Interviewsand Articles


An Interview with Betsy Damon: Living Water

by Richard Whittaker, Dec 25, 2009



I first heard about Betsy Damon from Sam Bower of Water is Damon's passionate subject. She was studying sacred springs in China when she began meeting individuals interested in water from many different angles. Amazingly, this eventually led to an invitation to review a major water project in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan. Due to her critique, the project was scrapped. Even more amazingly, Damon, in spite of not being affiliated with any institution or group, was asked to design a new project. And it was built! According to her it's the first municipal living water garden in the world. Situated in Chengdu, it stretches along the Yangtze River. 
     Hearing this, I could hardly wait to contact Damon. She now lives in Brooklyn. Sam gave me her number and, sure enough, on my first try Damon picked up the phone. As it turned out, she was planning a trip to Palo Alto in the coming weeks to visit her son and daughter-in-law. Perfect.  
     Damon did come to Palo Alto, where one afternoon we met to talk. I learned that she'd spent so much time in China that her son, who was very young when they first went, now speaks Mandarin fluently. He even runs a business taking people to remote places in China. 
     As we chatted before the interview began, Damon mentioned that here in the U.S. "We're not ontologically oriented to working together." It was time to start the interview... Richard Whittaker
works:  Could you say more about that? 
Betsy Damon:  That's something I learned about in China where I learned how to be an invisible part of a team. I could always see what could happen if a large number of us could get together. It's clear because of what we can accomplish in great emergencies. But generally, as a culture, we don't. Here it's more like "It's my right to drive an SUV." You know, "It's my right!"
     One of the things I discovered when I lived in China is that if a group of people object to the noise of horns in their neighborhood, they can get together and ask the government to ban it and it will get banned. It's not an economic decision. It's a human decision. That doesn't mean that inhuman things do not happen there like everywhere in the world
     Among people I've talked with in this country, almost to a person they believe that the Chinese built this first living water garden in the world because it's a totalitarian society. I said, no. First of all, a man was willing to go to jail to build it. More importantly there was a lengthy public process around the park and a very collaborative process for the design. How many people in the United States are willing to lose a career to do something good for the environment?
works:  Tell us what a living water garden is.
Betsy:   In my terms, it's a garden that takes care of water. It's a park or garden that works with available water to restore that water to a high level; it helps the larger system by creating cleaner water than it receives.
     For me, the living water garden concept started out in response to the question, how could we teach people how nature takes care of water? How to reveal that in order to help neighborhoods, or communities or entire cities understand the biodynamic qualities of living water? We can't keep on deteriorating our own water supplies, not only because of what it does to our own health, but to the health of everything, the frogs, the birds. I can go off on a million tangents here.
works:  Well, say more about this person who was going to jail...
Betsy:  I learned after the garden was completed that the assistant to the mayor, Zhang Jihai, who was in charge of the construction of the five-year plan, decided to take charge of the Living Water Garden. As the Chinese premier was opposed the park, the mayor of Chengdu was reluctant to build it. He said to Zhang, "Are you willing to go to jail? Because I am not willing to go to jail." Zhang Jihai was willing to go to jail. 
     I got to Chengdu in 1995. Thanks to an anonymous phone call, I got enough money to go to China to direct a public art project, the first one in China about water quality. The opportunity to design the park happened while I was directing the first public art project about water.
works:  How did someone know to call you?
Betsy:  I don't know. I had gone to China in 1989 with my children and went back in 1991 because my son fell in love with China and went to study there. We were stuck in the capital of Sichuan, Chengdu. Someone tapped me and asked if we would speak English with them for the day. We agreed and I ended up in a dinner conversation with a Chinese biologist. He told me he had government funding to study a sacred water site to find out what was in the water and if it really had curative powers. I said I was very interested in why certain water sites are called sacred- that's after trying to learn what is water? in the United States, I could never find out.
works:  Can I stop you there? When you tried to find out "what is water?" and you "could never find out." What do you mean by that?
Betsy:  You can learn about the hydrologic cycle, etc.  Water is always described as this substance that circles - it goes from the ocean into the air, becomes rain, falls to the land, becomes a stream. Or, if the subject is wastewater treatment, then it's all about how you treat water, the chemicals you use. Or water is talked about in terms of, say the Great Lakes, about how polluted it is and what kind of diseases come about. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on research on water in such ways, but few talk about what water is. I mean, what is the H2O molecule? 
works:  So what are you asking?
Betsy:  How does the H2O molecule work so that life is totally dependent on it? What's going on there? People have cured themselves of diseases just by drinking good water. How vital is it to our survival as biodynamic critters - and for all biodynamic systems - to have what I would call living water, water that has lots of oxygen, that moves like this [waves]?
works:  The molecules move like that?
Betsy:   Well, water is the most flexible molecule in the universe. And because it's so flexible, all kinds of things can attach to it. And some forms of life like water that isn't so pure. But basically, higher life forms like water that, as the Chinese say, has gone up and down the mountain ten thousand times. Which is a wonderful image, isn't it? 
works:  Yes. [laughs]
Betsy:  So what does that mean in terms of damming streams and stopping water flows? We know that it's killing off life, but we don't have a language that's pro-life. What's our language for that? 
works:  So let's say a chemist says water is two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. That's water. 
Betsy:  That's one answer, but not the whole picture.
works:  So what comes next, then? 
Betsy:  Then I talk about how water never moves in a straight line. That every time you put water in a straight situation, like run it along in a pipe, it deteriorates. Water is subtle, complex, alive and life-giving.
works:  Its quality goes down.
Betsy:  That's right. It loses some of its flexibility.
works:  I'm not quite sure I follow you here. 
Betsy:  In a buried pipe, without sunlight, and going in a straight line, it's much more inclined to develop pollutants along the way and those H2O molecules lose some flexibility.
works:  Are you saying that if water can flow more freely that it resists pollution better?
Betsy:  Absolutely! It stays cooler, cleaner, with more air and more dynamism, and fish breed in it better and other things happen better. We're only beginning to understand how complex the connections are. Here's a piece of research I found that's really interesting: they had never measured what a healthy heart is like until technology made it possible in the early 1990s and they found out that a very healthy heart beats irregularly. In fact, if your heart is getting weaker, it beats more regularly. There's sort of a biodynamic irregularity.
     If you look at a photograph of living water, it has this very dynamic irregularity, you can say. It looks like it is moving in the same direction, but it's full of differences. When the water is dead, it has none of that. There's no action there.
works:  Could you have a pond of still water that's alive and a pond of still water that's dead, and the one with the dead water isn't polluted?
Betsy:  Yes. Probably. But it would probably eutrophicate. 
works:  What's that mean? 
Betsy:  Things would start decaying in the water, heating it up, and then algae might collect and depending upon what's decaying it could evolve into slime water.
works:  Sometimes sitting by a fireplace looking at the flames, I see they're coming out of pieces of wood! Can you believe that? And take water; it's liquid. But, whoa, now it's solid! Ice! Can you believe that? Of course, being modern people, these mysterious transformations hold no wonder for us. Do you know what I mean?
Betsy: Well, water is... It's the miracle of life! Water is the generative miracle. And I ended up going to a sacred water site in China through a grant I got as an artist. How psyched is that? [laughs]
works:  That's pretty great!
Betsy:   And my son came along as a translator. So we're hunting for the owners of this factory because we needed their permission. They turned out to be uneducated country folk. They drove us up there and we were the first foreigners to ever visit the site. We rode in 1940s Jeeps with no shocks for 19 hours on the worst roads you'd ever want to be on.
     Basically, they'd been given money by the government to create a water-bottling factory there. The water was found to be very healthy. It cured stomach problems and reduced tumors. I think they were hoping that I could buy the site. If I had been a millionaire, I'd have bought it! It's extraordinary. And it was for sale up to two years ago.
     For the water-bottling factory, they had planned to take the water down the mountain in glass bottles. They found out a truckload of water in glass bottles was too heavy. So then they tried to take it in plastic bottles, but water deteriorates and loses its value within two weeks in plastic bottles. So they didn't know what to do.
     So we're there. They had taken this site from the local Tibetan people, who had used it a thousand years for their health and who knew exactly how much you should drink for what disease. They would go to their lama for advice and they'd give him a little donation. This is the way the place had been cared for.
    There was broken glass everywhere. They'd capped off the spring, put up barbed wire and were forbidding the Tibetans to go to it. The Tibetans could get their water from a little pipe surrounded by the broken glass. At night, they would be clipping the wires to get into their site.
     For a day or two, after seeing this, I was just dizzy. What happened to me here? I don't have any language for what I experienced. Because most of these sites were taken away from us in this country, too-and many because of beer bottling factories. The headwaters of the Mississippi was a sacred site. It's now a national park.
works:  There must be some words about what happened for you.
Betsy:  Something totally tapped into my deep unconscious about source. What is source?
works:  This is when you were up there at the site?
Betsy:  Yes. They took us around on horseback, and I walked that site. There were waterfalls and dark blue pools and mountains and snow. It was a primeval forest I was in. That source had been taken care of by villagers forever and now the water was going to be bottled and taken to people who would never know where it came from. It would become a water-bottling site and no one would protect it. Once they tapped it out, it would be over.
     So what does it mean to understand source? When I drank that water, I felt my own molecules expand. It was like they'd been thirsty! I could feel that. So I started telling the local people about my interest in sacred water sites. And they said, well, you should go two miles down there. That water is good for your heart. If you go over there, that water is good for your kidneys. But you should never drink the water up that way. And only wash in this water. I did go to some of the places they told me about and they were phenomenal!
    Then, only a week later, I ended up at a conference with Chinese hydraulic engineers, qigong masters and Taoists. It was the first conference on the environment in Sichuan, and the Chinese, not the World Bank, ran it. When I talked about what I was doing in Minnesota as an artist-activist, they said, we want to do that here! And they started talking about water. They knew so much about water.
works:  The qigong masters and the Taoists, too? 
Betsy:  Everybody. Including the hydraulic engineers. They all knew that the best water for your heart came from the center of bamboo and much more. From that conference on, I could imagine things that I could never have imagined when I was here in the U.S. 
    Everything wasn't reduced to H2O and parts per billion and how it's okay to have this many parts per billion of some chemical and only x number of people per hundred thousand will get sick and die. So why bother worrying about taking the pollution out? 
works:  That's our process, you mean.
Betsy:  Right. And I went into the hospitals and talked with the doctors. They said they never used to see all these bad diseases, but now in the last twenty years with the introduction of chemicals into their environment, they were seeing the same kinds of diseases that we've had for the last fifty years in the U.S.  
works:  You went into the Chinese hospitals?
Betsy:  Yes. See, I don't just leave it alone or leave all this in the artworld. I want to know! If we cleaned up our water, the essence of life, we'd clean up probably 95% of our diseases. Because we'd clean up our food and everything else water goes into. We wouldn't be dealing with what it's done to our livers, or whatever. But we don't have this conversation here anymore.
works:  This intrigues me. I haven't ever talked with anyone about water per se.
Betsy:  I could fill your entire magazine! [laughs]
works:  Well, great! I've had many memorable experiences with water. I bet lots of people have had experiences with water that are so direct and deep and so real that they're unforgettable. It would be interesting to hear about them. Here's one example that happened when I hiked in the High Sierras along the John Muir Trail. I swam in some of those crystal clear lakes. Unforgettable. There's something about the physical sensation of this immersion in water that is, I would say, ontologically profound. 
Betsy: And why? Because we're something like 76% water. We are water!
works:  How do you talk about this so people get it? This experience is available for all of us. It's through the body's sensation. It's like something is metaphysically connected.  
Betsy:  It is! And that's my entire work as an artist! [laughs] There is no other passion in my life!
works: [laughs] Tell me some of your own moments with water.
Betsy:  My parents had a house on a pristine lake in New Hampshire. You just dive in and you're refreshed. We drank our water from an artesian well. And now it's deteriorating. The area is getting too built up. But drinking that water was phenomenal!
     Since I was a kid, maybe because of some near-death things when I was born, I've been really interested in the miracle of life. But I think I would be anyway. I love watching the clouds lying on my back. As a child, I did that forever. Or making things out of sticks and flowers. My father loved walking up valleys along rivers to the headwaters. That's just such a great thing to do!
     The headwaters of the Yangtze River, where water pours out of a glacier, is like a giant Mother Earth showing her belly. You're at 17,500 feet in permafrost. To the eye, it's a wasteland. But it's the earth pouring forth her waters. That water nurtures probably 2 billion people. And then the weather came in and I couldn't see. I almost bumped into a wild, white yak.
     Watching that thing that happens at the edge where water and earth meet, whether it's a salt marsh or a freshwater situation. Watching that interaction between the water, earth and plants is so wonderful. We've gone and paved these places, mercilessly. That's what the Army Corps of Engineers does. We pave it.
     Now we've gotten so removed that urban populations think they have the right to live off water supplies hundreds of miles away that nourish huge, other ecosystems. Or we think we have the right to extract their water and bottle it and sell it somewhere else. It's so weird-headed. But how do you communicate this to people?
works:  Good question. I want to stay with this primal relationship we have with water a little longer. I can't help thinking there's almost a molecular resonance that gets going.
Betsy:  There has to be!
works:  And we experience that! It's like we're getting into a realm where there's some kind of consciousness at molecular levels.
Betsy:  Lovelock and many others would agree with that. Gaia. You can tune your heart to the waves. There are actual relationships between your heartbeat and what's happening in certain watery environments.  
works:  Like the ocean?
Betsy:  Yes. You can tune the human heart to the ocean. We're as alkaline in our blood as the ocean is saline. The percentage of electrolytes is the same. There are all kinds of relationships that are known.
works:  So when it's said, in religious metaphor, that we return to the sea of being. This is not exactly just a metaphor. 
Betsy:  No. It's real.
works:  Water is one of the main symbols of spirituality. There's light. There's water. 
Betsy:  Right. It's real. You know the Tibetans, the Buddhists, one of their pilgrimages is to visit 108 springs and pray. They all claim, even the yogis, that they can bring back springs that are dying. Then, in Christian theology, water is a direct relationship to God. With water we bless and cleanse. It's all there.

works:  We had Carl Jung trying to warn us that our disconnection from nature was not a good thing. More and more it seems we continue to lose more and more of any connection there.
Betsy:  And it's so not necessary. We can live and have our parks be catchments and filters for water. We could un-concrete most of our waterways. Then we wouldn't have this disastrous flooding. We could create places in our cities where that extra water could go and is needed. The current mentality with water is contain it and get it out of here. 
works:  All this actually sounds practical and theoretically doable. 
Betsy:  It is. It is. 
works:  Would you say more about the water project you designed in Chengdu?
Betsy:  This was while I was directing a public art project in Chengdu. I was on a tourist visa. You can't do anything in China without government permission. They broke their rules and actually gave me permission.
works:  How did that happen?
Betsy:  Some people could call it karma [laughs]. Anyway, they had this five-year plan to clean up their river. It was a green plan where they took down a hundred thousand shacks along the river and resettled people. They also had a plan to put in wastewater treatment for the city. The plan was opposed by Beijing. But this city of 8 million people went ahead with it on their own. Their plan was to create parks along 19 kilometers of both sides of their river, but there were many things they didn't understand.
works:  All this part was without your participation?
Betsy:  Right. I came in 1995 and had this idea of directing a project where artists would address issues of the river. The Chinese had never heard of such a thing.
works:  You came in and proposed that whole thing somehow?
Betsy:  I came with $23,000 that had been given to me-$15,000 of it anonymously by this woman.
works:  You mean you came just as a kind of freelance tourist with a money belt?
Betsy:  Yes. To Chengdu. This was two years after the conference with the qigong people I told you about. And we had brainstormed a living Yangtze River project. The people at the conference wanted me to come back and do this Yangtze River project. I told them I'd find money to do it. So I applied for lots of grants. I was a finalist for many, but I got none - because it was China.
    One day I got this anonymous phone call, and I have no idea how she knew about me. A woman gave me $15,000 sight unseen, no proposal. Now I do remarkably when people do that. You're given this trust, right? That trust is everything! And my friends raised another $8,000.
     I knew if I'd asked for permission, they would have said no. But I also knew that if I went, mountains would be moved. So I went. It's quite a story. Once there I found the one contact I had from two years earlier, and he introduced me to the director for water quality for Chengdu. She asked me what I wanted to do. Then I met a few artists and we talked and talked. Then we had more meetings, and ecause there was nothing legitimate about me, all our meetings were held in public. They were intrigued. 
     Then I went to the headwaters of the Yangtze River and illegally hitchhiked to Tibet where I met some Tibetan artists. They came down to Chengdu. By then word had spread in that wonderful way, quietly and through an underground web. Then artists came from Beijing and Shanghai and other cities. We all met twice a week. Everyone had to learn about the life of the river and the history of the river and the science, and what was known. We had to write up every single thing we wanted to do for the government. Nobody could figure out how to give us permission to do anything. Then at the last day before we were going to give up, somebody bent the rules.
works:  You said you had artists from Tibet? And the Chinese didn't know about that?
Betsy:  They knew about it. There's lots of inter-communication there and lots of Tibetans who are happy with the Chinese. And lots are very unhappy. It's not a black and white situation. However it was not easy to form a group that would work together. People were afraid, and I was a foreigner. Everything I did, even my early morning bike ride, where I peed, where I bought a newspaper, was watched. The police came from Beijing and interviewed every single person who had talked with me. They finally told me I was pretty boring. Which was good. Then one day the government said, come and see what our plans are for the river. So I went. They showed me their plans. I praised them. They were really quite impressive.
works:  Was this Chengdu's city government?
Betsy:  Chengdu. Their plan was impressive, but I knew they weren't going to get a clean river. You build flood control walls and you don't get a clean river. You dam it and you don't get a clean river. They were sure they would. I said, why don't you make a living water park to teach your citizens how nature cleans water? They talked for thirty seconds and turned back to me and asked, can you do that? Every hair on my neck stood up. I thought, "Oh my God! I'm going to get to do my dream!" So I nodded. They talked for another few minutes and then said, "We want you to give up this art work and design this living water system." In China, no one says, "What's living water?" They know what it is. Whereas here, it doesn't mean anything. In northern Europe, they understand this, too. The Germans have done the most research.
works:  Didn't Rudolph Steiner do some research on this?
Betsy:  Theodor Schwenk. That's where I got a lot of my information. At the Max Planck Institute, they've done a ton of research on this and a lot of designers use these principles in designing all kinds of water systems and flood control, too. It's not a foreign language to the Europeans. They know that vortices are vital to water and how to design using those principles.
     I told them we had to follow through on the public art performance thing. They said, we're sorry because we think public art is a waste of time and money. But if we like what you do, we'll ask you back. And they LOVED what we did!
     We are getting ahead of the story. As I said forming a group was tough. We did not have permission and people were really scared at first. So I insisted that we had to meet every week and really get to know each other-eat together, swim together-because the Beijingers didn't talk to the Tibetans, not even to the Chengdu artists. What really broke the ice was my saying,"When you come into a meeting, you don't look right or left, or smile or even say hello. When we walk in, we say, hello." And I exaggerated. "We say, HELLO! We hug people!"
     Well, every guy there wanted to hug me, a Western woman endowed with a certain kind of breasts [laughs]. My son held up his arm and said, "Well, what about me?" And every woman there broke into giggles. I think that for two or three hours we just laughed and played and laughed and played. After that, everybody came together in one group.
works:  That's fantastic!
Betsy:  People also came out and volunteered and the city came alive with hope as we did the performances.  Apparently the government was watching and what they loved the most was our spirit. Later they told me that. Now skip ahead a year to when I came back to design the park. Because we were foreigners getting anything accepted was problematic and risky. The city enlisted a lot of citizens to carry a model around to the neighborhoods and talk about it. It was a huge public process. Even building it was a public process. 
     I've never been engaged in a society where, if you have a meeting at nine and you don't come to a consensus by ten, you meet until lunch. And if you don't have consensus, you eat lunch together and then meet all afternoon. You meet until you get consensus! Then you have dinner and you dance together! [laughs] This happened all the time.
     I only learned after the Living Water Garden was finished that Beijing opposed it. And the premier of China personally opposed the six-acre water-cleaning park in Chengdu. Then he personally went to see it when it was finished and declared it a vast success! It became the symbol in the country for the fight between technology and nature, as if they are always oppositional forces and you can't marry them. This all happened between 1996 and 1998.
works:  This was an example of how you can marry them, I take it.
Betsy:  Yes. And it spread the idea around the world. People copied it. But technocrats would rather use expensive technology. 
works:  It sounds revolutionary.
Betsy:  It was. It revolutionized me, too! [laughs]. I didn't know the depths of what we were accomplishing. 
works:  Does it work? 
Betsy:  Yes. Even though it was built terribly. The infrastructure is breaking down. It has been at the head of a political debate, so some mayors love it and some hate it. But every mayor of a big city in China came to see it. It also spawned some good Chinese NGOs. It spawned a lot of good wetland work. It didn't spawn this deeper thing we're talking about, how you've got to make sculptures to move water in vortices and the deeper aspects I learned from the Europeans. But it's starting to be understood. We were very fortunate that the only wetland expert in central China was in Chengdu and I also looked for a landscape architect who could understand my concept. Margie Ruddick came for three weeks and was an amazing help because she sketched in the basic forms for the park. Huang Shida, the hydraulic engineer, who knew wetlands, wrote 34 letters to the government to get them to make a real system.
works:  This is really an extraordinary story.
Betsy:  It was an extraordinary adventure. I felt like it was a God-given project.
works:  Still, there are lots of people who don't get some basic things about water.
Betsy:  That's right. 
works:  I mean, for instance, Cadillac Desert was written over twenty years ago saying, hey folks, guess what? And down in the deserts of southern California there are more and more house farms springing up and golf courses and big, stupid lawns, and I wonder what kind of insanity is going on?  But nature is going to have its say. 
Betsy:  Nature will knock us upside the head. Yes. 
works:  It seems to me we're approaching that very quickly in terms of our water needs. Of course, everything is moving so fast we don't know what the hell is going on. But the effects of all our activities seem to be happening more quickly than the scientists had first imagined.
Betsy:  Because it looks slow in the beginning, but you reach a certain point and then it accelerates of its own accord. 
works:  I get that you have a lot more to say.
Betsy:  I'm working on a book. [laughs]
works:  You're here in northern California because it's part of a project you're working on. Would you talk a little about that?
Betsy:  I worked in Beijing for five years and, in the course of doing that, I watched Beijing's water needs destroy the environment for hundreds of miles. And whether it's Vegas or LA or Beijing, it's the same thing. The urban environment has to understand that there's a vast living system out there. Everything we live off of here is dependent on the welfare of what's out there. 
     So I started to conceptualize a project called Resources-Saving Living Systems. Partly I came to it from my experiences in western Sichuan and visiting sacred water sites there-and the ones that I know here, too. They're sort of micro-markers of the water system. 
     In places like Tibet, whether the water site is a seep or a spring or a creek, these places are deemed vital to their survival and are always acknowledged. The same thing exists in Africa and all around the world in rural situations and among indigenous people. And also in Europe. 
works:  The feeling of respect for these water sites still exists in many places.
Betsy:  Yes. The respect for them and the legends and the stories belonging to them and their uses. In northern Europe, the cultures that have kept this alive and have brought it forward have a stronger environmental movement than, say, a culture like ours. For thirteen years, I've wanted to document the Tibetan one, because the places I described earlier have now disappeared. And so have the stories, because it's an oral tradition. 
     I thought, well, documenting these sites and mapping them, whether it's here, in Kenya, the Phillipines, or in northern California, could be an incredible benchmark to measure and show what's happening-just on that scientific level, but also on a cultural level. And documenting and recording this would help people understand how valuable their knowledge is and the culture they have, and also it could help to build sustainable water practices for the future. 
     So I wove all this together into this conceptual project. I'm going to look for money until it happens and work with whatever partners and partnerships I can find. There's someone here in northern California who's done some mapping. 
     So I have proposals in at several foundations, but they're all on hold. I'm very efficient with money. My NGO has no overhead. I don't run an office. Everything goes right to site. 
works:  You've found a vocation, haven't you? 
Betsy:  Wake up and smell the roses!  Life is too good. But it's such a disconnect. It's almost as if we disconnect our hearts from the pulse of life. We have to reconnect it again in order to make the right choices. One wrong choice leads to another one which leads to another one. It's like digging a ditch deeper, sort of like Wall Street [laughs]. 
works:  It just comes up listening to you. We're in such a head-trip culture and wouldn't it be helpful if we could listen to other parts of ourselves? There's some intelligence in other parts of ourselves. We all have the experience of our body's response to water, for instance. Take the experience of a refreshing dip in cool water on a hot day. 
Betsy:  Yes. We're huge intelligence systems. 
works:  How could we help people begin to look into the larger extent of ourselves? 
Betsy:  I think that's one thing art can help with. 
works:  Well, take a sacred spring. I think everything inside one would respond to that, if we're not clouded by too much distraction. You would see the plants, hear the sound of the water, you would feel, you would drink. What would stop a person from feeling one hundred per cent...
Betsy:  In love with this situation? And your own body...
works:  Yes. Enchanted by it. There would be nothing there that was not life-giving, right?
Betsy:  The Chinese have a saying that those who would drink living water would become so healthy they could see into the bodies of other people. They also say that the wise leader takes care of the problems of water first. Here people design and then they take care of the problems of water afterwards to fit their designs. This is another thing I try to get across. 
     Water needs to be the foundation of all our planning processes, even with a garage or a parking lot. Design for the water first and design for sustainability. How are you going to catch that water? Where is it going to go? How are you going to filter it? Everything should be designed like that. Water is the foundation of life. It should be the foundation of design.
     What I did is that I took water as my teacher. If I was going to structure a project and water was an essential part, how would I structure it? It would be inclusive. It would nourish everybody. It wouldn't discriminate between higher and lower life forms or better or worse people, or anything like that. Not that I've been able to live up to it all the time. But it helped me. 
     I always say that there are no bad people. We may disagree, but we all need water. Everyone has the right to water. The Native Americans in New Mexico, when there was a drought, they figured out how to share the available water. We need that kind of model rather than hoarding. We hear it being said, "We're going to have wars about water." And we will, if people hoard, if countries hoard. Because rivers cross boundaries and water goes everywhere.
     All the life forms we can't even see are part of that. They're just happening and we don't have a clue. But if you really listen, you can hear them. We have to change our minds. What can artists do? We can generate hope, possibility, and conversation. There's not a place I go where people don't start working on their water. I know that I can do that.
     I watch my granddaughter, who lives in New York City. Put her up in New Hampshire in the woods and she's a different child. She is so curious and looking at everything, examining everything. And urban life can be that interesting. Urbanites could grow most of their food. They could also generate most of their electricity. And they could clean all their water. Wastewater treatment should be as important as your school and hospital. It could be a vegetated environment that's fabulous. Why do we add all these chemicals when it could be done with microbes? Because we have faith in chemicals, and the chemical industries make all this money from that. Yes, it might take longer. Yes you might need a little more land. But the positive aspects are huge.  
     The ancient Chinese text on the formation of the cosmos says, Love is water.
 Visit Betsy Damon's website to learn more.

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.    


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