At Last! The Gazette's Great Water Article
by Gene Franks
Chiefest is water of all things, for streaming
Therefrom all life and existence came.--Pindar's First Olympian Ode
When they write the history of popular American magazine literature of our age, there will surely be a fat chapter on the genre that I call water articles. Although water articles do not rival diet articles or Elvis articles in popularity, every magazine from Good Housekeeping to Ranger Rick has printed a couple, and the popular health journals serve them as regular fare.
A water article isn't just any article that's about water. True water articles follow a rigid format. They start with a gloomy assessment of the nation's water supply, listing all the possible contaminants, comment on the dismal prospect of the government's fixing things, then go on to tactics that individuals can resort to. Home remedies include, with predictable regularity, bottled water and the big three in home treatment: carbon filters, reverse osmosis, and distillers. Some articles tell you where you can get your water tested. Some recommend whole-house filters or water softeners. Many feature the familiar contaminant removal charts comparing treatment methods. The charts vary from article to article according to the writers' prejudices.
The undying popularity of water articles reflects our intense national uneasiness about water. Water articles serve their purpose, but their scope is limited. Surely there is more to be done than buying a water filter and writing letters to Washington. In other places I've written some of the usual water article stuff. Here I'm going to try to expand the water article's parameters.
Water: The Measure of America
A subtle death-process played a godfather role in the conception and designing of the refrigerator, the vacuum cleaner, the automobile, and the turbine. Natural laws were stripped of wisdom and projected into matter. --Theodor Schwenk.
Thelma and Harold Grochocki (the couple in the cartoon, in case you didn't recognize them) not only sprayed a heavy dose of some pretty deadly roachicides yesterday; they also fertilized, mowed, and watered their lawn, ate their fill of burgers, steak, bacon. and eggs, drove their van 63 miles, poured half a can of paint thinner and a jar of pickle juice down the drain, watched TV most of the afternoon, washed their clothes, their dishes, and their dog, bathed, perfumed, and deodorized their bodies, vacuumed the carpet, and urinated and defecated repeatedly. It is interesting that although they spent most of their day at activities that directly or indirectly contaminate water, they seem surprised that the stuff that flows on demand from the kitchen tap isn't pristine mountain spring water.
Water is our most obvious and unfailing tangible example of the universal moral principle that says we reap what we sow. Sooner or later, our sins against water return to our doorstep. And just as Ghandi said that a people's moral progress can be gauged by the way its animals are treated, so also are a nation's values mirrored in the condition of its waters. It took many decades of misuse and exploitation to produce the chemical soup that Harold and Thelma drink.
Our abuse of water goes back at least to Columbus. The famous discovery voyage set in motion a violent orgy of exploitation that is now approaching its maturity. The real deeds of the early raiding parties were touched on very lightly in the rosy versions of the discovery that we heard in grade school. Violence against man and nature abounded. Bartolomé de las Casas, who arrived in the New World just ten years after Columbus' landing and later became a priest and champion of the Indians in Mexico, wrote descriptions of "such inhumanities and barbarisms . . .as no age can parallel." Father Las Casas saw the Spaniards dismember, rape, or behead 3,000 natives in a single day. He described nursing infants used for dog food, children with their legs cut off, people poured full of boiling soap.
Historian Barry Lopez comments on the legacy of the Spaniards: "We lost whole communities of people, plants, and animals, because a handful of men wanted gold and silver, title to land, the privileges of aristocracy, slaves, stables of little boys. We lost languages, epistemologies, books, ceremonies, systems of logic and metaphysics--a long, hideous carnage" (The Amicus Journal, Fall 1991). More significantly, Lopez finds that the seeds of early violence and exploitation bore fruit in some of the basic assumptions that we Americans have been taught to live by: that one is due wealth in North America, that we have a right, conferred by God and sanctioned by the state, to make use of whatever we need in the pursuit of wealth and happiness.
The belief in our God-given right to exploit can be traced, Lopez says, through the journals of the people on the Oregon Trail and the speeches of American industrialists; it can be observed in "the acid-burned forests of New Hampshire, the cauterized soils of Iowa, and the collapse of the San Joaquin Valley in caverns emptied of their fossil waters." He finds everywhere evidence of "a profound abuse of the place during the course of centuries of demand for material wealth."
Although we "average Americans" may think of ourselves as gentle folks, we are active participants in a cruel and unprecedented pillaging of the world that sustains us. We do not reflect that our unbridled consumerism is no accident. We are programmed to consume by schools, media, and tradition. Even the politicians we elect take on the role of detail men, sales reps for big business, today hawking drugs, tomorrow automobiles. In the days of bustling economic growth after World War II, an American retailing expert named Victor Lebow proclaimed:
"Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate."
Our Great Sin Against Water
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."
"All Things Are Water"
The wise men of Miletus thus declared
The first of things is water.
Thales of Miletus. known as the Father of Greek Philosophy, founded his school of thought over 2,500 years ago on the premise that "All things are water." On the other side of the globe, Taoists like Lao-tzu and his disciple Chuang-tzu were teaching that water is the model for human behavior, the tangible expression of the flowing, organic pattern of nature. "Man is water," Chuang-tzu said. "It congeals to form man, and his nine openings and five viscera appear. . . . What is it, then, that has complete faculties? It is water. There is not one of the various things that is not produced through it. It is only he who knows how to rely on its principles who can act correctly. . . ."
Water moves through all things. A jellyfish is 99% water, and our own bodies are literally pumped into shape by water. Like the Earth, we are more than 70% water. Water is the common fabric that unites us with the Earth and all its creatures.
Theodor Schwenk says that water is the substance that "makes the earth organism one single whole." Water provides our link with our fellow creatures, human and non-human. It is our link with the cosmos, our link with the past and the future. Not only do we drink the same water that George Washington drank but also the same water that was drunk by his horse; and the moon's pull that produces ocean tides acts just as surely on the water within us. Alan Watts observes that "The patterns of flowing water have been shown by Schwenk, Kepes, and Huyghe to be memorialized in muscle, bone, wood, and stone, and to have found their way into human art from very early times." The graceful, aesthetically perfect pattern of water is present in the ocean wave or the merest trickle.
According to Schwenk, there is also present in all water, whether it is in the ocean or in the inner ear, a system of music-like pulsations and vibrations. "These are rhythmic movements," he says, "lying below our hearing threshold, but nevertheless present and actively setting bodies of water vibrating." Water is, thus, "the element in which we can discern nature's heartbeat." And as such,
". . . it is the polar opposite of a mechanical pumping device: its alternating swing is free. And this eccentricity, this subtle freedom it retains, makes it the element that keeps nature from becoming mechanical, that is, from dying. Indeed, water is the overcomer of the mechanical, and that is why it is so important to imbue thinking with the qualities of water."
If water is, as Schwenk asserts, "a gigantic sense organ of the earth" that extends over the whole planet and permeates everything "like a consciousness that links and makes a single whole of the closest and remotest parts of the earth," it stands to reason that the pollution and mistreatment of water are serious spiritual problems that concern us all. It also stands to reason that spiritual problems require spiritual rather than technological solutions. "The problem of rescuing water from death," Schwenk says, "must therefore be solved inside ourselves before we can solve it in the external world. When we have transformed the inner scene, the outer one can be restored to order."
If Schwenk's belief that we must seek the solution to the great environmental problems inside ourselves seems impractical, consider that it is also the way of the great teachers. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is within us, and Lao-tzu said that all things can be accomplished by the individual who turns inward and becomes "truly whole." Both spoke of water as the path to salvation. Here again is Theodor Schwenk:
Today 's environmental problems are clearly recognizable as newly resurrected spiritual questions that have become matters of life and death for present-day humanity. They cry out loudly, demanding solution after so many centuries, solution with new human capacities.
The consciousness of humanity as a whole has completed its descent into earth and the kingdom of dead laws. Now it has become the obligation of the individual--the 'needle's eye' of the human race--to travel the road to the realm of life, to a rebirth learned from water's being.
Life always leaves itself free space for maneuvering; it never submits to exact calculation.--Theodor Schwenk.
History shows that superstitions are not manufactured by the plain man. They are invented by neurotic intellectuals with too little to do.--Lancelot Hogben.
Every age has invented outrageous metaphors to explain its mysteries. We dwellers of "the kingdom of dead laws" are no exception. Though the gods, the stars, and crystal balls are out of fashion, our age has given life to a vast microworld inhabited by shadowy demons known only to a handful of high-tech wizards who explain them for us the way priests of old explained the will of the gods. Our oracles are consulted via the microscope and its high-tech variants. Mysticism, as Hogben says, has taken refuge in the atom.
Here is a fact that few have caught on to: Science is the religion of our time. To varying degrees, we are all believers. And our child-like acceptance of the pronouncements of the microscope gazers diminishes us and obscures our view.
Our unreasonable faith in the priests of the microworld has resulted some bizarre notions about water. One is that Science "understands" water--that we have dissected it and explained its mysteries. One writer says that water "strictly obeys the laws of chemistry and physics." To understand the absurdity of this statement, we must remind ourselves of what the laws of physics and chemistry really are. What they aren't is a set of immutable commandments that govern the conduct of the physical world; what they are is an ever-changing catalog of the most commonly observed events and the most commonly accepted opinions about the natural world. They are to the material world what the rules of grammar are to language. We do not talk as we do to fulfill the prophecies of the grammar book, but, rather, grammar books are written to describe the way people talk. When water flows downhill, we say that it is "obeying" the law of gravity, but when it fails to comply and moves upward through the soil, we don't say that it is defying gravity but that it is obeying yet another law, capillarity, which we have invented to describe its activity. To conclude from this that we "understand" water is like saying that we understand T.S. Eliot because we can identify the parts of speech of all the words in The Waste Land.
Much of the "demythologizing" of water in the popular mind is due to its apparent simplicity. Two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. Although this simple definition satisfies the popular mind, we haven't really approached an understanding of the water molecule. Rutherford Platt writes:
[The water molecule] cannot be pictured as a physical thing except in theoretical diagrams and equations. A water molecule with two atoms of hydrogen clinging to one atom of oxygen is so minute that it is far beyond the range even of the electron microscope which can magnify an image "one thousand times ten thousand." Not only is it too tiny to glimpse, but also its individual existence is so brief that it can only be described in poetic terms, such as "the infinite part of an instant."
The tenuous "infinite part of an instance" existence of the water molecule makes much of what we say about water (e. g., "today we drink the same water that George Washington drank") seem more than slightly paradoxical.
Though the H20 molecule can't be seen, some of its properties can be "inferred" by means of high-tech investigation. It is believed, for example, that much of water's unique behavior can be explained by the nifty 104.5° angle at which its H's are said to arrange themselves on the O. The chance occurrence of this rakish angle is said to create a "defect" in the molecule which puts it off balance electrically and causes it to do all the marvelous things that make our planet habitable. Perhaps, but Pratt says:
With their elegant techniques molecular scientists can only say how [the H2O molecule] works according to the laws of chemistry. But no man can say why those laws obtain--or, in connection with our subject, no one can say why that precise pattern of electrostatics creates an angle of 104.5° that transforms two gases into a fluid that made the surface of planet earth spring into life. Is it just a coincidence?
The Water We Drink
Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.--W. H. Auden.
Ye nymphs that reign o'er sewers and sinks,
The river Rhine, it is well known,
Doth wash your city of Cologne.
But tell me nymphs, what power divine
Shall henceforth wash the river Rhine?
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Probably you have decided from the above that I am a member of the Flat Earth Society and a nonbeliever in the microworld. Not so. In fact, I read with open-mouthed wonder of the doings of positrons, quarks, and neutrinos and I stand amazed at the diversity of creation. Under every gnat's armpit there remain a billion universes to be discovered. There's nothing new about this. An 18th century poet stated it eloquently:
On every flea, there's a flea to bite him,
So on and on, ad infinitum.
Appreciation for the rich microworld teeming with life does not require, however, that one profess faith in the gospel preached by today's pseudo-science establishment any more than belief in God requires belief in Jimmy Swaggart. In other Gazette articles I have frequently confessed that I do not worship at Robert Gallo's altar.
As it is practiced today, Science, our national religion, is largely a light show designed to fan the flames of consumerism by promoting half-truths and superstitions. It has many branches, or "denominations," if you prefer. Conventional "health care," the great disease promotions, university nutrition programs, the war industries, the legitimized drug trade (pharmaceuticals), most university "research," chemical agriculture, etc.--all these branches of the Church of Science deserve the same credibility rating as television evangelism. Government and Science are fast bedfellows, a fact that makes all our posturing about "separation of Church and State" a mockery. While we fret about such non-issues as prayer in the schools and the teaching of evolution, schools, with the blessing of all, spew forth a steady dogma of junk-science slogans and demand of their novices participation in such rituals and superstitions as vaccination and animal sacrifice.
One superstition that is used to create the illusion that our public water supplies are nestled safely in the hands of God is the famous MCL, a magic number overseen and nurtured by the EPA, that is supposed to represent the maximum level of a given contaminant that can be safely consumed by a human. The MCL list includes a handful of the known water contaminants and is growing at a pace hundreds of times slower than new chemical contaminants are being created. By and large, the MCL list is a politically negotiated set of mythical numbers that have no more relevance to our lives than the daily baseball scores. No one--not your doctor, the research scientist, or the EPA--really has the faintest notion of how many thousandths of a milligram per liter of water of CIS-1,2 Dichloroethylene a human can "safely" ingest. As of July 1992, the Oracle said it was 0.07 mg/L, but additional animal sacrifices and changes in the political climate are sure to alter the figure.
The pseudo-science dogma of the "kingdom of dead laws" is especially apparent in the method we have adopted to judge water quality. Just as our medical system defines health as absence of definable illness, we are trained to esteem water only to the degree to which it does not contain contaminants--especially those for which the EPA has established an MCL. This allows us to define as pure some pretty insipid water just because it has been well scalded with Clorox and doesn't happen to be holding a big hit of asbestos or chlorobenzene on the day the annual or semi-annual testing ritual is performed.
Since water is our most essential nutrient, the fallacy of defining its quality only in terms of the absence of known and measurable poisons should be obvious. The workings of its positive, life-sustaining properties are largely a mystery to us. We have not begun to explain how water works its wonders.
Theodor Schwenk has written at length on the distinction between hygienically acceptable water that "meets standards" and water which is truly healthful for the Earth and its inhabitants alike. This water he calls "living water." Schwenk defines living water in terms of its movement patterns, its rhythm, and the balance of its components, many of which, he insists, we are unable to perceive or measure. Living water, he says. "is water that contains not only the cosmic elements radiating life into the earth sphere, but that also has an inherent relationship to man as body, soul, and spirit." It is, he says, "water that maintains itself in active balance."
To measure the quality of water, Schwenk developed a unique method called "drop pictures" which records water's flow patterns. The striking pictures record highly distinctive vortices and rosette patterns and demonstrate, in the words of Theodor Schwenk's son Wolfram, that "hygienically unobjectionable drinking waters
can span just as broad a spectrum of types of motion as do surface waters ranging from refreshing springs to brooks freshly laden with domestic and commercial waste water." This object is not a newt's eyeball, as some have suggested, but rather a drop of water photographed with a special technique developed by Thoedor Schwenk. Read on for details.
Several of Schwenk's drop pictures are reproduced in the very significant book, Water: The Element of Life, published by the Anthroposophic Press. Schwenk's drop pictures are not intended to replace but to complement the current hygienic standards by which we measure water quality. Certainly there are many factors affecting water quality which cannot be detected by laboratory methods. As a single example, I'll cite my belief that through our custom of imprisoning water in tanks, bottles, pipes, and dams we do grievous damage to water and to ourselves. We do this without thought, because we have conditioned ourselves to see water as a commodity rather than in its true nature as a living entity. Schwenk says that "when water comes to a resting state of balance, it stagnates, loses its 'life,' is as though paralyzed." Visionaries like Schwenk and poets like Federico Garcia Lorca, whose works are filled with stark images of imprisoned water that in human terms portend spiritual, sexual, and creative stagnation, may be hundreds of years ahead of science in understanding water. Damming a river, like applying a tourniquet to an artery, has far-reaching implications, and ingesting water that has been held captive in bottles and pipes may have health consequences not yet imagined. If, as many believe, the anguish of murdered animals is passed on to those who eat their adrenaline-laden flesh, so also might the agony of imprisoned water take its toll on those who drink it.