The gift of water, the gift of life

December 27, 2007|By Liza Field

When I was 7, 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. Rain puddles. 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. So my brother's report that Santa Claus couldn't haul in a creek was stunning. The news felt desolate and appalling that December. But in the years following, whenever I came upon a woodland creek, a river, a rainstorm, I knew I'd found something valuable.

A drought this year 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.

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 much of the Eastern U.S., 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."

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 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 King Midas ran after gold. When granted his wish for a "golden touch," the parched king found that amid his own gilded drought of a landscape, he could not obtain one drink of water.

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 runoff back into the water table, and reforest our region to attract and receive rain.

Liza Field, a hiker and conservationist, teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor's School. This article was distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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