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  • Water on Us
  • Joseph McElroy (bio)

Is it really experience we lack reacting to these emergencies? With all our quickness and abbreviated grandeur, sometimes we're not prepared; can that be it? Leaving greed to one side, is it to get wet that we jump in? Get away from ambient noise, ideological or other that incidentally drowns out thought?—say, a picture we all agree about, of this Chinese youngster carrying two great cans of water; a drought-destroyed camel in Niger; a film that comes to mind (two films, three, four, film itself); a fugitive thought no more than words for water such as "together," "elusive," "buoyant," "wide," my own "subordinate"—almost an overpowering subordinateness possessed by this elemental but not element, water.

Disaster seems all around us in the use, misuse, absence, or overwhelming presence of water—poison, flood, drought, weather reinventing the hydrologic cycle, people adrift, daunting costs to repair water lines or redesign a whole city, Mumbai (once Bombay), in its drainage, or rethink the broken earthworks of Lake Delhi dam in Iowa; information coming like freak downpours in your neck of the woods explainable, it is said, by the atmosphere being 5 percent moister than 40 years ago. Disaster comes to sound almost like thinking. Descriptions are as compelling as premises. A very large and living reef, discovered only nine months ago in the darkest depths of the Gulf of Mexico, may now be suffocating from oil plumes and from the oil-dispersant Corexit which acts on the intricate colonies of coral like a dishwashing detergent, we hear, if anyone, BP for instance, knows exactly what that is "like," beyond the proved harm from even low concentrations to eggs and larvae of the deep coral. A shame. Yet have we not meanwhile unearthed a vast neighboring population of seafloor creatures that have thrived for millennia on seeping petrochemicals? Now we know, or will begin to. Is it water I am speaking of? Water is always more than water, more than itself.

Rhythm of Yangtze rains, or, as I reflect on my records and clippings of a decade, maybe chaotic unpredictability will flood disaster on the downstream city of Wuhan while upstream hundreds of kms of lake dikes seem to hold. It is the same water of aggregated molecules cascading down Rio de Janeiro's hillsides, threatening lethal landslide upon landslide—the dead, the missing—through water's so-taken-for-granted adhering property (and capillary) which coupled with its not generally known and almost unreal tensile cohesiveness, remember, helps trees imbibe and blood circulate. As spring descends, perhaps the most curious of water's three phases spares for the moment Fargo, North Dakota by freezing the cresting Red River. Not all of it, though, for ice, which doesn't freeze from the bottom up, is lighter than fluid water which without half trying comes with the most unexpected, even astonishing heat relations that its moderating effects might seem meant for life on earth. Mysterious water more than necessary?

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How we drop our losses into its depths, walk all over it, prey and pray on water, lean on it for our meanings—feminine, father, old or fresh, or dying and life (syntax soluble); make it a friendly or not god-type we have a right to (or punishing parent) or are just fooled by; mother like our rocky Earth (as if it were ours), grand common wealth fluid to be broken up, dammed by the us it steers, parceled, even in itself rational. Like imposing our masks on transparent water, inspired by it as if we breathed it still. What we say about it.

But what does water say?

Water eludes—as current, as tide, in flood curiously and as standing water, in coastal marsh, or shoal; or H2O's capillary climb up the inside of a tumbler as if it would tell you something, though explicable like so much in the behavior of the physical properties by the hydrogen bond in the structure of the water molecule. Eludes sometimes time and, probably unknowing, its own questions pragmatically as if it were merely a being that...


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pp. 10-11
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