Sustainer of Life
By Michael Caduto
This reflection on our relationship to water, and denizens of aquatic habitats, is offered in honor of Winona LaDuke’s upcoming April 22nd Earth Day presentation “Rights of Nature,” which is being presented by Sustainable Woodstock and Pentangle Arts.
Some believe that an ancient teleost from the Paleozoic era, a Crossopterygian, is a common ancestor of all terrestrial life, including hominids. In fact, the composition of our cellular fluid is thought to be like that of the archaic seas from which our primogenitors first slithered. The human embryo still grows in amniotic fluid that has a mineral balance similar to that of seawater, and develops through ontological stages akin to amphibian-like growth forms that resemble the evolutionary paths of our primal ancestors.
Whatever your convictions about the origin of humans—without water, life would not exist. Nearly three quarters of Earth’s surface is covered by water and roughly 80 percent of our bodies are composed of this ubiquitous element. Water flows within and without all living things, impartial as to whether it moves along a riverbed or courses through the wings of a newly emerged butterfly, transforming them from a rumpled heap into gossamer tools of flight.
We seek from water more than life itself. It is to the sea—or to ponds, lakes, and rivers—that people often go to return to our liquid source and be inspired. There is a transcendent feeling in a moment spent listening to the breaking of waves along the shore, or watching the ever changing ripples of a stream. As varied and alive as a dancing candle’s flame, the surface of water mesmerizes. It is a canvas that paints the image of the world above it. Ripples and ringlet waves animate images that otherwise appear lifeless as stone.
reflected in a pool
sparkle of the morning dew
Yet this elixir of life is not merely a flowing artist. Water is mentor, the consummate sage. In its soft, pliant example is strength that is seldom understood.
That the yielding conquers the resistant
and the soft conquers the hard
is a fact known by all…
yet utilized by none.
— Lao Tzu, 5th century B.C.
Through the seasons, over the years, the movement of water is the ebb and flow of life itself. Trickling or torrential, fluid or frozen, water is the element that reminds us of our place in the natural order. Life is inextricably linked to the seasonal interplay of water and sun, ice and wind.
As I sat on the bank of the Drop, or God’s Pond, and saw the amplitude of the little water, what space, what verge, the little scudding fleets of ripples found to scatter and spread from side to side and take so much time to cross the pond, and saw how the water seemed made for the wind, and the wind for the water, dear playfellows for each other — I said to my companion, “I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists. “
— Ralph Waldo Emerson (Walden Pond), 9 April 1840
Aqueous miracles may surround us, but we become jaded with the extraordinary simply because we see and experience these wonders every day. Familiarity has bred indifference. Perhaps this is why we frequently fall into the pitfall of hubris, living as giants who often stomp on a Lilliputian world of nature—a realm of nuance and connection that we are just beginning to comprehend. To drag one felled log across the forest floor of a temperate rainforest can sever the interconnected mat of root-enriching mycorrhizal fungi so completely that it can require a century to recover. To cut the trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants from along a riverbank can so undermine that protective riparian buffer that erosion and siltation will smother fish eggs, pollution will poison aquatic life and the absence of shade needed to protect a river from the sun’s penetrating rays will over-heat the cool waters that are so essential to aquatic life. Where does the boundary between our needs and desires to alter the world around us end, and the rights of the natural world to exist by being left to its own devices, begin? Will human actions or natural laws ultimately prevail?
While I bask in the sun on the shores of Walden Pond, by this heat and this rustle, I am absolved from all obligation to the past. The council of nations may reconsider their votes. The grating of a pebble annuls them.
— Henry David Thoreau, 22 March 1840
Lesser Yellowlegs by Michael J. Caduto
This article is adapted with permission from the author’s book, Pond and Brook: A Guide to Nature in Freshwater Environments (Brandeis Univ. Press/Chicago Univ. Press).