Water and Wind as Dance Partners--and the Warming Globe
Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Jova were watched closely here in the tropics. We have a personal stake in the swirling connection when water and wind meet, become dance partners and take a spin on the floor. I have this image of the roof on my house lifting off and rain rushing down on me and my stuff. A mere tropical storm transferred part of a neighbor’s roof to their yard. As we recently saw in the Gulf Coast, the elemental water/ wind partnership can break down stout human structures—even cities like New Orleans—with a mere gesture.
Hawai’i remains nervously within our hurricane season, into November. We’ve had our own devastating hurricanes here on the islands. One comical result, especially on Kaua’i, was all the chickens freed from their human cages; you can still see that other two-legged running around wildly and gleefully. Oh, those many human cages that we make, trying to control the weather, animals, people, plants, and other elements, even fire. Down-pouring or gushing water and driving wind together can penetrate many human-made prisons and contraptions, breaking down solid-appearing barriers. Children and chickens love to play in puddles, laughing at adult-imposed order.
Another tropical storm blew onto the Big Island during mid-September— lots of water, not much wind. The lead was strong, but the follower was weak. It dropped over eight inches of rain within 24 hours on the native ‘ohia forest where I live in Hawaiian Paradise Park. As the deluge unfolded, it expanded and deepened pools on the rough lava beds that surround my house. I remembered again--this planet’s surface is mainly water, with small amounts of land scattered here and there. From our human perspective, needing land, this place seems to be mainly ground with a few bodies of water. So we named this globe Earth, since we think we control it and we need land to survive. This planet’s real name should be Water. From the sky and space, we see mainly blue down here, rather than green or brown. Humans are also mostly water; because we hold together, rather than puddle, we appear more solid than we actually are. But we, too, can collapse into gushing tears.
“Think like a mountain,” ecologist Aldo Leopold recommended, after living in the Rocky Mountains. From living in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, some 2500 hundred miles from any continent, I see that “Think like water” has merit. Or even “Live like water,” taking its fluidity into one’s human body, as some do, including surfers.
Water drops unite to form water. Individual humans can be like water drops and come together to form community. If we don’t, we may not fare very well in the future. Having now met on such a heated up surface—the globally warmed Gulf of Mexico--the wind and water are likely to continue as hot dance partners and come for a few more wild spins on the floor.
The place where one lives and the elements that prevail there influence who one becomes, how they interact with others, and how they understand world events. Humans have great capacities to be influenced, changed, and evolve by the nature within which they dwell. For example, the Redwood Empire, where I used to live, dominated by the world’s largest trees, formed me differently than does the Pacific Ocean. I stood in awe beneath the mighty redwood’s majesty; now I live in awe within the world’s largest body of water. The redwoods provide another dance partner for the wind, together making music. Now I watch the scraggly but persistent ‘ohia dance with the wind, which some say was an origin of the hula, along with the ocean.
The sea is at once tumultuous and tender, smooth and rocky, filled with breakers, calm and chaotic. It is endlessly and unpredictably crazy, with intricately bewitching patterns of perplexing beauty. And danger. Tenacious and patient, in the end it knows that water can prevail, even over hot fire and solid-appearing ground, swallowing them down, down, down.
Redwoods don’t grow in these tropics. I did plant bamboo here, and watch it most days, trying to take into my own body some of its flexibility, tenacity, agility, suppleness, and capacity to move with the wind, rather then resist, without breaking.
Most published reflections on Katrina and recent hurricanes come from land-based rather than water-based views. Continental perspectives differ from island-based perspectives. They tend to see land more than water. By living here on meager land and with expansive water I see things that I would not have seen from places of much land and less water.
Tropical Storm Kenneth hits Hawai’i as I finish this article. As I enjoy its light but evocative touch, I recall how much pleasure I got as a child on our Iowa farm when storms would blow in—full of lightning and thunder. When they were over, everything seemed so bright and alive. When it rains, my own juices seem to circulate in resonance. Writing flows more easily out of my pen as water pours from the sky.
Watching a mighty river rage and grow with new and gushing water can enliven one’s spirit, as well as teach humans our proper place within rather than trying to dominate nature. Working with rather than against nature has considerable merit. Paving over and filling in wetlands and building near rivers that flood are not wise, but many people continue to do so, even after ample warnings.
We get 160 inches of rain where I live in Puna. A few places in Hawai’i get over 400 inches. That’s well over an inch of water from the skies a day. Can you imagine? I remember the day that we got 15 inches at my Auntie’s house in Orchidland. I compare that to the agriculturally-rich Sonoma County, Northern California, where I used to live, which gets only about twice as much a year as we got on that one day.
“Flooding” we call it, which happened all around my home as eight inches of rain continued to fall that mid-September day. “Flash floods warning” the radio blared. I looked “flash” up in the dictionary—“a sudden transitory burst of light or flame” is its first meaning. Fire and water are deeply connected. Fire can melt even ice, which is what global warming is doing to the ice caps at the poles, and heating up the Gulf of Mexico to whip tropical storms into super hurricanes.
We have lots of fire here—with Kilauea being perhaps the world’s most active volcano. I enjoy watching the lava come down the mountain, meet the water, dance a quick jig, and transform the simmer of some of it into steam. Yea! What a marvel. As long as you are far enough away. Some foolish tourists try to get too close, and get burned.
Flooding and flowing lava can be inconvenient (but quite natural) for humans, especially those wanting to drive cars on smooth artificial surfaces (roads). In fact, we’re the unnatural ones, with our vain attempts to control water with dams, levees, and by paving over wetlands so we can construct stable-appearing human structures, which destroys the water-absorbing capacities of wetlands. Then we act surprised when the water—like in below-sea-level New Orleans—finally prevails and returns to its own level or rises as the polar caps melt, inundating some coastlines and islands with water.
My rainwater catchment system here gathers life-giving water and stores it for me to drink, wash with, and bathe in. Hurricane Katrina’s wind-powered rains knocked out central water systems, depriving people of the means to tap into drinking water reservoirs. Katrina mixed clean water with oil and other toxins to pollute and carry diseases through New Orleans. Perhaps the simple, old-fashioned rain-to-roof-to-tank catchment systems will get more common as higher tech, centralized systems fall apart. Things are falling apart. Have you noticed?
Taught to stand firm, I am now learning that even the ground can shift, requiring flexibility. Lots of water here—surrounding us, coming from the sky. Much fire. Considerable wind. Less ground. The Big Island, which could be called the Baby Island, is the youngest body of land on the globe. It can be immature and unpredictable. This new ground can give in. At the outdoor Maku’u Farmers Market by an ‘ohia forest one Sunday, it was raining, as it often does on this wet side. Islanders just kept shopping. Suddenly a big puka (hole) appeared. A lava tube beneath the soggy, thin, washed-out surface opened up. It caused quite a stir. I got scared. What is the “ground of my being?”
Here on this is-land—small and young, though we call it the Big Island--we are frequently reminded that this mis-named Earth has little earth and much water. And more to come, due to global warming, melting glaciers and rising seas. America’s 150 million coastal residents and the world’s three billion shoreline inhabitants would be wise to be careful, according to Mike Tidwell, author of the book “Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast.”
It doesn’t take long from anywhere on the Hawaiian islands to get to the globe’s largest body of water, which fully surrounds us, one might say engulfs us. That salty water can also rise up and get us, as it did in various tsunamis, when earthquakes or erupting volcanoes launch a tidal wave. The Pacific Ocean, not always so peaceful, provides surfers some exciting waves.
Even the Atlantic Ocean was deceptively quiet, until about 10 years ago. “In l995, it’s just like somebody threw a switch here,’ said National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield, heating up the once placid Atlantic. He was testifying before Congress in late September, after Katrina was fired up by the Gulf waters. The human-induced changes in our climate are becoming increasingly noticeable. We burn oil and other fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases that create global warming, which creates various climate changes. Yet we persist with our oil addiction.
THE FIRE OF INDUSTRALISM AND THE COMING WATER WARS
It’s tempting to conclude this reflection on water in a philosophical vein, rather than connect it to current affairs. We already have enough bad news. But reality tugs at me.
The wind has another preferred partner—fire. Over 16,000 acres near Los Angeles were burned in the final days of September, in spite of the efforts of 3000 firefighters aided by aircraft. Such wildfires have increased in California and other Western states in recent years, as our planet’s weather has gotten more unstable and unpredictable.
Another kind of fire (other than volcanoes and wildfires) exists, unnatural and far more dangerous--industrialism. It voracious appetite for fossil fuels heats up the planet, only a few degrees, but that can be enough to radically transform our entire globe. The water is heating up—not boiling, yet, but none the less dangerous.
It was inevitable that a powerful hurricane like Katrina would hit New Orleans. Because Katrina was fed by global warming and struck America’s major domestic oil source, the Gulf Coast, one could consider it the first major Peak Oil hit.
Peak Oil is a geological term that refers to the mid-point of this planet’s petroleum supply. More Peak Oil hits are likely, given our continued over-consumption of fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Burning such fuels heats things up, including water. The hotter water fires the hurricanes, which become more intense and last longer, though apparently not more numerous, according to scientists.
Some of the pending Peak Oil hits will come from the weather. Others from unstable governments, competition over limited oil supplies, and greedy Big Oil corporations. These are daunting powers for common people like us to face.
“If you think these oil wars are bad,” I’ve heard various people say, “wait until we get to the water wars.” Of course, they’re already here, but not with the fury that we can expect. The Israel/Palestine conflict, for example, is partly over the Jordan River. Humans can live without petroleum, did for centuries, and will soon live without much of the Black Gold, as we slowly move into a post-carbon era. Water, on the other hand, is required for human existence, preferably in substantial quantities and of high quality on a daily basis.
With increased competition for both oil and water looming, it would be wise to gather a few friends in one’s neighborhood and figure out how to live more simply and conserve our diminishing resources in the face of our expanding human population. Rainwater catchment systems, living by streams and in small towns, and being off the grid become good survival strategies at this point in the 21st century.
Don’t look to the federal government for much help. “The Bush administration is ignoring reports from its own agencies,” writes Mike Tidwell in the beltway’s Baltimore Sun, “that say every coastal city in America—from New York to Los Angeles—could become a New Orleans within a generation or two.” What we saw in New Orleans, Tidewell warns, “could become an annual occurrence in some other US city.”
Tidewell describes Louisiana over 300 years ago when French colonists settled it—“vast tracts of dense hardwood forests between what is today New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico” and “extensive fresh water marshes and endless saltwater wetlands and a formidable network of strong barrier islands.”
But today, “all that land is essentially gone. It has turned to water.” Maybe that is what is happening to the Earth—it is turning into water. Why? Human industriousness. We build levees and dams to control the water, which can be quite patient, waiting, until its partner the wind shows up with force and together they take a wild spin on the floor. Maybe the water creatures will do a better job and not threaten this lovely planet with the destruction
that humans may soon trigger.
It's time to “think like water” and “live like water.” Our survival on this fragile and increasingly unstable and unpredictable globe needs it. Hawai’i has much to offer the world, including its water-based source of wisdom.