The seed for this book was planted in the late 1960’s, when I was a graduate student at Stanford. One day, while driving in the hills above Redwood City, I happened upon a curious monument. It was a sort of Grecian rotunda with a reflecting pool in front of it, sitting incongruously in open grassland. I had no idea what it was about, but it was worth stopping to check out. There was a sign: Pulgas Water Temple. This didn’t do much to clear up what I was looking at; I had only recently arrived in California, after growing up in St. Louis and going to college in Boston. Within the circle of stone columns was a large round opening surrounded by a stone wall, and a crashing, rushing sound was pouring up out of it. Cautiously I peered over the edge, and saw something like a giant well. A torrent of water was roaring into it, a rapids that the best kayaker in the world could never run, sluicing into a channel that led downhill. I realized that this water had to be headed for the reservoir in the valley below. But it still took a day or two for the real point of this strange structure to penetrate my Midwestern mind: people went to the trouble to construct that mock-classical temple out in the countryside because water in California mattered that much. The fact that the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct brought the water there was so momentous that it didn’t seem odd to construct a place of worship consecrated to H2O.
Later, after I had lived in Palo Alto for four years and grown accustomed to the climatic rhythms of Northern California, rainy season and dry season, green alternating with gold, I moved to San Diego. There it never rained, aside from a few times in January. I began to wonder why it didn’t bother anybody else that a million people were living in a place where there was no water except what came from a great distance. Everyone seemed to take it for granted, just as they accepted that the water coming out of the tap, which originated in the Colorado River, tasted so bad that hardly anyone would drink it. San Diego was at the end of the line, so what could you expect? Everyone had five-gallon bottles of drinking water delivered. This was “normal life,” but having grown up in a city at the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi, I found the Southern California scheme of things unnerving in a subliminally nagging way. I never felt at home there; I don’t think I ever expected that I someday would.
I left San Diego for Boston in the late 1970’s, but the experience of California’s precarious relationship with water stuck with me.
I’ve been a teacher of writing for over thirty years, and during that time I’ve written seven novels, some short stories, and various kinds of non-fiction. If there’s anything I know after all this, it’s that we humans do have an imagination, and that this imagination is basically as creative as we allow it to be. The first thing the imagination must create is itself. This up-by-the-bootstraps act of self-creation is the essence of how we think and the reason why we are not stuck being helplessly pushed around by genes or our culture.
In 2007-2008 I was due for a sabbatical, and one day as I was walking to the bus a proposal for a sabbatical project bubbled up unexpectedly: I would write about water, and how we cause enough of it to show up where we are, when we need it. This didn’t resemble anything I’d ever written, but that didn’t stop Simmons College from approving my proposal – at which point I began to think, How am I actually going to do this?
Of course a whole library of books has been written about hydrology, drought, floods, water policy, water shortages, water and civilization, water and civil engineering . . . everything about water had been written already, it seemed, by people who knew infinitely more about the topic than I could hope to learn in a year. But my project, like water, began to take its own course. After a couple of months I realized I was writing about the human relationship with nature; it took perhaps six months more to realize that I was writing, more pointedly, about how we imagine that relationship. On the intellectual-scholarly front I was writing especially, but not exclusively, about how we imagine our relationship with nature through science. At the same time, I was scouting around within bicycle range of where I live, looking for places where water flows through the built environment, writing about those places, photographing them, having a relationship with what the poet Bill Corbett calls “city nature.” So there are two strands that I have braided together to make up this book, one more abstract and epistemological, one spun out of lived experience.
It seems to me many people now sense that our relationship with nature is at a critical juncture, and my goal in writing this book has been to contribute to the ongoing dialogue.
Two words that I need to use on nearly every page of this book require some definition: “we” and “nature.” By “we” I mean two things, varying according to the context; I hope the reader will discern which one applies at a given moment. One “we” is cultural and political. It means “we, the inheritors of the Industrial Revolution and the beneficiaries of modernity.” At one time, perhaps a century ago, this might also have meant “we in the West,” or “we of European descent”; but the West now has no monopoly on modernity, and the “we” defined in this way now live all over the world. “We” in this sense are still not, by any means, all of the world’s population; but “we” are the holders of most of the power.
My other use of the word “we” is biological and does include all human beings; it means “we, the human species as organisms.”
I use the word “nature” – which appears to mean nearly what anyone wants it to – roughly with the meaning it has in its role as the title of a scientific journal: the reality around us. Nature, the journal, publishes research in all disciplines of science, investigating all aspects of the ambient reality. I use the word “nature” in a narrower, but still very broad sense, to mean the living portion of that reality.