The Essential Element

second year carolina benoit

photo by sofi gratas

photo by sofi gratas

Swimmer, lifeguard, water polo player, swim instructor, sailor, literal fish. I identify with all these terms, and they hold one thing in common: water. I only recently realized this trend, but my life revolves around water. Obviously, everyone’s lives do, because, you know, hydration and all. But I naturally gravitate toward all things H2O. On a recent cruise to Alaska, I remember staring at an endless horizon one moment, and the next, a majestic humpback whale breached right next to us. But if I leaned over the ledge of the ship at night, I’d see deep black hills racing towards me and colliding with the white siding, forcing every passenger to sway slightly. To my ears, each crash was the water’s audible threat to decimate the boat we were precariously floating on. If anyone went overboard, there would be no lifelines to rely on. Besides, who knows what’s even down there?

What most fascinates me is the many shapes water takes on. Not the physical states (solid, liquid and gas), and not the fact that water conforms itself to fit into whatever container you force it into. I mean the different personalities it holds: the life-giver, the life-destroyer, the life-teacher.

If we glance at an ocean or creek, we sometimes see little fish or tadpoles swimming around. What we don’t see is all the microscopic bacteria that photosynthesizes and provides more oxygen than all of Earth’s trees ever could (cyanobacteria, anyone?). What’s incredible to me is the diversity water provides. If you compare a mushroom to a blue whale, you think, “You can’t get more different than that.” However, both of these things rely entirely on water. Water gives life to every organism on Earth. Even if it doesn’t drink water, like the kangaroo rat, it eats things that do. It’s a living cycle that no organism can deviate from. Water is a mother, a creator.

Water provides life for all living organisms, so it’s ironic that it also destroys it. Tsunamis, flash floods, even over-hydration. How many times have we seen hurricanes take lives? Not just human lives - plants, animals, livelihoods too. How often have we accidentally overwatered our precious house plants? How many crop harvests have been ruined by too much rain? Sure, water is a life-giver, but we should also recognize its role as a pillager and conqueror.

One of the most amazing things, though, is we still have so much to learn from water. It’s funny that we can’t fully understand one of the few elements that binds all life together. We’ve only discovered 5% of the ocean. Scientists don’t really know how closely bound the molecules are, or even how water interacts with itself. Besides, isn’t it odd that ice floats? No other solid floats on top of its liquid state. And did you know that hot water freezes faster than cold water? It seems contradictory, just like everything else about water. We’ve explored and explained a lot, but our work isn’t done. We can always discover more. One thing we can constantly re-learn from this complexly simple, omnipresent teacher is that just because we think we know something, or someone, doesn’t mean we understand the full depth and complexity.