The priestly accounts of the creation have fallen into discredit. So mysticism has to take refuge in the atom. The atom is a safe place not because it is small, but because you have to do complicated measurements and use underground channels to find your way there. These underground channels are concealed from the eye of the people because the plain man has not been taught to read and write size language. — Lancelot Hogben in Mathematics, the Mirror of Civilization.
It’s obvious that we have met and exceeded Mr. Lebow’s expectation. We are world record holders in virtually all categories of consumption. It is equally obvious that massive consumption translates to massive squandering of resources and massive pollution.
If this were a real water article in a real magazine, I would feel obliged at this point to run through a list of our accomplishments, citing the record numbers of tons of PCB, DDT, THM, TCE, SHIT, ETC. we dump into our waters. Ralph Nadar has listed 2,100 or so such nasties he found in city drinking water, but I’m going to skip the symptoms of our present water disease and go right to the cause.
Our society’s great sin against water is simply that we have forgotten what it is. Twenty-five centuries ago, the Taoist Chuang-Tzu said: “Water is the blood of the Earth, and flows through its muscles and veins. Therefore it is said that water is something that has complete faculties . . . . ” This is a stunning statement. “Water is something that has complete faculties.” Water itself is a living entity as well as a vital, all-encompassing organ of the living Earth. Water’s willful, independent existence is not a poetic fancy but a fact that you can verify through your own observation. Water’s behavior reveals a rhythm and inner logic that defy scientific explanation. What is really stunning is that we have so totally lost our sense of awe in its presence–that we have explained it away, or in the words of the great German water scholar Theodor Schwenk, we have “demythologized” it.
In his moving essay on “Water Consciousness,” Schwenk underlined the degree to which we have forgotten what water really is:
Once the most revered element in every genuine religious ceremony. symbol of the wisdom at work in every phase of living nature, water is now thoroughly ‘demythologized.’ It is just ‘liquid weight,’ a source of energy, a means of expediting ships and waste matter. a substance suited to running pumps and turbines. Its capacity to drive machinery can be calculated, and this is taken to prove that it is a dead substance. Water becomes just a source of measurable power alongside such familiar items as pressure, draft, weight, gravitation, inertia, centrifugal force, friction, and nuclear energy.
The degradation of water in modern America has been cruel and complete. Water has meaning only to the extent that it is useful to us. We speak of animal rights and children’s rights, meaning the rights of animals and children, but “water rights” refers only to the right of humans to exploit water. Water itself has no rights, no existence apart from our purposes. By our nature we hold the familiar in contempt, and miracles go unnoticed: the floating of ice, a mindboggling event that defies the laws of science, happens so frequently that not even the National Enquirer bothers with it.
It is water’s perverse and consistent refusal to go along with science’s laws that makes our lives possible. The awesome fact that water expands when it freezes in a world where things are supposed to contract as they get colder allows life to flourish beneath the frozen surface of lakes and rivers: if ice sank, many bodies of water would never thaw. This is virtually a unique property of water, an entity that follows its own design and dances to its own tune.
If water reacted to temperature change as a clump of mere H2O molecules would be expected to, it would freeze at 148 Fahrenheit degrees below zero and boil at 112 degrees below zero. The temperature of water changes less per unit of heat added or removed than any other substance. This profoundly moderates our climate, protecting us against the violent temperature swings of the waterless planets.
According to John Barrow and Frank Tipler in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, “Water is actually one of the strangest substances known to science. This may seem a rather odd thing to say about a substance as familiar but it is surely true. Its specific heat, its surface tension, and most of its other physical properties have values anomalously higher or lower than those of any other known material.”
Water’s amazing surface tension that Barrow and Tipler allude to is due to the fact that water, like many living organisms, has skin. Rutherford Platt in Water: The Wonder of Life call’s water’s skin “one of the great wonders of the world.” Water’s ethereal skin is only one molecule thick and so delicate that evaporating water molecules pass through unchallenged. Nevertheless, says Platt, “the tensile strength of the skin of water is equal to that of steel.” It is so strong, he says, that “it would take the pull of a one-ton weight to rupture a column of pure water one inch in diameter!” The skin of water, by the way, encloses it at all times and on every surface. When you dive into a lake, your body never touches water, only its skin of tightly compressed molecules.
It is the extraordinary strength of water’s skin that enables it to perform another amazing feat that makes life as we know it possible. By a process called capillarity, water is able to defy gravity and climb through the soil and through the roots of plants. The same process is at work in our bodies in the system of minute capillaries that nourish and cleanse the most remote reaches. “We are clothed,” Platt says, “in a fine-spun capillary garment with the same sort of molecular forces as those in the skin at water.”