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How My Love For a Subject Led to a Book

love the sensuous feel of fresh water running over my arms after a long, hot day in the sun. A turn of the faucet and the crusted salty spray on my face vanishes in moments, leaving a wonderful feeling of well-being. Wading in glacial meltwater in New Zealand, a glass of cold water after hours in Egypt’s Valley of Kings, the incredible luxury of a mugful of hot water to shave with after hours in a dusty trench. Water has caressed my senses so many times that I feel its special bequest from the natural world. Guest column by Brian Fagan, author of Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind (Bloomsbury June 2011).

I love the sensuous feel of fresh water running over my arms after a long, hot day in the sun. A turn of the faucet and the crusted salty spray on my face vanishes in moments, leaving a wonderful feeling of well-being. Wading in glacial meltwater in New Zealand, a glass of cold water after hours in Egypt’s Valley of Kings, the incredible luxury of a mugful of hot water to shave with after hours in a dusty trench. Water has caressed my senses so many times that I feel its special bequest from the natural world. Maybe I’m unusual in these feelings. Or maybe it’s I’ve spent most of my life in semiarid landscapes where every drop counts, or on passage in small boats for days on end with only tanks and jerry cans to rely on.

Brian is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Teresa won.)

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Guest column by Brian Fagan, author of Elixir:
A History of Water and Humankind (Bloomsbury
June 2011). Fagan is a British-born archaeologist
who is now an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
at UCSB, and widely regarded as one of the world’vs
leading archaeological writers. His many books include
The Rape of the Nile, a history of early Egyptology;
and the best-selling The Great Warming, the
story of the medieval Warm period of a thousand years ago.

I refuse to think of water as a commodity like electricity, gravel, or oil. Our blue planet has many gifts to bestow, but none of them approach that of water, truly our lifeblood. Water is life and has been since the very beginning. But today, our reckless consumption of this clear liquid, the elixir of life, has taken us far beyond the point of sustainability. We turn on a faucet and water appears. We take it for granted as an entitlement, waste it, promiscuously build suburbs and golf courses in arid landscapes, and shrug off warnings of a drought-laden future as alarmist.

HOW RESEARCHING ONE BOOK LED TO ANOTHER

When researching a book about what our climate was like a thousand years ago (when temperatures were slightly elevated) I came across evidence for intense droughts in the American West that lasted decades. It happens that the past 700 years have been some of the wettest (relatively speaking) in the west since the Ice Age ended some 12,000 years ago. Soon after I learned this, I read newspaper headlines after heavy rain proclaiming that the persistent drought of recent years was over. Tired of denial, I decided to write a book on the history of humans and water. Elixir, the result of three years’ research, was released this month. It has proved a scary education in the harsh realities of water management in a world with finite supplies of this most vital of life sustainers.

I found that an endless flow of water links every part of our existence. Our forebears realized this, and never took it for granted. They knew that their lives, their sustenance, well-being and bodily health depended on this erratic and completely indifferent substance. Water itself is oblivious to human needs, moves between extremes of flood and drought, a force that is placid one moment, raging in turbulent flood the next. Lakes evaporate, rivers change course without warning, sudden inundations sweep away centuries of irrigation works. For all our efforts to channel and control it, water governs itself and often defies capture. Small wonder the Romans thought of free-flowing water like a wild animal, only subject to human law when corralled in aqueduct or canal. The capricious moods of water lay in the hands of gods, goddesses, and temperamental water nymphs.

SOME OF WHAT I LEARNED IN WRITING THE BOOK

I found that nearly every ancient society enjoyed close spiritual relationships with water—Australian Aborigines with the Dreaming and its verbal signposts to water holes, the Egyptians with the sacred waters of the Nile that brought fertility and symbolic rebirth, the Maya of Central America with the dark, primordial waters before the creation. Water was powerful, a matter of life and death, part of a sentient landscape brought to life by gods and goddesses, often in wells, rivers, and lakes. In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel writes of the Holy Spirit: “I will sprinkle clean water ... A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.” The Holy Quran proclaims how water made all living things, a merciful gift from God.

I also learned that millions of people around the world, like the Marakwet of northern Kenya in East Africa, still rely on gravity to water their fields. In the past, power over water lay not with centralized water districts, but in the hands of local people for thousands of years—farmers, millers, watermen, who maintained water meadows and weirs, also landowners.

There was little pressure on their water resources, each person having equal rights to water flowing past his or her land, for watering cattle and fields, for mills and water meadows. All of this required close cooperation between neighbors living in small, stable communities where long- and short-term economic and social ties provided a secure framework for allocating a finite resource. These kinds of small-scale, locally based and collaborative relationships are very effective in maintaining self-sustainability. Today, millions of subsistence farmers still depend on simple irrigation furrows. They certainly don’t take water for granted. Nor should we. Elixir has taught me that water, then and today, is the most precious gift we have. We need to conserve and cherish what is, ultimately, a completely finite resource.

Brian is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before.
(Update: Teresa won.)

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