The Theme of the 1997-1998 Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values was Water – Symbol and Substance of Life: Toward a New Environmental Ethic.
The seminar points out that human society has had a close relationship with water that permeated our myths, our religions, our folklore and, most important, our day-to-day survival. On a physiological level, we are water and we came from water. By this time, it claims, we should have a close, culture-wide common ethic in place as to how we respect and relate to our water supply. However, as far as I know, we don’t.
If there were tangible results from this seminar series, I am not aware of them. In the course of eons, as with many marriages, we took our ancient matrimony with water for granted. What is your relationship to water?
Water is always in motion; it’s always going somewhere. We may feel stagnant but water moves on reminding us that, whether we like it or not, we are always in motion as well. It can’t be contained but it can change form. It is impermanent. We may dam it up in the effort to hold onto it but it simply evaporates and goes elsewhere.
For most of us water is something that comes out of a spigot. It keeps us clean. It accepts our waste like the mother of a new born baby.
Somewhere in the last twenty to thirty years we learned water wasn’t as pure as it once was; it was damaged goods. We got a divorce by enclosing it in plastic bottles before we drank it. Many communities have been working for years to clean up their water supply, and yet, there is still a clear division between a river that was once polluted and one that was not.
I noticed last week that every picture on the wall of my living room has water as either a theme or a backdrop. I’d never noticed it before but from a print of the Manhattan Bridge over New York Harbor to Maxfield Parrish, water splashes my walls.
Here in Springfield, Oregon water is an active member of the community. I live seven blocks from the Willamette River and, after living in the desert for many years, I am treated to the feast of beautiful, wide water flowing beside me as I bike from Springfield to Eugene or walk my dog in Island Park. My relationship with this river is one of surprise and gratitude each time I see it.
For many years I lived in a part of Pennsylvania that rests in the valley of the impressive Delaware and Lehigh Rivers. My relationship to these rivers was strengthened when I moved to the Southwest and craved the sight and sound of water. While I was living in their cradle, I was not as in awe as I should have been. Deprivation taught me respect. That deprivation also taught me to appreciate my current river.
My sister and cousins and I are selling a piece of land that is directly on what is a genuinely pristine river. The Cowpasture, in southwestern Virginia, is one of the tributaries of the James River. It flows through the Alleghany highlands, crystal clear. The Cowpasture has never been polluted.
Our piece of land is the only piece of land for sale on the Cowpasture. Most property is tied up in families that continue to pass it along generation to generation. This inclusion, though not advantageous to those who also want to be on the river, nonetheless speaks to a close relationship with, and respect for, a river that is protected by familial adhesion. In this case, the ethic is “we keep it in the family, close and cared for.”
The four of us inherited the property but no one lives close enough to keep it in the family. We are scattered nationwide and like owning a fine sparkling jewel that is just out of reach, as in a dream, there is nothing to do but let it go.
The real relationship we often have with water is beauty. Most natural sources of water are positioned within an exquisite setting that has the power to take our breath away.
Our little piece of land on our little pristine river is modest. But it still has the power to make us reverent. Our eyes glide over the smooth, clear water, pulled forward, into the distance and the future – what will it bring? Change, transition, passage of time, constant motion, growth, contrast, metamorphosis, beauty, life. And it will slip through our fingers and be gone.
* Photo taken by Peggy Doyle with Highlands Realty, Covington, VA