If It Could Be Wrapped
excerpted from Water Writing - an essay
Arriving below at the Japanese poem one third of which I quote above as the title of this excerpt, the reader may appreciate anew the problems of containment raised by all our excerpts. You have here roughly the first third of an essay on water. I will add that the essay's three, though in length unequal, sections - "Properties," "Rights," "Imagining" - mean to bring ethical and aesthetic reflections together into a provisional reciprocity or fragile congruence or case that might help persuade us in the private and public confusions of the global water crisis to see and share water as we must share our creative powers. What you have here breaks off largely before I reach most of the examples drawn from literature and other arts to support my argument. But the scope is visible, like kinships among some of my characters who appear later as well, such as Lincoln, Leonardo da Vinci, Emily Dickinson, George Perkins Marsh, Primo Levi, and Stanley Crawford.
Water can hardly belong to us, though it is almost everywhere in us. Which reminds you and me at least that it is almost everywhere else. Or was before we were. It is one of our properties, passing through, as if we were one of its. And if we are one of its properties - for it helps us live - where can that take us? Isn't it pretty simple, water? We better drink it and better not breathe it. Soon done with it, we forget our need, yet come back, revisit, and may wonder at this continuous substance in the offing held by sameness, concealed by distance, contained by surface or habit, qualified by quantity, and necessarily shapeable. In pipes and underground. In cloudburst, surf, high sea, gutter, sink, mouth. And in its insubstantial yet strikingly reflective surface, its standing depth, beneath us, in us, beyond us. I sound like the sage; is this what water does, beckon, get personal, think for us, ask for trouble, insinuate or flatter, while persisting ruthlessly inanimate?
And so we build its need with ours. Or I do today - every one of these days (February, March, April, May, 2004) in New York, trusting my own self-love and the city, and water's still widespread, selfless, and apparent simplicity, to help me think sometimes with my senses. But as bather, gazer, diver, thinker, water-proof clock-watcher, often half-conscious consumer of bottled water, wader-in, or in even a canoe or ship of my eye-watering memory and perspiring future water- borne (as we say of some diseases), I'm not done with its quite indivisible surfaces and its lights and awful lid and waiting dimness through which gravity draws a stone, a ring, the pages of a magazine, a history of waste and communal amnesia; nor even as the deluge clearing and cleaning the Earth has water quite seemed to me day to day first and fundamental, though for all its unbreatheable compounding of oxygen it is a naked medium for me, a naked, night-swimmably different, a freeing "element" on the skin, its look, what it is surroundingly like an outside that is inside.
Used and gone, as if I were the one, not water, it is at hand taken or not; noted, or unseen, back again in one of its passing shapes, heard. Taken mostly for granted where I live in the northeast corridor of the United States, though not by me in catchments of words. Like memories worth letting go of watching out my window in winter great gray-white ice-slabs rafting the harbor, planing the East River chop; in buoyant fantasy me standing on one, having learned and forgot and learned again why ice floats, from my father, once a chemist, who told me this in the late 1930s - and before I discovered like a discoverer that this wasn't a river technically though I must have divined early water's need weirdly like ours to associate itself with just about any low thing, our powers, our stories (our writing, which is also not stories but "telling everything at once," I reread in a slender book I come upon again by chance on my own shelves called Practicalities, by Marguerite Duras, who has much to say about water and women and men that I must reassemble for myself), Marguerite Duras, Practicalities. Marguerite Duras Speaks to Jerome Beaujour, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1987), p. 27. so one of water's properties built into its unsimple peculiar life-partnering is that it reminds us - blindly, seemingly proffering its blankness essentially to us who understand, that we are given to imagining. Diving or hesitating to dive, looking far down at an interior at once accessible (though, if we dive in without serious weights, a rubbery medium that seals me in myself).
Water has value beyond our survival, I will try to find it in me to show at this time of crisis, as Thoreau said of life and the dull jobs he chose to see around him. Water lately a global value, yet unweighed "some of the time" among us who stock our minds with fresh schools of fish it almost seems or spring water labeled attractively and who are like air-conditioned, spring-fed drivers enjoying saguaro in bloom or hours later in the distance coming up fourteen hundred feet off the after all porous desert floor a volcanic plug Navajos name Ship Rock (the myth of which I once appropriated). Women and Men (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1993), pp.198-215; and Ship Rock: A Place - From "Women and Men," A Novel in Progress (Concord, NH: William Ewert, 1980).
[ link to Gleason on the Ship Rock chapter in History as Accretion and Excavation -eds. ]
Weighing water's shadow and silk, its rawly inherent outside and (if not partable, dippable) inside, its apparent stretch, its formless appearances (and how it runs over and through and is continuously seeking containment yet not perhaps in its form-assuming models specially for us to learn to form it), I hear water called a commonwealth. A virtual property of water or right given it which translates into a debate and chaotic non-debate of keeping one's self-reliant (but with a support system) own profitable counsel, in which I try to locate myself:
:as I learn water could belong to some of us more than others some of the time or all of the time (as our most interesting, elusive, and high-profile President perhaps apocryphally put it in a related context but off the record, whose mind it comes back to me his lawyer friend Herndon said was not subject to refraction). This growing strangeness of what is happening to water as ownable property - a Hold, a Sell - lately springs not so much from water's odd properties as from us who are (depending on whose personal experience you trust) vessels 60 to 70 percent water more or less (and whose arguments don't always hold water, I add, since "Properties" (above) shares boundaries at once with "Attributes" and with "Assets owned" by persons) whom water reflects like other surfaces with its own.
I pour into water like a leaky vessel what values come to me (a habit obviously one of our properties surfacing in us) admired, reproduced, curative, echoing, a depth not superficial but in practice depth upon depth to build on. Isn't water fluidity itself? - fluidity itself, a perfect motion, seamless texture; dangerous (because you don't want to interrupt fluidity yet you don't want to be taken over by yourself or style), changeable, half invisible, unless we stop and look, which you have the right to think water "teaches" us to do - recalling the early-6th-century B.C. thinker (and statesman!) Thales who we think imagined that everything is water: which also meant, Forget mythology (with, as Anaxagoras suggested, its monarchical vocabulary), while encouraging solider Aristotle to think Earth alive. Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Origins of Greek Thought, trans. from the French (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 119-29.
Fact and subject, glittering, light, dark, steely, already too encompassing: but while the truism attributed to Heraclitus is technically so, the reverse is, too - you always step into the same river, like the Teacher who can't help repeating himself, or writer, or physician. In rivulets and drains, in a drop in the bucket or from a faucet a drop stretched in its stronger-than-rubber skin till it lets go to cohere in "of all possible shapes the one having the least surface for a given volume." Workable surface and depth a nearly unique union that may be dark or hiding something important makes water drop or swing through the mind. Kenneth S. Davis and John Arthur Day, Water, Water The Mirror of Science (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961), pp.34-5. I am at sea (something like what is in us); in bay, lake, or like the Hudson and East (so-called) "rivers" that I grew up with and neither of which I ever recall stepping into: estuaries salt and fresh sometimes flowing both ways bringing ten-pound striped bass to city fishermen casting their bait with a good heavy rod into the Hudson from the parking lot at 125th Street, several rods propped against the railing as my bike coasts past.
But no turning back - I've just begun. Yet have not at my age the right - who gave me this slippery non-right? - to be unclear. At least when I get to where I want to go. By hearing what I say and building on it. For example, that water can hardly belong to us because it is everywhere in us.
If we say a person has depth, it's not six feet under we're thinking, is it distantly of water? Which, granted, is where we go to sooner or later as bone or ash. Maybe wells fascinate because their deepness is both water and earth. Yet say that to someone who's been "taught by pain /... what good water's worth; / If... /...with a famish'd boat's crew [you'd] had your berth, /... You'd wish yourself where Truth is - in a well." George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto II, Stanza lxxxiv, Complete Poetical Works of Byron, ed. Paul Elmer Moore, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933), p. 784.
We dip into water, it is beautiful and too much, reserve it behind huge dams; displace it mysteriously with our bodies, our forms, store it in New York on top of our apartment buildings in quite fine wood-shingled, up-close not very hygienic-looking, cylindrical "water towers" that I used to photograph in the 70's, an older craft touch or art here and there across the outline of my city. Conscious barely of gravity and not at all of how strange it is that water expands when it freezes, we listen to it negotiate our pipes, and in city and country course along our ditches. The waiter writes H2O on his pad and returns with two glasses of water, so easy to poison. HO it was assumed to be for much of the nineteenth century, and what it could carry was as misunderstood as that it carried malaria - from Sardinian swamps, for example, that developed when hundreds of trees were clear-cut on the mountains, and rainfall and melt-off ran down in torrents, "creating" marshes that needed to be drained (and after "the War" resort developers did); and cholera today in Capetown neighborhoods where the poor are charged for the water that delivers it. As for this buzz-magic infra-structure that delivers the water.
I keep an eye on container ships, barges afloat upon this universal solvent inert in that it is not changed chemically by most of the substances it dissolves: the very property that let living cells evolve until, after unthinkable millions of years in the sea, that salt solution our home was replaced by tissue fluids, blood plasma, liquids living in cell interiors; and life could emerge into the air. I make a mental note to reread a story that's based on this by Italo Calvino.
Water we need to drink. To water fields and livestock. Wash. (Which often alters the form of my body I feel within me.) Yet I recall a fellow swimmer in a penthouse pool who continued his harangue that water was bad for the scalp from the diving board on into a backstroke lap and a half we did together. It passes through my hand even my fingers tight together, it has its own gravity. It's pretty much available so far in my experience, my northeast United States - my society; but it doesn't seem to belong to us. It passes through, through harbors and even lakes, pipes, pores, bladder, and eyes, though for years it scarcely moved in the lower Hudson and you wouldn't want to swim across, though I know two men who did (though nobody 30 years ago or recently living in a houseboat at the 79th Street boat basin). My words not germane perhaps to "disaster areas" or "desert places" or dry country farming in Hopi country where you plant beans 16 inches down where the sandy soil gets cool, no more than that - that is the water - but an old man there told me it was the absence of water that persuaded the Hopi originally to settle there on the mesas because then they would have to keep the ceremonies going. I have due respect for that historical account because it respects water's very absence.
If it had a need, water would need us to be part of life. Though some have called water life itself, at least the actually "living water" or spirit-bond Jesus recommends to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well in John 4:10. In water, we often learn that imagination need not bear us away violently into transcendence but grounds our facts and is worth heeding even in our inexact impressions.
Almost alive, what does water teach? Not a thing. Not a thing except what we want, or would grant or yield, or would use its breadth for or seeming soft wateriness to float our transcendence needs. "Our simple wish for there being more to life," the poet Paul Muldoon puts it, ambiguously imaging that inspiration in "The fixity of running water" and the unplumbable in what we may call shallow. Paul Muldoon, "Our Lady of Ardboe," lines 14-16, in Poems 1968-1998 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), pp. 50-51. Water hides the deeps, lights the shallows, horizons vastness, gives back surfaces like us, and can seem plural as layers our worshipped or excoriated sciences patiently name. Water we hope self-cleansing like a self releases questions some of the time as if it had contained them:
Making you suspect
Your own face a bit. Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite, The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse, trans. Bownas and Thwaite, with introduction by Bownas, (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1974), p.177.
Like my life (which water can't clean up but must needs support), it can drown an idea or inspire one (out of perhaps reciprocal waters in me): cover the land between France and England from the time of the Ice Age with a channel, one day inspiring a tunnel, engineered at great cost, now tolerated because though not a money-maker it's there beneath unthinkable weight like an idea or doom; while water does not exactly urge me not to write about water - or, as a "true American who" "[knows] something of the facts," not to walk on it without skis and a motorboat however full of Feelings these days and fields (that once were streams) of Consciousness and ideas that may (as Henry Adams put it) "[survive] only as art," Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams. An Autobiography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1918), pp. 384-5. i.e. against the metric needs of survival.
Life is a value most of the time, like the thought of rights, "The Rights of Man" even, from which into that all men's story Billy Budd is impressed. Like life, water seems a curious "accident." We know strangely little about this unlikely pairing of hydrogen and oxygen, one highly flammable, the other not at all though it supports combustion. A coming together apparently through an explosion of radiation when the sun initially ignited. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Microcosmos. Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 42. A history of the mobile earth is in water's lens, chemistry unforeseen and in the lab proceeding like underground art to report from time to time on supercooling which gives water among fluids a surprising, hardly to be predicted increased capacity to absorb heat. Yet in the face of observation we devise catchments of symbolism for water to suit our tastes (fertile, unconscious, flood furiously cleaning house, sexually male, fluidly female, transient).
Water opens its idea indiscriminately. Is "water" "a thing like...stone whose conduct can be predicted"? W.H. Auden, "In Praise of Limestone," Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-1957 (New York: Vintage, 1964), lines 80-81. One thing I know, but more from sorrows I've heard about: "Water, is taught by thirst," observes Emily Dickinson (as "Land - by the Oceans passed. /... Birds, by the Snow"). Emily Dickinson, Collected Poems, ed. Thomas H, Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960), # 135, lines 1-2,6, p. 63. Thirst, land, pressure, flood level, distance and absence (for "The water is wide," the song lovingly tells us, "neither have I wings to fly," which applies in fact but not spirit to Henry Adams returning like a Tyrean trader to a land that "knew no more than [he]" how it was changing. Adams, p. 237. Water brings everything up: breath, birth, blood, wave, dry, wet, sweat, the tributary and canal net circulating cyclic inside us that we could no more drink than the matrix sea unless unsalted by evaporation or filtered by reverse osmosis (prohibitively expensive and fossil-fueled of course).
And water perhaps a more ruthless friend of gravity than we brings everything down: the leeching rain, featherlike drainage patterns in Sumatra, meandering channels, a waterfall in Zaire, current, river to the sea: while, in the midst or too inside of a subject building my way out with water materials, to me water comes also as an ocean of deposits recording how sea snails and corals and microscopic algae make almost heartbreaking use of the sea's wide and deep resources. ("Oh ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired...whose ears are...fed too much with cloying melody," recalls the sea's, water's, restorative properties shaped, of course, by rock and wind, all of which I suppose Keats markets, but free). "On the Sea," lines 9-12. Extremes of monsoon and Marvell's "deserts of vast eternity," but "eddies of meaning" A.R. Ammons, "Corson's Inlet," Corson's Inlet. A Book of Poems (Ithaca: Cornell, 1965), p. 5. still more evoke a supposed language place where water, knowing and gifted, bespeaks a bridge, even actual metaphor. Motion, absence's too, need, haunt, flow (which our hardly New Age Socrates somewhere finds a ubiquitous source observed more than legendary) we can't stop implicating water in as mind, if only ours - or Consequences in Stephen Wolfram's analysis of eddy systems "intrinsically generated inside the system itself." Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science (Champagne, IL: Wolfram Media, 2002), p.381. Like us, absorbing and suspect, its flow to be strategically diverted to trouble our neighbor or feed ourselves. Darkly, patently, profitably dammed, for dams interrupt water in order to isolate its power: as water interrupts land, dissolves, renews, shaping a gorge as profoundly as Darwin's earthworms turn the earth of English hills.
Water goes deep as if it were depth, reflects (gives back) or conceals surface (several-leveled in Melville's "clean-swept deck...above the waterline; whereas the vast mass of our fabric, with all its store-rooms of secrets forever slides along far under the surface"); Melville referring to White-Jacket, speaking of the ship as a microcosm of society, "Notes and Commentary," Billy Budd, Sailor. An Inside Narrative, ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966) p.134. or on it, "A swan and its reflection / on the water's black surface, / a perfect emblem of peace" in full irony belied by the price of it in W. G. Sebald's poem "Dark Night Sallies Forth," a tension between the forgottenness of war horror and the curious adequacy of second-hand memory threatening us with its persistence and with the space-time imagination the non-witness has found like thinking; an uncollected unconscious below "the surface" including dreams the interpretation of which ranges random like a lottery and, if "rivers overflowing speak plenty," as Sir Thomas Browne (seeing in dreams proof of the soul) ponders pharaoh's sleep, "On Dreams," The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. Charles Sayle, vol. iii (Edinburgh: The English Library, John Grant, 1912), p. 551. Helene Renard, The Dream and the Naifs [with Vilem Stransky, Naive Art: Language and Mirror of the Soul ] trans. Barbara Allemand, Kathleen Chevalier, Thomas Kessler (Paris: Editions Max Fourny, 1983). Vast majority of paintings include water: unmistakably part of the landscape of dream and of the subconscious. plenty of trouble I would guess as well if you fear losing your home. Or (day or night) water is indifferent, not even that - Past itself, as I recollect Sebald's image in The Rings of Saturn of the River Blyth near the coast silted up, and the bridge and emptiness, all opening a low, long, half missed vista of disuse associated with a long, slow passage of time marking a mood which is of history not recovered from. W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (New Directions: New York, 1998), pp. 137-8. Its miscellany embracing my own memory of the dangerous "sprinting tide" in Morecambe Bay, the Irish Sea at the turn coming in so rapidly that shellfish gatherers can't get back in time. "Sink or swim," for interruption (which a dam does to water) seems threateningly in return implied by water in drowning and flood (sudden not only in AZ but anywhere nowadays) as well as interruption erased by what is ahead of me or out there. Yet day or night ideas of fluidity itself (swift, slow) and of waste and mixture, we spin off or from or out of water, and indirectly in the field of it and the beauty of chance, like hope across an expanse of glittering surface at sunrise. Contained, continuous occurs to me: meaning, "I have more," or "There is more," or "There is time," but...
Unthinkably wide and seeing, running away from me / with me, even if quite still; tranquil and dread, I mix parts of speech; channellable, meandering not by magic or just by chance but for geo-riverine causes you can plot, E.C. Pielou, Fresh Water (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 119ff. an innocent field if you want to label water with some immaturity or carelessness you find in others incessantly. "Ocean stream," or The Sea Around Us I so recall but more the word "tragic" which, when I was a difficult college senior once upon a time Henrietta Ripperger, a kind writer (friend of my mother's - mine, too, I hardly grasped - and published in The New Yorker at $140 for a story), a woman four times my age, applied to Rachel Carson's book but to the sea itself, "tragic," a word I dismissed as sentimental, her human and not even literary word (said to me and me alone in the kitchen) - tragic! - the ocean? - impersonal depths, time, and remoteness...breath-taking, resourceful variety of the ocean described by this other writer Carson whom I liked for her knowledge and subject (perhaps sense of different times - as she points out, we had tides before we had water - my own miscellaneous memory of the dangerous "sprinting tide" in Morecambe Bay, the Irish Sea at the turn coming in so rapidly that shellfish gatherers can't get back in time) missing (myself) then in Carson a "tragic" I grew to understand in time, and a sea for weeks aboard ship of a mind-calming sameness because endlessly articulated, for we ask water to mean something and it does.
Detoured before I'm almost started - by "a long-legged fly" whom Yeats of course does not include "upon [this] stream" among his select great figures spied along the Emersonian "Representative" bias making history and in their creative silence isolated in order that "civilization may not sink"; no, it's our own Lincoln who detains me. He would have served just as well as Yeats' Michelangelo ("on that scaffolding," "his hand [moving] to and fro" even imagining a sonnet he would write later with that learned hand, though dismayed that "The Flood" [laid on with too-wet plaster] had begun "to mildew so the figures could barely be distinguished"). Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, trans. Alice Sedgwick Wohl, ed. Hellmut Wohl, 2nd edition, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1999, p. 57. Or Yeats' Caesar (contemplating spread-out maps, "His eyes fixed upon nothing, / A hand under his head"). "Long-Legged Fly," Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1976), pp. 327-8; compare "A civilization...like some great tragic person..." in A Vision (New York: Macmillan, 1961), p. 268. Our big-foot Lincoln still longer legged, who wrote at least as well as Yeats' artist and general, stepping onto these moving waters inseparable from thoughts that took Lincoln where he wanted to go. (How can we tell the river from the water that remakes its banks, shrinks from them, sweeps over them, shapes landscape that in turn (but what turn?) contains it - and how from water tell the whirlpools Leonardo that great engineer and would-be river-reviser studied as he studied us and in us Earth's hydrological cycle virtually? We are of Nature. We remake it.)
That is its property in us. As a young candidate for the Legislature Lincoln had plans as we will see for his own river, the Sangamon (which he is said to have said he knew better than anyone). Which is not to sentimentalize his ten-dollar-a-month stint as an "uneducated" twenty-two-year-old flatboatman a few months shy of the outset of his career; nor his attested handiwork as evidence he was a more than adequate boatwright. Nor his turn as an assistant pilot if one wants proof that the shoals and bends and meanders of his river (which, to get it out to the Illinois more quickly, he proposed straightening!) were (whatever he said) known to him anything like as well as a Mississippi River pro knew those hundreds and hundreds of miles the memory of which far exceeds knowing Old and New Testaments forward and backward (reckons Mark Twain) or "every house and window and lamppost and big and little sign" of "the longest street in New York" so "you can instantly name the one you are abreast of when you are set down at random in that street in the middle of an inky black night..." Life on the Mississippi (New York: Harper, 1917), pp. 107-8.
Plying my theme upstream, downstream, I know less, then more. Fixing its fluidity testing its surface, I zoom on the water-strider insect to this day running with long high steps along the firm surface of the Sangamon or a pond in Florida knowing where it's going - or weigh both the odd property of water itself that can support a razor blade, a needle, things much heavier than water which has "a tensile strength close to that of some steels," Davis and Day, p. 35. and its property of expanding when it freezes (beginning foresightedly at 4 degrees C.) no matter where you step in or on - anywhere, even where I'm not; to say nothing of becoming lighter "than itself" when frozen, which I suppose saved the dark depths of the sea from a diminished life. I learned just the other day that the molecular structure of water supercooled opens out the spaces between its parts - a tetrahedral packing less dense than that of the warmer liquid - which explains why colder is lighter and (first shown me by my long late father) why ice doesn't sink. Peter Weiss, "Wet 'N' Wild. Explaining Water's Weirdness," Science News, Jan. 24, 2004, 58-60.
Can novelists use this insight, must it turn into quaint metaphor? (I learn from my 14-year-old son that in 1901 lower East Side tenement dwellers if they didn't have a quarter for the gas meter could counterfeit one out of ice to slip in the slot. Robert Frost, Garcia Marquez, a fragment of Greek pass in and out of my wet brain whose very wetness may help to remember or postpone these passages.) I know more, then less, it and I are outside and inside, and yes I am over my head in this simple substance. "If you wish to drown, don't torture yourself with shallow water," my one Bulgarian proverb has it. (Who wishes to drown? Many have wished, but not me: I see that horror, that awful, gasping sinal surrender and the vast sinking downward, but almost conversely also the water rising and nowhere to go, a ship, a water-filling compartment with an inch of air between me and the ceiling.) Yet my bark canoe slips uncannily over shallows.
To the young Primo Levi (who much later plunged to his death down a stairwell), the "enchanted glass of beakers and test tubes... intimidat[ing]," breakable, and almost untouchable reveals itself as "a substance different from all others...full of mystery and caprice. It is similar in this," this chemist observes, "to water, which also has no kindred forms: but water is bound to [us], indeed to life (or I should say our earthly life which life elsewhere in the universe would probably have to share several characteristics of in order to be defined as life) Wolfram, p. 825., by a long-lasting familiarity, by a relationship of multifarious necessity, due to which its uniqueness is hidden beneath the crust of habit." Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Schocken, 1984), pp. 24-5. Or beneath that "lid of glass" that Emily Dickinson spies far down a well (I must revisit). Dickinson, #1400, line 6, p. 599. Deep even to get to, it occurs to me, while granting a poignant authority to Levi yet contrasting his "uniqueness" to Dickinson's absolute surface - for it occurs to me that like fluidity itself, so surface with all its attraction and changes with the light and our misunderstandings of it, may come from water, whose surface is rarely still. Good surface lessons for writers who...
On one of the "frozen rivers" Pablo Neruda mistakes for "broad white highways" as he leaves the outskirts of Moscow, a fisherman "like a fly on a glossy tablecloth" looks through the hole drilled in the ice to find "the buried current." And drops his hook, waits for hours, and for what? He is like a writer, Neruda explains, who must find the river, patiently look for the deep water, pull out some poor fish... Memoirs, translated from the Spanish by Hardie St. Martin (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), pp.197-8. Am I still speaking of water or of that which is out of sight? On a winter morning Thoreau will "go in search of water, if that be not a dream...[what was] the liquid and trembling surface of the pond...so sensitive to every breath...[now] solid." Walden; or Life in the Woods [et al] (New York: Library of America, 1985), p. 547. It is a window for him; he expected to see what was there. Other water images conceal what is Under, or open it as what is to be dreaded, as we shall see, thirsty for what moves us.
In 1948 under a glaring sun, I trod the searing, majestic crest above Hoover Dam's spillway twelve years after its completion. A Something near me. A vastness, elegant as someone else's death. What, at almost 18, would my part in all this be? Where was everybody? A pinpoint of a man in overalls along a walkway down there. An impregnable monument, taking the measure of the Colorado's canyons and deep-intrenched meanders at considerable risk of flash floods, as I learned, to say nothing of the half-seen topography itself. The damage difficult to see, though, was to the fish, the water chemistry, the downstream bed scoured to bedrock because of the changed flow rhythm of the river, our joint stock.
I imagine - not unlike imagining my rights periodically - the construction of the great early dams Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Blue Gold. The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water (New York: The New Press, 2002), pp. 243-4. and other mammoth works like the Gunnison River diversion tunnel (undertaken to divert the Colorado River after the 1902 Reclamation Act). The idea was to bring farmers to the American desert and make it bloom, which it did. Bowed upstream against the Salt River current, Roosevelt Dam above Phoenix a 280-foot high giant soon to be dwarfed; Elephant Butte on the Rio Grande; Grand Coulee and Bonneville on the Columbia, with gigantic gorge reservoirs and locks to one side for ships to pass - come back to locks - and "ladders" that in theory enable salmon to swim onward (through what became unceremoniously a series of slackwater lakes, but...) power, drinking water, irrigation, the scale of construction "grand," even the idea - the list seems incredible. I study diagrams in my much thumbed copy of Condit's American Building Art, Vol. 2, and get that sinking feeling where from the downstream side looking back over the dam face at the surface of the reservoir, water depth becomes height, dreadful as a vast disguising surface - I recall the walls of quarries, fjords - the seclusion and sudden awful light through the trees when you get there - dreadful, mostly lifeless Crater Lake in Oregon, its chill purity, frightful and beautiful, its ancient depth.
Locks show people and process close up. (Locks pace canals, and our own 363-mile-long Erie, descending 660 feet through eighty-three "massive" stone locks and passing over eighteen "stately aqueducts" Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham. A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 430 - a book I read and reread with the greatest admiration. floated New York Governor Clinton's political career if we speak of flow as if it were not struggle. Indeed, water business led to our original Constitutional Convention which arguably developed from Washington's call for an Annapolis convention to obtain support for his Potomac Company's plan to dig a canal that would open routes to Virginia, Maryland, and westward.) Big spectacular dams could make you nervous, as if it mattered, the insupportable assertion of control over such water force.
You have a right to such feelings. The 1920 federal water power act (Boulder Dam one result) opened to the feds the allotting of water for irrigation, homes, and electrical energy, thus narrowing control. Charles and Mary Beard, A Basic History of the United States (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1944), pp. 446-7. Yet the Tennessee Valley Authority - FDR's TVA - identified in its project an entire river system for the first time ("...the power...of running streams..." [ Lincoln's italics] The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. ii, ed. R.P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p. 440. ). By the mid-1990s our 50,000 photogenic dams represent an engineering success embracing irrigation, electric power generation, water supply, and flood control. This was the New Deal, generous, political, impersonally hopeful.
But Alice Outwater has shown how an engineered river system may wreck "the cleansing and nutrient-filled annual flood pulse" by arbitrarily evening out the "[n]atural extremes of flow, temperature, and sediment transport." It's devastating, but she has much to say. She is a hydrologist, wide-ranging, distinguished (among a later, younger group of excellent, communal writers on water and the ecological web). Not given to facile trope, she speaks still of water as "the blood of land - always in motion, from the rain to the mountaintops, through the forests and plains to the sea, and so to the clouds again" - yet so "simplified" "by dredging, by damming, by channeling" that we may be surprised to see her actual conclusions from this analysis of the effect of upper or lower level water release from a dam, and of what happens to deposits that sink and remain in the reservoir, and so on. The interruptive clamp of the big dam upon the accumulating weight, the deep reality, of the river and its natural course and cycle, becomes an intervention with effects often not foreseen. Alice Outwater, Water. A Natural History. (New York: Basic Books. 1996). These American breakthroughs I had thought exponentially multiplied by now at the turn of the century. I wasn't quite right. In fact, big dams peaked here in the 70's. Though not in India and China, for example, where we were models of a kind as in other areas where people (if I can glance around for a second) become things, though differentiated things.
A river won't grant you an easement necessarily. A river not respected is Primo Levi's point in an incident of his novel The Monkey's Wrench, and in India of all places. Right where the river makes a bend, a bridge has been planned over a 700-meter crossing because of where the railroad tracks happen to come. Excavations fill up with sand as fast as they're dug in the riverbed - "a tough job"; then, in the caissons digging out the rock two miners dead - only two, "like it was something natural," observes the Italian rigger flown in at the end to "draw" the suspension cables, "and I began to get the idea that this was a place where you'd better not count on other people being careful..." A hundred workers sitting on their heels get up to greet the engineer "putting their hands to the chest...folded, like they were going to pray..." Five piers in place, with 50-meter support towers, between two of them a service structure (a temporary bridge) laid on its side, and concrete buttresses reinforcing right bank left bank. But it's the wrong place for a crossing. Quite suddenly the river swings away from the right-side buttress (no river there anymore) and destroys the left bank, flooding fields, making a "round lake more than a hundred meters across, and more water, like a mean animal bent on doing harm, kept pouring into it, spinning because of the thrust behind it." Floating islands of flotsam, trees with leaves and roots from upstream (Faulkner comes to mind), "whole hunks of shore" - "a strange racket like thunder, but underground." Primo Levi, The Monkey's Wrench, trans. from the Italian by William Weaver (New York: Summit Books, 1986), pp. 106-9. The writing is literal, the voice relaxed, dramatic, the point a principle of thinking a solution through before you stop thinking.
The bridge forgets the water below, I've heard. The water needs no rights. Less gnomic, the voices of our Army engineers just cope: "Frankly, most of the academic studies [on water] are irrelevant to practical decision-making. But that's okay. They're academicians. They have no responsibility to manage real resources. We have to deal with real things - real dams, real rivers, real demands, real crises." Eugene Stakhiv, "Old Principles for a New Watershed Planning Paradigm," Institute for Water Resources reports, U.S. Corps of Army Engineers, Alexandria, VA, April 1995.
Unequal supposedly to such realnesses, never mind I try to track my elective representatives like a responsible constituent, asking (for I have a right and responsibility), Must all other values of water go on hold if it's mere survival we're talking about? Or, closer to their engineerable ground, I learn as I go. To the once and future Kissimmee River. Where a natural flood in 1928 killed 2750 people. The Army Corps of Engineers in a fiasco of reaction - was it their right? - straightened the meandering river into a 56-mile canal and systematically banked Lake Okeechobee below it to turn half of the Everglades marshlands below it into farmland benefiting the Sugar industry and miscellaneous lesser agriculture without leaving sufficient water to make all this work. Then, in the mid-1990s, at what profit to whom it is unclear to me, the Corps undertook to restore the wetlands that once had kept the river sane.
This story is only one wonder among the wider shifts on this continent depleted of plant and animal and doubtless other life, as we one way or another know, being psychically depleted some of the time anyway by our supposed importance. Outwater is not after all hopeless in her account of how American hydro-engineering in the interest of simplifying has bypassed the naturally cyclic pathways taken by water, "the ecological niches where water cleans itself." Outwater, p. xii. We are almost, but not quite fatally, cut off from our pre-Columbian land. Against her painful, perspicuous, likewise politically useful analysis of what the 18th century European market for beaver hats did to the waterways comes my memory of (and I check my memory of [sorry, but] family camping in Utah, Colorado, Arizona [sun shower plastic container hung on the door of our van / water purifiers needed in camping some BLM areas in southern Utah] as I check on my shelves next to Henry Adams and A.R. Ammons that raging, original book Desert Solitaire (1968) Edward Abbey's human "beavers, who...not satisfied with the enormous silt trap and evaporation tank called Lake Mead (back of Boulder Dam)" have impounded in that once "Eden[ic]" Glen Canyon a "reservoir [Lake Powell] of stagnant water [that] will not irrigate a single square foot of land or supply water for a single village...[generating]...cash through electricity for the indirect subsidy of various real estate speculators, cottongrowers and sugarbeet magnates in Arizona, Utah and Colorado; also, of course, to keep the engineers and managers of the Reclamation Bureau off the streets..." (Hey, what happened to Lake Powell? Just a turn-of-the-century drought ongoing.) Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire. A Season in the Wilderness (New York: Ballantine, 1985), pp. 173-4.
In Abbey's book you meet this often lone, cactus-like person. Not so accessible, one gathers, except in his book. Like thought itself sometimes - crystallized on the page as one hopes against hope in face-to-face discussion. To say nothing of information you can tap from hand-held books, pondering the lines of print on the page, jotting a note. (Am I still discussing water's properties?) New Hampshire or upstate New York will tell me how much trees are able to "hold," the intact ground, the damp days; so that like Emerson and Thoreau, who against a wariness exported from Europe welcomed the woods, I can begin anyway to reckon the cost of clear-cutting. My Emerson today and of the last 30 years is not my college Emerson. Then, he seemed general, especially on the language nature teaches us. He was a discoverer in too optimistic a mood for mine in 1949. Now he seems not general at all. ("But do your work, and I shall know you," writers might be reminded when they speak in public.) Emerson, Selected Prose and Poetry, introd. Reginald L. Cook (New York: Rinehart, 1955), pp. 170.
Not the fault of my teachers my slowness to appreciate Emerson (or my quickness to not get him), but a fault somewhat geological in me of time which I yet credit with some unfolding erosion. Or nature in its "commodity" (by which Emerson means not yet in the essay our ideas and sense of beauty, but [here] what we get from nature): field, beasts, fire, stones, corn, for instance; and water evaporated from the sea into vapor borne by wind to land, or rain condensed from ice into, don't forget, drops of such elastic, rough, hard surface that, hitting rock for instance, each is a bullet. Too soon to understand the natural "pump" created by heavier salt water in the North Atlantic sinking, and I have no reason to think Emerson knew how bent the H2O molecule is, i.e., in that 104.5° angle between each H and the O; or knew that, "If the molecules of water were not bent," as poet and Nobel chemist Roald Hoffman puts it, "[water] would be a gas at room temperature. Life wouldn't be the same." I suppose that must be true; if there was still a room for the temperature, we'd be sweating it, Roald Hoffman and Vivian Torrence, Chemistry Imagined. Reflections on Science, foreword by Carl Sagan, commentary by Lea Rosson DeLong (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), p. 57. which still is not necessary for me to grasp in order to go on speaking, or for Emerson in the middle of what used to be the last century.
Not too soon for the American version of that ancient interconnection of all processes, spun by Emerson in recurrent images of circulation and circle, the charity divine but the god somehow human. Do I hear transcendental acceptance at a time before civil disobedience had extended into what we now colorlessly call environmental? What help is it to recall the Mesopotamian view that water is the unfathomable wisdom?
Twenty years later what we had already done to Nature was abundantly clear to a Vermont linguist and lawyer, George Perkins Marsh. He lays it out in our first great conservation book, Man and Nature. Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864). Believe him, "the felling of the woods" with their capacity to hold precipitation would mean not incidentally destroying watersheds but "the final extinction of the smaller plants which...may germinate and grow...and [find] protection from the greater trees." Marsh's study painfully original for its day, how we abuse Nature, what we do to it.
So exact about channels at the head of valleys, materially severe discussing the as yet unsettled banks of American rivers, he presents a massive analysis of the Arno. First and recurringly he studies how forests control the water cycle - yet we cut them down; how in the uplands of the Atlantic states which "formerly abounded in sources and rills...the hill pastures...no longer afford either water or herbage for cattle"; how in America and "the British provinces" mountain springs disappear with the clearing of the ground but reappear a dozen years later when bushes and young trees are allowed to grow. George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature, Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, ed. David Lowenthal (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), pp. 245-6, 42, 171-2. Fresh water already endangered "globally" (we say today), Marsh, speaking of the Near East, warns that irrigation, frequent and "drawn from rivers when their proportion of salts is greatest," deposits more evaporated salt into the land than natural flooding. Marsh, p. 324. Bleak as his forecasts, this Vermonter from the one New England state without a coastline has an American projective imagination: what if the Dead Sea basin were filled to create a huge new evaporable area of 3000 square miles, Syria's climate would be "tempered, its precipitation and its fertility increased," and "tribes of plants and animals would emigrate from the Mediterranean to the new home which human art had prepared for them..." Yet would not the additional "hydrostatic pressure upon the bottom of the basin disturb the equilibrium...[at] the crust of the earth...and produce geological convulsions the intensity of which cannot be even conjectured[?]" Marsh, p. 444-5.
Even today his arguments haven't dated. How "the whole earth, unless rescued by human art from the physical degradation to which it tends [mainly because of our misuse], becomes an assemblage of bald mountains, or barren turfless hills..." Outwater, p.36, quoted from Marsh, chapter 4. Doing his best to exterminate the insect-eating bird his ally, "the stingy farmer," "his eye fixed upon his furrow, upon the present moment only,...[is] blind to the great harmony which is never broken with impunity..." Marsh, p. 81.
"Stingy farmer" is less likely Marsh's own Woodstock than Italy (through Virgil, whom he cites for the phrase). Marsh was our first minister to the new Italian Republic in (nb:) 1861, and studied Italian rivers, floods, forests, irrigation in Lombardy and elsewhere. The full sense of "stingy" in Marsh (with whom I am not done) at least accords inversely with what happened to our prairie grasslands in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Immigrant farmers brought their needs and habits with them. They believed that the miraculous moist climate of 1878 to 1887 was due to "the plow,...and [that] the iron and steel rails of the railroads and the metal in the telegraph wires had altered the natural electrical cycles...inducing rain." Outwater, pp. 88-9. The displacement of an ecological balance of buffalo [tongue] (see my novel Women and Men) and prairie dogs (with their enormously complex and habitat-friendly underground tunnels) by cattle and plowing, the end of natural fires as a renewal agent and grasses which held the soil in place..., ultimately led to the dust bowl and irrigation technology which, discovering water at greater depths, used it prodigally.
What properties are here? Not only water's, though as if a Pascalian pressure on a volume of water yielding pressure everywhere particulates Thales' "Water is everything" into "Water yields any thought you can let it inspire."
Reading Outwater and others I have to wonder how, month by month, the disaster to the soil could have been forestalled. By martial law? By Mormon conversion? For the Mormons, who made it look easy (and were ahead of their time if you were a Mormon), [had] declared water and other resources common property in their promised land. So did it belong to them? Appertained to them occurs to me, thinking of properties in water! And though we are speaking here not of democracy (which I would hope water, getting my drift, will bring me to, but in which Mormons could hardly be said to believe) - nor our Constitution (!) (talk about lip-service to a word, democracy, that does not even appear there) Gore Vidal, Inventing a Nation. Washington, Adams, Jefferson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 135. but of revolutionary group-dogma power (which, it's been recently suggested, by 2020 may "make governing our democracy... impossible without Mormon cooperation"), Harold Bloom, The American Religion. The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Touchstone. Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 90. their canals, irrigation ditches, and earthen dams put a different value on water from that of other western settlers who, in the absence of clear ownership and by a "first in time, first in right," doctrine of appropriation called "cowboy economics," made it property, like land. In fact, river bank land that you could buy and sell, for it was here and no place else, this fresh water a property of the land, you had every right to take it, you didn't need an easement (or not yet).
On a larger scale but maybe not so different, the first Napoleon claimed the Netherlands for himself as a deposit of the Rhine, therefore by natural law the property of him who controlled the sources of that great river. Marsh, 289. From which nature does such law derive - human or geographic? And today in an election year we have depressed working people in the Mid-west going Republican for religious, moral, or life-style reasons and thus supporting the water-privatizing movement that promises if it succeeds to de prive them (and in the short run). Put your hand in, take your hand out, water easy to not think about sometimes; insubstantial in the idioms of our happily felonious free enterprise system: e.g., "writing water," which is to submit fake warranty claims. Jeffrey Toobin, "Kerry's Trials," The New Yorker, May 10, 2004, p. 56.
Out my window I see (I watch) the conical-topped water towers, their darkened shingles, the two-stage steel frames they stand on, the ladder going up to the very top, the vertical aluminum duct coming down into the building, and wonder dumbly what the water is for. In case of fire certainly. But this is New York. I recall a water tower created totally and solidly of luminous white silvery resin, the storage cylinder not negative but filling a space imagined as the tower's inside with and without its contents: a solid water? Not exactly. This tower (an English visitor's creation) has no duct: it is a work of art. What does it make me think about? The uses of the water that is not there which I contemplate in a material you can do almost nothing with that you do with water? What is conserved by this contemplation? It's where I want to go in this essay. I have no time to pause, only to revisit this "Water Tower" (1998) of the English sculptor Rachel Whiteread or at least to look up at it on a rooftop near the corner of West Broadway and Grand Street, New York City, near where I live. Though now after several years this installation (as we call it) is gone.
The following facts are brought to you without transition: whereas available freshwater represents less than half of one percent of the world's total water stock, global consumption of water is doubling every twenty years, more than twice the rate of human population growth; and 31 countries currently face water shortages and another 17 likely to be added to the list by 2025.
All this doesn't get me to Stockton. Stockton got me into this, it seems, more than a year ago. Stockton, where I've never knowingly been, but representative of much. Old news a year ago though unfolding bulletin upon bulletin: "simply" that European (it first seemed) water management companies had been showing up inviting our city governments to hire them to fix decrepit water systems that the tax base supposedly couldn't afford to. And run them for a price. (Our representatives have the right to act for us.) Water services, however, part of a relentless movement to make water a commodity. Water "privatization" (a word as dumb, though it will do, as that other Orwellian multi-syllable " global ization" of which it is almost contradictorily part and parcel). Stockton (CA), and New Orleans, Chattanooga, Peoria, Jersey City, Atlanta, San Francisco and other communities here and as it turns out around the world, though some have gone back to public ownership. The Nation, Sept. 2, 2002, 8. News to me (every day about the big and less big international combines, and American - by way of newspapers and increasingly then the Internet, which are no less vehicles of information and thoughtful critique yet leave in my brain (my fault) some abstraction or residue of unreality coupled with an aura of group solidarity. Water belongs to everyone, doesn't it?
We want our representatives to deal with the data. (Deal they will.) But here I was doing some checking of my own on a water storm advancing on several fronts - crisis I didn't have the time - maybe subconsciously involved trying to make sense of what is far from some clear lesson right now, when the EPA predicts that by 2019 American cities will be $650 billion behind in maintaining water and sewage systems against "local mini-disasters, boil-water alerts," "pipeline leaks" with impact all around including the pollution of coastal waters. New York Times, April 10, 2002, A22. So what do we make of Margaret Thatcher in the 80's taking water private in the UK (or in the 1840s when water entrepreneurs from our east coast (where riparian rights came from escorted by Common Law) tried to make money off rights uncertainty out west)? Registering in my over data'd memory urgently more than a year ago, but in truth shallowly like some clicked link to the new "water virtuals" you can bet on on the stock exchange (which in January 2004 have turned into blue (-gold) chips right up there on the big board). I felt like a magnet out of not touch but control or that Branly coherer that Henry Adams tries to understand (and I him - his argument emerging somehow not entirely in his control - in my grandfather's copy of the Education) that demonstrates the Frenchman Branly's discovery (a forgotten piece of the puzzle) that the resistance between loose metallic contacts like a pile of iron turnings lessens when they are struck by an electrical wave. The Education of Henry Adams. An Autobiography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1918), chapter xxv, pp. 384-5.
Hardly objective, my interest in the water crisis goes back two years, extends to Cochabamba, Bolivia. They've gotten some press, and an old friend I've worked with comes from there, an agronomist, a Qechua Indian but of course now living in New Mexico, like my accumulating book on the land, on justice, long deferred like a jury of myself at each other. As elsewhere in the known (often Third) world, a subsidiary of the San Francisco multinational Bechtel, pressed by the World Bank, had contracted to take over the delivery of water services in Cochabamba. Soon, many users couldn't afford it any more - it was costing them more than rent, it could cost their lives in the short run. Bechtel's response - the objective outsider - was to let the Bolivian government put mass protests down with deadly force. Yet later it cancelled the contract and Bechtel sued for 25 million dollars in lost profits. It had the right to - right against right, money sunk in preliminary advisory functions, if we want to know. (It's like a fee for [another of these words] expertise.) What are the properties of corporations? But what do you do now?
Well, short term, the local water company SEMAPO took over; started providing water to the poorest areas of Cochabamba; brought in 400 small communities abandoned by the old company, consulting a broad-based consensus (though I have heard those words before) of neighborhoods (and while it hasn't gone that smoothly, a major decentralized and indigenously Indian politics is growing in Bolivia, one could argue inspired by the water issue). Barlow and Clarke, pp. 186-7. Also, Tom Hayden, The Nation, June 21, 2004, pp. 18, 20-22. The British (how British?) firm attempting an invasion of New Orleans stirred up enough "concerned citizens" to referendum the deal out of town. But of course, what then. A citizen group in Stockton fought the privatization of their water infrastructure for nearly two years and won. The court ruled that a $600-million contract was invalid because the company - OMI-Thames, a partnership between Colorado-based OMI and German-based RWE (backed, as it happened, by the Bush administration) - failed to conduct a mandatory environmental impact review under California law. The Bush administration backed the company. Likewise the World Bank with all its isolatable statistics and cash insisted that Ghana (like many other needy nations) privatize as a condition for renewal of loans. Barlow and Clarke, pp. 188-89. Which is not exactly "government," for that middle man that served developers in L.A. and Arizona, and large farmers in Imperial Valley, has been bypassed by the profiteers, at least for the present.
It's a market. The real world, if you like; as tangible (if that's the test) as the container Ship of State navigating a hundred safe harbors. On the Mexican border children drink Coke and Pepsi instead of scarce or undrinkable or non-existent water, which while someone over the phone prescribes fluids you can also drink in your imagination, as Byron tells us who finds ultimate truth for the thirsty at the bottom of a well. Juarez was privatized years ago; if you're not staying in a hotel there, you might have water three or four hours a day. Marc Cooper, "Behind Globalization's Glitz," The Nation, Sept. 22, 2003, 18. Mexico City is expected to run out of water in ten years, is in fact subsiding, like towns near oil or gas extraction sites, as water-aquifer pockets are replaced by air. And now, on notice that its water resources are to be viewed by the U.S. as continentally shared property, is vast, enlightened, green Canada. Property as theft never totally convinced me; but water? As property not always of governments against which Rights were meant to protect, but of companies who pick up the job government prefers in its own way not to do.
Written in at least some kind of stone (metamorphic doubtless), the right to know is often circumvented (though this morning I have the right to e-mail my protest against Halliburton's profits in Iraq).
Profit on people's need. But don't we, one way or another? - their need even to survive. Those that do need to. To not dehydrate. To dodge malaria.
Why must they survive? The answer is to live with them, not fluently but in whatever excerpts we can give of ourselves.
And their kids, who catch cholera borne magically along a neighborhood ditch in South Africa and Mexico?
And what's so new about water strategy? Anciently it's everywhere. Virgil brings us up to date on the Romans, those master movers of water to say nothing of waste water. Putting profit over people. Apparently it's an instant outrage. Rightly so. (Though don't farmers inevitably sell what people need to survive?) But here unreasonable power over what is a common need and wealth. As if its commonness makes need at least congruent with wealth. What is "common"? What we have? What most of us escape? - like "common, preventable, water-borne diseases" from which five million people, mostly children die each year. You could write about it and should. The French "octopus" Vivendi reaching "tentacles" into every moment of a person's day, tap water, phone, music, film, books, games, family time, garbage collection. Barlow and Clarke, pp.112-13, citing French sociologist Jean-Pierre Joseph, paper dated, Jan. 2001. That corporate intimacy we're too familiar with. But now (as I try to get this excerpt submitted to ebr) comes news of Aqua International investing in private water companies. Its chairman, William Reilly, who once headed the EPA (1985-93 - i.e., under Bush I), lists water and wastewater purification in "developing" countries as an additional focus. The trouble is that Aqua's announced aim is to give shareholders - why not you? it's only money - a 25 percent return. How? By pushing the market up and up - through "risk mitigation" "indexing company revenue streams [sic] to dollar foreign exchange." In plain English though English is irrelevant, as may be verbal language, huge increases in water prices for consumers in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, when over a billion people lack access to clean, affordable water, and two to four billion lack sanitation services. Sara Grusky, Citizen.Org via Waterforall@Listserver.citizen.org, June 9, 2004. Someone's stock is on the rise.
Our "own" checks and balances, Henry Adams observes in his essay "The Session. 1869-1870," arose from "the great object of terror and suspicion to the people of the thirteen provinces, [viz.] power " in the central government. Which, however, can wield power by yielding it. Adams finds that since the Republic's business isn't getting done by the government, that power is being turned over by Congress to, e.g., "a new Pacific railway, - an imperishable corporation with its own territory, an empire within a republic." Henry Adams, Historical Essays (New York: Scribner's, 1891), pp.368, 411. This is a theme in his heavily ironic novel, Democracy (1880). Adams' plodding but insider novel-a-clef nicely nails those as high up as the White House who sell their influence. Wanting power herself, the heroine Madeleine Lee soon learns of its mechanical instruments and goes back to the man who loves her for some reason. Henry Adams, Democracy, in Democracy and Esther. Two Novels by Henry Adams, introduction by Ernest Samuels, (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1965). (In the majority decision upholding the new campaign finance law Justices Stevens and O'Connor "are under no illusion that B.C.R.A. [Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002] will be the last Congressional statement on the matter. Money, like water, will always find an outlet.") The New York Times, Dec. 11, 2003, A41. Such floes of potential, that we recall again what energies of distinguishing and linking we have at our disposal, like our ignoring of where they come from. Where did these thoughts come from?
Is it all bad, turning public administration over to private entrepreneurs? Like other stubborn questions mine tries to assume no more than that water is running out, like municipal tax base money. But it unfolds into, Whose water have I a right to? Anyone's? My own where I live? To drink, to wash? To water my bean rows? To decentralize for a moment, how to judge a small entrepreneur in Idyllwild, California who, as of March 2003, from his parcel of slightly more than an acre had been selling 28,000 gallons a day for seven years to spring water bottlers? His neighbors in the midst of a severe drought argue that such natural springs are part of an intricate network supporting the area's environmental balance. "'The water isn't going back into the communities,'" says a lawyer hired by a local conservancy. The New York Times, March 23, 2003.
In the mordant, commonly human spaces of the 14th-century allegory Piers Plowman, Need instructs the poor miserable country wanderer Will that "if his tongue is parched, the law of his nature compels him to drink at every ditch rather than die of thirst... So in great necessity, Need may help himself, without consulting Conscience or the Cardinal Virtues - provided he keeps the spirit of Moderation." William Langland, Piers the Ploughman, trans. into modern English by J.F. Goodridge, (Penguin, 1971), Bk xx, pp. 245-6. Politically, "Need" sounds very vulnerable.
Native American tribes have fought for decades to establish communal right to water. This right, however, is extensively used in the international debate because corporate interests behind privatizing would legally redefine "right" as "need." Thus to encourage governments to hire out water services. Slippery these words. Water listed as a "good" by WTO and NAFTA, also as an "investment" by NAFTA. Barlow and Clarke, in "Who Owns Water?" The Nation, Sept. 2/9, 2002, p. 12.
Is water mine by need or like a right to vote? I asked myself, determining to pay a visit to the offices of Public Citizen in Oakland, when I was on a book tour for my new novel Actress in the House in June 2003. (That novel, after all, contains three or four rivers, a dam in progress I'm quite proud of, a leaky basement which will be fixed but for now contemplated, lived with; not to mention an uptown health club pool with an overweight but likable Leander swimming, which like manual dams waterwheels down, away, behind (though if swimming interrupts and pushes down, away, behind, it "finds" a rhythm of attunement even a sixth sense, insofar as, in its buoyant displacing of water, it escapes analysis) - and Leander's laps are contained apparently in another, absent person's clairvoyant sympathy possibly as water enables those electrochemically celled sources of consciousness. Actress picks ambiguous relations between women and men, the terms of a role, a search for mislaid understandings, even mislaid shock, choice which is always also a choice to join another force and in some sense be taken. Fiction, it has been my understanding, doesn't solve problems so much as put them into palpable solution in which story and problem are mutual solvents. Not mainly schematic or allegorical, it slips into the belly of the beast and draws the pilgrim reader in to be tossed around and to feel at risk (a reader whom I don't have a " right " to, do I?). To think a thing through in time even as one is being digested by it. To look at living things, render them broken and whole (as in life they are) - looking back at us unflinchingly like parts of ourselves.)
Rights have been argued, agreed, made up forever. Why do I imagine the imagination might apply itself to this world water crisis of shortage, greed, poverty, disease, intelligence, the erosion of waterways and people-ways, rapid shifts, yet partial solutions, small-scale, ancient - with sophisticated help as well from the sciences - and get results? Surely fiction, like technology, might imagine solutions. Those who would get hold of a lake or ocean of water and sell it, choose the least imaginative way to make use of it, if we are building ourselves all the time too: as killing another person seems the least imaginative use of others, in capital punishment for murder or some lesser crime, or in war, which may come down to self-defense in one's own street or home or may occur at a distance and by the hundred or thousand, by the village or region: thus, I jot down notes for future use - how the properties of water might implicitly imagine why drinking water shouldn't be marketed, or do I speak vaguely only of scale? So many real-sounding conversations in Bunyan's supposed allegory, even while cracking nuts around the table and pondering whether they are bad for the teeth these 17th-century people swap riddles that are more and less than Biblical:
A man there was, tho' some did count him mad,
The more he cast away the more he had. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress from this world to that which is to come (London: J.M. Dent, 1904), pp. 315-16.
A Japanese senryu (a brief, haiku-like, but earthier, often humorous poem) thinks that
If it could be wrapped
Water would make a fine
Present from Kyoto. Bownas and Thwaite, p. 135.
It can be now. Bagged, anyhow. The Canadian-"based" firm Medusa produces bags with a capacity of 17 million to 106 million cubic feet of water. They can be hauled by tugs, which puts supertankers (not as clean or safe) out of the water business. Find your client, pick your ocean, pick practically your aquifer (i.e., somebody else's, though water is a common wealth we're told (water commonly chuggalugged at the stair-climber) - now even Martian water); and pick your water bag. Aquarius (in which one of the ostensibly French conglomerates, Suez, is invested) has been delivering water in 2-million-liter bags to Greece since 1997. A California entrepreneur has put together to be towed as a sea "train" fifty smaller bags connected by "a unique high strength zipper system." Off the coast of Cyprus in December, 2000, Nordic Water Supply lost one of its 16-meter-long bags (carrying 5 million gallons). Barlow and Clarke, 139-41. Water moving in water with a compounded, even unnatural curiousness clandestine in its cloaked transparence - the fresh precipitate drawn from an aquifer to be towed to market elsewhere floating discrete in its ocean source.
If distribution, or redistribution, is one answer to scarcity of water, as of food, this news from the world of shipping reminds us that the thirst for water is more than just thirst. We never run out of inventiveness, even, in the American vision, of natural resources - or good will, for that matter - and if we do we expect to mine them somewhere else. With methods that keep delivery in one way or another distant from source.
A thirst for water. And what may come with it. Human depletion. On an unthinkable scale in India, for example. Competing with Pakistan for water a generation ago, Prime Minister Nehru, whose alliance with Gandhi had not coincidentally ended, cast the great dam as a temple of Marxist industrial progress and later confessed his mistake. Disappointed in the false promises (tzuma, eyewash) of the Preparatory Commission for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) and the "rainbow" of words from Chairman Mao ("beautiful, but without substance"), the Dalai Lama sought help from Nehru during his visit to India in 1956-7; but Nehru and Mao had agreed to stay out of each other's internal affairs, which had certain events in common. Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, Freedom in Exile. The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), pp. 108, 111, 117. Nehru's irrigation minister K.L. Rao in 1978 noted that the Bhakra Dam which had caused immeasurable suffering to displaced villagers had brought them neither drinking water nor electricity. Vandana Shiva, Water Wars. Privatization, Pollution, and Profit (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002), pp. 58-9. - "...malignant indications of civilization turning upon itself" is how Arundhati Roy puts it in one of the statements which characterized her role as a full-time activist after the success of The God of Small Things (1998). Luminous, physical, constantly planting and reaping the bond dissolving bounds between concrete and mythical in that novel yet perhaps sometimes voluminous in her familially non-linear inventiveness, her power turned presently to a polemic vocabulary coupling dams and bombs. Shiva, p. 62 quoting from Arundhati Roy, "The Greater Common Good," Front Line, April 1999, 31. Let me think again, for I hear myself nagging, like a watery buzzing in my ears; a nagging tension as if between kinds of writing when from another angle Who cares? - there is only writing. "Dam Fallout," Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke call the displacement of 60 to 80 million people over the last six decades, countless uncompensated farm families reduced to slum dwellers in Third World cities. Barlow and Clarke, p. 61.
We have the sinister American novel Deliverance - the river and those canoeing it exposed to unknown observers along its wooded banks - an archetypal (and for profit, sure-fire) film image (of "natives" keeping an eye on you) mingling in memory with vastly intricate Mekong networks of river and canals and flotillas in the late 60's - but the river valley whose loss James Dickey records seems more a field for forms of masculine play; we have no tragic novel of a dam for instance on the scale of, in China, the Sanmenxia (410,000 homeless) and Three Gorges (1.3 million) Barlow and Clarke 61-2. and the somewhat cloaked Nu River project threatening China's World Heritage "Grand Canyon" - or the Sardar Sarovar in the Narmada Valley in Gujarat, India. It is in this actual "narrative" gigantic and populous that Arundhati Roy achieved a charismatic triumph as spokesperson for the displaced against the government and the "disgraceful" ruling of the court. The size of the obstacle elicits from her a rhetoric of outrage. "[Dams]...scramble the intelligence that connects...food to forests, water to rivers,...the earth to human existence."
For centuries many local systems of water management persisted in India. The British, who had no such traditions, learned from them on the Madras River. They were renewed by community movements in the past generation. The people of the desert state of Rajasthan faced the lack of rain in such a way that "from top to toe they internalized the nature of water in its simplicity and fluidity." Shiva, quoting Anupam Mishra, pp. 119-20; rain is called "cloud flower," the first drop has a special name, water drops several names. Drainage rivulets, sand dams, tanks connected over great distances like a patience you think you learn from water reminded in fact that you had it in you all the time - these communal methods are juxtaposed, toward the end of Shiva's superb Water Wars (cited above) with the acequias, or Hispanic irrigation ditch communities, in Colorado. What little I know about acequias in that general area - including the Rocky Mountain high-altitude meadow system now threatened by climate change - I know from Stanley Crawford.
If it seems indelible and deep - active - what is it but a few visits over almost a generation? Governed as memory works by a continuity that may even give form to the little I know about the right livelihood he and his wife Rose Mary built for themselves over the past 30 years farming garlic in a small Hispanic valley south of Taos, New Mexico. For a year Stan, an Anglo many years a parciante, or member shareholder in the ditch, was the ditch manager, the Mayordomo. This is the title of one of his books, Mayordomo. Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988). which covers roughly that year (March 1985 to March 1986) in the life of his acequia. This organization, this democracy, that "taught" them to feed themselves, connected them with 30 families, "prods us to remember...that if we use our own labor to do so and the labor of our friends and neighbors, we are far more efficient in energy terms than the largest agribusiness farms in the world." In "Acequia as Teacher," The River in Winter. New and Selected Essays. (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2003), pp. 33-6.
Tangible work on the land and on the page. That difficult double career never seeming (at least to me) at Stan's apparent pace egregiously difficult or impeded, so much as continuing and contained and unscreened by word or delusion. This "over-educated novel-writing truck farmer...caught between two eras like a [Turgenev] character" who has put into his non-fiction book the "veins and capillaries" Mayordomo, p.18. of this land, the work of maintaining the ditch among other things in every inch of effort and knowledge shared with the fortunate reader, the sometimes bewildering interruptions of uncontrollable weather, the "human constrictions and diversions the mayordomo" must take charge of who is "the pump, the heart that moves the vital fluid down the artery to the little plots of land of each of the cells, the parciantes." (In Outwater and elsewhere we hear the metaphor of blood circulating, which anciently is a correspondence not metaphorical at all. Crawford is somewhere in between, though not in the following remark.) "Water relationships would be simple and linear were they not complicated by all those other ways that human beings are connected with and divided from each other: blood, race, religion, education, politics, money." Ibid. p.25. Rights likely to be most nearly reliable locally as here, a precinct of water democracy I imagine.
Walking the ditch, Stan and I come upon a crossing where the beavers have messed things up, two chewed saplings are down across the steep-banks, maybe not even a dam-in-progress. The everyday passingness must be more than passing, though he might shrug off this thought (or that water "rights" [my "quaint," he calls it, archaic contribution] have anything to do with where you live, considering major diversions of water just about everywhere in the world though the New Mexico basically usufruct - "ownership" custom is archaic. Maybe a luxury of my experience of his life and that I will come back (as he himself will go to market every week in season) and that I will reread him and believe that some metaphors are more than comparisons. Is Stan's writing what will last?
Though a few years later he has a multi-year grant from the Ford Foundation to study farmers markets in New Mexico. His knowledge is priceless. It takes him away from full time farming. (He's discovered that State Engineer records of well-drilling in his neighborhood are complete garbage; he and his neighbors rarely have anything to do with the overlapping jurisdictions, typical perhaps of water resources once thought so abundant that rights definitions seemed unnecessary.) His own farming? Perhaps the time itself is ripe, as for more attention to be given to his writing though truthfully he has managed to write fiction and non-fiction of quality during these many years growing garlic and commuting in season twice a week many miles to market in Santa Fe and Los Alamos. What is it to revisit a person? What happens to occur to me, or I happened to be reading something.
In these remarks of mine, I come back to several figures.
Second thoughts? Odd, this revisiting. "Accretions" the title of Chapter 17 of A Garlic Testament and typical of Stan's method: "what people do to make things grow...consists of...eliminating everything else that gets in the way." A Garlic Testament. Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm (New York: Harper Perennial: 1993, p. 89. My own writing is weeding since I'm always experimentally planting (maybe weeds like nutritious amaranth) just to see, and maybe this analogy stretches things. Revisiting is clearer, though: rereading a person, seeing what I didn't see before. Facts, however: Stan doesn't know how much longer the current generation of ditch commissioners and mayordomos can handle drought years, before saying the hell with it - like so many small farmers.
Yes, a walk in the woods or along the river; finishing a table top, making a floor; repairing a bark canoe with pitch or pine gum. Reading, though, as Experience: the book as distillation (I don't mean, into desalinated water vapor): the book as... revision. What Homer even in translation means to a reader of twenty or twenty-one: "...a new planet swims into his ken." Some of my experience, like Keats', is through books. (Isn't yours?) Some? Novelists more than they like to admit. A line, a sentence, a scene, an impression of a whole book continuing for years.
Primo Levi's novel The Periodic Table describes his young ambitions in science: to "grab Proteus by the throat" and "cut short his inconclusive metamorphoses from Plato to Augustine...Hegel to Croce...force him to speak." In an improvised lab at first, "at the rear of a courtyard, in a curious, narrow, twisting alleyway which branched off Piazetta della Crocetta and stood out in the obsessive Turinese geometry like a rudimentary organ trapped in the evolved structure of a mammalian." The Periodic Table, pp. 24-25. Why does this passage touch me?
We contain so much unforeseeable life at large and in motion. And must live with it maybe more than control it. George Perkins Marsh's deep, complex analysis of the riverbed of the Arno in Italy aimed in part to understand how its floods might be foreseen. "People who live at the lower ends of watersheds cannot be isolationists," observes Wendell Berry. "Pretty soon they will notice that water flows." Thus in part "the gravity and fluidity" especially in a river "instructs us unsparingly about the condition...of living in a common wealth." "Watershed and Commonwealth," in Citizenship Papers (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003), pp. 135-6.
Like the history that is an interior environment - of my wet mind - Stephen M. Kosslyn and Olivier Koenig, Wet Mind. The New Cognitive Neuroscience (New York: Free Press, 1992). paradoxically surrounding me in part acquired by educating myself haphazardly during these decades when history in our population and the "saint or sage" Emerson thought we quoted instead of daring to say "I am" have seemed to fade as a responsible fascination (responsibility like finding anything out in order to...proceed). You question the authorities, don't you? By reading what they say - and by seeing the perspectives (smarter or less smart - and all we have, as Nietzsche said) through which the past is understood.
One branch of my family I would try to find answers to as a child by going to books sometimes - these people person to person who love you who, privately disappointed in themselves, want you to listen to them yet (they, and Emerson, whom they didn't know, say) think for yourself. Books? Abraham's much admired willingness to kill his son (an event or prospective event of interest to Lincoln because it shows they had saddles then for their asses); April 6, 1858 lecture, II, p.441 - Genesis 22-3; though Lincoln's point in a lecture about inventions that takes interest in the earlinesss of water travel, is that Abraham's saddle shows that they'd been riding for some time. Jesus inviting "the little children to come unto" him (though probably not because the child is father of the man); Hume asking that we check out alternative explanations before we credit miracles (though, like the word "classic," "miracle" has gained everyday uses).
Reading Emerson's vision of Evolution in his essay "Nature," you might wonder why would a worm "strive to be a man"? That essay's faith in relation makes it modern, as I travel and read, think what to do, let the rightness of Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful (1973) try to conceive of the changes in our politics that the friend, an Anglo teacher at the Navajo Community College, who recommended the book to me despaired of (as, ultimately, of his very life). E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful. Economics as if People Mattered (New York: Perennial Library, Harper and Row, 1975).
It was June 2003 and I was in San Francisco reading from Actress in the House - about shock, about relations among people subtly layered of love and abuse, about the designing of a huge dam in that novel I was reminded as also of such interconnectedness of stories and themes in my narrative that half-hour excerpting can be a challenge. I went to see Juliette Beck at Public Citizen in Oakland to absorb as much as I could of all she had to say. Generous with her time, so clear with a mass of tangled and distressing information, she gave me past, present, future. Of the central valley in particular, where a "water plutocracy" of contractors with the deregulating help of the State Water Project (SWP), California's largest water delivery system, during a decade of cover-ups, attempted with some success to appropriate the Kern [River] Water Bank. Yet even the real water in this underground storage facility for a million acre-feet connected to public canals and aqueducts that pipe water that belongs to all Californians in from the Sierra Nevadas was misrepresented with "paper water" contracts not based on actual supplies. And for what? (I think almost irrelevantly of the movie Chinatown.) For agribusiness; but most for a new, north-L.A. city master-planned to house a 20 million population sprawl. Juliette told me the old news (news to me) that farmers in the Sacramento Valley were selling their water rights to developers and paving over their acreage. Congress had given them the right to in 1992. The acreage theirs. Theirs to sell.
The image lingers. And a figure cited by Wendell Berry: farmer suicides three times the national average. (I think of this woman talking to me; so easy or literary to think about women and water, women and home and survival and fluid; and of Juliette's remark that women hold the primary responsibility for household labor and childbearing and therefore play a key role in ensuring the provision of water to home and community, though who among the privatizing exploiters would imagine the "market" as women lining up, or women one would talk to have lived with. Into this somehow not trivial fantasy filters news of peasant women soon to be displaced by dam-building in the Nu River valley in China washing their hair in the dubious water from drainage pipes. A part of China I haven't been able to get to yet - away from the coast. The Chinese, who might question whether Galileo invented "the" thermometer, have so very many people, they have forgotten who among them discovered that the mineral lodestone would align itself north-south when floated in water. Which taught us to make a simple compass by passing a needle through our hair or stroking it one way along a piece of silk to magnetize it and then floating it, floating here suggesting a weightless unfettered state, water an ocean and far-pointing. Water deep, water far. Range, depth. Coordinates. Character. (And the words scare and city.)
We decentralize the water crisis to "a series of local problems" - e.g., water so scarce in Cambodia, Vietnam, Mozambique you often can't get a safe drink. And wash? Some of your body some of the time. Your hands, your hair if your head is not shaved. The rest of you? It gets specific. A town in Kenya gets 18 centimeters of rain a year but lush Phoenix with the same rainfall masks scarcity by "damming, diverting, and pumping...water from near and far" which is then overconsumed. [Sandra Postel, Last Oasis. Facing Water Scarcity (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), p. 18. Six rivers wind through Osaka, you always have a river at hand; but what do they think they mean when they call their Osaka "the water city"? Petroleos de Venezuela has begun digging water wells to pipe potable water to cinderblock houses in the dusty towns in the eastern part of the country, a sign of politics at least. The U.S. Army is fighting the so-called war on terrorism along the East African coast by building wells to make friends with people who have to walk great distances for drinking water.
Paradise (now a resort in any case) gives way to paradigms. Two of them explain the water crisis, I suppose: market; ecological. "... [I]f water [to corrupt our charming senryu] could be moved and distributed freely [sic] through free markets, it would be transferred to regions of scarcity, and higher prices would lead to conservation." YES, Winter 2004, 32. No guarantee of this, says the ecological paradigm: higher prices paid by those who can pay won't stop waste; and "when water disappears, there is no alternative..." and market solutions (more directly summed up by Arundhati Roy as "the transfer of assets...from bribe-taker to bribe-giver") Arundhati Roy, Power Politics (Cambridge MA: South End Press, 2001), p. 52. say nothing about poor people traveling long distances for water, destitution due to drought-destroyed crops, children dehydrating in no time, animals and plants cut off from... -- children, I think, normally capable of who knows what inventive imaginations if we can pry them away from mere survival for an instant. Solution to the ecological crisis is ecological. Though Marsh's hypothesis of nature repairing itself if given a chance to be self-regulating, is radically amended by modern ecologists who see natural equilibria disrupted by naturally chaotic transitions in the interactive fabric; which is not to say that climate change hasn't been given a push by human enterprise which one may say is often "free" for the capitalist, or, better said, the corporate profiteer. Though not free even if he use others' money, others' means, others' resources; for he - or she - must some time reckon what has been created, what built. And with what.