Water Is a Teacher

Water is a teacher. Water teaches us about the unity of all creation. All life comes from water, and needs water to survive. Water moves through the whole ecosystem, nurturing and transforming life as it moves. It rises from the ocean in evaporation, forming clouds in the sky, and, blown by the winds, it returns to the land in the form of rain. The rain falls into the soil, and gathers in streams and aquifers. In the midst of this journey, it also travels through the bodies of every living thing.

Margy and I have a bird bath outside our back door. Many kinds of birds come to drink the water we keep filled there, but we’ve also seen squirrels, chipmunks and bees. Every being needs water: insects, birds, mammals, fish, humans. Water rises up into the stems of plants and the trunks of tall trees.Chickadee at Bird Bath MJ DSC00964

Our bodies are 70% water—so it would be accurate to say that we ourselves are one form of water. But none of the water stays isolated from the rest—we drink it in, it moves through our blood, we sweat it out or pee it out. Sometimes we weep with wet salty tears. The water goes back to the earth and continues in streams and rivers on its way to the ocean.

When I was ten, my family went on vacation in the mountains of Wyoming. I remember coming upon a stream that had a little sign saying the water was drinkable. My sisters and I were very excited that we could drink right out of the stream. The water tasted funny to us, with its enhanced mineral content, but it was cool and refreshing none the less. Now, looking back on that event, I am saddened by our amazement at drinking water directly from the earth. For millennia, all people drank from rivers and streams, and animals still do. But in the memories of most of us, this no longer is a part of our expectations about water. We take for granted that pollution has made most water undrinkable unless it is purified.

It may seem as if there is an endless supply of water on the earth. But of all the water on the earth, only one percent is fresh water. More and more water is being polluted, or being diverted to industrial or agricultural use. We have now reached the stage where there is a global crisis looming as drinkable water becomes increasingly scarce.

Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onandaga Nation, has said:

One of the Natural laws is that you’ve got to keep things pure. Especially the water. Keeping the water pure is one of the first laws of life. If you destroy the water, you destroy life. That’s what I mean about common sense. Anybody can see that. All life on Mother Earth depends on pure water, yet we spill every kind of dirt and filth and poison into it.

Ecological Connection and the Wall of Grief

Jon Young, founder of the Wilderness Awareness School, teaches young people the skills of wildlife tracking and plant identification, fostering an ecological connection to nature. Many skills and techniques are easy to learn, and there is a deepening sense of wonder and gratitude that grows along with their skills. But when the youth reach a certain stage in their learning, they hit what he calls the “wall of grief,” an experience of being overwhelmed with sorrow at the loss and degradation of the natural world around us. That grief is the most difficult challenge the young people face in all of the school’s programs.

Live-video-of-BP-oil-spil-004I felt such a wall of grief, during the spring and summer of 2010 watching millions of gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from the broken BP oil well. It seemed as if the earth itself was bleeding from this gaping human-made wound deep below the waters of the sea.

I believe that our spiritual growth depends on deepening our connection to the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. The natural world is vital to our spiritual journey. We might say that the earth is our Bible, our Quran, our sacred revelation, and our paradise. We echo this principle in the mission statement of my own congregation, when we say, simply, that we walk with care on this earth.

But there are times when that careful walk awakens deep sorrow and anguish. We know so much more than human beings have known before. We know what is happening all over the globe. We see the melting of ancient glaciers, as the climate heats up from greenhouse gases. We know there is a vast soup of plastic refuse possibly twice the size of the continental United States floating in the Pacific Ocean. We know that the topsoil in which our food grows is being depleted, and the rain forests which renew the world’s oxygen are being cut down. We know that increasing numbers of species are threatened with extinction. We know that there are nuclear stockpiles that could destroy most life on earth many times over.

We know so much more than human beings have known before, but we don’t know the solutions to these problems that threaten our future. And that is a wall of grief that can stop us in our tracks as we seek to walk with care on this earth. How do we live with the painful questions that do not yet have answers?  

I learned the story of the Wall of Grief in Starhawk, The Earth Path