The most recent name given to the place where I live comes from a story full of blood and desire that is surrounded by water. The conquistadors who set out from Spain aboard ships laden with guns, armor and the thirst for gold also took with them a popular romance novel that detailed the delights to be found by those who discovered the mythical island of the Amazons. Depending on the interpretation, the island or the queen of the island was named Calafia. As they made their way across the Atlantic the men on the galleons took in the stories of willing women and fabulous wealth.
By the time they reached the coastline on the other side of the waters, the fictions had ben imbibed from the pages of The Adventures of Esplandián to the point where many believed the quest was as much about finding Calafia the island or Calafia the woman and her legions of attractive her female attendants as it was about empire. According to some stories, both were inevitable.
As it turned out, neither was discovered here, but the name and the hope that it contained exerted such a strong pull on the imaginations of the colonizers that they gave it to the land they did find. Calafia was transformed into California and the name was thrust upon the land here along with the flag of empire. Shortly afterwards a party walked overland from Mexico into Southern California, proving accidentally that it was not an island. Yet the desire to find Calafia by crossing her guardian sea remained strong. Cartographers persisted in drawing California as an island for two more centuries. The belief that if a person could just manage to make it out here and arrive at the edge of the sea between the mountains and the crashing waves, all their troubles would be over still persists to this day. I hear this in between the words of friends who don’t live here and come to visit. I recognize it in the stories of the millions who jump into the dream of making it big in Hollywood. It reaches in and helps guide the swarms of hopefuls flooding in to fuel the tech boom with their fevered imaginations of instant wealth.
But underneath every daydream is a reality more intricate and far more amazing for those who are willing to take the time to look and listen. The roots of the tree are more expansive than the branches. Like all realities, it holds the dark and the light of a fascinating complexity, not just the things one wishes could be true.
Some years ago I sat in a hot tub on the back porch of a relative’s house and looked out across fields and orchards. The day had been a long one and I was ready to relax. I let my mind drift and floated in the joy of the magic that is fire and water together. I neared the edge of dreams and was looking forward to a long night of rest.
Instead, I found myself looking out across an expansive plain marked by white blotches of alkali. Dark shapes of dead trees fell against each other in the distance where orchards had once brought forth abundant fruit. Dry skeletons of tumbleweeds rolled past yellow-gray earth dried and packed into hard, flat surfaces that had not seen water in years. Dueling fields where moisture lost. A few hundred yards away I saw a small building with half its roof missing and the dried remains of a vegetable garden. The stalks of dead shrubs reminded me of their green times that would not return. The edges of the patches of toxic white powder still carried the reminder of the final ripples that moved across the puddles they had once been. Everything I saw carried the memory of water. All of those memories where years in the past At the moment I heard them.
I felt the land below me cry out for the absence of the aquifers that had been sucked dry. Dust was in my mouth and my eyelashes held grit that had once been topsoil. I saw someone I know well who is deeply connected to this place and this land standing in the twilight. His face was deeply creased and I could sense that he had been lost out here for a long time. He was facing the end of his life and did not understand what had happened to this place. He stood in a wide-brimmed hat and leather boots with pointed toes and shook his head sad and slow.
A big part of my experience of California is the fact that humans for the past couple hundred years have had a completely unrealistic relationship to water. A salient characteristic of this land is that where there is sun, there is little or no water and where there is water, there is very little sun. My personal favorite is the bursting liveliness of the forests that hug the young geology rising out of the ocean to the west and north of the great bay that is the center of the state.
Many who came here before I was born, including some of my blood relatives, saw the power of the sun that shines on the plains in the middle of the state and immediately began to look for a place from which they could take water and bring it to the dry places where the sun shines so easily. They wished to make the Earth Mother bring forth the incredible abundance that now flows out of the great Central Valley and puts vegetables and fruit, nuts and meat on shelves and tables all over the world.
Men with eyes for the short-term future of their bank accounts carried out their plans and brought the rivers that wound their way across the plains full of Valley Oaks to a halt. Stories ceased to be told that warned the listener away from gazing too long at the beauty of fields of wildflowers that stretched to the horizon. The trunks of the oaks were severed and the delicate ecosystems based around the flowering plants that could grow and flourish in the long, dry summers were plowed under. The waters taken from the rivers were spread out across fields and orchards of imported flora that craved both sun and irrigation. More and more of the rivers were stolen from their courses and forced into concrete channels so that none of their precious liquid could escape where it was not needed by industry. The banks accounts swelled as the rivers shrank. When that was not enough, the men drilled wells that sucked the water from the earth and lowered the elevation by dozens of feet in less than half a century.
I grew up hearing these stories, but not understanding what they mean until that night when I sat immersed in water and saw a future of drought. People I care for dug some of those wells. Peopled who helped raise me worked to stop those rivers and became successful from the results. I played in the orchards fed by these changes as a child and grew up nourished by the produce of the fields that drank in the irrigation that came from the massive reshaping of the aquatic landscape. My body is made of these things that came from the death of rivers and some of my earliest memories are of laughing and running past the huge diesel pumps of the wells.
Stories I inherited from my immediate ancestors describe the whole process of change taking place. Since I personally knew most of the people involved, I can verify that they were kind people who tried to do what they felt was best for their families and friends. If you go looking for rapacious monsters, you won’t find them in this crowd. The families of the men who red about Amazons and gave this state her name may very well have said the same thing.
So what can one I do about these two types of knowledge, one from my family stories and one from a much larger and longer-range perspective? I sat with the vision of alkali and dead almonds and dreamed the dreams it brought about. It became apparent that, though I had a long and beautiful relationship with the element of Water, a deeper understanding needed to be reached in order for me to know how to respond to this question. I began to focus on my daily interactions with the element in all of the small ways it touches my life. After a time, it seemed that bathing was the place where I could potentially enact a change or learn something important.
Through research I found that the average 10-minute shower in my state uses 190 liters of water. As a point of reference, a fully-grown dairy cow only uses 9 liters per day. Where I live, it is customary to take a shower at least once a day.
I began to practice the ancient art of sponge bathing using a bucket, a piece of damp cloth and soap. The first thing I learned was that this takes around 8 liters, a saving of 182 liters per day. The next thing I learned is that the act of bathing went from a perfunctory but necessary action to a time of connection to both my body and the element of water. I also learned about the music of washing.
In a shower, the sound is essentially the same for a given room no matter which part of my body I am cleaning. The only exception is my head because that is when my ears are immersed in the stream. Water passing through a shower nozzle is not an unpleasant sound, but I wouldn’t call it music. I was used to getting in, doing what I needed to do, then getting out without paying much attention to the process. The sound was simply there as a byproduct of the process of cleaning myself.
Water being lifted and poured by hand to run and sprinkle across my body turned out to be another matter entirely. It develops a variety and depth of sound that easily compares to a small version of the laughter and chatter of a moving stream. It is always musical and never the same.
Each moment of each pour and scrub sends forth a new note and each gesture needed to clean each spot reminds me of the presence of the body I am cleaning and of the power and limits of my capacity for movement. After a few tries, I began to learn that washing yourself thoroughly from a bucket also requires some skill, unlike standing under a shower. This meant that every time I did it, I was learning. That is always exciting for me, at it has has been a long time since that was true of a shower.
Washing became something I began to look forward to. In the heat of the long, long dry season a cooling bath was a refreshing time that invigorated both my body and my powers of focus and creativity. As I became more careful and attentive to water, I received in return many small gifts from the stream that flowed over my body. Over time they added up to a deeper connection to the flowing stream of inspiration. This seems to be most effective when I take the water from the stillness of the pool (bucket, sink, bathtub, etc.) and carrying it in my hands to let it flow into active release as it does its cleansing work.
I began to search for new ways to carry out this ritual. I plugged the drains of sinks to dip up water in my hands for face washing or tooth brushing. I held water in pots and pans for scrubbing other dirty dishes. I carried water in various containers to water the small plants outside my home. All of it made music and all of it brought me closer to the element and everything that comes with and through it.
The dry fields and dead trees have started to come out of my dreams and show up on the news. I do not forget them, even though I know they shouldn’t be stopped if balance is to be restored between land, water, people who live here and our actions in relation to the two elements. There is only so much water. I hold both the stories this land has shared with me and the tales of my ancestors and living kin who have helped dry it out. Through weaving this double thread of discordant memories I seek the future that is more in tune with the full complexity of this place than what I saw that day as I sat in the tub. Water has taught me that many small actions can add up to enormous changes.
Since I started to explore water more deeply in this way, people I see when I am out in my yard have started to think I know how to garden and ask me questions about taking better care of plants I have never grown. I do my best to help them, but all I could truly say is “Listen to Water. The music is beautiful and can teach you many things about being alive”