Monday, January 07, 2008

Gift of Water, gift of life

We continue in a short series of posts courtesy of the Bay Journal News Service.

Gift of water, gift of life
By Liza Field
The world river has no water in it.
Come back, springs!
Where water is, there bread arrives.
But not the reverse.
Water never comes from loaves.
When I was seven, I wanted a creek for Christmas. I could picture it cracking through our old, dry neighborhood, splashing noisily between boulders and rhododendrons, ushering up sweet airs of minerals, roots and the creeks we camped beside in the national forest.

Water attracted me more than dolls or games, perhaps because it was alive-enchanted and changing. Cool cow-pasture ponds in July. Jewels of winter hoarfrost popping out of brittle mud. Blizzards. Rainpuddles. Sycamore-vapored rivers. Clouds. The clinging fog in our old Virginia mountains. Cold mineral springs pouring inexplicably out of dry ground.

Water was a visible sign of the invisible world-like elves and angels. So my brother's report that Santa Claus couldn't haul in a creek felt more stunning than his addendum that Santa wasn't real-that gifts were bought by people at the department store.

"-Which doesn't sell creeks," Tombo added.

The news felt desolate and appalling that December. But in the childhood years following, whenever I came upon a woodland creek, a river, a rainstorm, I knew I'd found something valuable-more real than Santa Claus, more rare than money.

The drought of 2007 evoked that old childhood understanding, as Eastern water-historically plentiful-grew scarce. When Atlanta nearly drained the dregs of its reservoir, even the wealthiest suburbanites, who'd formerly bought whole creeks to run through lawn sprinklers, faced the same water restrictions as the poorest. Nobody's money could make it rain.

"You don't miss the water 'til the well runs dry," countless old-timers remarked to me, as our own Virginia creeks turned to dry cobble, and wells did run dry.

That bygone expression has grown unfamiliar here, where few residents still depend on wells. Our water comes from spigots. Our spigots work because we pay the water bill. Water is not a priceless gift, therefore, but a commodity earned.

Drought, for all its desolation, does bring an offering: the awareness that money cannot buy water. Indeed, it reminds us that money comes from water. Not vice versa.

This is news in the Eastern United States, where we've long taken water for granted, able to squander or impair it freely to benefit "the economy." I can't remember a single local land-use decision, in the past two decades, that placed water quality above "economic growth." Globally, meanwhile, the United States dallies in answering the call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions-though we know global warming is causing droughts-because climate protection would "hurt the U.S. economy."

"Your money or your life?" is the universal question that has pervaded philosophy and religion throughout the ages.

Ancient cultures considered water the symbol of life. Native American, Hindu, Arabic, Asian, Hebrew, Celtic and African wisdom traditions thus considered water a sacred gift, more vital than any kind of wealth.

But humankind has a track record of forgetting its wisdom in times of plenty. Money seems to provide life (we call our income our "livelihood"), and thus takes first priority.

The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who considered drought a reflection of human values, saw "the fruitful land" become "a desert," because his people "forsook the fountain of living waters" and ran after idols.

The mythical Greek King Midas ran after gold. When granted his wish for a "golden touch," the parched king found that amidst his own gilded drought of a landscape, he could not obtain one drink of water. His priorities turned even his beloved daughter-for whom he'd wanted all these riches-into a chunk of dead gold.

That "the Midas touch" connotes a business compliment, today, says something humorous about our own values. The problem with making wealth our highest priority is that we, too, try to turn everything into money-including life.

And so drought comes. With its age-old, humbling effect, it returns us to the ground. But such a lowering can raise our values, the sage Lao Tzu implied.

"The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and its occupying the lowest place."

When we regain gratefulness for water, the "low" will take high priority. We'll stop asphalting the landscape, work hard to plug run-off back into the water-table, and reforest our region to attract and receive rain.

Meanwhile, winter precipitation has revived a joyful creek in my present-day backyard, a creek which the drought had nearly extinguished. I don't know about the power of Santa and the mall, but receiving the impossible-a creek for Christmas-implies something hopeful and unsettling to me. What humankind wants most, on earth, is possibly what we'll get

Liza Field is a hiker and conservationist. She teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor's School and Wytheville community College.

Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.


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