Notes from a dry island

I would love to sit and write something. But. It’s just so damn hot. So hot, so suffocating, I can’t really think straight. Had some words in mind; now they’ve evaporated. Tried to focus my eyes on the page of a book and end up reading the same sentence over and over. It is so stifling that I genuinely am not functioning.

What if water was god, spirit, the force? Think about it. A TikTok creator told me to think about it and I did. A lot of imagery in the Bible and other religions likens god to water. We know from science that life as we know it is only possible in environments with liquid water, and these far-flung planets are where alien-hunters and astrobiologists are focusing their energy in hopes of finding life beyond Earth.

Whether or not water is god, water is certainly critical, spiritual, magical.

Last week, I had dinner in London with a friend-of-a-friend from Kansas. I told him how, when I first moved to London, I started longing for the night sky, like when people who grew up near the ocean move inland. They long for the sea the way I long for a sky full of stars like the one I grew up under.

Water! That was always what I loved to see, he told me.

Water is a different thing. When you are raised in the desert (or on the landlocked Kansas prairie), water is a novelty. I never get sick of being near, in or over water. When we were kids and drove east to somewhere like Oklahoma or Arkansas, crossing a river was as exciting as anything else that happened on the trip.

LOOK! A river. And there is water in it! This was exclaimed every time we crossed a bridge over a river brimming with water. Where we came from, rivers were dried out sand beds called arroyos, where water only ever flooded through on the odd summer evening, and we rarely if ever saw it actually run. Water might as well have been the Statue of Liberty or, I dunno, Six Flags Amusement Park. It never, ever got old.

But I don’t long for water in the same way as the stars, because, can you really miss something you never had? Actually I’m not going to take myself down that road because I know for a fact that you can, indeed, miss something you never had. Anyway.

When I first moved to the British Isles, there was one joke that locals made and never failed to amuse themselves with: “Well, you sure could have picked a place with better weather.” Sometimes it was a variation on this joke, especially if they knew I moved from somewhere with an average 300 sunny days per year to a dreary, rainy, wet island.

You moved from sunshine to here? What on earth FOR?

I’ve written about this before, and about my tumultuous relationship with mud.

Desert people are raised in an odd, waterless world. Rain is a joyous, almost spiritual experience. It doesn’t make mud; it just causes more dust to be raised. A water droplet hits off of dirt so dry that it literally can’t form mud. It just poofs up in a small whiff of dry dirt, then settles into the soil and vanishes as if it never existed.

Try to explain to someone who grew up in a lush, wet environment that you detest the sun and they will definitely look at you sideways. And the truth is, I don’t detest the sun; in fact, I’ve grown to love it, particularly when the UK has been through it’s long, grey, damp winter and the first signs of spring appear on a fresh, crisp sunny day where you can sit outside on grass gently warmed by the sun and eat a triangle sandwich.

But, when I experience seasonal affective disorder, it is because of the stifling heat and long summer days, not the cold, dark winter. Being parched, sweaty, thirsty. Having my feet feel on fire at night.

England is experiencing one of its worst droughts in recorded history and I feel like I am back in New Mexico. Parks where grass usually grows thick and green have turned to straw fields. Gardens where unstoppable weeds are regularly battled have withered. Rivers and lakes are running dry. And drought has been officially declared, which means hosepipe bans and water conservation – something to which the British simply are not accustomed.

Life on a rainy island makes it easy to take water for granted. Generally, England averages around 33 inches of rainfall annually (compare that to New Mexico’s 13 inches). Water is cheap and plentiful and never in shortage. Gardens mostly keep themselves watered. Lots of people don’t have or need sprinklers – the grass simply grows. Over in Ireland, where they average a whole 48 inches of rain a year, they have never charged for water use. Water that goes to your home is simply free. At least, until 2022. This year, Ireland will charge for water for the first time in its history, and even then you’ll only have to pay the charge if your household uses more than 213,000 litres a year.

Heat here is far less endurable because homes are designed to keep the warmth in. To shield you from the damp, cold winters of a time before central heating. They are entirely un-air conditioned (as are the pubs, restaurants, buses, some trains and many office blocks). Once a warm spell sets in, there is simply no escape. And we haven’t even talked about Britain’s latitude yet. This far north, summer days are much longer than they are in places like Italy, New Mexico and Central America, which have shorter days because of the Earth’s tilt. The sun has scorched London for a full 14 hours and 41 minutes today.

When you are raised in the desert, water is always a conservation effort. It is magical and limited. I go to my sister’s house south of Santa Fe, switch on the tap and watch the water flow, pulling itself up from an underground reservoir, into the well and through the pipes to my hands. It is a miracle, and one I’ll never take for granted.

Rain is forecast for London this week, and I am certain not to be the only one dancing round it in when it starts to fall.

And breathing in deeply. There’s nothing better than the smell of rain on dry earth. It is the aroma of soil and mineral; oxygen and life.

We could do worse than worship water.

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