Interviewsand Articles


Some Thoughts on Water

by Richard Whittaker, Feb 22, 2021



As an experiment, a few years ago I began asking friends if they had any memorable experiences with water. I was surprised by the blank looks I got.
     “Well, do you remember any experiences of swimming or playing with water when you were a child?” I'd ask.
     That question worked a little better.
     “Oh, yes! When I was a child my parents always took us to a cabin on a lake on summer vacations. I remember swimming there.”
     “So is that still a vivid memory now, thirty years later?” I’d ask.  
     The answer was always affirmative, and usually in a matter-of-fact tone. Thirty, forty, fifty years had passed. Mostly, people don't think about it, it seems. And yet, we all have a variety of memorable childhood experiences around water.
      Why had I started asking people about their deep memories around water? Some years have passed since then and I can’t quite reconstruct it exactly. I can say that out of the blue, some of my own memorable experiences with water began bubbling up. This continued happening long enough that I began to wonder what was going on. I found myself in the grip of a feeling about water, as though a door to something deep had opened. It felt important, but couldn’t quite see what lay underneath
     No answers presented themselves until, also out of the blue, an explanation occurred to me. Simple. I was being visited by a water spirit. Somehow that pleased me—a water spirit, a playful notion, but why not? 
     Like almost everyone else, ordinarily my relationship with water was unremarkable—like our relationship with air and sunshine. If instead, I’d started asking people, “Do you have any really memorable experiences of breathing air?” I’d probably have gotten even stranger looks. I have to laugh, even thinking about it.
     This might go a little differently with sunlight, though. “Yes, I’ve noticed that some mornings, when everything is quiet, I see the sunlight falling through the window on the coffee table. There’s something inexpressible about that.” Maybe even a surprising number of people would say something like that, given the chance.
     In any case, my experiment didn’t last long. But I'm convinced that given the right approach, lots of people would come around to seeing how deep many of their own experiences with water really are. And maybe that would lead to some new ways of thinking about water.

Earth Air Water and Fire
My mother taught us three boys how to swim. When I was seven, I remember the municipal pool and the burning sensation of getting the chlorinated water up my nose. Even earlier, I remember a Sunday outing somewhere in the Appalachians. We stopped along a little road and walked down to a creek with pools big enough for swimming. My mother urged me in toward deeper water. “Lay back” she said, supporting me with her arms. “Now I’m going to show you how to float. Just relax.” She took her arms away and I panicked. But we did learn to swim, each one of us.
     We must all have our stories, our memories of water. My younger brother became adept both in swimming competition and as a surfer and beach lifeguard. On another level, it was a long time before I realized, one morning, that a shower is one of the most reliable of life’s pleasures—that, and a cup of tea.
     Just this morning I was washing dishes—first the plates, then bowls and cups, then silverware. My hands woke up in that warm, soapy water - both as being hands, and as being my hands. My wife was delighted by my discovery. I used to kid her and say, "washing dishes is my spiritual practice." Now I see it also requires the effort to stay present in order to find one's way into this hidden place.
     Water and sensation. Water and the mystery of sensation. I don't know what it means that we first existed in water. In that amniotic sea we had not yet encountered even air or light. And from the beginning, we are more water than anything else. It’s one of those fundamental things that, for the ancients, might have had more meaning.
     Somewhere in school didn’t we learn that for the ancients, everything that existed was some version of earth, air, water and fire? How naïve, we thought. But lately, there are glimpses that make such a view begin to seem reasonable. Even in spite of all our learning, there are moments when we are so close to our experience that it silences all that knowing. It’s like the deep satisfaction of picking up a rock and holding it in one’s hand. Admittedly, one has to slow down and stop. Let the weight become real.
     Rocks. Water. Sunlight.
     A friend told me she was careful to regularly take her toddler son and stand him barefoot in the freshly turned fields of her father’s farm. “This is the earth,” she would whisper to him.
     Do you remember how, when you were very young, how your feet were still a little bit like your hands? How sometimes you even reached out and used your toes to grab something? And there’s still the pleasure of going barefoot.
     I’ve often wondered if it’s only a fantasy that I remember the touch of the baptismal water on my forehead. Do we even begin to understand sensation? How does matter make itself known to us? And do we make ourselves known to matter? Is this too far out? At least, we talk about the power of touch, sensation, as it pertains to another body. What is this encounter with the materiality of life?
     Looking at water from this angle of experience, one of its salient qualities is how it awakens sensation in contact with our skin. But its voice is so close to us we hardly notice. Like other everyday experiences with air and light, it remains hidden.

A Mountain Lake
It was in the Sierra Nevada range high along the John Muir trail. Let’s say it was in August. At that altitude summer has finally arrived, though snow is still on the highest peaks. Like other lakes high along the Muir trail, this one is crystal clear. Amazed, I stood at its edge looking at granite boulders fifty feet below the surface. There was no reason not to strip off my clothes. But dipping a foot in the water, I lost the nerve to dive straight in. Instead I entered the water cautiously. Finally, I was up to my waist and I looked around. Several peaks to the east reached above 14,000 feet. It was their melting snows that formed the streams flowing down into these high meadows to form a string of lakes near the timberline. Stands of lodge pole pine were nearby among the tumbles of granite divided by meadows of low growing shrubs and grasses—a landscape that reminded me of Japanese gardens.
     When the shock of the cold had receded a bit and my breathing was back to normal I gathered myself and dived forward. The experience of that total immersion is etched indelibly in memory, the holy shock of the water's cold embrace waking one joyously to life.

A Desert Stream
Some years ago, my wife and I visited Tucson. It was February. She had a conference to attend. I was free to wander. Tucson sits in the Sonora desert surrounded by saguaros—the iconic cactus of cartoon strips. As well, one can see plenty of ocotillo, cholla, prickly pear, organ pipe and other varieties of cacti all mixed in with desert mesquite, ironwood and palo verde. When we arrived, it had been raining off and on for several days, a surprising amount of rain for that dry and beautiful landscape.
       The following morning the sky was full of broken clouds letting the sun through at random intervals. Because of the rain, water was flowing in the usually dry Santa Cruz River nearby. I headed out of Tucson into the desert trusting that some unmarked dirt road into that desert-scape would beckon. I wasn’t disappointed, and a few miles later, all signs of civilization had been left behind. I parked and got out of my car. It was so quiet.
     The rocky, sandy soil of the desert was damp. Not too far in the distance lay buff-colored rocky ridges and hills. Stepping around an outcropping of stone and walking down a little slope, I came to one of the rarest of desert sights, a flowing stream - its water was so clear.
     In the desert a stream doesn’t last long. Should I take my shoes and socks off? (odd how much weight one gives such trivial concerns) But soon, barefooted, I stepped into the stream running along in its bed of sand and fragments of native stone. Standing in that desert stream with the broken clouds overhead, the sun coming through here and there, the silence of the rocks and desert plants around me, I didn't ever want to leave.

Clouds Are Water, Too
Typically, in the Sierras, clouds start forming over the peaks in the afternoon. Today the sky is clear. I’ve hiked up into a wide spare basin of granite in which five or six small alpine lakes lie scattered. In stretches there are flowers in bloom, a small variety of lupine the most prominent. Here and there, if one pays attention, a marmot can be seen sitting on a boulder. Reaching Desolation Lake, I’ve settled down on a patch of the deep green low-lying grass that often grows along the edges of the lakes. A large granite boulder serves as a backrest. Pulling a sandwich out of my pack, my gaze settles on the rugged ridge of granite off to the northeast culminating in Humphreys Peak.
     Just above it in the open sky I notice a small cloud. It’s not much of a cloud, thin and vaporous, but it’s the only cloud in the sky and its position, precisely above Humphreys Peak, lends it additional charm. After a moment, it occurs to me it would make a good photograph and I start wondering what lens would frame it best. Maybe my 50mm. No, there’d be too much sky and too little cloud. On the other hand for the photo to work, there has to be enough of the peak and surrounding sky. Otherwise, the little cloud would lose its solitary drama. I wonder, too, if I’ve packed my red 25A filter, but then decide that would darken the sky too much. An orange or yellow filter would be about right. But is it really worth the trouble?
    As I’d been eating my sandwich and pondering this I notice that the cloud seems to have gotten smaller. Focusing more intently, I realize it’s slowly evaporating right before my eyes. So I’ve missed the shot, anyway! Now I feel a tinge of self-recrimination. Ah well, not that big a loss, I decide and, taking my eyes off the cloud, I return to my sandwich.
     Fifteen minutes later, when I glance back at Humphreys Peak, it takes me a little while to find the cloud. Only the slightest trace remains. It has all but disappeared, and I wonder what caused it to form in the first place. Why right there above the peak? And why was it disappearing now? After a few minutes of this, and feeling the warmth of the sun, it seemed like a small nap was in order, and maybe twenty minutes passed before I opened my eyes again. Now the cloud is back! A shock. So the cloud evaporates, and then another one forms—how mysterious.
     I watched it carefully for some time afterwards, but never took the photograph.

Willamette Valley, Oregon
I am the passenger as my brother drives down highway 5 well south of Portland. As we roll along I’m craning my neck to see as much of the sky as possible, given the limits imposed by the windshield. I’m appreciating being the passenger for a change. The gray cloud cover, which stretched over us at Salem, has been left behind. The sky across the Willamette Valley is a sea of little broken clouds with fluffy edges floating at several different altitudes. The lowest can’t be more than a few hundred feet above the ground. And traveling at 75 miles an hour, this floating sea of clouds steadily rearranges itself as we roll south. The Willamette River runs serenely though a wide valley providing ample water for the farms and pasturelands stretching for miles and miles. No shortage of water, and hence, by some atmospheric magic, these particular clouds.
     As the sun is obscured, a pale disk behind one cloud, it lights the edges of two adjacent clouds. The edges are so bright I have to turn my eyes away. This constantly changing play of light and shadow among this floating sea is so beautiful I can’t help wondering if there isn’t a dimension about some experiences of which we’re not aware. It’s hard to formulate this intimation properly. After a moment, I turn to my brother, who is riding with me. “What do you think of Jung’s belief that one of our reasons for existing is to help God experience his creation in a certain way?”
     I expected that my brother, who, at that time, was chairman of the philosophy and religious studies departments at LSU, would have thought about this.
     “I like the idea of it,” he said, after a pause.
     I liked the idea, too.  
Join like-hearted community in an upcoming week-long virtual exploration: "What Would Water Do?" More details here.

About the Author

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


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