Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Water Is A Miracle

Water is a miracle.  It is part of our biology; it touches our sensibility; it nourishes our spirit. We are inexplicably drawn to it.  Yet at the same time, we abuse it, pollute it and take it very much for granted.

Yes, water is an extraordinary substance - H20 - two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen.  Water is the only substance that exists naturally on our planet as a solid, a liquid and a gas. Living things depend on all of these states of water. Thanks to its crystal structure, ice floats.  Think of what would happen to polar oceans and other bodies of water in winter if it didn’t.  Because water absorbs heat slowly and releases it slowly, it moderates Earth’s temperatures, allowing for life to exist.  Because one end of the water molecule is slightly negative and the other end is slightly positive, water molecules are attracted to each other, so blood works its way through blood vessels and water slips around soil particles and travels through the roots of plants, even against gravity.  Because of something as seemingly dull-sounding as hydrogen bonds, water is an excellent solvent. Most materials we know dissolve, at least to some extent, in water.  Water dissolves rock to create canyons and soil.  It is the water in our bodies that allows for the chemistry of life. It was in the watery soup of ancient ponds and shallow estuaries that life began on this planet.  Water is so essential and so remarkable that scientists look for it in space as a requirement for the existence of life beyond Earth.

We are drawn to water. We build our cities and towns near bodies of water for drinking and for transportation. We desire to build our homes by lakes, streams, rivers and seas.  We go to shorelines for our vacations. But our attraction has a much deeper meaning.

Think of how we speak about water.  Water cleanses; it renews; we find peace at the waters’ edge.  Water represents purity.  There is the symbolism of baptism.  We speak of going to sea to find ourselves.  Literature is full of symbolic references to water.  The idea of a “sea change” from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” has become a part of our common language.  The sea has many moods and faces. It is the place where we go for adventure, self-reflection or escape. She is comforting, life-giving mother ocean or raging, angry father Poseidon waiting to destroy Odysseus and his crew.  Annie Dillard said this of the sea,” The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper;

I cannot quite make it out.”  Thoreau knew the healing powers of water, “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature.  It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”  It was the Lady of the Lake who gave King Arthur his magical sword, Excalibur. Wendell Berry speaks of water in his poem “The Farmer and the Sea”.  “….But the dark of the sea is perfect and strange, the absence of any place, immensity on the loose.  Still, he sees it is another keeper of the land, caretaker, shaking the earth, breaking it, clicking the pieces, but somewhere holding deep fields yet to rise, shedding its richness on them silently as snow, keeper and maker of places wholly dark….”

It is no wonder that people are drawn to Florida.  Here is this place, this aqueous paradise like no other. Florida is practically surrounded by oceans and has seemingly endless miles of shoreline along rivers, lakes and streams.  It is here where one gets a real sense of the connectedness of all water on the earth, from cloud to glacier, from seas and rivers to tears and blood.  The native Timuquans had one word to describe all water. No matter where it came from or where it went, it was “ibe”. There are fresh and saltwater wetlands, mangrove swamps, cypress stands, all ecosystems defined by water.  Water envelops us.  Some days it feels like one could wring it out of the air.  There are afternoon thunderstorms and hurricanes and tropical storms that recharge and refresh places like the Everglades. And water is underneath us, too.  It bubbles up from the ground.  Florida is full of holes where ancient water trapped in porous rock finds its way to the surface in the form of springs.

There is a magical, a spiritual quality to springs.  In Greek mythology, springs were the dwellings of water nymphs that took the form of beautiful young girls, sometimes full of mischief.  In Celtic mythology, the salmon of knowledge is said to swim in a sacred spring beneath a hazel tree. The fish swallows the fallen hazelnuts believed to contain all of the wisdom in the world.  In Western Europe, before the Romans brought Christianity, all springs had their deities, gods and goddesses to be thanked for the life-giving water.  The Romans recognized the value of these places to the people they conquered.  Rather than trying to stop them from visiting their sacred places, they simply built the churches next to the springs.

A sense of wonder can be felt in visiting some of our beautiful Florida springs.  Take a canoe or tube trip down the Ichetucknee River and marvel at the crystal clear water, the many fish and deep blue blows of the springs.  Salt Springs along the St. Johns River is just that, a vestige of ancient seawater when Florida was a vastly different place geologically.  The water from the spring is so salty, that marine grasses grow there now, far from the ocean. William Bartram described Salt Springs in his travels along the St. Johns River, “just under my feet, was the enchanting and amazing crystal fountain, which incessantly threw up, from dark, rocky caverns below, tons of water every minute”.  There he observed “the devouring garfish, inimical trout, and all the varieties of the gilded painted bream; the barbed catfish, dreaded sting-ray, skate, and flounder, spotted bass, sheeps head and ominous drum”, clearly a mixture of salt and freshwater species. Visit Blue Spring or any number of other large springs in winter where manatees gather in huge numbers.  Canoe the upper Suwannee River where one can see many clear-running springs bubbling into the tea-colored meanderings of the river.  The same is true for the Santa Fe, a river far more dependent on spring flow. Take an ice-cold dip in the city pool in Green Cove Springs on a hot summer day.  The swimming pool is fed by the spring!

Florida’s springs and other waterways are in trouble, and the threats are many.  Pollution from industry, nutrient waste from farms and suburban lawns and the paving over of re-charge areas are just some of the problems.  Many springs are going dry. There are too many of us using too much.  The long-term and unknown effects of climate change make the situation even more complicated and uncertain. But there is a groundswell of people calling for action to solve these problems and save our springs.  Like the springs, many voices are joining, rising to the surface of our consciousness and speaking as clearly as the waters themselves.

Water is a miracle. Florida’s water, its springs, its swamps, rivers and streams are worthy of our respect and our protection. To do nothing is unacceptable.  To lose them would be unforgivable.

By Guest Blog Author - Lee Hunter

Biography for Lee Hunter

Lee Hunter has worked as a musician, performer, singer and songwriter since 1992 as a member of the critically acclaimed Americana duo, Tammerlin. She has a BA in Biology from the University of North Florida (UNF) and studied symphonic percussion at UNF with Charlotte Mabrey, now retired principal percussionist with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.  In addition to being an award winning songwriter, her writing credits include poetry and essays on environmental issues for Jacksonville Today Magazine and Riverside Avondale Preservation, Inc. Newspaper.  A longtime environmental educator, she developed a multi-disciplinary curriculum for environmental education for teachers in Duval County and has written and edited environmental education materials for the University of North Florida and for Simon and Schuster.

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