June 9, 2020

Being Thirsty and Being Human

I remember how it felt. The mid-afternoon sun would be blazing, the humidity high. Then in my mid-teens, I would be on a hay wagon behind a baler. My job was to hook bales free of the baler’s chute, lug them to the back of the wagon, and stack them securely, five or six rows high. The baler’s pace demanded my full attention. The pounding of the baler and the growling of the tractor sealed off distractions. The heat beat down. Suddenly, motion, sound, swirling dust — everything would stop. The mid-afternoon snack had arrived and with it a jug of fresh well water. Just as suddenly, I would realize that I was thirsty, desperately thirsty. Raising the jug high, I would drink on and on, feeling the chill of the water rise in my belly. Water was never as good. I would never have enough.

Thirst is a doorway to understanding who we are and how we relate to our planet. More than half of our body weight is water. Water is a primary building block of our cells. We need it to swallow and digest our food, lubricate our joints, flush wastes and toxins from our bodies, carry oxygen and nutrients to our cells, and more. When as little as two per cent of our body’s water has been lost, we get thirsty. Humans depend on water; we know that from direct experience. Along with every other living being on this planet, we are creatures who need what Earth provides.

Not only do we need the water that Earth provides, our societies and cultures need the ways that Earth provides it. Water falls from the sky as rain or snow, percolates down through the soil, and runs away in growing streams and rivers until it pools in great basins, some of them as large as oceans, some of them far beneath the ground. Marvellously, the water that falls will also rise, returning to the sky, only to fall again another day. Without that cycle, the earth would be barren. We depend on it, too. Agriculture requires predictable rains. Without waterways, trade would not have developed as it did. Ways of life that we have developed over centuries would not be what they are without the roles that water plays on planet Earth. When it comes to water, we humans appear to be situated in cycles and processes that provide for our needs and enable our development.

The Earth’s water doesn’t always suit our needs. Water can be threatening. When the Red River rises bit by bit across southern Manitoba, threatening to fill every trench and climb every dike, there is little to feel but dread. When the Bow reaches far beyond its banks, crashing through towns and destroying urban environments, we are afraid. Water on the rampage has power beyond our control.

There is more about water than our needs and our fears. Water also provides pleasure — sometimes even joy. A long drink of cool water on a hot, sweaty day satisfies us. A tumbling waterfall throwing up clouds of mist as it splatters on smooth rocks astounds us. The sight and sound of waves soothe us. The feel of soapy water on our skin refreshes us. The scrape of sharp blades on hard ice is music to our ears. A world without water’s pleasures would be a duller world.

We shouldn’t be surprised that water rituals play significant roles in many of our religions. Water shows what we are — creatures interacting with a complex environment that sustains us. Whatever powers we may possess, we have certain fragilities too. Water uncovers them, but it also uncovers something else. We have the capacity for delight.

Lloyd Den Boer is retiring as Dean of Education at The King’s University after a career in teaching at every level from elementary school to teacher preparation.