The Controlling Element

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Issue 4 - The Water Issue

As every schoolchild knows, we human beings are 70 per cent water, not counting the fat. We need between one and seven litres of water per day to keep going, to keep all of the organs running, to look good (skin), and think efficiently (brain). In a neat parallel, 70 per cent of the world’s surface is water, and it is integral to keeping the organs of life on earth going: travel, trade, communication and cooperation. Our hourly need for water reminds us that we are organic organisms, in which every action has an outcome, and it also reminds us that the planet is an organic organism too.


Unsurprisingly for a substance so keenly needed on every level, water comes hand-in-hand with issues of control, pretty much everywhere that you find it, in the personal, the political, the economic and the technological. This article is a short journey with a divining rod through several places in which water and control issues lie together, from inside the emotional world, out into the planetary organism.


Control games

A study at the University of Minnesota showed that women cry about five times a month, and men about once. I was quite relieved about this, mostly because I cry a whole lot less than five times a month, and I always thought I was a bit of a crier – it’s a hard thing to gauge, our emotional stability.


There are three different sorts of tears: ones that keep the eye lubricated and rolling around smoothly; ones that protect the eye if you get hit in the face (especially by an onion); and another sort, the emotional ones, which don’t crop up until after you are two months old (really small babies are yelling, not crying).


Emotional tears have a different chemical make-up, including some waste products, which is why they make your eyes itch, your face swell up, and your misery so much harder to hide when you get stuck in the toilets of a crowded party. So far, science doesn’t seem to know what emotional tears are for – could it be that they are outward signs of inner turmoil, for the purposes of communication?


Nothing works as well as crying to shock other people into seeing your inner pain. A guy who is having a hard time of it is just considered a bit of a nuisance until he breaks down in tears. Still, it’s worth remembering that fashions play their part: there have been times in history when it has been normal for men to cry openly (and crying then was considered to be much more manipulative than it is now). A survey has shown that the majority of people believe we are more understanding than the norm about men crying, which shows that the idea of men crying is more acceptable than we think.


At ten months babies stop crying primarily when they are alone and start crying when there is someone around who will react to them; in other words, crying becomes manipulative in aim. By adulthood – at least in this day and age – most crying takes place when you’re alone again, and mostly between the hours of 7 and 10pm.


Handing over control


When my parents split up my mum rented a flat by the sea, in a terrace with sandbags permanently deployed, where waves hurl stones up at people’s windows and cars. It has a big window and on one of my first visits there were several dolphins playing less than 100 feet away. The sea itself provides a focus; it is beautifully changeable, from waves crashing against the sea wall, to slate grey, spitting and churning, to a still millpond. Like keeping a fire burning and watching the flames take on a life of their own, looking after pets or gazing at the TV, an outward focus is crucial for the spirit. On Mum’s beach every day has a sunset, and a whole tableau of action and activity unfolds. Local surfers use that stretch, and so do all the dogwalkers in town. Students come down for bonfires and barbeques and there’s even a stalwart tea hut that’s been battered and buffeted there for decades.


It’s on the other side of the town, by the harbour, facing away from civilisation and out towards open water. Mum didn’t take on much to do for a while, and was quite happy with it that way. She reflected upon the changes in her life and upon future, and just enjoyed having the sea there, constantly active, infinitely calming – a relief from having to busily keep generating and providing life’s action and focus. People the world over are drawn to water for spiritual reasons – when we’re not trying to conquer it, it is a reminder that we are laughably small, but in a good way, and control in our lives can and should be tapped into something deeper, our host earth with its own inescapable logic.


Meanwhile my dad went to Sri Lanka and was on the beach when the tsunami happened. Plastic chairs banged into his legs and then all the rest followed: mud and broken glass and inconceivable death counts – things I’ll never properly comprehend and mostly try not to think about. He was alright but it took a while to find out, and it was a strange time in the world: a big event that didn’t have a guilty party, a political motive, a public enemy; just another reminder that we’re ridiculously small, and that the earth’s logic isn’t always benevolent.


Tasting control


I live on a boat, in the middle of London. My motives were economic; I wanted my own home and it was the cheapest whole house going, but it has also provided me with a water-related spiritual element: I have water a few inches below my feet, and rain a few inches above my head, and the constant slight rocking motion that makes the pavement feel disconcertingly solid.


It was also a lifestyle choice in as much as it makes me aware of the processes of life in ways that are rarely necessary in the normal course of a Western existence. On the boat the water comes from a hose from the mains. I’m not so connected that I go and collect it from a spring in an urn on my head, and I’m pretty glad about that. The hose fills up three containers, each the size of a small suitcase, and this lasts a couple of days, for cooking, drinking, washing myself and everything else. I’m not boasting – I’m still addicted to a whole lot of thirsty practices, most of which I don’t even realise are. To grow the sugar needed to make a litre of cola, for example, takes 175 to 250 litres of water, and that’s not counting the rest of the process, including the huge amounts of water needed to make an aluminium can. I’m not a big cola fan, but it does wonders for a hangover… I imagine 175 litres of water might do even better wonders.


But boat life has connected me to what comes in and what goes out, the tap and the plughole, in a way that it’s very easy to ignore in a plumbed-in house. It gives me back some control, some sense of cause and effect, and some responsibility. I’d never pour into the canal half of the rubbish I’d anonymously pour down a sink.

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