How to Change the Way We Think about Water
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All human beings are deeply affected by water and its movements. When we go on vacation we go to the water. We slide over it, across it, through it. We swim in it. We take part in water rituals and want to be nurtured by water ... we thirst for it.
Yet water, in a very deep way, is a women's issue. It is vital to the role women play in caring for their families. Women bathe and nourish their young, often tend the crops, and are the keepers of the waters. When fetching potable water requires distance, there is less time for the family and abject poverty and disease result.
A Charged Stillness
I have never thought of myself as an activist, but I am active on the path of getting to know water on its own terms. The activism comes in relating water's story as I read it, in sharing the wonder of it, and helping to awaken a consciousness of it.
My task is to find the language of water and to learn it to the best of my ability.
My relationship with water began on the Vermont farm where I grew up. As a child, I stood in mud puddles, watching water enter finely silted brown pools. Such amazing forms in this laboratory! Aware of nature's surging flows, and of the songbird's bright joy, I'd walk in the crunchy, melting snow and listen to the drops of maple falling.
Now I work to change how we think about water -- to shift our understanding of water as a commodity to an appreciation for water as a human right, an environmental right.
This work reaches back to great activists of our modern times. Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau, among others, showed us that outward activism arises out of a charged stillness within. Here, in active listening into a situation or condition, we hear and see what to do.
It is a special kind of listening -- a sensitive and intimate dialogue. When one realizes that one is truly being listened to, there is no resistance, only openness and receptivity and the speaker receives and the listener gives back.
Such is the case with water.
Where water can tell its story, on its own terms, there is language and communication. My task is to find the language and to learn it to the best of my ability.
Learning in Nature's Laboratory
The most fruitful way to see the hidden nature of water, is to observe water, to listen to water, and to comprehend how it behaves as it moves.
When we take away water's flexibility, it's balancing capacity, we take away its role as a mediator between life and death.
When we listen, we learn that water serves life through processes of change and rhythm. Water motion is always organized, fluid and flexible. We can understand it as though reading someone's "body language" to assess their state of being.
Water that is allowed to move according to its own nature cleanses itself and sustains life. This is our model for the future. If water is not allowed to move and change and be open to organizing principles, if it becomes stagnant, then it becomes dead.
When we observe water and begin to ask questions of it, allowing it at each level to tell its story, we realize we've accessed something deeper than what can be seen by the eyes.
Sit by a stream and watch the water move. See the form water takes as it moves over rocks ... It flows smoothly and freely, slipping downward into a gulley. See that the bank is still and solid and yet continually changed by the river. See that when water moves freely, it is answered by a system of organic forms, movements and rhythms -- an integrated system of life processes and substances that allows water to mediate all life needs in order to exist on earth.
If water becomes stuck or hindered, static or gummed-up, it can't do its work. We need to understand that the implications of this are far, far reaching. When we take away water's flexibility, it's balancing capacity, we take away its role as a mediator between life and death.
Inside our bodies, water is the transporter of substances. It dissolves things...builds up calories and proteins. It flows incredibly precious materials from one place to another and transforms things in the body. We become ill when our water is not easily distributed, not able to move. We get a clot, or have an aneurysm.
The same happens with our earth. We dam water without any understanding of what's happening and how it needs to flow. Dams that are not being used are not good for the environment and should be torn down. Dams that are necessary can be used judiciously where people understand what the environment is and allow the river to thrive.
Systems in Motion: Our Model for the Future
Without water, there is no life. Global environmental mismanagement affects the roots of family, village and climate. Water is the metaphor for transformation in the sacred rituals of peoples all over the world.
We say water is good when it doesn't have any viruses. We say it's good when it doesn't have any nuclear components, when it's odorless and colorless. In other words, water is good when it's not bad. But what else is good water?
Most indigenous peoples have an understanding through metaphor of what good water is. And water is the metaphor for transformation in the sacred rituals of peoples all over the world. The metaphor is not an empty thing. It's real, and it comes from an innate knowledge of water. By relying on quantitative measurements, Western science misses out on a whole realm of knowledge found in the attributes of water. We can access that knowledge if we learn to look at water in a different way.
What is most important is that we don't try to piecemeal water but that we try to find its indivisibility, its wholeness. Water can show us these things if we systematically observe it and know its story.
When we look at the whole rather than just the parts; context more than the so-called objective; quality more than quantity; networks more than hierarchies; and processes more than structures, we access a more complete picture of water, and we come to understand what makes it sacred.
So we can say that water serves life, yes. But we can also do more. We can also show how, and that makes things much more comprehensible to policy makers and to educators. It changes the very way people breathe, and it touches their souls.
We are adding this to education, so that along with traditional ways of monitoring water quality, we teach the other side of water, too -- the life-supporting side. In knowing how water serves life, we get beyond the pollutants and see solutions. It's beautiful, it's totally exciting, and at the same time humbling.
Jennifer Greene is the executive director of the Water Research Institute of Blue Hill, an organization that helps individuals and policy makers understand water's qualitative properties and behaviors.