Reflections on Water

leaf on water

I went for a walk yesterday. I followed the creek. I imagined I was water, running down, down, to the lowest point on the property. Then I sat silently in the corner of the field next to it for a long time, down below the oaks, in a little clearing, at the bottom of the valley, at the edge of the cattail and the willow-crowded creek banks, beside the thick blackberry hedge. Invisible to the neighbors, out of site from our house, I was hidden from view. I lay on my back, hands behind my head, eyes closed to the bright sky and the brilliant late fall sunlight. I let the squishy grass hold me, felt it thick and plush below me. I lay like that for a while, just listening. The birds chirped in the bushes and trees around me. I could hear a blue jay screeching loudly. I heard rustling in the blackberries, some little critter moving around. Earlier on my walk I had startled a whole covey of quail. Not liking to fly, they skit-scattered out of the brush away from me, lifting off the ground only as much as they had to in order to clear the bank of brambles and retreat to safety on the other side. From there I could hear their cooing chatter continue. I love seeing the quail. They are a symbol of life to me, a sign that our land is doing well, beginning to recover, that slowly we are making room for all the different creatures on it. I know that quail were here in the past, but when we first moved in two years ago I didn’t see them, so the fact that they have returned feels good. They have found a home in the wild edges of our land, in the brush and blackberry thickets that we do not have time to tame. A bear has moved in also. I followed his trail too; saw signs of his passing in the dark piles of scat along the way, found tufts of his fur caught in the barbed wire where he had climbed over the fence onto the neighbor’s yard. Funny how little property lines mean to a bear. He probably didn’t even notice the burrs of the barbed wire as they pulled just a few hairs from his thick coat. He flows across this land just like the creek, paying no heed to fences and property boundaries. Water and wildlife, they find their own way. This little creek, and the tangle of brambles that thrive around it, brings so much life to this land.

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Water. Water for drinking, for swimming, for bathing, for cooking, for washing dishes, for washing newborn babies, for celebrating, for ceremony, for growing things, for irrigation. What do you do with water? Play in it. Pee it out. Travel on it. Depend on it. Believe in it. Worry about it. Give thanks for it. Hope there’s enough of it. Try to conserve if. Pray for it. Dump it out. Flush is down. Catch it on your tongue. Dance in it. Christen people with it. Steep tea in it. Brew beer with it. Get drunk on it. Dive in to it. Get wet. Take it for granted. Be reminded of it. Fill our bodies with it. Cover the world in it. Explore the depths of it. Try to understand it. Learn to swim in it. Drown in it. Be born into it. Feel it course through your veins. Eat plants full of it. Drag hoses to move it. Set up sprinklers to spread it. Dig ditches. Carry buckets. Build canals. Bore wells. Dowse for it. Hope to find it.

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This summer our well went dry. It didn’t stop producing water completely, but it routinely tried to pump and found nothing. The load censor would trip the breaker, and the pump would shut off for a while, then come back on and try again, thus preventing the pump from burning itself out. At times we barely had a trickle of water coming through our pipes. Discovering this was sobering. You like to think a well is something you can count on.

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Water. Life giving. Life supporting. Life taking-away. Water. Drought suffering. Flood fearing. Tsunami warning. Snow pack forming. Glacier melting. Water.

Fossil water. Old water. New water. Fresh water. Salt water. Fetid water. Soiled, spoiled, dirty water. Clean water. Mountain spring water. Tub springs. Shasta springs. Sacred gathering spots with fresh-out-of-the-ground water.

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First they killed the beaver, trapped them for their pelts, to make hats. And to make sure the competing trading companies from the south didn’t move in to their territory, they trapped all the beaver from the Cascades to the Coast in a wide path, every single one. Created a beaver desert. Then they found gold. They started mining. They took all the water and piped it into holes in the ground to flush out all the gold. They cut down trees to build canals, to pipe the water to help with all the mining. They diverted and then contaminated the water. Then they built a railroad, and cut down more trees to make way for it. They used the wood to build things. They sold it off to people. They built barns and brought in sheep and cattle, hundreds and thousands of sheep and cattle. And they grazed them over this newly open land where the trees used to be. Thousands of hooves trampled across the soft fertile land, compacting all the soil, and eating all the grass.

Didn’t they know? The beaver built the dams. The beaver made the ponds. The beaver slowed the water, kept it on this land. The trees held the water, and their roots held the soil, and their leaves mulched the grasses, and allowed the soil underneath them to be fluffy and fertile and happy. It was a perfect fragile system. And they came, and they changed it all.

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Who is they? They. Them. White man. Humans. Settlers. Those people. My people.

They came.

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Autumn evening,
A monk stands listening to crickets
Faraway village
Hidden in the mist.

-Zen Master Ryokan

I do not know what this means. I do not know anything actually. I am a baby. I was born yesterday. I am new to this world. I am an old monk on a hillside. I am the mist rising off the hills. I am water evaporated off ridges and floating away in the autumn evening air. I am nothing. I am a river flowing, running downhill, taking the path of least resistance. I am the farmer, diverting that river, channeling it into my garden, into my fields, onto my plants. I am the salmon swimming back, up that river, to a place I barely remember but to which I am mightily connected. In my body I carry nutrients, minerals from the sea. When I die I will leave those minerals in the river where I was born. I am a cycle. Without me the rivers lose their minerals and all else begins to fail. I am a water drop falling on a pine tree. I roll off sideways, to the next branch and then the next, funneled away from the tree trunk to the drip line where I fall finally and sink down into the roots. I am fossil water, buried deep, deep in the rocks. I have only ever been water. I have never been frozen. I have never evaporated. This is the only form I know. I am a monk standing on a hillside. I am a 28 year-old girl lying in the sunshine in a field listening to the birds. I am the blue jay screeching. I am the squirrel with the acorn in my teeth. I am the oak tree, struggling in my own home. I have compaction over my roots. All the native grasses and groundcovers that used to keep me company are gone. The fires that used to clean the land around me do not come any more. Instead I am landscaped. The leaves are raked away from underneath me. Strange flowers are planted near me. A porch is built around me, so water no longer falls naturally on my roots in the cool of winter. Instead water is channeled on to me all summer long. I am struggling. I have been here for decades, but now I’m afraid I cannot adapt fast enough.

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They trapped. They made beaver skin hats. They mined. They built canals. They logged. They ran thousands of head of cattle. They ran sheep. They made blankets and shipped them around the world. They built railroads. They exploited and exported all the natural resources of this valley until they were gone.

No more beaver. No more trees. No more lush rich grazing land. No more fertile soil. No more gold. No more water.

Now they wonder where it all went.

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Who am I? One girl. One girl with three acres and the idea that she wants to be an Earth Doctor when she grows up. Who am I? One girl trying to be a good steward of the land. One girl who has found her patient. One girl who has met her match. One girl who has her work cut out for her. One girl who is trying to heal all this.

What is this? This is three acres. This is native oak-pine savanna where all the pines have gone missing, where the native grasses and wildflowers are gone, where fires are no longer allowed to burn, and now mistletoe is devouring the oak trees. This is an artificial landscape, creating by logging, and ranching, and piping water from the other side of a mountain to flood irrigate fields, which are not meant to have so much water. This is soil compacted from too many little cow feet, for too many long years, and then tractor tires and pickup trucks. This is soil water logged, over irrigated and under fed. Too wet for worms. Too wet for life. This is soil heavy in clay, good for building but not for growing. This is topsoil barely two inches thick. This is oak trees struggling, trying to adapt from the summer dryness they were used to, and the fires, and the cycles of rebirth and re-growth that came with them, to the constant summer irrigation and the landscaping, and the foreign plants grown around them. It is strange, but they are coming to depend on it. We’ve got them hooked, reliant now on our irrigation ditches, our canals and our elaborate systems. These mighty giants who should be better suited to this climate than any of the rest of us, we’ve turned them into addicts, just like we are, addicted to someone else’s water, piped in from somewhere else. If that water goes, they go. And then where will we be without them?

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I thought about all this as I sat on the hill yesterday, down below the oaks, in a little clearing, at the bottom of the valley, above the creek, at the edge of the cattail and the willow-crowded banks, beside the thick blackberry hedge. I thought about us, the people, the human beings, how we come on to the land with our ideas and our plans and our visions, how we share that land, whether we recognize it or not, with so many other creatures, so many other forms of life, so many other systems and cycles. And how each one of our actions, as tiny and insignificant as they may seem, affects so much more than we know.


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