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H2O

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H2O

“Water is the mother of the vine,
  The nurse and fountain of fecundity,
    The adorner and refresher of the world.”

Charles MacKay, The Dionysia

 

            Water.  Agua.  H20.  About 70% of our planet is covered with it.  It has the unique ability of actually becoming lighter when it moves into a solid state.  Without this quality, life on earth likely would not exist, for as parts of the world cool through seasonal changes or climatic upheavals, solid water rises, allowing the warmer liquid to be insulated against the harsher, exposed air.  If water didn’t have this ability, when ponds and rivers and lakes and oceans freeze, the ice would sink and solidify, sink and solidify, completely freezing over.  Vertebrate life as we know it could not exist in such an environment.  Water is the only chemical we know of that is lighter as a solid. 

 

“How beautiful the water is!
  To me 'tis wondrous fair--
    No spot can ever lonely be
      If water sparkle there;
        It hath a thousand tongues of mirth,
          Of grandeur, or delight,
            And every heart is gladder made
              When water greets the sight.”

Elizabeth Oakes Smith

 

            I was about five years old when my parents took me to the lakes in Lemars, Iowa for a day of fun and exploration.  The lakes had formed in the basin of what I have been told were old sand pits, but from the surface, they appeared as any modest sized, isolated, Midwestern body of water would look like.  Calm and peaceful, tranquil waves sparkling and shimmering in the midday sun.  I remember walking along the shallow parts, testing how far I could go before the gently rolling waves would touch my chin.  Five-year-olds will test limits, not only of their parents but also of Nature herself.   I recall the bottom of the lake was very sandy and filled with pebbles which I enjoyed feeling between my toes, moving my feet gently and slowly over the smooth, somewhat slimy stones.  I took a step, feeling the water brush against my chest, the sand oozing between my submerged little piggies.  

I took one step,

                                                 then another,

                                                                             then another . . .

. . . until the final step I took

that day in the over-sized, wet

sandbox had no bottom.  I just

                                                                                                                                        s

                                                                                                                                             a

                                                                                                                                                   n

                                                                                                                                                        k.

 

“And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

from the Bible, Matthew 4:19

 

            It was the summer of 2008 when I discovered the intimate art of fishing.  Previously, my impression of outdoorsmen, as they are often called, was not very flattering.  I had watched men hunt and fish and shoot animals with bow and gun, and I had an aversion to their way of life.  I was never against people performing such activities themselves, and I admit that I went out with a couple of friends at times to see them outwit Nature with a technology that only sentient, creative creatures like ourselves would imagine creating.  Birds hunt, as do many mammals and reptiles and amphibians, even insects and some plants.  But creatures such as these use only the appendages and limbs that Nature bestowed upon them.  Only the greater apes and humans use tools to obtain their food, and even then our tool usage for hundreds of millennia was somewhat limited: sticks, rocks, and bones.  For the rest of Nature’s creations, evolution itself provided them with all they need to hunt and consume in the wild.

            No, it wasn’t the act of hunting itself that turned me off.  It was that final moment.  It was the killing.  For uncounted generations, humans needed to hunt and to fish for sheer survival; no food, no life.  We are omnivores by origin, and no number of post-modernist vegetarians can deny that meat as a source of protein was invaluable in assisting our species in covering the planet.   Yet today, there is little need for denizens of first-world nations to go forth and hunt, the mass production of agriculture and husbandry and fisheries replacing this need.  Yet still, men hunt, all too often merely for sport or an outward sign of their primordial prowess hanging above the fireplace mantle.  For me, the creatures with whom we share this thin membrane of air, organic chemicals, and water are there to be cherished and embraced, not killed.  At least not wrecklessly.  This was how I envisioned Outdoorsmen.

            Then, my wife bought my son a fishing pole, and my outlook of the ways in which men connect with Nature changed.  I became a fisherman.  Not to boast of my scaly trophies or machismo-like triumph over Nature, but to celebrate a different sort of connection, a deeper level of being: the connection of a man with his son.

 

“O Lord! methought what pain it was to drown!
  What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
    What sights of ugly death within mine eyes!
      Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wracks;
        A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon;”

William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Richard the Third,  I,4

 

            Sounds are different under the water.  Screams are diffused, cries are swallowed up, desperation is submerged in a sort of chaotic tranquility as air rushes out and sandy, murky water replaces the hollowed chambers of the mouth and lungs.  Flailing arms and legs sound serenely calm when under the water, as only the surreal echo of sloshing somewhere outside of the body is perceived by the ear.  To step into the water, to feel the sandy bottom, then no bottom at all, to feel the body submerge into a liquid realm is the first step into something a five-year-old is unable to comprehend: an absolute limit to Life itself.

            I am not certain how long I remain submerged in the placid waters of that old sand pit, only seconds maybe, but I recall the way that brown, yellow, and orange light shimmered and flowed all around me as I struggled in vain to regain the surface.  Water, life-giving water from which all life arose was prepared that summer day to take a life back unto itself, wrapping and enveloping its earthy child like a mother holding her offspring tight unto her bosom. 

            Then, the hand of a lesser kind of parent grasped mine, pulling me from the watery tendrils of a Mother who would willingly smother me with her love.  I took my first gasp of air, coughing and spewing water from my lungs like a newborn emerging from the moist, wet womb.  That day, it was through a father that I was reborn.

 

“Oh, the gallant fisher's life,
  It is the best of any
    'Tis full of pleasure, void of strife,
      And 'tis beloved of many.”

John Chalkhill, Piscator’s Song

 

             “Daddy, daddy, I caught a fish!”

            It was the third fish my boy had caught at Standing Bear Lake in northwest Omaha, Nebraska.  We had been to Summit Lake State Recreation Area north of Tekamah, Nebraska twice before on a father-and-son fishing trip, with no luck.  The only thing we ever caught was a sunburn.  A friend, though, had tipped me off as to a good spot at Standing Bear Lake, and our first trip there was much different. 

            Now, it’s challenging to keep a five-year-old’s attention long enough to catch a fish.  If there’s not a bite on the line in the first few minutes, interest soon wanes, and my boy asks if he can go off and catch roaming butterflies, find lost hooks and baits in the tall, shoreline grasses, or just generally play.  Yet when we parked at the suburban lake and carried our chairs, tackle box, and rod and reels to the overhanging western shore, one could see the fish swimming just below the shallow surface.  Lots of fish.  Within a couple of minutes of casting our lines, my boy had hooked a bluegill, his first fish.  He was elated.  The joy we shared that day, and many days like it thereafter, is irreplaceable. 

            Perhaps more importantly, I finally got it.  We had become outdoorsmen.

 

“Pure water is the best of gifts that man to man can bring,
  But who am I that I should have the best of anything?
    Let princes revel at the pump, let peers with ponds make free,
      Whisky, or wine, or even beer is good enough for me.”

Anonymous

 

            I don’t drink water.  Really.  I am told that the minimum daily requirement of water one needs to consume to live is eight to ten glasses a day, but I seem to do alright without.  I mean, I do drink liquids, but my aversion to pure H2O is systemic, so instead, I live off of pop, tea, and juice.  That’s “water,” right?

            “Why don’t you drink water?” my family, friends, and peers sometimes chide me as I guzzle down the last drops of my 44-ounce cola.  “It’s better for you.”

            How should I respond?  No, thank you, I actually drank enough when I was five, and I didn’t really care for the taste then, either. 

            Even having my mouth covered by my boy’s hand when we wrestle on the carpeted floor of our home or in the yard instantly evokes subconscious feelings of smothering, of being unable to breathe, and I nearly choke instinctively. 

Drink water?  Thanks, but no thanks.

 

“Who hears the fishes when they cry?”
      Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

 

            We are nature-loving folk, and I try to teach my boy at every opportunity to respect life – all life (except mosquitos; we do kill them) – so instead of killing and eating the poor little watery creatures, we let them go.  Once, a hook got caught so deeply inside the mouth of a fish, a large-mouth bass, that I underwent moral agonizing as I struggled to gently work the round, sharpened barb from the creature’s throat, my boy watching curiously.  Holding the fish with my hands, its slimy, scaled body slipping in my grip, water drips from its body to splatter on the ground below.  I spy blood emerging from the wound we have made, its mouth opening and closing, opening and closing, its gills heaving, turning a deeper and deeper crimson pink as the struggle goes on and on and on.  It is in these rare moments that I somehow hear the fish’s screams, feel the pulsing of its appendages flailing in the air, and smell the terror eminating from its little, two-chambered heart, beating  over and over again in a frantic refrain with which I am all too familiar, I’m drowning.  I’m drowning.  I’m drowning.

            With the hook finally removed, the creature’s throat lacerated by my inept actions, I set it gently back into the shallow water, close enough to hold the animal while taking great care not to lean far enough over the water’s edge to fall in.  I hold it tenderly, moving it forward and back, forward and back, exposing it’s gill slits to the fresh, life-giving water.  When I finally let go of the animal, my boy and I watch closely as the fish momentarily lies still in the water, rolls gently over onto its side, then

                                       s

                                          i

                                            n

                                               k

                                                  s.

 

“For we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground,

which cannot be gathered up again.” from the Bible, II Samuel, 14:14

 

            “No, no . . . ” I cried out, turning from the swim instructor and proceeding to run around the large, blue body of water as he watched in amusement.  The large, dark-haired figure laughed aloud as he began to casually follow me around the YMCA pool.  The other children in my swim class probably looked on, but I must have been unaware of them in my desire to flee his grasp.  Soon, his pursuit grew in earnest, and the distance between us shrank.  After a second time around the pool, his strong arms captured me, and in what seemed to be a single motion, he tossed me into the deep water.  The last thing I recall hearing was a mixture of his laugh and my screams.

            I was six-years-old that day, and my parents felt it was time for me to learn how to swim.  For most children, the water holds a mild fascination, wading in the shallow kiddie pools at home or at the public pools, and over time, children usually come to trust their older teachers and eventually learn how to swim.  Most of us, that is.

            Swimming does not come natural to our species, for we are an animal not of the water but of the plains.  Humans are not born to swim, but learn how, instead.  Many of the greater apes fear the water, and animals that are at home hanging precariously from vines and branches or roaming along the forest floor suddenly become helpless when exposed to open bodies of water.  

            Many of the outdoor displays of monkeys at zoos take advantage of this well-known fact, building little isles in the middle of an artificial lake and placing the primates on the water-locked land.  I sometimes think it’s a bit like torture to do this to our genetic cousins, all for the pleasure of human visitors.  Whenever I go to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, I can’t help but be driven to the covered walkway that crosses the koi-filled Deer Park  lagoon, overlooking the helpless spider and squirrel monkeys that live on the manmade Banyan tree.  Yet I come not to gawk awkwardly at the oblivious creatures, but to consider . . .

 

            . . . life.  It all began in the water, the great ocean basins that coalesced from the first rains and crustal solidification of our planet.  Rain falling to the ground, rivulets turning into streams, streams becoming rivers, rivers pouring into lakes which in turn flow into the lowest elevations of our world, forming the bodies of water as we know them today.  And whether we take time to contemplate it or not, we owe our existence to water.  Agua.  H20.

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