Friday, July 24, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere

We recently celebrated our youngest child’s first birthday. Like all of our children, he was born by Cesarean section. Trying to remember images from his morning of birth, I envision the sound of liquid falling on a cold tile floor: the doctor breaking my wife’s water. I recall thinking that, at whatever stage, life is messy, usually oozing some sort of fluid.

It may sound strange, but I think about the symbolism of water, about how life originates in water on almost every level of existence. I write this in the waning weeks of Summer, our season of beaches and pools, of pilgrimages to various sources of water.

This summer seems tame compared to the last one, when skyrocketing oil costs, food shortages, and commodity price gouging grabbed daily headlines. Few saw these things as harbingers of doom. Although the world has had a big-time consciousness-raising as a result of the economic ruin that followed, we're still left asking ourselves how to best deal with the problem.

So far, I find the reaction of our world leaders disheartening, generally falling into two main categories: 1) those who do not understand the situation and are therefore unable to do anything about it; and 2) those who understand the situation but, for political reasons, are unwilling to make the necessary hard sacrifices surrounding issues of scale and sustainability.

Few seem to realize: it’s impossible to solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place, that a psychic shift must occur before any real change can happen.

Meanwhile the cost of maintaining world civilization continues to spiral kaleidoscopically out of control.

Times like this I think about water: the planet's most precious commodity and natural resource. Because here's the thing: this current financial panic will pale in comparison to the bedlam set off by the crisis of a global water shortage. It'll be horrific, like something out of The Stand. I picture mass riots, looting, dead bodies hanging wreath-like from the light posts in major cities. I think of of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune.

More than anything else in the world, we are dependent on water.

Because it has the perfect combination of atmosphere and distance from the Sun, Earth is the only body in our solar system known to have water, although there's plenty of theories about Mars and Europa.

More importantly, Earth has an abundance of liquid water--life's crucial ingredient. Any closer to the sun and Earth would be a fried, scalded piece of rock like Mercury or Venus. Any further and it would be a frozen wasteland like Mars or the Gas Giants. As Nature's womb, all biotic life either originates or is somehow incubated in water. Whether a placenta, an egg, a seed, or an ocean, life usually begins in some type of warm, water-filled space. Cells, the building blocks of life, are self-contained universes of water. Even our brains, the physical hosts to our metaphysical faculties of mind and consciousness, float in the cerebrospinal fluid—a sort of protective brine that also serves as a liquid semi-conductor for the brain’s electro-chemical pathways.

Many spiritual systems capture this idea in the symbolism of water ceremonies, which are often rites of passage. In them, the person emerges from the water in a new state of being, similar to being reborn or renewed. In Judaism, there is the idea of mikvah, which is the epitome of this concept. After years of study, I had to immerse in a mikvah as the final stage of my Jewish conversion process. Christian baptism is a distant an echo of the same idea. During last month’s solar eclipse over Asia, thousands of Hindu pilgrims in India submerged themselves in the Ganges river in an act of ritual purification.

Then there is the mysticism of water, which is bound up in the idea of "triad" or "three". In mysticism, numbers are more than simply numbers—they are representative concepts. The idea or concept behind “three” is that it is a blending of the previous two elements into a unique new entity. Like a child formed from the union of two parents, “three” represents harmony and balance, the reconciliation of the disparate “one” and “two” into the new transcendent “three”. Three is always the magic number.

This idea is reflected in the physical form of the water molecule itself, as it is composed of three molecules and has certain qualities that other liquids don’t.

Earth, the water planet, is also third from the sun.

Also, in a mind-blowing blend of kabbalah and science, the atomic weight of the water molecule is 18--gematria, the Hebrew word meaning "life".

But in my opinion water’s ultimate role on our destiny is yet unrealized. Recent events have brought the issue of energy and its availability to the forefront of global consciousness. Unless we are able to discover and use alternative energy sources, our petroleum-fueled civilization seems destined for obsolescence.

It makes sense to me that, as our planet's most abundant resource, water has a clear potential to become the clean, cheap, and ubiquitous energy source to fuel us far into the future. Perhaps the answer to this lies in cold fusion or some other type of as-yet-to-be discovered technology.

But it is Summer again, and you take your first dive in the ocean, plunging through a wave as it crests over you. Come back up and push the hair away from your forehead with a sweep of both hands. Slowly bring your tongue to your lips. You know this taste--sodium and silica. In an instant, cellular memory kicks alive and takes you back to those first sentient moments when you came out of the Water. You've never forgotten.

Turn around, see the people on the beach, the children sitting in the sand. Tilt your head upwards, squint into the solar disc high above. Your ears now form an obtuse angle to the flatness of the water's surface, allowing you to hear the ambient rush of waves both in front and behind you like the sound of something large moving through a narrow tunnel. Your stare follows the invisible arc formed from the waters edge, to the sun, then back down the the horizon, and even though you live far away from here, in an inland city or town, you identify with this place. If only for this moment, you see yourself, here, in the same way a cloud overhead sees its own shadow passing over the water. A gull screams. You turn around again. Head back for the beach. Even the ocean still knows how to call you by name.

Green Tea Poached Wild Salmon

In this recipe, water becomes the cooking medium, adding a subtle nuance of taste to fresh salmon. Use the poaching liquid to make a delicately flavored sauce to complement the richness of this fish. Serve with rice and Swiss chard.

4 bags green tea
4 cloves garlic, crushed
4 (1/2-inch-thick) slices ginger
4 thin slices lemon
2 tablespoons tamari
1 tablespoon mirin
1 teaspoon arrowroot powder
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 (6-ounce) skinless wild salmon fillets
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/4 cup chopped green onions

Place tea bags in a teapot or glass container. Bring 2 cups water to a boil. Remove from heat and let cool for one minute. Pour hot water over tea bags, cover and steep tea for 3 minutes. Remove tea bags from water. Add garlic, ginger, lemon, tamari and mirin to tea and set aside. In a small bowl, dissolve arrowroot powder in 2 tablespoons water. Set aside.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add salmon and sear for 2 minutes, or until browned. Flip salmon and add tea mixture to skillet. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently for 8 to 10 minutes, or until center of salmon is opaque and flakes easily. Remove salmon to a plate, season lightly with salt and pepper and tent with foil to keep warm. Add dissolved arrowroot to poaching liquid and bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Strain liquid into a small bowl. Drizzle strained liquid and sesame oil over salmon and garnish with green onions.


Jeffrey said...

Water is a HUGE issue where I live Steve, we're very mindful of it. Arrowroot, now there's a very interesting, old fashioned, seldom used ingredient. That's an interesting recipe. Garnish with finely chopped spring onions? Ahem... please note, I have subscribed at last now that I have a recognised account :)

Mark Lee said...

I enjoyed your insights into water as an essential component in (re)birth and human being.

In the U.S. West, water is the thing that gets friends into fistfights and dissolves families. Marc Reisner dealt with the subject well (pun!) in Cadillac Desert.

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Rachel Molly said...

this post immediately harkened me back to a Gathering of the Vibes I attended in Bridgeport, CT where the creator (or perhaps original singer) of Schoolhouse Rock's imfamous (and which I thing you inferred about) song "Three is a Magic Number" performed it to a group of very happy dancing folks at the side stage.

did you think also that water is made up of three molecules.

mind blowing stuff!