompassing totality of space-time above
you. No drugs needed. I usually go it alone.
Isaias, the 75 year old headman, knows it. He knows of the
romantic, frontier fantasies of westerners. All that crap
about the noble savage. The quest for paradise and innocence
and immortality. Guys like me and you. He wasn't at all
surprised last year when I told him that the US had recently
declared ownership of space, for example. He, the descendant
of a long line of shamans and chiefs of Carib descent, of
oral tradition, has lived among us, the 'Yaranave',
conducted his own anthropology, and taken note of all our
idiosyncrasies and neuroses and all the guns and germs and
steel that our writing societies have fathered on their
way to heaven. He once lived and worked and married in Caracas
( i.e. civilization), for decades, before returning home
to his people to grow his own food and go swimming in his
own drinking and cooking water, his own river. So when he
sees me at dusk about to walk down to the river's edge,
he repeats the same joke, every night: "Don't forget to
turn the tap off, or we'll run out of water, ha-ha-ha!"
Seems I'll have to carry the old man's petrified face and
toothless, face-splitting grin reiterating the same friendly
cue to my grave. I have always smiled politely in response,
and in time, it seems this bad joke of his has become prophecy,
reminding me suddenly of that sappy song from the seventies
about some loser who 'started a joke that started the whole
world crying'. Planet earth is running out of water. Someone,
it seems, forget to turn off the tap.
Now, when I'm in New York, once a day at least I walk to
the water's edge (harbor, riverside, oceanfront, sink or
toilet bowl) and contemplate the tragic and the comic in
the fate of H2O. On a rainy day, all I need is to look at
my window sill, which always reminds me of what Albert Camus
once wrote about a trip to Manhattan, that if you stand
downtown, on a narrow street like Wall Street, on a soggy
day, it's like you were standing at the bottom of a well.
How could we possibly be running out of water? The fact
is there's still plenty around in the world today, expect
it's spent and polluted. We have oceans full of mercury,
lakes full of sulfur, nitrous oxide and acid rain and rivers
full of PCB's and streams full of battery acid and glaciers
and snow banks that no longer deliver drinking water to
billions of people worldwide because they are disappearing
or have disappeared. More atmospheric carbon means more
melting means more evaporation means quicker and faster
storms means less interglacial quiescence in which to frolic.
Whether or not its been this hot before on planet earth
is irrelevant, we weren't around to suffer the consequences.
Today, symptoms of aquatic decay include 1) aquifers worldwide
are depleted or are being depleted, 2) two dams continue
to be built every day on earth and so much water is being
diverted in the process for lawns, industry and corn syrup
and soon ethanol for cars that most of the planet's major rivers no longer reach the sea, including the Rio Grande,
the Colorado, and most rivers in China; the Yukon is toxic
and the Mississippi is so full of shit that the Gulf of
Mexico is dying of anoxia. The revolution has been industrialized,
indeed. 60 000 acres of wetland (read earth's water filters)
are lost every year, to progress. But when mainstreamers
(no pun intended) the likes of National Geographic talk
about water scarcity, they hint instead at the effects of
overpopulation (mostly brown people like Isaias in the third
world) as a menace to the worlds' remaining drinking and
agricultural water. The same mainstream fails to remind
us that western Industry is as bloodthirsty for water as
it is for oil, if not more. Nowadays, machines dictate that
we need water to make everything, including more machines.
Examples might include the 2072 gallons of water needed
to make four new tires for your car; 25 gallons of water
to grow and process one ear of corn; 1300 gallons of water
for one hamburger; 44 gallons of water to refine one gallon
of crude oil. Worse perhaps, the sick irony of bottled water:
6.74 times more water needed, on average, than in the bottle
itself. Take a bottle of Fiji (just don't buy it). It consumes
even more, a total of 26.88 kilograms of water, one liter
of oil and emits 562 grams of Greenhouse Gases.
We've installed too many taps. Too many pipes and drainages
connecting water to too many trivial processes in the workaday
world. Take bread, something as simple as bread, the icon
of organized agriculture, of wheat and fire, of western
civilizations and empire. Say, a simple loaf of wonderbread,
some 5,000 years in the making, a project initiated in the
killing fields of Mesopotamia, by violent agricultural City
States the likes of Babylon, then continued by Rome, then
the empires of Europe, then in the Mid-west, with the Dust
bowl, then by the Green Revolution and now, full circle,
straight back to where it all started, that ravaged land
of oases nestled between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Iraq.
Why the connection? To import a ton of wheat is to import
a thousand tons of water, is to import 10 times as much
in oil. Therein lies the hidden foreign policy of wonderbread.
Am I oversimplifying? Yes. The culprit is not mechanized,
fuel-based and water-depleting agriculture. Nor is it extraction
wars for fossil fuel or the strategic and economic control
thereof. It is all of the above. It is all of us. Not only
is our ecology as a species at fault, but our ecology as
a thinking, speaking and story-telling species. In other
words, it is also the stories we live by that are to blame,
the myths we adhere to, the narratives we act out.
Take, for example, the idea that the past 5000 years of
civilization have been an inherently good thing. Well, when
you do the math, the cost in war, poverty, genocide and
environmental destruction has far outweighed the technological
benefits of say, inventing the television, radio or the
atom bomb. Or the suburban middle class. Or cheese cake
and cheap oil. Admitting this is tough, exactly like dealing
with issues of denial, except it's worse, because it requires
that we think and act and heal at a societal level. It demands
that we rethink the way we see and organize ourselves as
a species, the way we relate to each other, race to race,
culture to culture, class to class. The way we relate to
the rest of the planet, too, including the 70% of H2O within
us. It suggests not only that we finally accept responsibility
for the decay and entropy around us, but that we see it
for what it is: a direct result of the hierarchal power
systems and heavily industrialized, mechanized and weaponized
pyramidal societies we build (1st the churches, then the
nation-states, state communism, now the neoliberal hegemony
of transnational companies) - all versions of empire built
on segregation and exploitation, of other people, of the
environment. All versions of one initial, monotheistic script,
the story of dominion -our belief therein, our acceptance
For now, we play it safe. We are like children. We buffer
reality with conventional one-liners, truisms, pieties,
sound-bites, delusions and reflexes. Air-bags. We believe
what the teacher taught us. Or what the founding fathers
said. In the constitution. The Law. Without question. In
good versus evil. In villains and heroes. In Fairy tales.
And what the specialists advance. What Oprah says. Without
flinching. Not to mention the books we swear by, and the
shows we saw, our fundamental ideologies.
Take something as trustworthy as 'saving the world': it's
a hero myth; we expect us or someone or a new president
or any great leader dude (Bono?) to show up and rescue us
like a knight rescues a damsel in distress. The same applies
to our steadfast belief in agriculture and its envelope,
development; we tend to believe that if we rework nature,
make it fit the machine, if we "improve" the lives of the
animals and savages that inhabit it, that our tide will
lift all boats - Katrina style?
Do-gooder organizations? The conscience of the conqueror.
The peace-corps? No comment.
If you actually read the historical literature, the one
written by the losers, development creates misery and organized
agriculture, since its inception, destroys the land and
the health of the people who 'work' it. All in all, the
blind rule that humans can improve nature, or change the
world by assuming power over it, is an aging and sick paradigm
bloated with contradiction.
O Socrates, where the hell art thou?
Since what I'm saying here sounds a little unconventional,
best I provide more evidence. Let's start by taking a harder
look at our immutable belief in progress. In this country
at least, it plays out as a self-destructive gloating over
perfection, fitness, achievement and success. Our unending
struggle for greatness, for bigness, for largesse. For consumer
satisfaction - and in the god-given right to instant gratification.
Look at our lust for idealized beauty, our cult of number
1, our slobbering over eternal youth, over fame; our compulsion
for good-looking superheroes, superstars, saviors. These
are the day-to-day symptoms, the surface acne of a deeper
and tacitly shared belief in a higher, overriding purpose.
In ironclad values and immutable dogmas. The "one right
way". Always out of reach, yet somehow attainable. Things
like virtue, purity. Wealth. Sustainability, even. Whose,
Notice how willingly and quickly we submit to great expansionist
causes, how we're wooed by the rhetoric; things like liberty,
our way of life, the American dream (just that, a dream),
the home team, the mother company, my side of the aisle,
universalism even. My country, right or wrong. Again, without
flinching. Why the messianic impulse? The need to convert?
The urge to save? It's that kind of arrogance (or is it
desperation?) that got us in this mess in the first place.
If we look carefully, we see that exceptionalism has a necessary
corollary, faith in the afterlife - at the expense of this
one. And in eternal growth, at the expense of the planet.
Keyword: immortality. Collateral: self-hatred. For David
Korten, author of the Great Turning, "It is a tragedy that
we in our western culture have been conditioned by our religion
stories to believe that we are fallen sinners incapable
of goodness and unworthy of salvation except by divine grace…"
Likewise, we have been conditioned by advertising to believe
that we are worthless except by purchasing the latest thing.
The product is our savior. At least until the next new
item. Remember eternal growth's prerequisite - eternal,
throwaway consumption, i.e.: wealth as waste and affluence
as the power to create more of it. Forever, like, in Heaven.
Wealth as disparity, too, because disparity is a primordial
given, and competition is healthy, and health achieved through
competition. Because what's good for the individual, be
it at the expense of the other, is good for society. Notice
These stories are couched in violence and aggression and
denial because violence and aggression and denial have become
the tacitly accepted method and rules of engagement by which
these goals are realized (or so we think). We take violence
(and football) for granted; not only the violence perpetrated
on our neighbors, foreigners, adversaries (the losing team),
but the violence we inflict on ourselves. Notice our glorification
of sacrifice. Our cycles of guilt and redemption. Notice,
too, how self-loathing and self-righteousness go hand-in-hand:
together they compose a self-reinforcing, runaway phenomenon.
A feed-back loop. No matter how hard we try, we will never
be good enough. So we reach out for more, because more will
never be enough. Our arrogance grows stronger, in turn reinforcing
our capacity for self-flagellation, and resentment, and
ultimately, the resentment of others. It is a sad irony
that we should punish each other in public, when it is most
often for our own secret shortcomings, our own shameful
impulses, that we put the world on trial (look who's talking,
here). Then we punish ourselves in private. Within the secrecy
of our heads, or our relationships, our family, by 'taking
it out' on the 'other'. Psychologists say we're nuts. Determinists
believe we have it in our genes. Political pundits claim
it is our destiny. They all repeat and reinforce the same
biblical fatalism, our common narrative of original sin.
I say we love to play victim.
Additional symptoms include our celebration of treadmills
(notice how our work-out machines line up in gyms like machines
on an assembly line), our Stakhanovite commitment to hard
work; followed by hours of mindless entertainment, because
apathy and ignorance and stupidity are phenomenal rewards,
because indifference is divine. Maybe we're fueled by the
belief that one day, we too might be the master, the king,
the person of property, he who floats above the fray. The
head of the plantation, the head of the network. God, he
who transcends the world- and all its futile knowledge.
If we work hard enough, if we don't stop to think. If we
suffer long enough, if we dream hard enough. If we're nasty
enough. Because life is cruel, and unfair, and nature red
in tooth and claw and business as usual is a wondrous combat
sport. Don't know how to pee? Get off the pot!
If we smile enough, too. Because smiling is the ultimate
expression of submission. Be nice - it means you agree.
But stay competitive, it means you play by the rules. In
California they call it duck-paddling; all calm on the surface,
frantic legwork below. Worse than a double standard perhaps,
a double bind, a cultural straightjacket - if we are thus
divided within ourselves, does it mean we have been conquered?
Anthropologists and neurobiologists claim we don't have
much of a choice; ours is a Hobbesian state of nature. We're
ass holes. Chimps, not bonobos. I see a great Orwellian
sadness in this die-hard conviction, especially engrained
in us gringos, that human beings have no existence rights,
no chance at salvation, other than by struggle, gain and
conquest. I live by pain, therefore I am.
The aforementioned beliefs are our real addictions, not
oil, because these are the stories that drive us to oil
in the first place. They must be exposed. They move us to
dam rivers in the name of salvation, quite literally, in
the name of glory or entitlement or voluntary ignorance
or submission to a higher power (same thing) - and we ask
ourselves to believe that that is okay!? Yes, to buy a big
car or a new cell phone is okay, whatever the consequences,
be it the poisoning of rivers in China where they're made,
because China has been deregulated, because we're worth
it, as is our happiness. Our personal comfort. Our wellness.
We claim it's the American dream, or see it as freedom,
the freedom to possibly, finally, do what the fuck we want,
be it at the expense of community, of the environment. Of
planet Earth. Who cares? We have the rapture, End time,
the Apocalypse - give or take 70 odd virgins. Call it fundamentalism.
Call it meritocracy, narcissism, kleptocracy, call it psycho.
Give me historic reasons, excuses. Regardless. We have an
attitude and it leads us straight to war for peace. To the
idea of moral equivalence. To an eye for an eye. To self-contradiction,
to democracy by death, if we have to.
Take something seemingly benign. Seemingly good. Carbon
offsets. I.e.: the acquired right to pollute and thereby
undermine the existence of others, given the economic means,
the wealth of some nations to trade in pollution as if it
were a mere commodity; worse, to usurp the wealth of entire
countries with the help of the WTO, the World Bank and the
IMF on the same premise. Because we deserved it. Worked
for it. Beat them to it. Had better genes. Don't agree?
Ready to protest? Want something back? We'll bomb you. Arrest
you. Forget you. Remember, violence and annihilation are
our first recourse to solving problems and differences,
perhaps because deep down we nurture this morbid conviction
that things can only exist by catharsis, by necessary sacrifice
- such apparently is the noble trajectory of man, to die
for a bloody cause. Maybe the atom bomb made the whole world
expendable, and the rest of us feeling truly hopeless. In
any event, we continue to operate and co-author a culture
of death and disaster. Of nihilism. Who wrote this script?
Humans did. More interestingly perhaps, humans can rewrite
These belief systems have the uncanny ability to change
our physical reality. Even our cosmic one. Our drooling
over technology, our trust in positivism, in finalism, our
boasting of the world's current 45 000 dams, most of which
are needed to grow exponential amounts of wheat or rice
or corn, or electricity, and land grotesque amounts of wealth
in the hands of the few…They've shifted so much weight we
have slightly altered the speed of the earth's rotation,
the tilt of its axis, and the shape of its gravitational
field. There's the history we write, too, one egregious,
violent act at a time.
At a more local level, look again at our metropolitan Watershed.
It is not entirely for free. It carries a monetary and social
cost. Watershed is land and land is money and so the city
needs to buy lots of Upstate real-estate to secure its own
water supply. Translation: New York needs to prevent upstate
communities from developing (from doing what they want).
Result: our clean water breeds resentment elsewhere. It
is a simple law of physics, the First law of thermodynamics
to be precise, that what goes around comes around. Expect
blowback. Minor acts of terrorism. Stories are legend of
guys Upstate who dump or take dumps into the watershed's
many streams, with a "Drink that New Yorkers! Here's for
your 15 minute showers!".
Therein lies one aspect of the reality of our ecological
deficit and the policy shadow of our city and its effect
on the lives of others. Our water. Yet it's only one small
aspect of our shadow, given that the majority of our carrying
capacity (food and energy sheds) we export to the entire
planet. We measure it as an ecological footprint, the sum
of all land and water surfaces needed to feed the beast.
The lives that we ultimately displace. The deregulation
needed to get things on the cheap. Trust me, we are indebted.
Deep in the red. Not only are globalized Free trade and
financial free flow (of which NYC is the capital) outrageously
expensive in real economic terms, one day (soon?) we will
be handed the bill. It is a sad law of ecology that all
hegemons collapse. Bacteria is just the exception that confirms
Collapse or rewrite?
I recently heard Dr. Paul Mankiewicz, who runs the New York
Gaia institute, lecture to a class of CUNY students on the
future of urban ecology. The question of self-sufficiency
arose. Could New York city proper, its 300 square miles
of largely impervious cover generate its own water and maybe
one day even its own food supply without impacting the lives
of others or those of its own citizens? Paul made some simple,
ecological observations. There was enough porosity under
the city form leftover glacial till to store months, if
not years, worth of water supply from rain or storm water.
Greenroofs could not only help grow our food but absorb
and retain excess storm water, thereby helping to prevent
flooding in the streets and sewage overflows. Real, restored
soil replete with soil's inherent sponge-like property for
water absorption, be it on a roof or in our parks and our
streets, more trees planted, say a mere 1200 foot row could
capture 6 inches of rain water; or 4500 thousand gallons,
the equivalent of a 10 year storm. Not only would this cool
the city through simple evaporation and reduce air-conditioning
to a near nil, it would quench our thirst and clean our
bodies with one stone. Idem regarding our waste water, Paul
says we should use what we have, because its cheaper too,
actually it would save the city 18 million dollars a day:
1.5 acres of ribbed mussels in modified marshland would
suffice to filter out the 100 million gallons of grey water
produced by the city every day. Gratis. The list went on.
Nugget after nugget. My favorite example was that New York
city could generate enough water to grow a temperate rainforest.
Imagine the fruit!
Naturally, the question came from one students as to why
we weren't applying this knowledge? Paul said that the challenge
ultimately was to fully re-insinuate ourselves into the
energy flows and nutrient cycles of ecosystems, which required
admitting that the web of life and its processes can do
things better than we can; that "maybe we should have faith
Faith? Evolutionary psychologists today advance that religiosity
has been selected for in our species. Or that it is an evolutionary
side-effect, a spandrel of the brain. If indeed we are inescapably
religious (for now), then I offer the following ten commandments
of ecological literacy . 1) Nature outperforms industry,
2) Nature needs no improvement, 3) Earth is paradise, 4)
emulate her, 5) respect her, 6) recycle, 7) waste equals
food, 8) ecosystems do not distribute, 9) truly productive
and functional ecological life is a highly localized, place-based
phenomenon, therefore 10), sustainability does not fly first
class, nor economy for that matter. It stays in place.
For authors interested in rewriting our collective narrative,
head the following advice: bicycles and sail boats allowed.
First, learn or relearn those stories that we have right
in front of us. At our feet, at the tip of our hands. In
our water. Consider, once again, the story of H2O. Forgive
me, the stories of H2O. Never has an element been so simple
and yet so deceivingly complex in its infinity of appearances,
and possible ecological outcomes. Most of the water on planet
earth, the blue planet, 97.2% of it in fact, slurps around
in the oceans (which also explains why we can't really drink
it), not one ocean, but millions of variations on the same
theme. Much less (only 0.9%) is found in groundwater, a
mere 0.02% in fresh water lakes, inland seas, and rivers
and finally, a puny 0.001% is atmospheric water vapor at
any given time. Remember last summer's colossal rain storms?
Nada. Insignificant. Most importantly, none of this water
sits 'anywhere' specifically (except the stuff temporarily
locked up at the poles and in glaciers). It's always on
the move, rising, falling, running, flooding, yesterday
in the Pacific, today in a lake, tomorrow in your urine.
Next year somewhere in France, say in a bottle of Perrier.
It comes as no surprise then to witness the rich and powerful
symbolism of water in earth's diversity of cultures, that
of conveyer belt between life and death, of transcendence,
of Axis mundi. For the mystic and philosopher and shaman
alike, water is a universal harbinger of origin and source
and identity and directionality and name (we'll get back
For the poet, too, water is an obvious reflecting pool for
existential mood (remember Camus), or for anyone's projections
of death or sex or both, for that matter. Take the waters
of New York City, the broth of Flushing Lake, the translucent
stream in the north end of Van Cortlandt Park, the coffee-colored
Bronx river, the cocoa colored waters of Eib's Pond, on
Staten Island. To paraphrase my buddy John Waldman, Professor
of biology at Queens college and angler supreme, it used
to be the City turned its back on H2O. Manhattanites forget
they were on an island, it's as if Brooklynites forget hey
lived by the sea. Now we look outward, we embrace our own
water. There is a world out there, after all. 911 improved
our vision. People started buying books, reading about the
world around them.
(The human species possesses 3 psychological tools that
we use abusively: agent detection, causal reasoning, and
theory of mind. All three dictate that we need an explanation.
No matter what. Feeling attacked? Depressed? Hated? Scared
of death? We tell ourselves to find out why. For those less
charmed by rhetoric and Hubris, "They hate us because of
our freedoms" became "Yeah, well why do they hate
us for our freedom?")
See what you may. Water can be a wonderful mirror. It can
be transparent - and therefore shallow, as predictable as
a politician; or it can be deep, and blue, and secretive,
promising even, as it roils beneath the waves, contorted,
ready to pounce. It can also turn green, the likes of stale
pea soup, a eutrophic gumbo that reeks of heart disease,
bad food, lung mucus and entropy. Some days, water is just
plain gray, offering no more than a lonely reflection of
you, the one who is searching. Are you paying attention?
To the nerd-ass physicist, water is quirky. Fun. A quasi
anomaly. It is theoretically a gas, yet on earth it is primordially
liquid, due to its polarity which makes its molecules stick
together like pins to a magnet. Its physical and chemical
properties enable it to climb vertical walls, float a duck,
or a battle ship, or dissolve entire compounds. It can rise
as vapor, fall as rain, walk and cover the earth as one
glacier, float on itself in the form of a solid (ice) or
melt away and swallow us all.
How often do we overlook the obvious, the omnipotence of
something as simple as water?
Why, for example, is there so much of it, at least originally?
Water is all over the universe because its constituents,
namely Hydrogen and Oxygen, are all over the universe. Hydrogen
and Oxygen, the fresh produce of stars, of billions and
billions of atom-building stars, billions and billions of
cosmic water farms! Water delivered to earth, it is believed,
by comets, not just big ones that come crashing down intermittently,
but smaller ones too, cosmic snow balls as they're called,
raining down day and night on this planet's atmosphere for
the past 4 billion years.
And what does water do when it gets here? For one, it stays
here, which in itself is not so obvious a feat. Our planet
is just big enough to hold water; any smaller and our gravitational
pull would be too weak, our oceans and lakes and rivers
would eventually piss away into the cosmos. But since it's
here to stay, water regulates the climate, too: it cools
the surface of the earth by the mind-boggling simplicity
of evaporation, enough so that life can happen. Kudos to
H2o. Without it, the ground beneath us would overheat and
fry to a crisp. Remember, we are only the 3rd rock form
Water is a life-saver, yes. Not only to the cosmologist,
physicist and to the ecologist, to the farmer, too. In fact,
it's important to all of us if we chose not to deny it.
For reminders, try a day's hike in the desert or a day at
the gym without Gatorade. Or the simple, paradigm-shifting
factoid that us humans are also a part of earth's metabolism,
that we are in the environment, of the environment, that
Homo sapiens (are you really ready for this?) is
a component of earth's HYDROLIC cycle. Water flows through
us, the same as it does through plants, animals, soil and
sky, rivers and streams. There is no escaping it. We drink
it, we absorb it through our food, then we evacuate it,
we sweat it. It evaporates out of us. Think about it, we
help make clouds every day. And French Perrier too, remember!
In fact, it is because water is restless and mobile and
transcendental and transnational that we are alive at all.
Try looking at it this way: we don't carry water, it carries
us, supporting us as it streams through us, stopping only
to exert its life-inflating and life-generating qualities.
H2O is a central and essential component of the metabolic
processes common to all of us, you, me, the polar bear,
the desert rat and the rainforest. By removing water, cells
make big molecules (anabolism). By adding water, cells carve
out smaller ones (catabolism). Without water ripping through
us, we wouldn't function. We wouldn't grow. We wouldn't
run. Come to think of it, we say WE are 70% water, when
in fact 70% of us is always on the move, to be shed, only
to be renewed. Hence the sink. Hence the toilet boil. Call
it turnover. I call it soul. Water, like solar energy and
things like nitrogen and phosphorus, is what animates us
and the world from which we emerge. Allow me to infer the
existence of water, the liquid God. Like electricity through
a bulb. Ding! A common spirit for all biological life, one
psyche shared by all. The breath of water.
Thus defined, it appears water is not so much a thing as
it is a process, a process connecting every nook and cranny
of the biosphere. To answer Vandana Shiva, I believe water
to be more than a global commons, I see it as a global common
denominator. Imagine a multi-directional support beam. A
fluid one, more like a worldwide, all-encompassing and all-penetrating
liquid rhizome. The mother of all matrices. Thus the philosophical
and ecological absurdity, not to mention the ethical deficiency,
of trying to enclose it, own it, privatize it, sell it.
Again, by which stories do we chose to live? To privatize
water, let alone patent life, is to want to enclose, own,
privatize, sell the right to connect to the global lifeblood,
and ultimately, the right to live. Owning the existence
rights of others. Hmm. I believe we had a war in this country
regarding such a theme. I believe a man was shot in this
country for upholding the opposite, some 40 years ago. I
believe a book entitled Silent Spring was written on the
same subject, the subject of the civil right to life; for
all life, the right to life.
How far since? Today, water is the single most traded commodity
in the world. Before coffee and oil.
Feeling thirsty? Ready for a shower? Try ontogeny soup:
water is the simple stew in which, and from which,
we were all made. As simple as H2O. Think about it: we are
all ocean water, reshuffled. In fact, we still carry the
ocean, in our eyeballs, our wombs, our sperm (in fact, to
carry the ocean with us, within us, was the prerequisite
for ocean life's adventure onto land). So do not be alarmed
that we are blind to our own fate, that our fertility and
sperm counts are falling. We have contaminated and emptied
the oceans, remember, and that includes the water that seas
within us. As cynical politicians might venture to joke:
"we have destroyed our base".
Water has been with us since earth's inception. The story
of water and life per se starts 4.6 billion years ago, in
the world's primordial seas. How? First, learn to think
differently, I mean, systemically, holistically. Before
the first species came the first ecology, the first possibility
of habitat. This, taken from Biophysicist Harold Morowitz:
"Sustained life is a property of an ecological system rather
than a single organism or a species. Traditional biology
tends to concentrate attention on individual organisms rather
than on the biological continuum The origin of life was
thus looked for as a unique event in which an organism arises
from the surrounding milieu…
Again, the "stories" we tell ourselves. To look for a single
event says more about how we project our own organizational
reality and culture of vertical power on reality; that of
the individual over community, of a single God or Messiah
creator and savior above his own people, of heaven over
earth, reason over emotion. Stop me! Of genetic determinism
and Newtonian-type physics and linear thinking over the
sheer complexity and patterns of probability and uncertainty
that shape the universe and the circular causality inherent
in life's capacity for self-creation, for autopoiesis.
A more ecologically balanced point of view (on the origin
of life) would examine the proto-ecological cycles and subsequent
chemical systems that must have developed and flourished
while objects resembling organisms appeared."
The chicken ? Or the Egg? Or the possibility of a connection
between the two?
Enter the membrane, theorizes Morowitz, a porous ring of
oily droplets in earth's primordial seas, an initial attempt
at the semi- permeable integument, the first "layer" to
define an outside, and an inside, to separate the ocean
without, from a the womb within. Think of it as a house,
an Oikos, a roof under which to foment life's first network
of biochemical interconnections, its first proto-genetic
and epigenetic processes, the original organizational structure
of life, embodying cell-like energy flows and material cycles
that communicated, via this semi-porous membrane, with the
outdoors, the environment, the world.
Then came self-renewal. Self-transcendence. At one point,
theorizes Morowitz, this first proto-cell cloned itself,
passing on its entire metabolism.
Isn't Morowitz still thinking in single events? Not exactly.
Here, it is not life's first 'DNA' that started the show
(as in object), but life's primordial network (of relationships),
contained in this original oceanic proto-habitat. This primordial
community of being - this inside world of an aquatic cell.
From it, we ultimately all descend, via microbe, then the
multi-cellular, via the arthropod, the amphibian, the ichthyosaur.
Today we all share the same basic and ancestral biochemical
processes, unchanged for the past 4.6 billion years, in
the seas as it is on land, the same building and un-building
of constituent molecules, of atomic and molecular exchange.
You, me, the giraffe, the zebra fish, one big happy Family,
strung together like pearls in one biological, space-time
continuum. We are the environment. There can be no distinction.
I repeat: we share the same matter, the same energy, the
same water. Not only are our molecules, including our water
molecules, part of previous - and future - organisms, so
too are the basic principles of organization that we share
with the rest of the biosphere, from slime mold to Donald
Trump (alas). As humans, our concepts and metaphors and
language, even, are embodied in the experience of evolution,
in life's incremental accrual of complexity and cognition.
We owe it to our environment, all of it water-based. All
of it here, on a blue planet. Some say we are embedded in
the web of life. I say we are swimming in it.
Think about it next time you take that shower. Or slip in
the bath tub. Or wash the dishes. Or swim in a tropical
river, by yourself, after dark. When we bathe, baptize,
ablute, submerge or resource (from the Latin resurgere,
to rise again), we are doing just that, going back to the
source, then rising a new, rebooting, living a virtual renaissance,
a rebirth, each skinny-dip a reenactment of our "delivery"
and evolution from water. Every pore and cell in our body
knows that, because every pore and cell in our body is that.
Like any earthly organism, we are defined by self-replication;
as our cells break down and build structures, our tissues
and organs replace our cells in continual cycles. Cycles
couched in water. Anabolism and catabolism. When we bathe
we immerse ourselves in the medium from which we all emerge
and metabolize. Think of it as a home-coming. Followed by
a new departure. Just remember to turn off the tap.
Chief Naturalist David Rosane's
Weblog: Chapter 1
Chief Naturalist David Rosane's
Weblog: Chapter 2
Chief Naturalist David Rosane's
Weblog: Chapter 3
Chief Naturalist David Rosane's
Weblog: Chapter 4
Chief Naturalist David Rosane's
Weblog: Chapter 5
Chief Naturalist David Rosane's
Weblog: Chapter 6
Chief Naturalist David Rosane's
Weblog: Chapter 7
Chief Naturalist David Rosane's
Weblog: Chapter 8
Chief Naturalist David Rosane's
Weblog: Chapter 9
Chief Naturalist David Rosane's
Weblog: Chapter 10
Chief Naturalist David Rosane's
Weblog: Chapter 11
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