420. Water Go-Round

January 31, 2015

Almost single-handedly, the water cycle is responsible for the hospitality of planet Earth to life of all forms, including primates, including apes, including humans. Powered upward by sunlight, downward by gravity, the water cycle tells the story of the vast migration of water molecules from the surface of the ocean back into the air from which they fell a day or a million days ago, returning to that upper realm as water vapor, an invisible gas, from which it will eventually fall again as rain, hail, sleet, or snow.

Watersheds are the domains where the water cycle interacts with the land that conveys it back to the ocean, picking up mineral and organic nutrients, making photosynthesis possible in algae and green plants, which in turn make animal life—including consciousness—possible in every clime around the Earth.

In engaging with nature, we are truly engaging with the flow of water in its various forms. We were born in a primal sea; now that sea lives in us. What is the womb but an inner ocean of life? An unbroken stream of water connects us through the eons to our primal selves.

We don’t engage the water cycle all at once, but more typically one stage at a time. We admire clouds in the sky. It rains on our tent. We stomp puddles to make them splash. We kayak down streams and rivers. We sail on the ocean. On steamy days we sweat and return our bodily water to the air.

I divide that continuous flow into fifteen different stages that collectively add up to what we call the water cycle.

  1. Water falls from the sky in one form or another.
  2. It collects in puddles on the ground (or as ice on glaciers flowing to the sea).
  3. Those puddles percolate into the soil or cracks in bedrock.
  4. Drop by drop, soil water flow downhill through porous soils.
  5. Soil water flows from banks into wetlands and small streams.
  6. Small streams join to form rivers.
  7. River water (and glacial ice) mix with salt water in a bay or estuary.
  8. Salt water flows out with the tide to form currents.
  9. Currents flow at different depths to join local seas into one global ocean.
  10. Cold currents are warmed by radiant energy streaming from the sun.
  11. Surface waters evaporate, becoming water vapor.
  12. Water vapor rises into the air.
  13. Where it condenses into droplets to form clouds.
  14. Droplets join into bigger drops too heavy to stay aloft.
  15. Those big drops fall toward Earth, starting another round of the cycle.

Watersheds are one of the primary ways the natural world organizes itself. All life on Earth depends on water, and watersheds are systems for distributing water across time and space, making it available on a reliable enough basis for individual plants—and life dependent on them—to survive.

Watersheds take water from large areas of higher ground on their peripheries and distribute it to ever-smaller, concentric areas lower down, conveying a flow of water, soil particles, and nutrients downward toward a central focus in the lowlands below.

Almost everything we take for granted on Earth stems from the cyclical movement of water from the surface of the ocean into the air, from air into soil, from soil to stream, from stream back to ocean.

In that sense, the water cycle is a huge pump that floods the fields of plant and animal life on Earth. What are we but individual tributaries of the flow from that pump? Every drop of water in the soil is a delivery packet to the roots of plants and trees. Every glass of water, bottle of wine, can of beer or soda is a packet of water to be delivered to our gullets.

Each of us is an integral part of the water cycle. The water cycle is us. If Earth’s great pump ever falters and stops working, we falter and stop working. The pump runs on gravity and sunlight; we run on gravity and sunlight. Our minds run on gravity and sunlight. Heaviness and lightness—there we are again, caught exactly in the tension between them. Made possible and kept running by the pull of our planet in concert with the loft of sunlit-water turned to vapor and rising through warm air.

This puts consciousness in a new light. Consciousness is not in our brains as neuroscientists today so firmly believe; it is in our engagement with our home planet, and only half of that engagement is in our brains (leading from perception to action via meaning and judgment). The rest is in what we engage with in the world beyond our skins.

Consciousness is as much a product of gravity and sunlight as it is of the flow of ions through our neural networks from one neuron to the next. Put differently, that flow of ions is an extension of the water cycle through the flesh-and-blood neural tubes and synaptic junctions that make up the bulk of our brains.

If we disconnect from sensory input by being put in solitary confinement in a bleak cell, or by otherwise depriving ourselves of stimulation from our surroundings—in such cases we shut down to the extent our consciousness shuts down from lack of input. A mind by itself is not enough. Every mind needs a world to engage with in order to thrive. It needs to take part in the larger flow of gravity and levity, heaviness and lightness, dissonance and consonance.

I am trying to fit the flow of thoughts through our minds into the larger context of the flow of water through the surface of the Earth. I firmly believe there is a connection between the two flows, an intimate and vital connection that makes my writing this blog, and your reading of it, not only possible, but essential. By that I mean you won’t find this discussion anywhere else.

After all, we and our progenitors have lived on the Earth for a long time—some three-and-a-half billion years. It would be incredible to claim that we are not an integral part of the basic processes that run Earth’s every system. We are not above the Earth or below it; we are creatures of it. We are constituents of the biosphere as made possible by the cyclical flow of water within the limits set by inner Earth and outer space. That biosphere is implicit in our every thought and engagement. It is the true medium of consciousness, of which the brain is but one part.



(Copyright © 2009)


Clouds, nothing but clouds. I am looking for a first sight of the Rocky Mountains, but all I see through the windshield is clouds. Flanked by my brothers and two dogs, I am in the back seat of the car. My parents are in front. I am leaning forward, looking down the road toward the horizon. Which is hidden by clouds. The family is moving to Seattle. We’ve gotten to eastern Colorado, which is flat, offering long views ahead. Of clouds. I keep looking. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Half an hour. Nothing but clouds. I am about to burst with disappointment when, suddenly, the white clouds, those same ones I’ve been peering at all the while—turn into snow-capped mountains. The Rockies! I see them! Nobody says a word. They’ve seen them all along.


Strange business. Looking, but not seeing. Or seeing wrongly. Then in a blink seeing rightly. We project what we know onto what we see, and if we are unprepared for novelty, we see the same old, same old. The people elected Bush-Cheney (according to the Supreme Court), not once but twice—because of the war in Iraq. Fooled ya, suckers! Suddenly we realize Bernie Madoff is a crook! All along we thought he was a pal. Everyone did. Ha. He madoff with their dough. Suckers! Me included (as if I knew Bernie, or had any money to invest). In my own way I’m a sucker. Maybe you are, too.


Fresh out of high school, I’m in Nespelum, Washington, on the banks of the Columbia River. This time there are clouds too, but I’m not looking at them, or at the river. I’m too busy digging a hole in the ground. Looking for Indian artifacts. The Chief Joseph Dam is under construction, and this ground will be flooded. I’m a volunteer with a team of archaeologists from the University of Washington. Three feet down, I think I’ve found something. Hard, white. I switch from trowel to whisk broom and toothbrush. There’s a suture. Looks like a skull. Brush, brush. Blow, blow. See, it’s rounded, like a dome. Brush, brush. Gotta be a skull. We haven’t found any human remains on this dig. I’m gonna be first! Brush, brush. The dome has a funny edge. Brush, brush. A ridge, like Neanderthals had. This has gotta be really old. After hours of brushing away a few grains of sand at a time, I have much of the dome exposed, ridge and all. A real archaeologist comes by to see how I’m doing. Whatchagot there, Steve? Looks like some kind of turtle.


Rightly or wrongly, seeing is believing. Along with Bush-Cheney and Bernard Madoff, even my own eyes can deceive me. And so can yours. Who can we trust? Who indeed? John D. Rockefeller’s dad played a game with him in the kitchen. Little Johnny’d climb into a chair, stand up, then jump toward his father. Who always put his arms out to catch him. Until the one time he didn’t. That’s to teach you not to trust anybody, not even your father, he said.


That’s a hard lesson to learn. Not even my own eyes? Not even your own eyes, or your own ears. What can I say? If you want to work with your consciousness, you might as well enjoy the adventure of learning how to do that. It won’t be easy and will be full of surprises, but learning how to double check your senses and the reality they present for your approval will be well worth the effort.


Then you can move on to establishing a working relationship with your unconscious mind, which will take even longer. The more we learn about the workings of our senses, the farther “reality” drifts off into the middle distance. Sadder perhaps but wiser, we are left to contemplate the view from where we are standing.