Water: Thoughts on the 2017 AhFest Theme by Foley Schuler

“The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao.”

Tao te Ching, Chapter 8 (Stephen Mitchell, trans.)

“Then God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear,’ and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good.” —Book of Genesis, Chapter. 1, verses 10-11 (New King James Version)

“When the boat runs ashore, the sea has spoken.” –Irish proverb

Three quarters of our body is composed of it, as is three quarters of the earth on which we live.

It’s the softest and weakest of forces in the universe and yet can move–or remove–mountains. What starts as a drop grows into a slow trickle and can over time can carve a Grand Canyon. We can get by without a lot (in fact almost everything–even food, for quite a while) and still survive, but not without this, at least not for long. Aside from the air we breathe, it’s the last thing we can do without before dying. It is the image of our deepest sense of both comfort (think womb) and of terror (think drowning). It is, indeed, the source of life itself.

Can it be so simple as two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen? This transparent, nearly colorless chemical substance is so basic, so elemental, and so essential as to play a key role in nearly every system of religious beliefs, values and rituals around the world. To the Hindu all water is sacred–rivers in particular, bathing in which brings forgiveness of sins (immersion of the ashes of the dead in the sacred Ganges will send the departed soul to heaven). For Buddhists water is said to symbolize purity, clarity and calmness, and thus it is crucial to live in harmony with the environment. In Judaism, water plays a central role in ritual cleansing practices, and in Christianity, baptism. For the Muslim, water is life, a gift from God, and as such should not be sold or bought. “Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river,” says Taoist philosophy, in which water appears as the essence of nature and a model for human conduct. In the Animistic views of many indigenous cultures, people honor and respect water as sacred and sustaining all life. Their traditional knowledge, laws and ways of life teach them to be responsible in caring for this sacred gift that connects all life.

Debates rage over its possession, use and distribution. Is it a commodity or a basic human right? These debates are right out of today’s news and, at the same time, as old as humanity itself.  There is hardly a day that goes by when water isn’t in headlines, and nowhere more so of course than right here in Michigan–whether it be Nestle Corporation’s controversial attempts to obtain Michigan’s water, or the city of Flint, still struggling to recover from a tainted water supply and enmeshed in the bureaucratic entanglements, oversights and agendas that lead to the crisis. Nearby, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock–a Native American-lead movement, comprising people who call themselves not protesters but Water Protectors–have sought to stop construction of a pipeline beneath the Missouri River that threatens drinking water and cultural sites. As the initial notes for this essay were sketched, one U.S. President, in response to these actions, had just denied its continuance, and, as this essay is being finished, another has ordered its resumption, but not before these protests would capture hearts and minds and become a model for similar actions around the country–and who knows what tomorrow will bring? Please join the Muskegon Area Arts and Humanities Festival–AhFest–in October for a month-long examination of this most essential of our natural resources, essential for being both source and resource, for being that which is all around, and within us all: water.

Resources for the 2018 ahfest Theme: Truth


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