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In Praise of Water

by Ian Johnsone


waterfallWe ought to appreciate water more. Without her there would be nothing alive. Of course we value her. We store her in dams and reticulate her to basins, baths, showers, toilets and hoses. Familiarity, however, engenders blasé indifference. We use her every day and would miss her terribly if she wasn’t, as we say, on tap. She is our constant and ubiquitous helper; we drink her, cook with her and wash in her, and use her for many other less savoury tasks.

If we really appreciated her, we would be as grateful for her as we are for a good mother. We would learn about her, understand her likes and dislikes and, knowing that she is a limited resource in her fresh mode, we would be more careful about wasting her relentless obligingness. We take full advantage of her willingness to be stored, treated and, when fresh and clean, given all the nasty household and industrial chores of carrying away our wastes, filth, and dirty disposable body discharges.

Water can be alluring. Before rain, she gently perfumes the air with her exhilarating and unmistakable smell.

As rain she drizzles and mizzles, patters and sprinkles, pours and pelts, torrents and teems, drenches, drives, and deluges, and so on. The wide descriptive vocabulary we have for rain is an indication of her importance, as are the many words we have to describe money and wine.

As rain she is an indispensable benefactor. She provides the digestive juices for earth’s stomach, which is the topsoil, host to the hidden microscopic organisms necessary for the germination and growth of all things green. Without her no seeds would turn into plants, which enable us to sustain, medicate and clothe ourselves.

When she lies stretched out and resting, with scarcely a ripple, she puts us in a calm and reflective mood. She models for mirrors. When she grows lively, turbulent, flowing, falling, spouting from a fountain, or cascading in a stream, she excites us, and makes us want to participate in her aerobic exercises.

On a summer’s day, as a stretch of water in a pond or lake, she tempts us, like a siren, to take our clothes off, plunge into her welcoming coolness for physical refreshment, and to dissolve our fretfulness. She provides an incomparably enveloping and caressing ambience in which to relax. Tamed in a heated swimming pool, she is lavishly and luxuriously calming, slippery, viscous and lubricious.

Left to herself, water likes to lie still, like a seductress draped on a lounge. She likes, as we all do, to stretch out, calm and restful after effort, until stirred to action by necessity. Her destiny is not, however, to lie relaxed for long. Sunshine, wind and humidity combine to excite her from her recumbent comfort into imperceptible vapour. It is as if she has a soft spot responsive to a warm caress. Water who seduces us, is in turn herself seduced.

The water cycle is nature’s blood circulation system. It is an ever present symbol of the recycling of all living things.

Having been evaporated from her lassitude in a pool, she regathers her insubstantial self into a kaleidoscope of attractive formations in the sky, often white and fluffy castles on blue-grey bases. In clouds she roams around like a gypsy, gradually strengthening and purifying herself in readiness to put on a performance. Clouds are her sky-carriage, taking her on long joy-rides. Clouds are like mobile distilleries. They harvest humidity, precipitate potential water drops, and, sometimes noisily, open the sluice gates of their reservoirs when they are overburdened, scattering our heroine back to earth. She oscillates between droughts and floods; between unpredictable irregularity and long-term reliability.

Rain has a patent on the chemistry of adding nitrogen to her, an elixir which makes plants perk up in a way hose water fails to do. Tap water keeps plants alive, but they flourish best with rain’s ineffable influence.

She has a large repertoire as well as rain. If the conditions are right she puts on a stormy downpour, a hailstorm or a snowfall. She likes to give an occasional display of her versatile and varied portfolio of performances using her four main modes of existence, gas, fluid, snow flakes and solid ice.

She uses these four modes to keep our planet fresh and clean and every living thing lubricated as it requires. Someone has estimated that any water we drink has been through about eight other people first. She has effectively rid herself of all those impurities and contaminations. How we should admire her endless repetition of this ultimate example of cost-free recycling done with entertaining panache. She is a model of self-cleaning and sustainability we could follow.

The sun is her favourite partner. The sun energises her to vapourise, so she can keep her cycle going. Then there is her glorious double act with the sun, splitting white light into its seven parts, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, curved like a diadem, a brilliant colour chart for nature’s many products. Occasionally she displays a secondary rainbow, as if responding to a call for an encore. Somehow a rainbow reassures us that perfection and beauty are an indestructible and enduring part of nature.

She uses attention seeking techniques in her percussive thunder claps, to keep us awake to the existence of rain clouds, replete and ready to drop their load. To add to these special effects, there are bright bolts of electricity, heralding a downpour.

Sometimes when the sun blazes on a tarred road, or on desert sand, our thirst is teased with the shimmer of a mirage, which makes us realise even more how desirable she is. Running water in a stream, flowing gently or in fast rapids, is unfailingly interesting and exciting, and, for some, erotic.

In snow and hail she mass-produces delicate flakes and dangerous pieces of shot, all minutely symmetrical and decorative, finer and more fascinating than any sailor’s scrimshaw.

As fog, she spreads her shawl over lakes and ponds overnight, and wraps whole cities in her diaphanous night-dress. Then, at the sun’s inexorable bidding, she unobtrusively disappears, like the obliging attendant that she is, to attend to her many other tasks, until the next night.

When she sneaks into a rock crack and freezes, she swells up, like a scared echidna, with strength enough to enlarge the crack. “Shove over”, she seems to say, “and make room for both of us”. There is something distinctly feminine in her ability to find her way in through the narrowest of cracks, to eavesdrop, as it were, on what is going on inside.

In her purified form she is indispensable for baptisms and batteries. She is mixed with virtually every other substance on earth, from rice, to cement and whisky. Combined with paint she softens appearances to achieve incomparably gentle and suggestive effects in water-colours.

Grey water may look, as we say, as dull as ditch water, but, on closer inspection, she is doing her job, as always, of fostering life by teeming with micro-organisms.

Her surface can be unexpectedly strong, so some small insects can dart around on it, as easily as skaters on a rink.

When she is pushed along in a channel, or released suddenly from the confines of a pipe, she bounces about, gushing and splashing madly as if she was in the throes of ecstasy, or celebratory excess. She delights in her freedom by going on a wild energetic escapade, shedding all her inhibitions. We love to watch her when she throws herself about in a crazy abandonment of propriety, foaming, exulting, and making for somewhere to lie down and rest.

She is an indefatigable landscape engineer, with humans being her closest rival. She dumps soil and gravel down river, erodes obstructions, and, given time, she wears away rocks and smoothes stones by tumbling them against each other. Her patience is also effective in her limestone habitats, where, with the help of traces of iron, she forms spires, columns, and chandelier fittings tinged with warm ochre colours, in palatial caves. For some, water’s underground artistry is demystified simply by labeling her main formations stalactites and stalagmites.

As a river of ice, she thrusts glacial moraines aside, creating occasional icebergs, like some gigantic prehistoric animal giving birth into the sea.Her oceanic stockpiles cover about seven-tenths of the planet. These enable her to rejuvenate herself perpetually. From these gigantic reservoirs she self-restores, and at the same time hosts marine life of almost indescribable diversity.

As the sea, she synchronises her tides with the moon’s 28 day round of engagements, varying the boredom of that regularity with unpredictable hormonal swells, and occasional tantrums of rogue waves. The sea’s tides reflect our changing moods, rising to a high tide of self-confidence, pride in achievement and certainty in superiority, and then ebbing away to a low tide of self-doubt and skepticism. She shows her annoyances in stormy seas and raging surfs, and her contentedness in halcyon days, and becalming seas.

Flamboyant, pristine and, attractive as a bride in a breeze, with her trailing veil of spray, she forms waves which curl with excitement, the green rolling over and the white falling under, rushing to greet her age-old mate and rival, earth. She is hungry for the shore. Depending on her mood, she sometimes gnaws sand from the beach, and sometimes brings sand from elsewhere and dumps it. The sea has the same landscaping urges as rivers.

We love watching waves. We see in them the endless intertwining and interaction of regular and familiar laws of water motion, in the formation of waves, and unpredictable chance factors of wind, cross-currents, beach profile, shore consistency and so on. Sea spray treats beach walkers to a refreshing, and lung-cleansing tonic. When she is fragmented she resorts to forming spheres. Surely nature’s first love is the sphere- a raindrop, dew on a spike of grass, glass balls on the sheen of polished cars, or a bubble of many colours if it can find some cooperative soap.

Water can’t like everything. She hates sharing her space with oil. She unfailingly ostracizes grease and petroleum. However, when she likes something, she clings to it, like the sides of a glass with a crescent shaped meniscus, or absorbs the substance into her very being, as she is incomparably the best solvent we have. When she is super-saturated, and has had her fill of a visitor, she gently produces crystals as a sign she has had enough.

She also detests direct contact with fire, although she is happy with being heated. She is our best weapon of mass-extinguishment, and our first choice in fighting a war on fire, when fire is behaving like a terrorist, but is incompetent at fighting burning oil or electrical fires.

Underground water manages to communicate her invisible attraction subtly and powerfully to a piece of wire lightly held by a human conductor, sensitive to this mysterious magnetic hydrological influence. No wonder this miracle of remote sensing is called divining!

In the form of a tsunami, she whispers to elephants that a monstrous wave is coming: “Move to higher ground, or else”.

There is something at the heart of water that is like us. Indeed, she makes up about six tenths of our body. No wonder we feel an affinity for her. She behaves a bit the way we do. She likes to rest, but accepts that she has to be up and doing. She bounces back clean, in a self-healing way, as our bodies tend to after an injury. We recognise ourselves in her, as we do in the weather, of which she is at least a co-director, with the sun and the wind. We have our highs and lows, as the weather patterns do, and our irregularities and extremes of overdoing some things, and neglecting others.

So what can we conclude from all this?

Mindlessly, and relentlessly we pollute water for our convenience, and discharge her into a drainpipe, a stream or the sea. Just as persistently, and out of our range of awareness, she purifies herself and returns as beneficent rain. At no cost or trouble to us, she inconspicuously cleans herself and comes back for more of the same treatment. In our habitually blasé way we give this reliable and unobtrusive marvel our full inattention! That is, except when there is a drought.

Gradually we are coming to realise that the water cycle is vulnerable, and liable to suffer from our continual abuse. Increasingly severe droughts may be a product of our creation of climate change as is the recently discovered phenomenon of global dimming from fossil fuel exhaust fumes in the sky. So, we worry briefly, defer action, and then futilely leave it for the next indifferent and procrastinating government to remedy. Our competitive consumer ideology ensures that big and costly remedies for the most challenging problems are postponed until inaction ceases to be an option. As some wit remarked:- “Soon there will not be enough food to eat, or air to breathe, and we are going to have to learn to live with this!”

Market forces are highly regarded, but they act as irresponsibly as the majority of people who constitute them. Forward looking and selfless conservationists are rejected, and condemned as deluded and passionate nature fetishists. We could start to put things right, by improving the way we save and use water.

Science is largely the study of the invisible, providing helpful explanations for things we cannot see, and helping us to understand causes beyond all our senses. Virgil wrote “Fortunate is the man who knows the reason for things”. Surely more fortunate is the person who loves water simply for what she is, with all her many moods, modes and mysteries, without fully understanding all her reasons, and her feminine ways.


Ian M Johnstone
10 Burgess St.,
Armidale 2350 NSW
September 2005

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