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Drinking in the wonders of water

For one season of my childhood, water was the embodiment of a terrible predator – a soulless black void that could swallow life. We were on the beach in Greencrest. It was one of those lead-gray, humid days, well past summer solstice when the earth seems to have paused in its journey around the sun, like a ship listing, waiting for the wind to reset its motion. I, 9 years old, and my sister, 7, along with several local kids were playing in the shallow waters of Lake Erie.

It appeared at around 6 that evening – a sudden gathering of black clouds over Canada that moved with astonishing speed across the thirty miles of open water. With it came powerful winds and waves.

I was a few yards from the shore, knee deep in roiling water as the white hoods hurled themselves forward. My little sister was farther out, seemingly heedless of the storm. I called out to her, but it was too late. The undertow, like some force from beneath the earth, was pulling her out into deeper waters. I just stood there, weak, helpless; it seemed another family member was vanishing.

But that was not our fate this time. A local boy, just 12 years old, swam out and guided her back safely to shore.

While the memory of near-drowning haunts forever, it would control neither my nor my sister’s life. We both learned to swim well. Moreover, she became a government researcher of wetlands in the Mississippi delta region. For me, as a writer, bodies of water – lakes, oceans, rivers, streams – have long been sources of inspiration. I rely heavily on them as providers of imagery and metaphor and all things mystical.

Science tells us that water makes up 70% of the earth’s surface, and that the human body is 65% water.

It has several unique properties that are essential for life on the planet: its solvency allows it to break down and transport other molecules, e.g. the circulation of nutrients and oxygen through the bloodstream. Its thermal property makes it more resistant to evaporation and slow to change temperature; it allows mammals (us) to reduce body heat through sweating. Water is the only natural substance that exists in three physical forms – solid, liquid, and gas. And it is the only substance that expands when frozen – its solid state is less dense; hence, ice floats.

We learned as children that the movement of glaciers the size of mountain ranges carved out deep valleys and filled them with their own meltdown to form our Great Lakes – the greatest source of freshwater in the world.

A rainbow is, in essence, light reflecting and refracting the water-of-the-air: Tiny drops absorb light and form an optical illusion, an overarching ribbon of infinite colors.

Ocean tides are not just evidence of the living relationship between moon and earth; theoretically, the first land vertebrates evolved as a result of massive tides 400 million years ago. Thus, we were all born of the sea, conceived by the moon.

Of course, water can be a catastrophic force, far more destructive than the lake storm I described earlier. Hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and all kinds of thermal-dynamic events are a constant threat to communities and landscapes across the world. Water is an active agent of entropy. Now, during these years of global warming and melting ice caps, its threat extends farther and farther inland.

I moved back home to Western New York after spending a decade in Colorado. Despite its magnificent landscape, there was something about Colorado that was unsettling to me. The population was expanding incredibly. Traffic was endless along I25, and it seemed that Colorado Springs and Denver, though 70 miles apart, had become one sprawling megalopolis. I had this gut feeling that the water source – predominantly mountain snowmelt – just wasn’t enough for so many people. There were several unusually dry summers following mild winters. Then there were the devastating fires of 2012 and 2013 that blackened the air for months.

Despite the warning signs, employment opportunities grew, and developers and realtors were able to entice millions of folks from all over the country to move to “God’s country,” in part by assuring them they could still have the kind of greenery they had back home, despite Colorado’s high desert climate. Hence, sod making and other water sucking industries flourished.

Here in Western New York we can ill afford to make the mistakes of the 1950s and 60s when Lake Erie became a near toxic wasteland. Now, having seen images of the Blue Planet from space, we should be more in awe of its beauty and sanctity than ever before. We should remind ourselves again and again that cleanliness is next to Godliness, that clean water is holy water, and that our lives depend on it.

Pete Howard is the author of The Hourglass Pendant and other Paul James Mysteries. He lives in Dunkirk and teaches ELA at Northern Chautauqua Catholic School. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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