“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” Loren Eiseley-great American anthropologist, naturalist, and teacher.
I stood on the shores of this northern Canadian lake. The sky was dark and angry. Small gray waves, whipped up by a northwestern breeze, chopped at the shoreline dredging the golden sand and gravel around from my feet. Many of these lakes in northern Quebec are vast and this body of water was not an exception. I came here because the countryside is wild. It is raw and beautiful. It is teeming with life. It is, in my humble opinion, as things ought to be. The lakes in this watershed drain north to the great Hudson Bay. Each watershed in this region is filled with lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers that hold hoards of life and mystery; all of them formed by glaciers that covered the northern latitudes only twelve thousand years ago.
I have always found it easy to be reflective on these wilderness trips that I do every year. With no electricity, no electronics, few distractions, and ample time the mind is free to ramble. Intellectual wanderings can tie the knot between seemingly unconnected ideas and if they don’t than the process is, at the very least, still worthwhile.
It occurred to me on that day while standing on the shoreline, the clouds above threatening to open up and drown my thoughts, that I was witnessing something pretty special. This lake was home to countless species many of which are water dependent. Bountiful are walleye, northern pike, loons, and the regal moose. Canada geese, diving ducks, mussels, and large numbers of leeches make this water ecosystem home. Huge emerald green bogs surround much of the shoreline, filtering, holding, and processing excess organics that may enter the water column. The lake is oligotrophic, meaning it holds little organic matter and the bottom is primarily sand and gravel. Brown algae can be seen suspended in the water column by mid-summer which lessens the penetration of light and makes perfect habitat for walleye that are adorned with light sensitive eyes. The natural chemistry that is part of this water bodies natural processes has developed since the last glaciers to hold a nearly perfect ecosystem. In its natural state it is a miracle from my point of view. I understood that I was lucky to witness this miracle at work.
Water is this planet’s most precious commodity. A two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen covalent bond was forced out of cooling bedrock millions and millions and millions of years ago as the planet cooled. About 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water. Humans are about 80% water. Most life forms are at least 70% water. Life on this planet began in water and without water, life as we know it, would not be possible. Water holds many mysteries. Algae started forming in water at a dramatically early time. The algae produced oxygen which in turn ate up much of the ammonia and methane in the atmosphere. This literally kept the oceans from boiling away. This symbiotic relationship between algae and water was one of the first of millions of necessary relationships that pushed life forward on this place we call Earth. The large oceans balanced temperatures on the earth allowing the planet to be neither a frozen block of ice nor a raging inferno. It was, and remains, the perfect location for life.
The amount of water that exists on this planet is only about 0.2% less than when the oceans formed billions of years ago. Most of the water that we encounter has been here in one form or another since the origins of the earth as we know it. It is the large amount of water that holds this planet’s temperatures in relative stasis. Without these stable temperatures life could not be sustained. Atmosphere, water, and a planet to hold both were formed from molten gasses billions of years ago. The chances of this occurrence are miniscule yet we live and breathe this miracle every single day.
On that day in the Canadian wilderness rain began to fall from darkened skies. I pulled up the hood on my gore-tex jacket so as to stay dry. I started meandering down the shore line. The rain was cold. Fog rose off the warmer lake. Visibility was temporarily reduced to a half a mile or less. The fog obscured the shoreline. Trees and rock features took on the look of an impressionistic water color painting. The exact forms and colors were blurred. I walked along thinking that this foggy world was much like my personal perception of the world where clear boundaries are seldom seen but always sought. The rain accumulated on my brow and dripped down the bridge of my nose. I reveled in the spirit of the down pour and let the rain drop off my nose and filter through my gray beard.
Water evaporated off of the ocean, lakes, and the wetlands of this planet have a perfect recycling mechanism. It is warm and so it rises. When it meets the cool air above it condenses and forms clouds. The condensed water forms a nucleus that contains dust particles and other particulates. They are heavier than the surrounding air and fall to earth in the form of rain. This process seems never ending; water, warmth, evaporation, condensation, precipitation. It happens over and over and over again like a mantra that breathes life into this planet. Repetition seems to be the rhythm that holds this planet together.
The lake before me, even in its frothy whipped-up state, held clean water. The lack of human beings and the clean glacial soils provided the perfect environment for non-polluted waters. Yes, the water grew some brown algae that gave it a slight rusty tinge, but this water was the basis for a wonderful ecosystem that thrived in this deep and dark boreal forest that covers much of the northern latitudes. Clean water is stored in bedrock and deep stratified sand and gravel deposits throughout most of this region. When water tables are high it oozes back through bedrock and purifying sand to recharge the wetlands and lakes. Clean, pure water is as common as a day is long in this north country.
Unfortunately clean, potable water is becoming increasingly rare in populated portions of this wonderful planet. The earth’s human population has a water demand that is increasing daily while water availability is decreasing due to competing interests. The amount of land in irrigation is decreasing and water use in cities and suburban populations is increasing. More than a billion people on this planet lack potable water. Clean water that political and military conflicts are on the rise over this resource. The use of groundwater exceeds aquifer replenishment on every continent except Antarctica. The human populated world is in a clean water crisis. Life is bleak without adequate natural resources.
In the United States there is a large conflict looming between energy and groundwater. Large multi-national corporations in search of natural gas have been looking over large regions of this nation for reliable gas supplies. It is found in a particular kind of slate. The easiest way to find the gas is to hydrofrac the bedrock by using a mixture of water and chemicals that expands the plating in the slate and makes the natural gas easier to extract. This can introduce both the chemicals from this questionable practice and natural gas into clean groundwater supplies. Some folks in Pennsylvania and Colorado can now turn on their faucets and light their water on fire as it pours out of the tap due to this dirty and unethical method. Incidences of grave illness and cancer have been associated with areas where the hydrofrac practice is used by those in search of natural gas. This exploration for natural gas is being undertaken in huge regions of America and has the potential to degrade, for eternity, clean groundwater. This is a practice that could eventually make potable water more precious and more expensive than energy; corporate greed in its lowest hour.
As I walked along the sandy banks of this lake I came across a small stream that feeds the lake. The stream was bordered on both sides by a very large peat marsh. Sphagnum is known for its absorbent and cleansing qualities and acts as a perfect buffer for nutrients that could find their way into this wonderful lake. I got on my hands and knees and lowered my face to the water surface in this tiny stream. I sipped cool water. It was luscious and refreshing. The rain drops continued to fall and they created dimples in the surface of the water in the stream as it flowed by me. I was somewhat mesmerized by this image. It was pure, peaceful, and inspirational. That I was alone with these thoughts was somehow meditative.
I sat down on the sandy shore line and adjusted the hood of my rain suit. The net lining of the suit caught on my collar. I pulled the hood down to reposition the rain suit’s liner. My hair absorbed the rain like a sponge. It felt like soothing a gentle shower and I decided to keep my hood down. As I sat there I had one final thought about something from the distant past and a smile came to my face.
Thirty years ago I worked with low income kids in a rural New England town. There was a family that had moved up to this town from Mississippi . One of their elementary school aged kids used to hang around the youth center. I spent most of my time introducing these kids to the natural world by going on hikes, camping trips, and doing outdoor adventure sports. On one outing I asked the group if they knew what the formula was for a successful life. I hoped to hear the answer “hard work”. Instead this one kid, hearing the word “formula” and likely thinking of his elementary school science class, responded in a deep southern accent “Aitch to Oh”. These were prophetic words. Of course, the foundation to life, successful or otherwise, is H20.
Truer words were never spoken.