Rita, and Jova were watched closely here in the tropics. We have a
personal stake in the swirling connection when water and wind meet,
become dance partners and take a spin on the floor. I have this image of
the roof on my house lifting off and rain rushing down on me and my
stuff. A mere tropical storm transferred part of a neighbor’s roof to
their yard. As we recently saw in the Gulf Coast, the elemental
water/wind partnership can break down stout human structures -- even
cities like New Orleans -- with a mere gesture.
Hawai’i remains nervously
within our hurricane season, into November. We’ve had our own
devastating hurricanes here on the islands. One comical result,
especially on Kaua’i, was all the chickens freed from their human cages;
you can still see that other two-legged running around wildly and
gleefully. Oh, those many human cages that we make, trying to control
the weather, animals, people, plants, and other elements, even fire.
Down-pouring or gushing water and driving wind together can penetrate
many human-made prisons and contraptions, breaking down solid-appearing
barriers. Children and chickens love to play in puddles, laughing at
Another tropical storm blew onto the Big Island during mid-September --
lots of water, not much wind. The lead was strong, but the follower was
weak. It dropped over eight inches of rain within 24 hours on the native
‘ohia forest where I live in Hawaiian Paradise Park. As the deluge
unfolded, it expanded and deepened pools on the rough lava beds that
surround my house. I remembered again -- this planet’s surface is mainly
water, with small amounts of land scattered here and there. From our
human perspective, needing land, this place seems to be mainly ground
with a few bodies of water. So we named this globe Earth, since we think
we control it and we need land to survive. This planet’s real name
should be Water. From the sky and space, we see mainly blue down here,
rather than green or brown. Humans are also mostly water; because we
hold together, rather than puddle, we appear more solid than we actually
are. But we, too, can collapse into gushing tears.
“Think like a mountain,” ecologist Aldo Leopold recommended, after
living in the Rocky Mountains. From living in the middle of the Pacific
Ocean, some 2500 hundred miles from any continent, I see that “Think
like water” has merit. Or even “Live like water,” taking its fluidity
into one’s human body, as some do, including surfers.
Water drops unite to form water. Individual humans can be like water
drops and come together to form community. If we don’t, we may not fare
very well in the future. Having now met on such a heated up surface --
the globally warmed Gulf of Mexico -- the wind and water are likely to
continue as hot dance partners and come for a few more wild spins on the
The place where one lives and the elements that prevail there influence
who one becomes, how they interact with others, and how they understand
world events. Humans have great capacities to be influenced, changed,
and evolve by the nature within which they dwell. For example, the
Redwood Empire, where I used to live, dominated by the world’s largest
trees, formed me differently than does the Pacific Ocean. I stood in awe
beneath the mighty redwood’s majesty; now I live in awe within the
world’s largest body of water. The redwoods provide another dance
partner for the wind, together making music. Now I watch the scraggly
but persistent ‘ohia dance with the wind, which some say was an origin
of the hula, along with the ocean.
The sea is at once tumultuous and tender, smooth and rocky, filled with
breakers, calm and chaotic. It is endlessly and unpredictably crazy,
with intricately bewitching patterns of perplexing beauty. And danger.
Tenacious and patient, in the end it knows that water can prevail, even
over hot fire and solid-appearing ground, swallowing them down, down,
Redwoods don’t grow in these tropics. I did plant bamboo here, and watch
it most days, trying to take into my own body some of its flexibility,
tenacity, agility, suppleness, and capacity to move with the wind,
rather then resist, without breaking.
Most published reflections on Katrina and recent hurricanes come from
land-based rather than water-based views. Continental perspectives
differ from island-based perspectives. They tend to see land more than
water. By living here on meager land and with expansive water I see
things that I would not have seen from places of much land and less
Tropical Storm Kenneth hits Hawai’i as I finish this article. As I enjoy
its light but evocative touch, I recall how much pleasure I got as a
child on our Iowa farm when storms would blow in -- full of lightning
and thunder. When they were over, everything seemed so bright and alive.
When it rains, my own juices seem to circulate in resonance. Writing
flows more easily out of my pen as water pours from the sky.
Watching a mighty river rage and grow with new and gushing water can
enliven one’s spirit, as well as teach humans our proper place within
rather than trying to dominate nature. Working with rather than against
nature has considerable merit. Paving over and filling in wetlands and
building near rivers that flood are not wise, but many people continue
to do so, even after ample warnings.
We get 160 inches of rain where I live in Puna. A few places in Hawai’i
get over 400 inches. That’s well over an inch of water from the skies a
day. Can you imagine? I remember the day that we got 15 inches at my
Auntie’s house in Orchidland. I compare that to the agriculturally-rich
Sonoma County, Northern California, where I used to live, which gets
only about twice as much a year as we got on that one day.
“Flooding” we call it, which happened all around my home as eight inches
of rain continued to fall that mid-September day. “Flash floods warning”
the radio blared. I looked “flash” up in the dictionary -- “a sudden
transitory burst of light or flame” is its first meaning. Fire and water
are deeply connected. Fire can melt even ice, which is what global
warming is doing to the ice caps at the poles, and heating up the Gulf
of Mexico to whip tropical storms into super hurricanes.
We have lots of fire here -- with Kilauea being perhaps the world’s most
active volcano. I enjoy watching the lava come down the mountain, meet
the water, dance a quick jig, and transform the simmer of some of it
into steam. Yea! What a marvel. As long as you are far enough away. Some
foolish tourists try to get too close, and get burned.
Flooding and flowing lava can be inconvenient (but quite natural) for
humans, especially those wanting to drive cars on smooth artificial
surfaces (roads). In fact, we’re the unnatural ones, with our vain
attempts to control water with dams, levees, and by paving over wetlands
so we can construct stable-appearing human structures, which destroys
the water-absorbing capacities of wetlands. Then we act surprised when
the water -- like in below-sea-level New Orleans -- finally prevails and
returns to its own level or rises as the polar caps melt, inundating
some coastlines and islands with water.
My rainwater catchment system here gathers life-giving water and stores
it for me to drink, wash with, and bathe in. Hurricane Katrina’s
wind-powered rains knocked out central water systems, depriving people
of the means to tap into drinking water reservoirs. Katrina mixed clean
water with oil and other toxins to pollute and carry diseases through
New Orleans. Perhaps the simple, old-fashioned rain-to-roof-to-tank
catchment systems will get more common as higher tech, centralized
systems fall apart. Things are falling apart. Have you noticed?
Taught to stand firm, I am now learning that even the ground can shift,
requiring flexibility. Lots of water here -- surrounding us, coming from
the sky. Much fire. Considerable wind. Less ground. The Big Island,
which could be called the Baby Island, is the youngest body of land on
the globe. It can be immature and unpredictable. This new ground can
give in. At the outdoor Maku’u Farmers Market by an ‘ohia forest one
Sunday, it was raining, as it often does on this wet side. Islanders
just kept shopping. Suddenly a big puka (hole) appeared. A lava tube
beneath the soggy, thin, washed-out surface opened up. It caused quite a
stir. I got scared. What is the “ground of my being?”
Here on this is-land -- small and young, though we call it the Big
Island -- we are frequently reminded that this mis-named Earth has
little earth and much water. And more to come, due to global warming,
melting glaciers and rising seas. America’s 150 million coastal
residents and the world’s three billion shoreline inhabitants would be
wise to be careful, according to Mike Tidwell, author of the book
Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun
It doesn’t take long from anywhere on the Hawaiian islands to get to the
globe’s largest body of water, which fully surrounds us, one might say
engulfs us. That salty water can also rise up and get us, as it did in
various tsunamis, when earthquakes or erupting volcanoes launch a tidal
wave. The Pacific Ocean, not always so peaceful, provides surfers some
Even the Atlantic Ocean was deceptively quiet, until about 10 years ago.
“In l995, it’s just like somebody threw a switch here,” said National
Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield, heating up the once placid
Atlantic. He was testifying before Congress in late September, after
Katrina was fired up by the Gulf waters. The human-induced changes in
our climate are becoming increasingly noticeable. We burn oil and other
fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases that create global warming,
which creates various climate changes. Yet we persist with our oil
The Fire of Industrialism and the Coming Water Wars
It’s tempting to conclude this reflection on water in a philosophical
vein, rather than connect it to current affairs. We already have enough
bad news. But reality tugs at me.
The wind has another preferred partner -- fire. Over 16,000 acres near
Los Angeles were burned in the final days of September, in spite of the
efforts of 3000 firefighters aided by aircraft. Such wildfires have
increased in California and other Western states in recent years, as our
planet’s weather has gotten more unstable and unpredictable.
Another kind of fire (other than volcanoes and wildfires) exists,
unnatural and far more dangerous -- industrialism. It voracious appetite
for fossil fuels heats up the planet, only a few degrees, but that can
be enough to radically transform our entire globe. The water is heating
up -- not boiling, yet, but none the less dangerous.
It was inevitable that a powerful hurricane like Katrina would hit New
Orleans. Because Katrina was fed by global warming and struck America’s
major domestic oil source, the Gulf Coast, one could consider it the
first major Peak Oil hit.
Peak Oil is a geological term that refers to the mid-point of this
planet’s petroleum supply. More Peak Oil hits are likely, given our
continued over-consumption of fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural
gas, and coal. Burning such fuels heats things up, including water. The
hotter water fires the hurricanes, which become more intense and last
longer, though apparently not more numerous, according to scientists.
Some of the pending Peak Oil hits will come from the weather. Others
from unstable governments, competition over limited oil supplies, and
greedy Big Oil corporations.
These are daunting powers for common people like us to face.
“If you think these oil wars are bad,” I’ve heard various people say,
“wait until we get to the water wars.” Of course, they’re already here,
but not with the fury that we can expect. The Israel/Palestine conflict,
for example, is partly over the Jordan River. Humans can live without
petroleum, did for centuries, and will soon live without much of the
Black Gold, as we slowly move into a post-carbon era. Water, on the
other hand, is required for human existence, preferably in substantial
quantities and of high quality on a daily basis.
With increased competition for both oil and water looming, it would be
wise to gather a few friends in one’s neighborhood and figure out how to
live more simply and conserve our diminishing resources in the face of
our expanding human population. Rainwater catchment systems, living by
streams and in small towns, and being off the grid become good survival
strategies at this point in the 21st century.
Don’t look to the federal government for much help. “The Bush
administration is ignoring reports from its own agencies,” writes Mike
Tidwell in the beltway’s Baltimore Sun, “that say every coastal city in
America -- from New York to Los Angeles -- could become a New Orleans
within a generation or two.” What we saw in New Orleans, Tidewell warns,
“could become an annual occurrence in some other US city.”
Tidewell describes Louisiana over 300 years ago when French colonists
settled it -- “vast tracts of dense hardwood forests between what is
today New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico” and “extensive fresh water
marshes and endless saltwater wetlands and a formidable network of
strong barrier islands.”
But today, “all that land is essentially gone. It has turned to water.”
Maybe that is what is happening to the Earth -- it is turning into
water. Why? Human industriousness. We build levees and dams to control
the water, which can be quite patient, waiting, until its partner the
wind shows up with force and together they take a wild spin on the
floor. Maybe the water creatures will do a better job and not threaten
this lovely planet with the destruction that humans may soon trigger.
Its time to “think like water” and “live like water.” Our survival on
this fragile and increasingly unstable and unpredictable globe needs it.
Hawai’i has much to offer the world, including its water-based source of
Shepherd Bliss divides his time
between the Big Island, where he is a contributing writer for the
Hawai’i Island Journal, and Sonoma County, Northern California,
where he owns Kokopelli Farm. He can be reached at: