Friday, January 11, 2008

Living Near Water

Many people seem to be drawn to living near water-- lakes, oceans, bays, etc.-- or they seek out water when going through an emotional crisis. Why do you think this is?

On the surface I think there are the relatively common insights about why people are drawn to the water’s edge. Soothing sounds, long constantly moving vistas, the potential to be able to watch the approach of changing weather, good or bad, waves that imitate the roiling changes in life… calms and tremendous swells and storms, the rising or setting sun, the great romance of birds that float over the endlessly rocking rhythms of a body of water. Rivers that move and move and move, some that can be dangerously explosive or others cleansing and medicinal, cool. It is as if we are watching the way our own bloodstreams move and wash and feed our bodies, our banks.

But these are reasons that occur to most people when they think of the effect bodies of water have on them and I think, however collectively true and right, they still fail to get at a certain very archetypal magnetism the water has on humans. We recognize the water as part of us from very deeply, pre-verbal, even vibrational levels. We feel it in our genes, in the way they speak to one another and to us about who we are and where we have come from.

I have seen maps of the first great migrations humankind took out of the African homeland. The movement of those groups, families, tribes, couples, and lone wanderers, all stretched along the great shorelines of the continents, around the Gulfs, the subcontinents, across the narrow isthmuses and over straits or land bridges…. always following the beaches, always moving away from home, coming to another home. What was that urge, that urge to follow the beach? Was it because the food was plentiful and easy as we traveled? Were there spiritual dimensions and rituals that we assigned to such journeys? What did we see or dream on the watery horizons? And what of our urge now to be near water, to always be able to walk the shore and look across the wide expanses, is sewn from the cloth of those early journeys? Perhaps, in being near water, we recognize we are closest to the original travel to and from our home.


The sight and feel and sound of water are part and parcel of its archetypal appeal to us. Not only do we have a pre-historic, evolutionary attraction to the water, but we were born out of it… we floated in it from conception. Womb water, great universe, conductor of first sounds, the thump of the heart of mother, the provider of nutrition and buffer between conception and the violence of the first air, the first harsh touch of the world outside the womb. We return to that safe place in our tubs and spas. We relax in our ultimate vulnerability. We remember our debt to our genetic ancestors and relatives, the fish, the toad. We cool. Without places to rest in water the sun turns killer and sucks our moisture from us. We honor that every time we fill the kids’ wading pool on a hot day and lie down in it with a beer or a martini, the newspaper, the popsicle.


My best friend in junior high and I introduced one another to the delights and tasks of owning and maintaining aquariums. Mine was in my bedroom. Its gurgling and bubbling accompanied and soothed my sleep, the hood lights turned on in the dark room illuminated fins and bright clear slow motion creatures in an brilliant underwater world that was at once deeply familiar and all together alien: angel fish and gouramis, neon tetras and zebra fish. They seemed not to recognize the limits of their ten gallon world. It did not take much imagination to go there myself.

Even bowls of water with one or two goldfish, or a single water loving plant, can bring the healing benefits of water, and the understanding of its life sustaining nature, into a room.


It would seem to me to be important to take into consideration the nature of the role and presence of water already in, or absent from, one’s immediate surroundings before planning a way to create a place for personal fountains, ponds or pools. In some areas such a use of water is wasteful and an unwise use of a scarcer and scarcer resource. In that case making sure regular trips to places where the presence of water can be shared with others would be important, and investing in wise use of public waters and advocating to protect public ownership of places where people can gather to appreciate and benefit from sharing shores and pools and little lakes and streams and the natural worlds around them.

The sound of water is as important as its visual presence. At the Alhambra in Granada Spain, a fortress/palace built and maintained by the Moorish Muslims, occupied by them until Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand pushed the last Moorish rulers out of Spain in the same year Columbus discovered the water-surrounded paradisiacal islands and peoples of the New World, water is an essential part of the construction. Water coursed through every courtyard and room, silently cooling the airy palace. Its waterways and little canals were made to be completely silent and then make varying kinds of music in very purposeful fashions, from bare trickles to the sound of dozens of single streams arching up and dropping into long rectangular pools.

There is a fountain there, a present to the Muslim caliphs of Granada from the Jewish leaders of the city, which had twelve lions, each with a spout out the mouth. The spouts were timed to work at the appropriate hour each day, twice a day, a clock fountain. A masterpiece of design and mechanics at the time. Ferdinand and Isabella moved from Toledo to the Alhambra primarily because of the running water available to them there, courtesy of the departed Muslims. The lion fountain amazed them and they asked for their most gifted engineers to take it apart to see how it worked. They were never able to duplicate it, and never able to put it back together so that it worked in the way it was designed to work. Not long after that the Spanish Inquisition was begun.


By the Green River

over the caves
every sun's voice is in the trees,
and down near the slow water infinite croaks
bleat every pulse of light.

Do not doubt that the voice of stars
starts in some pond that's gone
come first trillium.
By the green River

something drowns out mewling children
until they tire enough to sleep
with dreams that skid into secret rivers
that surface and sink into the caves again

and again. This is the story tree frogs
borrow from the suns.
Are you singing about your money?
You will die without it.

The real song of songs
tonight is near your foot
as you stand by the green river
in a mirror of stars.

--Bob Vance


On the Sand

Chinese mountains
the waves draw

a carp
not long dead
sails empty

skin a kite
wind of bones
over those mountains

gyre away gladly
white nimbus

over azure
eight-o-clock water

a side of every grass
there are many grasses

--Bob Vance


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