The Wonder of Water, a Greek Philosopher, a Scottish Writer

Around two-and-a-half thousand years ago, in a Greek city in what is now Turkey, Thales of Miletus was captivated by the wonder of water, thinking it to be the single substance that was the origin of all things. In those pre-scientific days, this wasn’t such a crazy idea. After all, liquid water can change to solid ice and also to vaporous steam. Water, mysteriously, both emerges from the ground and falls from the skies. Water is essential for the existence and sustenance of life, animal and vegetable. Fertility and growth in nature depend on access to water – whatever dries, dies. The lands on which we live are surrounded by water, and so our world seemed to float on a watery deep. It was very important stuff, this water!

Nowadays, water, for many of us, has receded into everyday ordinariness. It’s the stuff that comes out of a tap. It facilitates a welcome cuppa, or a refreshing shower, and it’s what we paddle our feet in when we give them a outing at the beach. But we’ve lost our sense of wonder that the atoms and molecules of two invisible and intangible gases can somehow combine, and magically transform themselves, into a liquid that’s not only a necessity, but also a source of delight. We need to open our eyes and minds to rediscover the wonder of water.

To help us, here are some words of Nan Shepherd, poet, author and mountain climber, who lived in Scotland, in the same city of Aberdeen in which this post is being written. In “The Living Mountain”, she describes her experience of contemplating the source of Aberdeen’s River Dee in the heights of the Cairngorm mountains …

“Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me … For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.  One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking. But to a listening ear the sound disintegrates into many different notes – the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate. On one short stretch of burn the ear may distinguish a dozen different notes at once.

The most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength. I fear it as my ancestors must have feared the natural forces that they worshipped. All the mysteries are in its movement. It slips out of holes in the earth like the ancient snake. I have seen its birth; and the more I gaze at that sure and unremitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled. We make it all so easy, any child in school can understand it – water rises in the hills, it flows and finds its own level, and man can’t live without it. But I don’t understand it. I cannot fathom its power.”

The deepest sources of awe and wonder can lie in the simplest of things. If we learn to simply listen, new sounds can be heard. If we learn to simply look, new marvels can be seen. If we learn to simply contemplate, (switching off the noise and clutter of thought), new awareness can arrive, and life can become even more of a priceless privilege, whatever its cost might turn out to be.

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