water’s quick passage
Here in Northern California, Its been raining for the past few weeks, sometimes for days at a time. As a daughter of the rainy side of Oregon, I’m having a great time. It feels like home. Finally, there’s permission to sit on the couch and read a book guilt free. Where I come from, everyone knows that if the sun is shining then you better get outside because that isn’t going to last very long. I hope my Pacific Northwest friends will forgive me for writing this but endless days of blue sky can get exhausting. Rain is the signal for rest, for slowing down, for recharging.
This year, the rain was late in Northern California. We rolled through most of the winter with nothing but blue sky and sunshine. Official snow measuring people were walking up to their official Sierra Mountain snow measuring locations in shirt sleeves, shorts, and flip flops. Okay maybe not the flip flops but there was no snow to measure. Just the same brown grass they had seen the month before. So everyone around here was muttering, “oh no, we’re going to pay for this,” as we rode our bikes around the vineyards.
But finally, at the last second, the jet stream re-arranged itself to start delivering non-stop Gulf of Alaska brewed rain storms for the past month to our part of the West Coast. Meanwhile and for a while, my Mid-west and East Coast Facebook friends were all talking about walking around in shirt sleeves because on the other side of the jet stream there’s a heat bubble that was pulling up sub-tropical air from closer to the equator. “Is this Global Warming,” they ask and “yes, probably” comes the answer from the weather forecaster folks.
It’s tempting for all of us here in the month-long cloud festival to think that these storms will solve all our water problems and for the most part the reservoirs are all reported to have refilled enough for our water needs this year. I guess it worked out to be the classic Camelot solution (it only rains at night…) where all the rain of the year comes in one month in March and we get to keep our tennis game or our bike rides going the rest of the year.
However, I walked down to the neighborhood creek a few weeks ago and watched almost all that rain go roaring down the stream banks flying pell mell back to the ocean in thick brown earth tea saturation. We will have water for this summer because we built dams a generation or two ago and those reservoirs will captured this wet necessity. In a few weeks, the creek level will be back down to a couple feet deep and a current that moves with all the urgency of a hot August Sunday afternoon.
The creek was running high and fast because it was in what Scott Huler in his book On The Grid calls a hydrological short circuit. In most places, we get plentiful and available water year round when the ground is allowed absorb rainfall. Some of the falling water goes directly into the roots of plants and then out into the atmosphere through the leafs and some of the water regathers itself underneath and around stream, river, and lake beds until there’s so much it breaks out onto the surface and some of that water falls deeper and deeper into aquifers that span half the United States. The water that falls deep is the water we pull back up with wells. And well water levels can fall below the pump’s intake valve unless the ground can get recharged with plentiful rain.
In the original scheme of things, creeks and rivers are supposed to meander and overflow from time to time giving the earth more opportunity to absorb the rain. It should take weeks or months before this rain bounty returned to the ocean but we’ve straightened out the channel, re-enforced its banks with rip-rap (the original Old Redwood Highway concrete I suspect), and piped the storm water run off from our streets and roofs and driveways into this normally steady, once salmon-spawning creek. Sitting on that bank a few weeks ago, I watched gallons and gallons of all that rain fly back to the ocean in perhaps a day or two and completely bypassing the long term storage water storage systems this land once sheltered. I think that at least half of the water that comes out of my house taps is well water. Not only do I drink this water and cook with this water, I also use this water for my own personal tomato and basil patch. And the front lawn too. All that water flying down the creek bed won’t get a chance to re-charge the wells. Still, it was beautiful to watch.
What was also amazing to see is how the receding waters left great rafts of tiny little sticks piled up atop each other and clustered around tree trunks. Each stick was carefully balanced atop another with only the patience and skill of a slowly receding water level. A brush of my hand brought hundreds of little half inch and quarter inch twigs falling to the ground. I left the rest to see what happened next.
I like watching my local creek. It helps me remember where I live and to see God at work around me. Daniel Deffenbaugh writes about this practice in his book Learning the Language of the Fields: Tilling and Keeping as a Christian Vocation (Cowley, 2006). On page 142, he’s writing about why we need to see the world and he starts from Martin Buber’s teachings in Buber’s book Ich und Du. Deffenbaugh writes, “Buber recognizes in a very practical way that our experience of nature is often unexceptional and routine. How quickly we take for granted the enchanting beauty of the mountains or the rolling streams we see everyday. How easily they become objects in our world. But there are moments, Buber suggests, when a person can hear in crisp tones the enigmatic language of the fields, can for a brief time – often just an instant – delve beneath the It-world and come face to face with the Eternal You. This can happen in any number of ways: an encounter with a house cat, for example, or with a dappled mare, even with a piece of mica. The Eternal You lies at the heart of all. “ Deffenbauch goes on to say on page 143, “As the imago mundi et dei, our very essence requires that we be in relationship with the Eternal You and seek out encounters with the personal presence in every aspect of the world around us. We are, in other words, called to be our brother’s keeper, our sister’s seeker”
We are surrounded by water. We carry water in our core selves. If we are lucky, we think nothing of it but water is important. Water is worth noticing. Here is what I’ve seen so far: Storm water comes and storm water goes and landscapes are re-arranged. Chaos builds beautiful things for a moment and then blindly sweeps it all away again. Water needs a chance to slow down, to sink in, to also recharge or perhaps to be the recharging.
A string of storms or not, perhaps you too can go find a river or a creek or a lake in your neighborhood. You may have to go stand over a storm drain, but water is somewhere. Keep your eyes open. Make friends with it. Watch it. Sit with it when it rages and when it can barely flow toward home. What do you learn about where you live? What signs do you see that change is coming? What can you do to help set the water free again?
The Lord said to Job, “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? — When I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, “Thus far shall you come and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”? (Job 38:8-11)
Anitra Kitts lives and writes in Northern California.