‘In a desert, all waters are holy’


The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Nintendo, 1998

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

My parents were both churchgoers, and when I first encountered the opening chapters of the Bible, I recognized the description there of an earthly realm stretched between waters above and waters below. Our house occupied a foggy altitude, and its windows often opened onto heavens of mist—evaporate from the Pacific that would condense in the cooling air, rolling in and out like a tide. When the fog washed onto the mountains of California’s coastal range, it turned their upper slopes into a littoral zone, their peaks into islands, our cul-de-sac of stucco row houses—painted the pastels of a coral reef—into a foggy Atlantis.

Collecting in the branches of the redwoods and eucalyptus trees, the fog watered the ferny understory of the temperate forests. On those rare occasions when a downpour broke the dry spell, the slopes would liquefy. The evening news would feature footage of highways and bungalows buried under mud. A culvert beside our neighbor’s house channeled rivulets of runoff to the curbside gutter, where it swelled into a little river, my own diminutive Mississippi on whose muddy waters I would perform experiments in hydrology, building dams of pebbles and dirt, studying currents, setting leaves adrift—efforts at water management that were as futile as those of the Army Corps of Engineers during the Great Flood of 1927, as futile in the long run as most human efforts to control water and contain it. The curbside rivulet always found its way to the sewer grate by the lamppost, where it would disappear into a mysterious darkness out of which there rose an odor of swamp. Anyone requiring a lesson in the hazards of flood control need only read John McPhee’s account of his travels around the Louisiana Delta or Jesmyn Ward’s novel set in the mayhem of Hurricane Katrina, or revisit the footage aired last autumn when the waters above and below conspired to inundate Houston and San Juan. Water is the universal solvent, of schemes as well as substances.

In motion, it seems alive, motivated by a kind purpose as it seeks its level, its surface sinuous, muscular, as if animated by serpents or spirits, which helps explain all those fantastic monsters and mermaids and river gods that have populated the waters of the human mind. All matter is in motion, physicists and Heraclitus tell us, but the motion of water, unlike that of atoms or stone, readily accommodates our powers of perception, the timescale of a human life. The motion of water is luminous and momentary. No wonder so many writers throughout the centuries, while walking beside a river or a Venetian canal, have, like Joseph Brodsky, glimpsed through their own reflections a metaphor for time. Leonardo da Vinci, in his notebooks, made plans for a treatise on water in which he would “describe all the shapes that water assumes, from its greatest to its smallest wave.” I understand the impulse.

Lapsed though I am, I’m still stirred by the poetics of the flood in Genesis 6—how the fountains of the deep burst forth and the windows of heaven open. Judaism, Christianity, Islam—they may all be “desert religions,” sure, but they are also, like most faiths people have observed all over the world and throughout the recorded centuries, religions of water. The Bible is a soggy book. Witness how many miracles and divine interventions occur on water, or at its edge. In 2 Kings a leper named Naaman takes a curative dip in the spa of the Jordan River. John the Baptist spends his days there, busy as the attendant of a profitable car wash. Jonah, that reluctant aquanaut, quiets the Mediterranean. Moses bloodies the Nile, parts the Red Sea, and in his downtime meets his future wife at a watering hole. Jesus saunters around, barefoot as a water skeeter, on the surface of Galilee. For good reason, many religious pilgrimages terminate in sources and springs. The Quran is likewise soggy, promising faithful believers an afterlife with “gardens graced with flowing streams” and “rivers of water forever pure.” Every living thing in the Quran is made of water. “To a desert culture,” writes historian Garry Wills, “water is not only needed for life. It is life. It is the material thing nearest to God.” In a desert, all waters are holy.

“Watermarks”, by Donovan Hohn, Lapham’s Quarterly