In 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.



Chapter 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 ol' days.

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 thereof.

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, exactly?

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 the contradiction.

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.





Manhattan. Grackle bathing.


Manhattan. House sparrows bathing.


Forest Park. Queens. Robin bathing.


Forest Park. Queens. Female Cardinal bathing.


Forest Park. Queens. Blue Jay bathing.


Forest Park. Queens. Neotropical migrants.


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 it.

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 the rule.

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 in them."

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 to that).

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 the sun.

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.

Morowitz continues:

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. Renewal.

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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