In electric confrontations, the clouds gather, grow dark, and grumble their dissent. They lumber about like gravid beasts, heavy bellies aimed at the earth below; a slow dance that lasts for days.
Then, like a crescendo, it rains.
Not an unusual phenomenon in this urban area of the west coast trapped between the mountains and the sea. The geometric nature of the city provides a horizon of percussive surfaces in the form of concrete stalagmites that have colonized what once was a temperate rainforest. What trees remain have been landscaped into place. And water batters into the foliage, each leaf a splash, crash. It pounds into itself in tide pools of pavement, flows in tiny streams alongside curbs, gurgles in the subterranean catchments of the sewage system. These sounds weave into me, buffering sensitivities so that I don’t notice the distraction. A thousand choral fragments are dampened into a single sigh, a conch cupped to my ear. No one ever seems to notice how loud the rain is.
As a small child, I would lift my face to this rush of water and try to swallow what fell from the sky. Rain would collect in the concavities between my nose and eyelids, overflow like tears. Never enough to quench my thirst.
Everywhere water falls, it is absorbed into the earth. Worms surface to escape flooding tunnels.
New corridors are made for slugs to use as dispersal routes to new terrain. Roots draw this water into themselves, which fortifies xylem cell walls and increases turgor on the path to branch apices. Plasmodesmata transpire water back into the sky.
So immersed in this ubiquity, it is no wonder that water has been present in my dreams. I see myself descending into warm pools of trapped water until I look up (and this is the part that always surprises me) and discover that the surface has risen over my head. Layers of curving light bend and shift to the memory of my descent.
Water running in a straight line is an even flow. It owns a calm predictable in its variation, expected, like the next fugal movement. But let it rush downward in a fall and it gains immeasurable turbulence. Or add heat to agitate its already vibrating structure (two hydrogen atoms bonded in a V to an oxygen) and no one can tell you anything about the way milk curves in an upward current in a steaming mug of coffee by itself, mixing spontaneously into an inexplicable solution.
We are made of mostly water. We left the sea behind long ago in exchange for legs and language. It seems significant that we developed systems to preserve it within us. Water rules our balance; it fills the labyrinth of canals inside our ears and tells us if we are indeed aligned with the horizon. But only joy and sorrow recall this; they bring water forth from our eyes. It blurs perception, distorts sight.
The same evolution that ties us to water also disconnects us. I once read how a man and his son were fooled by the false security of land as the moon drew the water away from the shores of Morecambe, in England. Amid bars of sand, panic insidiously struck with the onset of fog and the steady return of the tide. Despite the connection of a mobile phone and the efforts of search and rescue teams, water continued to swirl between their legs, and rise. The sandbanks shifted, sank and the last call on the mobile telephone (the boy on his father’s shoulders) was made less than one hour later. Audio records of the calls indicate they could hear sirens on the shore. Rescue teams heard disembodied voices, so close, magnified by the presence of water in the air. So close.
Does it make me callous to wonder if that connection were not present, if boy and man had had no mobile, would they have paid more attention to the direction of the water beneath them? The tide was going in, rushing past them to fill the reservoir intended for it by the shape of the sand. Would not the current have showed them the way? But perhaps evolution has taken us so far away from the sea that they did not think, in their terror, to listen to the insistent push of the sea.
We swim through our evolution in the waters of the womb. A child breathes liquid for nine months, taking oxygen directly from fluid. It is an umbilicus to ontology that directs us to recapitulate amoeba, fish, tadpole, and finally emerge four-legged, helpless and oblivious to our heritage. Once released from water, we immediately reject it. Our species has so much collective memory in the very bases of its DNA, yet no understanding of how to access the information, so our nascency into sentience came from imperfection, survival, need.
Only beneath layers of self do we recall such depth. A lover once told me that he slept in a room below the waterline of the Atlantic, deep in the belly of a ship while he played in a cruise line orchestra. He fell asleep to the hum of the engine magnified and muffled a hundred fold by a cushion of surrounding water, and every night, dreamt violent red dreams in a windowless room.
So many layers. Even within itself water has layers. Cohesive forces between molecules at the surface push rows of molecules already attracted to each other, closer. They form a regenerative skin easily broken by the slightest pressure. Only an insect can walk across water.
Just below, the water column supports life, a seething blue-green blanket from which complexity secured its elaboration, the foundations of a recursive chain of events Mandelbrot would have been proud of.
Far beneath the surface, and for miles more, water has flesh. A place that is dynamic, living, responding. Sharks feed on fish that feed on molluscs that feed on plankton; knee jerk, funny bone, eye blink. It is both repulsion and attraction. Motor governs flesh; there is no true thought here. But instinct has history, implicit knowledge of the past. Emotion roots itself deeply without rational justification. Remember sorrow, remember joy.
And closest to the earth where water is compressed by carrying itself millions of times over, it loses fleshy duality and becomes heavy with another hydrogen. The current slows into contemplation, passivity; weight has its limitations. We spend most of our time believing we live in balance, but in truth, equilibrium may require a lifetime to achieve. We reach towards that ideal with stories, songs, dreams; stretch our fingers, stand on tippy toe.
Not too long ago I discovered that if I light a candle on the other side of the window of clear tiles in the wall that separates my bed from my kitchen in my one roomed home, the imperfections of the glass tiles distort the flickering candlelight. Patterns dance on the ceiling above my bed and I am submerged again, looking up at the reflections of light on the surface. They herald my dreams and freeze the loud rush of my thoughts into the silence of soft midnight snow.
(Originally published April 11th, 2005)