................................. Essay

Water Rites

In a circle of elms near the stone farmhouse, my grandfather had cemented a shallow pool. I entered this cylinder of shade, lay on my belly. Fish slid in lazy loops. Domed light arched over this sphere. Only the fish moved, in that other world, the one under water.

I was four I had heard my grandparents talking about how badly we needed rain. Their faces registered concern. I would have to do something to help, but what? I picked up a twig, dropped it in. The twig floated at the center of concentric ripples. Then, on the opposite rim, something thick and dark slid down to the water and in.

Over it the water closed.

I had seen four legs, a tail.

A breeze stirred the elm leaves. I sat up. Beyond the rim of shade where there had been sun the grass darkened. Now a god shook the thunder rattle I had the distince sense that my toss of that twig had set something large and above us in motion. I leapt up and ran toward the house. My grandmother was kneading dough. Her presence amidst the scent of yeast was reassuring. Bright bursts of speech flared from me, and she nodded. The creature, she told me, was a water dog. They were shy, she said. I felt a swell of friendliness: so was I. They resembled lizards, but lizards preferred heat and drought. Water dogs were heralds of storm. They wove themselves in and out amidst the slippery fish. Then, with a magic flick of their bodies, they wafted this watery atmosphere up to heaven so that it might come down to us as rain. As she spoke, we heard the tick of the first drops.

Centuries before this, my ancestors crowded around the priest at Mt. Lykaios. He prayed, and they watched the slender branch of an oak tree in his hand. When his prayer ended, he offered the branch to the pool. It floated, then began to sink. Something resembling mist rose above the water. Those of my ancestors who were there said the air turned electric. A jagged streak of light cracked across the sky. Afterward an intensity persisted where the streak had been, as though that heat had left its imprint. Then all present felt the shudder of thunder. A few minutes later downpour began.

Summoning water is an ancient rite. The priest and I had invoked the sserpent goddess. In the Vedas she is Kadru, to the Babylonians Kadi, goddess whose body is snake, with breasts, and the shoulders and head of a woman. Watery form of the energy Hindus call sakti. She of the waters above and below the world, waters whose energy moves in a serpentine pattern. Myth tells us she separated a length of this energy from herself, fashioned it into a wavy slither like the pattern in water. She made a slickness, but with substance. And with this slipperiness pleasured herself.

Her offspring are nagis, serpent genies sliding away from her, sinuous as the water itself. The Greeks thought the nagis ugly: coarse bodied, reptilian, scaled—like the water dog. But the nagi’s ugliness confers magical properties. Like water letting go a ripple, the nagi’s skin slides off, floats away, dissolves. The nagi, bringer of rain, embodies our longing to be reborn.

I have come to Tobacco Caye to pay my respects to Ancestor Water. Lying beside the coral reef off the coast of Belize, this Caye is so small you can walk across it in five minutes. The shore is strewn with feathers from cruising Frigate birds, palm branches last night’s storm blew down. Where the shore slopes down, a ridge of rain beaten sand. Stones beside the pier gleam. The water itself seems scrubbed clean.

I walk into the immensity of water. Entering the sea feels like entering another body. “Women’s sexual organs,” the Diola sing, “are full of water.”1 In Sumerian a meant both water and sperm. Some Sakti from that first sea is still in me, and in you, regardless of our gender. I dive down. Holocentrus ascensionis' ribbony fins resemble pastel chiffon. Groupers are slices of sunlight submerged. Below the coral grass beds nurse fish, and where fish graze and defecate the coral grows faster. I weave amidst the feasting and feel at home. I too have come to feed and be fed by this feeding world.

Afterward, I lie in the shade. Body of water, we say. "Let us not impose doctrines upon the landscape," Natalia Rachel Singer writes, or "metaphors of the body."2 I too would not attribute to nature merely human capacities. But if we can’t use the word body, how then speak of our long love affair with water? “Nowadays we prefer to speak of the environment,” writes Deborah Tall, “but it too, in its original meaning, is what surrounds us, rather than what we are inextricably involved in.”3 So call it inextricable involvement then. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram describes this involvement as a kind of “reciprocal encounter.”4 Living systems continuously perceive and interact with surrounding systems, making finely tuned adjustments. With every sense perception the jig changes, partners grooving with each other even as they reshape the groove. We and the world hail each other—thanks for the news!—and like the shrug of a jacketed shoulder, shift our chemical balance and proceed.

Just as I feel water against my skin, water registers the space I take up. I float, and water holds my weight. I drink, and water tastes me. Merleau Ponte called this web of reciprocal encounter the world’s flesh. Streams, springs, waterfalls and seas of this flesh pulse forth their fluid energy. "They are," Mercea Eliade writes, "and they are alive.” Why not say body of water?

And why not call ocean our ancestor? Fluid and androgynous, this forebear gave birth, fashioned the appropriate elders. “When they went ashore,” Rachel Carson writes, “the animals that took up a land life carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies.” The signature of that original parent is still in us. Human body hair is not arranged in the pattern of other apes but in the pattern in which water's mantle flows over our bodies as we move through it. Our bodies are three quarters water, the proportion of water to land on the planet. And sodium, potassium and calcium combine in our blood in almost the same proportion as in the oceans. We’re mostly water, with a pinch of salt in our cellular pockets, sloshing from one liquid decision to another.

I was three when my mother took me to the Pacific. The water, rocking, refracting light, reminded me of certain green glass bottles. This was color ceaselessly moving—and sounding. Ocean’s voice was guttural, Orphic. When I closed my eyes, its moaning rippled through me. Sound waves replicate the ocean’s wave form. The rhythms of our speech echo the liturgy of pouring water. We say of a brook that it babbles, and why not: language, after all, is another bodily gesture rising out of what we are inextricably involved in.

I stood before this ancient, uttering elder. Egyptians imaged masculine and feminine combined in the Nile’s floodwaters as the anthropomorphic goddess Hapi. The Babylonians projected Apsu and Tiamat, waters whose currents mingled in a single mass. Homer described Oceanus, a powerful river in amorphous space where there was neither sky nor earth. Tethys was figured as the female, but her spiraling mass could not be distinguished from the course of Oceanus itself.

Before me in one body, resounding: Grandfather Ocean, Grandmother Water. I understood this forebear was alive, and very old. Ocean endures, and at the sam time the huge fact of these waters seems to cancel duration. Sea’s ceaseless moving seems to neutralize time. Confronted with such persistent immensity, we can imagine nothing before it. “Water,” Eliade wrote, “precedes all forms and upholds all creation.” 7 Neither Non-Being nor Being existed then, intones the Rgveda. Neither air nor the firmament above existed. What then was moving with such force? Was it the deep and fathomless water?

Soulful, ruminating, the great body spoke to me. It listened, knew me. I felt naked, watched and heard in every cell. Later I would learn Sardinians worshiped certain springs and held ordeals there by which a person’s truthfulness was tested. That the Vedas assert that water seeks the truth, that waves of the ocean keep away lies. But I knew instinctively that day that I dared not dissemble in her presence. I was everywhere seen, heard, known.

And if water heard me, then I might speak with it. I stood on the beach and answered this ancestor with the same ur syllables I heard rising out of her. I hissed and groaned. I was murmur and lament and roaring power. When we returned to the Midwest, I continued this conversation with water. One day I stood on the couch in my grandmother’s parlor, looking down behind it, listening to my mother and grandmother talk. I announced that there was a stream running behind the couch.

“Don’t tell lies,” my mother said.

“It’s underground,” I said. “You can’t see it.”

“And what does this water say?” my grandmother asked.

“It’s saying you should believe me!”

A generation later this sense of water’s knowing came to my four year old daughter. One afternoon she squatted at the lake’s edge, listening intently. Suddenly she swung around. “If you tell a lie,” she said, “the water will hear you.”

John Muir lay down on Sierra Nevada granite in order to "think like a glacier." But to think is not the same as to know. Scientists investigating water’s knowing have  found it sensitive to even very slight changes in electrical and magnetic fields. In the thirties Giorgio Piccardi found that the rate of chemical reactions taking place in water solutions was affected by lunar and sunspot cycles, solar eruptions and sudden showers of cosmic rays.8 Later Theodore Schwenk established that after an eclipse water remembered and recorded this dwindling of the light. Dr. C.W. Smith of Salford University in Britain concluded that the smallest amounts of allergens diluted out of existence in water had transferred their properties to the dilution, but not chemically. The water in his samples had recorded the allergen's electrical impression and passed it on.

At five I gave not a fig for such figuring. I was already inextricably involved with water. I understood that by its swaying inevitability the water in my basin would tell me how things were. After I’d interrogated the basin, I gathered milkweed and buttercup. Singing, I stirred the blossoms in. The aroma of the petals floated up. With this flowery attention I had made water happy. My grandmother had given me a scrap of leather, and by stretching it over a tin can, I’d made a drum. As the final act in my ceremony I sat cross legged before the basin, beating out a liquid rhythm, singing.

I didn’t know that primitive cultivators believed the beating of a shaman’s drum affects the structure of water. Each evening during growing season, these first planters beat a drum beside their buckets. They stirred a bit of soil in clockwise and sang ascending notes. They stirred counter clockwise and sang a descending scale. I hadn’t been told these things, and still, at dusk when I went with my grandmother to drive the cows home, I took a jar of my magic water along, sprinkled it at the head of each row of my grandfather’s corn.

Engagement with water is a sensuous affair, and we who are smitten are busy with this voluptuous doing. We recognize the erotic when we encounter it, and seek those sites where water issues from the earth: streams, springs, wells, the fountains in sun struck plazas. Even a sprinkler's whirr is ardent undercurrent. The garden hose gushes, and I drink. Drink, and offer myself to be drunk. No showers for me. I prefer immersion. Immersion is the body at play—pleasure for pleasure’s sake, mine and water’s—the two of us tasting the slippery texture of our skins. To be, in my strong body, and to enter water, to push against it as it gives, to stroke myself through its slickness—this is my preferred consummation. “We could imagine disease not just a physical phenomenon,” writes Thomas Moore, “but as the failure of the body to find its pleasure.”10 Swimming, I become like those ailing children dipped three times into the well of Saint Mandron, in Cornwall. Water, like a mother’s kiss, makes things better.

Shoreline is a boundary. When I slide in buoyed by my element, I leave behind the body weighted down by gravity. Every time we bathe another border goes. Bits of our skin slough off like the serpent’s. A morning bath re-enacts a birth: in this washing we prepare to enter the diurnal again, but as though for the first time. And if at evening we seek the shore, it is because we long to be reborn. “From the point of view of water,” Eliade writes, “human life is something fragile that must periodically be engulfed, because it is the fate of all forms to be dissolved in order to reappear.”11 Ablution echoes the annual dipping of statues of the Great Goddess. Deities, like mortals, must refurbish their vitality, and it was understood that immersion would revamp their good will and generosity. Like us, Aphrodite, Athena, and the Virgin Mary have enjoyed this ritual plunge and been revived.

A breeze rattles the palms’ fringe. At dinner there’s talk of a storm. I go to my cabin, ready by light of an oil lamp. Sound of breakers flowing up over sand. Lulled by this lustrum, I fall asleep. Later I wake in the dark: downpour batters the tin roof. What twig dropped into what pool has thrown up this storm?

Thomas Merton said that as long as the rain spoke, he would listen. I listen, and remember there are places in the ocean that resemble a war ravaged nation. The waters record the increase of red tides, Tributyltin in the tissues of invertebrates. They record epidemics among shellfish, the bleaching and the death of corals. They register dumps of plutonium, of chlorine, of the 22.3 million barrels of petroleum spilled each year, and of the relsease into the deep basins of cadmium, iron, zinc, arsenic. The waters record the presence of lead in the North Sea, of nitrogen in the Mediterranean. They record, where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf, that four thousand square kilometer dead zone where there is almost no oxygen. They record the demise of salt marsh and mangrove, the disappearance of estuary, reef. They mourn the dearth of dolphin and whale, lament the deaths of seals. The faces of those dead sea cows washed up on the North Carolina coast tell us the oceans too have their disappeared, their refugees unable to go home.

Annie Dillard writes that she would like to learn from wild animals “the dignity of living without bias or motive.”12 Water and sand do not pass judgment. Air does not present an affidavit. Fire does not assign blame. Feeling is what the elements offer, and tonight the rain sounds like grieving. I lie back in the storm’s duration, but I do not invent homilies to the effect that the sweep of time will heal the waters. Instead I imagine that time when earth’s crust cooled enough that the falling rain did not immediately evaporate but began to collect in earth’s basins. “These rains fell continuously,” Rachel Carson writes, “day and night, days passing into months, in to years, into centuries.” Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? Like Job, I am humbled by not knowing. I listen, attendant, while the water around me has its own grieving way.

If wetness speaks of grief, it speaks also of benediction. I remember Carl, in his sixties, in the hospital where I worked as a nurse’s aid. Cancer wore at him slowly, increments of change water lapping a shore. When he died and his family finished their farewells, it fell to me to prepare his body. As I washed him, I became a series of linked motions: the raising of a hand, the bowing of a head, the opening of a palm. The stories say that to get to the other side, the dead must cross water in darkness. The water I washed Carl with was the water of that crossing, lapping the sides of the boat.

Once when I worked in a country torn by war, there came moments when the palpable despair in those around me seemed scarcely bearable. In scorching heat I went to the sea at midday, left a towel on the sand, entered the water. I swam steadily and hard, deliberate with need. I wanted to be abraded, polished like a rock turned in ocean’s crucible. When I walked up the slope onto shore, my towel lay before me, a flare. I sank down and let myself drift there in the caul of exhaustion.

When I woke, the sun was low. The shore seemed scattered with yellow blossoms. Then I saw one cluster of petals skitter. As far down the strand as I could see in either direction, hundreds of tiny crabs, the bright yellow of the crayon box, had come out of hiding. They seemed bright bits of a generous wetness, an offering tossed up from the depths onto an altar. I had lain down in sanctuary. I’d awakened at the center of ten thousand prayers.

On those occasions when we feel cast out of the human world, when we want to step back from civilization and feel just how animal we really are, the natural world rises up as refuge. It is our horizon note, Eliade’s foundation, the bottom line. The Ancient One, life giving death bringer, is always there. She conducts her ablutions ceaselessly, and, if we join her, takes us in.

For make no mistake: our desecration of the cathedral does not mark the end of our longing for union. No nation or religion has ever put a stop to water worship, though Chrfistians in the Middle Ages tried, beginning with the Second Council of Arles in 443, continuing until the Council of Treves in 1227.14 Finally the church gave up. I imagine the Pope bearing the record of the Council’s proceedings to the river, tearing the parchment to bits, letting these scraps fall onto the water.

For we who are grateful for water like to give it a little something. Each time I visit a watery source, I leave a feather, a nut, a few petals, a handful of meal. When the Masai approach a river, they tear off a handful of grass and toss it in. We are doing what pilgrims at the lake of Saint Andeol in the Aubrac mountains did when they gave the water bits of linen, a piece of cake, a shirt or a coat. What the Trojans did when they sacrificed live horses to the raging river. What Greek priests did when they slaughtered oxen for the god of the sea.

Language is bodily gesture, and gesture is language. I enter the waters here one last time. Below me, the coral polyps seem a visual chorus, each uttering its note of being. I slither through this surge of oratorio, then roll onto my back, let sky see the length of me. Suddenly I'm aware of the salt in this water. Salt adds density to water's texture, and the taste, on my lips, is the taste of the body. This taste ripples through my cells, recognition: in this vastness I am minuscule, a fleshy pod inside a larger, sensing presence.

I dive toward the grassy bottom. Kelp beds sway with the shifting current like those fields of wheat in the Song of Songs, and memory reverberates with my grandmother's voice. Long ago, she'd explained, the plains we walked upon were covered by water. There in my hand was the evidence, the signatures of shellfish embossed in stone.

Where is my basin now? Where those creatures whose stone imprints I found lodged in the mud of that pond? They have gone where I am going. I turn back toward shore and remember my hand reaching over my grandmother's pool, letting the twig go, wataching it fall and float on the tensile surface. Unschooled though I was in ceremony, I’d instinctively enacted rite. My act, like the priest’s, was a bodily beseeching. Pray, offer something alive. I’d moved a bit of the scenery and read the consequences of my deed in the statement of falling rain.

In this linked cluster of events I understood my connection to the weave of experience we call the world. Now, beneath my feet, the bottom: water to fall into, land to stand on. The Ancient One, life giving death bringer, is always there. She conducts her ablutions ceaselessly, and, if we join her, takes us in.

Now beneath my feet the bottom: water to fall into, land to stand on. Walking beside the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, I’ve sometimes got down on my knees. Singer writes that she likes to imagine the earth as “an altar, a living one, that breathes.”15 I emerge, taller, broader, my soul the shape of an unscathed sphere. I think of Rilke's ecstatic cry: I am circling around God. To embody transcendence is why we are here.

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