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Elemental Refreshment

by Carolyn Cooper

"Water is peaceful and extends its beneficent action throughout Nature, not even disdaining those gloomy depths which the vulgar look upon with horror, for water works much as God does."
- Lao-tzu


We are aware of living, flowing water, an essential, mysterious and ever-present aspect of reality, but what do we know of it? William Marks, a devotee of water who has made a life study of the subject, not only expands our intellectual understanding, but also makes us want to enter into a conscious relationship with it. Divided into five sections called Wonder, Mystery, Crisis, Healing, and Hope, the book gives us a thorough look at all the aspects of this element that we so often take for granted. Marks describes how his life has centered on water, physically, psychologically and spiritually, beginning with his dramatic encounter with the life-giving and life-destroying nature of water. As a young boy he, along with his brother and father, hand dug a well on their New Jersey farm. Surrounded by tiny rivulets of water that were revealed as he dug, he realized that the water flowing into the hole was a small part of an underground network of water veins. Then, at 20 feet, water suddenly gushed in, and his father had to rescue him from the depths of the well.

His initiation into the realm of underground water led to further exploration. Marks did independent research in water pollution as an undergraduate at Fairleigh Dickinson University, traveled to Europe and Northwest Africa to learn about water management practices and worked briefly for the City of Newark as an environmental analyst. Losing patience with that job, he left it and set out on a seven-thousand mile horseback journey from San Diego to Maine, in order to study the nature and health of the country's water. He finally settled in Martha's Vineyard and, over the years, has founded several profitmaking environmental businesses and a nonprofit environmental research institute. Marks is intrigued by the various manifestations of water on Earth, and also by scientific evidence that water exists throughout our solar system (even as steam in sun spots!), and beyond it. NASA scientists speculate that the crystals containing pockets of bubbly water discovered in the meteorite that fell in Monahans, Texas, in 1998 could predate the solar system. Water also exists in interstellar space and enters the solar system in the form of ice, one of the major constituents of comets.

Water is Godlike, as Lao-tzu noted, in that it creates and sustains an environment from which life can spring. Both on the surface and underground, water dissolves stone to release minerals and nutrients and neutralizes excessive acidity or alkalinity in the soil; in plants, it makes photosynthesis possible; in the oceans, it stores the energy of the sun; and in the atmosphere, it filters the rays of the sun and protects Earth. Moreover, chemical reactions involved in biological processes are dependent on the presence of water. Because of the life-giving role water plays, Marks concludes that "if you discover water in any shape or form, no matter where you are, you have discovered life."

The vortex energy that is created by water's movement manifests itself in the draining of a sink, the force of a hurricane or the beauty of the spiral pattern on a seashell. Marks relates the physical reality of this energy to the capacity for motion or "life" that characterizes all organisms. He sees water playing a crucial role at the interface of matter and spirit, as "it is in the watery creation of protoplasm [present in every cell in every living organism] that we have the world of life being born from the world of nonlife." There is also a widely held belief that the motion of water in the atmosphere contributes to the creation of electrical energy as lightning. Amazing as it is to realize how omnipresent water is, Marks brings us into an even more intimate relationship with it. Not only is the life of the body made possible by water, but also the life of the mind! Electrical impulses in our brains, which are 85 percent water, generate electrical thought waves and stimulate the synapses of the brain to store information and create ideas. Summing up the wonders of water, Marks says, "As far as humanity knows at this time, without water there can be no life; without electricity there can be no thought; without thinking there is no intelligence."

We human beings have always been stirred by the mystery of water, linking it to creation, destruction, fertility, birth, purification and regeneration. We have woven myths about its powers, worshiped water deities, revered bodies of water and made it central to many of our religious rituals: rain dances, bathing in sacred rivers, baptism. The story of the flood is recounted in the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, inscribed on clay tablets around 3000 BC, and later in writings that became part of the Bible. For the Taos Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, Blue Lake is the center of the universe and its waters sustain all creation. Among some aboriginal clans in Australia, the Wandjina spirits, who in the distant past brought these people to the land in which they now live, are associated with coastal rains and the wet season. The Qur'an teaches the sacredness of water, saying that one cannot refuse surplus water without sinning against Allah and man. However, as we have become accustomed to living in increasingly artificial surroundings, our consciousness of the life-giving properties of water has faded and we have developed attitudes and lifestyles that are unfriendly and damaging to nature. Marks discusses the crises that we have unleashed upon ourselves by polluting our waters through discharging into them chemicals that are not biodegradable, allowing herbicides and pesticides to seep into the soil, shortsightedly building giant dams, and destroying trees. Actions that seem innocuous in themselves can, over time, result in ecological catastrophes. Marks points out another aspect of this crisis: the growing shortage of water to sustain burgeoning populations and the industries and agriculture on which modern society depends.

Marks's conviction that water has the power to heal flows from his successful experimentation with waterhealing techniques after a heart attack and a near-death experience at the age of 34. He outlines the development of hydrotherapy in Europe, beginning in the 1700s, and in the United States, and he notes the reduction in infection and death following childbirth that occurred in the late nineteenth century once doctors recognized the need to wash their hands! Water also acts as a medium for other kinds of healing: its motion and sound can soothe the mind and restore a sense of peace or, as in the case of the spring at Lourdes, can cure infirmities of the devout. One of the most moving instances of healing Marks describes is the awakening of young Helen Keller's capacity for language and thought. The cool water flowing over one hand miraculously linked itself with the word "water" being spelled into her other hand.

The Holy Order of Water ends on a note of hope. Marks was driven to write the book by the conviction that he must "help awaken humanity to the urgent need to care for water as though it were a living being-for that is exactly what water is." People are indeed being awakened by the global environmental problems they can no longer ignore; they are using their ingenuity, expertise and energy to find ways to protect and conserve water, and some of their efforts are briefly described. There is also an awakening at a more radical level, as we begin to perceive that water is not merely a commodity that we must preserve in order to survive or a "good" we should protect as faithful stewards. We have a close kinship with it; we share our being with it as it moves through the universe, nourishes our planet, sustains every cell of our bodies and enables us to think. We in turn use thought to make choices about how to use water, choices that will affect our environment and the well-being of other life forms on Earth. Given the watery nature of all living things, Marks urges us: "Remember, through water, you are related to all others as one family." Marks is an enthusiastic teacher of the wonders of water. Delving into the work of researchers in the hard sciences and in the soft sciences and into the writings of philosophers and religious and spiritual seekers, he searches for concepts with which to wedge open the doors to new areas to explore. Scattered throughout his book, queries like "could it be possible that ...?" push the reader to make a mental leap, to question assumptions and to look for connections where none had been detected before. The reader is thus called upon to weigh the evidence or, if he or she has only limited expertise in the area, to at least keep an open mind. An extensive bibliography provides a valuable resource for further inquiry.