Water on Us

Water on Us

Joseph McElroy

Excerpted from a forthcoming nonfiction book on water, Joseph McElroy’s essay ponders (among other questions) the relationship between the physical waters of the world and brain and the phenomenal waters of the mind. “I meant to ask, ‘What has water to say on the subject of us?” - i.e., on its own without prompting? Dumb question, it tells me.”

This review is a simultaneous publication from the current issue of American Book Review.


Is it really experience we lack reacting to these emergencies? With all our quickness and abbreviated grandeur, sometimes we’re not prepared; can that be it? Leaving greed to one side, is it to get wet that we jump in? Get away from ambient noise, ideological or other that incidentally drowns out thought? - say, a picture we all agree about, of this Chinese youngster carrying two great cans of water; a drought-destroyed camel in Niger; a film that comes to mind (two films, three, four, film itself); a fugitive thought no more than words for water such as “together,” “elusive,” “buoyant,” “wide,” my own “subordinate” - almost an overpowering subordinateness possessed by this elemental but not element, water.

Disaster seems all around us in the use, misuse, absence, or overwhelming presence of water - poison, flood, drought, weather reinventing the hydrologic cycle, people adrift, daunting costs to repair water lines or redesign a whole city, Mumbai (once Bombay), in its drainage, or rethink the broken earthworks of Lake Delhi dam in Iowa; information coming like freak downpours in your neck of the woods explainable, it is said, by the atmosphere being 5 percent moister than 40 years ago. Disaster comes to sound almost like thinking. Descriptions are as compelling as premises. A very large and living reef, discovered only nine months ago in the darkest depths of the Gulf of Mexico, may now be suffocating from oil plumes and from the oil-dispersant Corexit which acts on the intricate colonies of coral like a dishwashing detergent, we hear, if anyone, BP for instance, knows exactly what that is “like,” beyond the proved harm from even low concentrations to eggs and larvae of the deep coral. A shame. Yet have we not meanwhile unearthed a vast neighboring population of seafloor creatures that have thrived for millennia on seeping petrochemicals? Now we know, or will begin to. Is it water I am speaking of? Water is always more than water, more than itself.

Rhythm of Yangtze rains, or, as I reflect on my records and clippings of a decade, maybe chaotic unpredictability will flood disaster on the downstream city of Wuhan while upstream hundreds of kms of lake dikes seem to hold. It is the same water of aggregated molecules cascading down Rio de Janeiro’s hillsides, threatening lethal landslide upon landslide - the dead, the missing - through water’s so-taken-for-granted adhering property (and capillary) which coupled with its not generally known and almost unreal tensile cohesiveness, remember, helps trees imbibe and blood circulate. As spring descends, perhaps the most curious of water’s three phases spares for the moment Fargo, North Dakota by freezing the cresting Red River. Not all of it, though, for ice, which doesn’t freeze from the bottom up, is lighter than fluid water which without half trying comes with the most unexpected, even astonishing heat relations that its moderating effects might seem meant for life on earth. Mysterious water more than necessary?

How we drop our losses into its depths, walk all over it, prey and pray on water, lean on it for our meanings - feminine, father, old or fresh, or dying and life (syntax soluble); make it a friendly or not god-type we have a right to (or punishing parent) or are just fooled by; mother like our rocky Earth (as if it were ours), grand common wealth fluid to be broken up, dammed by the us it steers, parceled, even in itself rational. Like imposing our masks on transparent water, inspired by it as if we breathed it still. What we say about it.

But what does water say?

Water eludes - as current, as tide, in flood curiously and as standing water, in coastal marsh, or shoal; or H2O’s capillary climb up the inside of a tumbler as if it would tell you something, though explicable like so much in the behavior of the physical properties by the hydrogen bond in the structure of the water molecule. Eludes sometimes time and, probably unknowing, its own questions pragmatically as if it were merely a being that can’t speak, when it is a substance. Its questions are of us and from us, I believe - though questions imparting a need that much in our nature drags at us not to answer: is it some blind equality like the speed of light, the same going toward it or away from it (and in our plight and situations and the poor room we give them), that makes the need of questioning equal the need to let it go like the unthinkable experience of others?

A century or two ago, some poor believer of an Australian settler hauled a whaleboat hundreds of miles into the interior expecting to find a legendary inland sea but found desert and more desert. Sensibly, today five cities in that driest of continents suck millions of gallons a day out of the ocean to make seawater drinkable. The country is betting billions on immensely complicated desal projects that of course are under attack for the energy it will cost to “drought-proof” these regions.

Even in drought, water’s spreading quality lurks with the power of vast absence, far as heat waves in Lokori, Kenya are close-up making a landscape of littering carcasses, goats, camels, the memory of someone’s three-year-old child, while other children walk twenty miles to bring back a gallon of water. Weather wisdom promises a sudden El Niño flood (no doubt passing, but crop-despoiling) a few months from now. Drought and flood - too little/ too much (with, it can seem, almost no distributed middle). And more drought. And flood - which has in common with drought, as we know from Katrina, often an interruption in drinking water.

Water is trouble. Water hides; hidden, it can be wicked in your ceiling or just under the floor of a bark canoe; encourages procrastination and pollution. In fact, says nothing, doesn’t it? I meant to ask, “What has water to say on the subject of us?” - i.e., on its own without our prompting? Dumb question, it tells me.

One of so many films, the 2008 FLOW: For Love of Water, gathers faces, voices, surfaces of water’s substance, itself like film, montage like fluid parenthesis, a seeming continuity to carry compelling information, polemic, passion, shock: corporate- sponsored toxic pollution a recurring target. And dams - the instant visual point, fashionable almost. A huge literature has been rethinking dams, sometimes forgetting original rivers, streams, the useful and benign functions of small dams. Both sides of this can be understood with admirable balance and articulateness in Alice Outwater’s 1996 Water: A Natural History. In many themes of the now multiplying world water movement, reminiscent of the world federalism of the late 1940s and early 1950s, ideology with its noise of agreement drowns out other questions yielding fresh questions. I had some words with a photographer who’s taken disturbing and fine pictures of the Colorado River’s decline and present state. He reacted with incredulous ire, real pain (with which I could tell he was familiar), when I asked if there is a human right to water. He pointed upward. “It comes from the sky, for all of us.” He was done with the conversation. Yet the hydrologic cycle tells us water’s on the move not only downward but upward and across the sky. And Justice Holmes, doubtless a common law conservative, said we have to win our rights, argue them.

Why do I think - in that moment - how are stills different: from, well, “FLOW…”? In that film a speaker at an anti-government demonstration in India angry as can be, his eyes darkly blazing with despair, tells whoever will listen that it is “not education we need; we need water.” Yet often in the film, besides what we agree on, something else, the running textures of water, texts, palimpsests, colors, implications, mysterious meaning, the nourishing beauty of what we might lose. This aspect of film itself returns like the inward reach of my fantasy (for lack of a better word), memory, psychic scope in the mind of the watcher, a value beyond simple survival, though it may not be explicit or even understood by the camera, i.e., the filmmaker herself (Irena Salina) who went out of her way to tell me she hated science, by which she may have meant technology - or me, for my doubts and questions.

Not only pictorial or plastic, the beauties of water are in the mind and as genuine as even water might want. It is not quite emotion we study when we analyze the turbulence of inanimate fluids. Yet more truly calculated now not as of continuous substances but by microscopic motions to understand blood, swirling tides, Katrina winds, complex pollutant plumes infiltrating an environment.

Disaster and its promise come to sound almost like thinking. Emergencies of thought - of consciousness - are what we are really looking at. And impasses like that between a Nevada community and a German solar firm it welcomes only to discover it will have to surrender 20 percent of its water to cool that solar miracle. Trade-off thinking, it’s familiar, and sometimes brave or real the suddenness of crisis, the time crunch. Or the lack of a very long-term view. Trade-offs we say - yet a thinking that’s always making some kind of sense, for how can “we” fund deep- water coral research when “we” have been building the Great Lakes states compact to forestall diversion of water to other regions, though thus (perhaps) did not foresee the invasion up the Mississippi of Asian carp ravening upon food of native Lake Michigan fish. And is it, I ask again, water I’m speaking of? I will see that it is, or how it is; or find it in me to see. This water never found pure. Like us, the sentimental phrase leaks through.

I had a thought about our relation to water some years ago. It has changed or moderated, multiplied, no more than that, or resolved to the unsteady reciprocal it was that’s either an excuse for an idea or, as I think, some mutual owing divided by subordinate powers water’s and ours, a pointer to qualities of water not exactly what we mean when we speak of its primary physical properties such as universal solvent or heat capacity that are remarkable, uncanny in their accord with life’s conditions; but something further. My question comes down to two waters which have little to do with the physical and the spiritual that Jesus lectures the Samaritan woman with at the well he is sitting on, yet something to do with “how it flows wordlessly through my memory,” as Stanley Crawford, a New Mexico farmer, puts it, who knows about his river and how it got that way and has earned what he knows. The two waters I mean are the phenomenal, various water my mind conceives and thinks about, and at the same time the indispensable water that keeps my brain wet and even alive and without which my mind and doubtless my brain couldn’t think.

What these two waters might have to do with each other - my quest to find homology between thinking and the body - encourages in me work, hope, thoughts on thirst signaled not only in hypothalamus but borne in mind, frequent somehow water-like pauses, erratic candor, and no end to my skeptical respect for water.

Though its for us may well be on the wane, to judge by Yemen - shades of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972) - which is about to become the first country to run out of water, flooding twice a month from a rapidly vanishing water table thousands of years old, its fields of khat, an indispensable social drug, amphetamine-like in effect, chewed daily, of which it is proverbially said, “All decisions are bad while on khat.”

Water will take us where we want to go perhaps, even beyond its physical properties to qualities harder to measure yet deceptively important - to reflect upon, even emulate: fluidity, depth, moderate transitions, tenacity like our adhering to it; reflectiveness (dependent not upon the surface tension of physical water which will support a long-legged fly, but upon light); on and on, in my mere excerpt of Life, into, for example, formlessness asking to be shaped, to be formed, even to passivity (however powerful water may seem); and among many other properties I lack space even to merely list here, subordinateness everywhere we look. I will call them secondary properties - derivative from actions of the primary physical; yet, who knows, a root condition maybe prior to, say, the solvency caused by the hydrogen bond. Water and river, ocean and sky, water of a kind in the amniotic sac, rhizome paths of Nature’s other languages, water always with and formed by something else. Not water in itself any more than what water or a rock might dream (if I apply what Jonathan Edwards learned from or found confirmed in his reading of John Locke); but Experience, even of a spider swimming through a tree, practiced in our actual perceptions. Which we’re working on, to see better like a quantum counterpart or osmosis we’re in the midst of. So, like witness, weighty impediment, reciprocal lens seeming to tell us about ourselves with each other, is water thus our shared incompleteness?

Doubting the Gaia theorists, I am willing to wait, a form of listening, for signs that the Gulf Stream is a living organism even if just the conveyor for passengers, such as plankton, Sargassum weed, dolphins, and, at least until recently, 600-pound bluefin tuna. In the current Gulf “spill” - as ruin is reduced to euphemism (disaster to short-handed “BP”) to say nothing of the super-perspicuous “Deepwater Horizon” - land and water have been violently blurred.

Images of the division between land and water, water and land, originate in the advent of water - a million years of weather pouring down on the early Earth to create “the water planet” - and originate in the image-making of the human animal standing at the edge of the sea conceiving of land living and the ocean as a division and event of continuing sense. Now oil drilling along the coastal shelves ignores that division or, extending the usable “land” beyond the ancient division, can ignore water as a place of other lives and actions and possibilities, ignore experience itself.

We have heretofore counteracted or countervalenced gravity, understanding between the lower and upper surfaces of an airfoil’s plane like two parts of a fraction the differential lift that makes us air-borne, and inventing sealed submersibles with compressed air to insulate ourselves and erase our prohibitive air-water barrier. But in drilling into the earth beyond the ancient coastlines, we have summoned our own carelessness and precipitated from below the explosive complexities in the Earth not directly visible at least to the naked eye of geology and gain, and have brought the great weight of water which our so-called Third World will tell you is heavy (for a cubic meter weighs a long ton), back upon us making next to impossible or at least ineradicable in effect the correcting of the vent in the Gulf of Mexico seafloor we’ve ignored by not experiencing - which corrupts for the time being the very water I have heard rhetorically encouraged to blame us for our ignorance - a personifying (it occurs to me) of water that might typify our lack of respect for it.