Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Is Water Alive?

It has not been because of a lack of passion or purpose that I have not written recently, but more because of a lack of time, coupled with more mundane reasons relating to my idiosyncratic computer. Plus, daily writing, or even tri-weekly, is a habit easily broken. I needed something to jolt me back into my musings and it was a Mary Oliver poem that did it.

A few years ago, I received a gift of a volume of Oliver’s poems called “Why I Wake Early”. It was a treasured gift (even though I hardly ever wake early) but I loaned it to a friend. This friend was a lover of poetry and had taught me how to better read a poem, and because she was very sick, I wanted to share these poems with her. She died shortly after I gave her the book, and although I could have asked her family for it back, somehow I felt it needed to stay wherever it was. Last week I finally got around to replacing the small volume.

If you don’t know Mary Oliver, she is an award-wining poet who often writes about nature. Here are a few lines from the poem that brought me back to my writing. The poem is called Some Things, Say the Wise Ones. In it, Oliver contemplates what makes something alive. She writes:

About cows, and starfishes, and roses, there is no
argument. They die, after all

But water is a question, so many living thing in it,
but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming

generosity how can they write you out?

When I first studied biology many years ago, I learned the activities required to qualify an entity as living. Among them, if I can remember, were reproduction, growth, metabolism, respiration, adaptation, response to stimuli and maybe death. Even though the study of biology has changed in the past four decades, I think the definitions still hold.

Perhaps water falls in a special category of life – sort of like viruses – although I do not imply they are alike, but viruses are quasi-alive. They grow and reproduce, but not without a host. Water doesn’t metabolize, grow, or reproduce – theoretically, there is the same amount of water on earth today as there was when the planet was created, but it does respond to stimuli and I guess it can die, or at least bodies of water can die. What else would you call what has happened to the Aral Sea?

There is no question for me that the water beyond my windows is alive. It changes, sometimes seemingly in an instant. It exchanges oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gases. It responds to stimuli such as wind and temperatures. It moves. It has moods and sports different colors to indicate those moods. It can be angry or docile, comforting or fearsome. It speaks, sometimes in roars, sometimes in whispers, but it always has a presence and a voice.

There is also no question for me, or anyone else, that life requires water. Mine certainly does, and not just to dissolve my enzymes, electrolytes, and carry my vital chemicals. I have chosen to live near water and I need to continue to explore it, protect it, learn about it, and enjoy it. And I suppose, write about it, so here I am again.

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