Lately, I have been thinking about water. This could be a rippling effect of moving back to New England and experiencing once again the heat and humidity of the summer season. Most days, it feels as though I am moving in slow motion through a cloud of moisture, a perambulating swim from a walking position. Twice a week on my days off, I drive to Walden Pond, walk around the pond, and spend a blissful 30 minutes swimming, a meditation in a watery realm between the earth and the sky.
Beneath the surface of the water, I am completely alone, away from the sounds of a bustling, frenetic human world. It is only the second place I have found in Massachusetts where I can experience this transcendence. The other spot was a complete surprise. About a month ago, I walked over to the Swamp Locks Gatehouse near my apartment in Lowell. When I arrived, I found water surging through the sluice gates and an opening from the rocky, lock chamber wall. I crouched down to the ground and held on the fence, pressing my face between the metal circles. Closing my eyes, I was transported to a cascading waterfall in a mountain wilderness for a few moments. When I opened my hours, I watched a Great Blue Heron slowly stalking fish from an island of stones below the falls.
My spirits were lifted for a few moments, an unanticipated blessing. Over the past few years, I have begun to appreciate a transcendent moment where I experience relief, if not bliss. These are precious moments of sustainability in a fairly chaotic, unpredictable world. I seek these moments and try to create them, yet it is a wonderfully serendipitous event when they happen without warning.
My entire life, I have been drawn to water. I spent long hours in the bathtub when very small, repeatedly requesting my father to time me to see how long I could hold my breath underwater.
Everywhere I have lived, apart from my first year of life on the planet in Cincinnati, Ohio, I have been close to a large body of water.
This proximity to water, especially to an ocean, eases the anxiety that creeps into my being the further inland I travel. I feel a sense of freedom from the open expanse of water leading to unknown people and places.
I love swimming, too, and I spent hours as a child swimming in ponds, lakes, and the ocean. Morning to dusk was spent swimming far out in Cape Cod Bay when the tide was low when my family would spend a week on Cape Cod.
I had a friend many years ago who was well-versed in astrology and told me there was far more to my sign of Cancer than a rosy-red crab. I was astonished. For the better part of my time on this planet, I have tended to scoff at any mention of astrology in response to questions or concerns regarding my own or a greater world around me. I don’t often think about the universe beyond our planetary “walls”. All I remember from her teachings was that there is a water sign connected to the crab of Cancer. I do not recall its deeper meanings beyond the revelation I am experiencing as I type:
Of course there would need to be a water sign! Otherwise, where would the crab swim?
I imagine that this epiphany falls woefully short of any kind of deeper meaning.
In my adult life, I have begun to fear swimming in deep waters where it is not possible to see to the bottom or to know with whom you might be sharing the watery depths.
For nearly a decade, I have lived in areas with glacial waters. The Skagit River, along with its many tributaries originating high in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State, is glacial in color, temperature, species of animals—including the five species of Pacific Salmon who spawn and die in its gravel every year—and everything in between.
To cool off in those clear, green waters, one has only to test the temperature with a toe or an entire foot or two. Very brave souls might gingerly wade in, shriek, and retreat.
One weekend when I was staffing a site in the Hozomeen District on the border with British Columbia, I walked down to the lake to cool off in the chilly waters of Ross Lake. As I stood poised to jump in from the dock, I found that I was unable to go in. I couldn’t do it. I would count to three and then give up. It took much self-encouragement to finally psyche myself up to jump in. My body made contact with the cool surface and sunk deep for a moment, enveloped in a cool bubble of water. No sooner had this transaction taken place, then panic set in. I swam as quickly as possible to the dock and pulled myself out to safety. As I sat dripping on the side, I couldn’t imagine why I was so suddenly afraid of those dark waters. I knew nothing with big teeth lived there. No sharks. No Lochness Ross Lake monsters. Yet, it was all I could do to convince myself to jump in one more time before throwing in the towel and heading back to the cabin where my fellow ranger and friend told me she, too, was always afraid to swim alone.
Perhaps, yet another cosmic reason for my return to Massachusetts is to be reunited with a region where I can comfortably immerse myself in an element that is integral to my cosmic being.
I am a pretty empathic person. I feel very acutely and intensely my own pain and also the pain of other beings. This propensity seems to extend beyond my own species to those plants and animals who share the communities I have lived in around the globe.
I imagine creaking, groaning trees are speaking to me, and I always say hello as I pass by. I speak to frogs, birds, and other critters I meet on walks in the woods and around the city.
When adversity strikes—be it baby ducklings separated from their mother when drawn into a human-devised structure such as lock chamber, a bird stunned, injured, or killed after flying into a window, or an animal killed by oncoming traffic—I feel the pain so intensely that I often am not sure how to deal with the sadness. I sit with it, embrace it, and eventually it passes as thoughts and concerns from a busy life overwhelm it.
Yet temporary cover is not a cure. This pain doesn’t ever completely subside. It simply lays dormant until the next visceral image of destruction or suffering causes it to resurface, often suddenly, and I am thrust once more into despair for the state and rate damage and pain we are inflicting onto the world upon which we depend so greatly for our own and the survival of our children.
This deep connection with water seems to have empathic tendencies as well. I feel pain when I witness harm rendered to any kind of waterway, be it a man-made canal filled with trash or a wetland with a highway build right through the middle.
I am also ill-equipped to deal with trash in the streets that I know will find its way into the canals and beyond to the ocean.
When I lived in wilderness areas, I could live with a certain amount of denial that this kind of damage was taking place in regions local and global, but in a city I am forced to bear witness to events along a spectrum of scale each and every day.
I remember speaking with scientists and marine biologists, who told me that whenever someone asks them what the most important thing they can do to help the environment is, they respond to pick up trash, especially plastic, to keep it from entering the ocean environment.
I am thankful for uplifting moments that remind me that nature will endure and that there are people who notice and care about our non-human neighbors and ecosystems. I heard a northern mockingbird sing this weekend and began what I felt was an inadequate rendition of its song to help a fellow ranger take notice. I apologized profusely for the poor quality of the imitation, but she was thrilled and told me the ways I sang bird songs helped her to better understand their song and that she thought my being here in Lowell was encouraging everyone to take more notice of wildlife in the park. A wonderful moment in my day, to be sure. Truly a highlight of the summer as well.
It was also wonderful to be walking around in the evening during Folk Festival and to hear a few crickets’ voices raised in song in a small park between Shattuck Street and the Merrimack Canal, a tiny urban wilderness, an enclave for insects.
Nature really is all around, we have but to pay attention. In the city, I may have to open my senses a bit more to nature of a different kind. It is wildness nonetheless, and I am thankful for its presence.