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Water -- the problem, and the poetry

A recent of Time magazine showed a very wide-eyed man submerged to his nose in water. The artist attached this apprehensive face to a skeleton below the surface of the water, thus editorializing upon the pollution of the lake or stream being depicted. The skyscrapper of an industrial city rises sinisterly in the background. The caption reads: "The Poisoning of America."

A couple of brief decades ago this message, now so commonplace, would have bewildered most Americans, including a lot of natural scientists. The word "water" conjured up veritable cliches of the wholesome -- a mountain stream sparkling in the sunshine, an oaken bucket full of cool, pristinely clear liquid , hauled up from a well on an August day.

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That world seems as innocent as Eden, and as remote.

Today we say "water" and think of Love Canal.

Water, the element of actual and symbolic purification, is seen in need of desperate purification itself. Water, the substance associated with rebirth, now wears the sign of skull-and-crossbones.

There is something more than just an acceptance of "facts" here. We are also choosing to embrace a mood.We keep telling ourselves that we have lost trust in our institutions. We now seem to be in the process of telling ourselves that we have lost trust in nature, too.

Such a dismal prospect! -- to go through life looking at water (and air and food) with the suspicion of a passenger on a subway car at 3 o'clock in the morning, eyeing his fellow passengers.

Joy in being alive has always depended, at least partly, on savoring the goodness of the earth. One delighted in all the colors, fragrances, and flavors. From sheer pleasure one listed all the extraordinary creatures. In bearing witness to what was generally called creation, the heart sang like the psalmist. One became a poet.

On the other hand, what becomes of people who have defined the earth as so "dirty" that nobody could really ever "clean" it up? What becomes of people who look at food and see cholesterol counts, who look at water and see toxic levels, who look at air and see little rooftop devices that tell them whether it is safe to go outdoors and breathe? What becomes of people who perceive nature as so many biochemical units of menace?

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When the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva was a child, she journeyed one holiday to Nervi on the Mediterranean, below the Bay of Genoa. It marked her first encounter with the sea, and she had been anticipating this even for a month. The family arrived in the evening, and Tsvetaeva recalled: "The sea was here, and I was here and between us was the night . . . and the whole bliss of delaying."

Three objects (beside her own name) spelled sea to Marina: a rose-colored Australian shell she held to her ear; a blue-black postcard of the Mediterranean , sent to her older sister; and above all, Pushkin's poem, "To the Sea." Other poets have seen the sea as a cradle, endlessly rocking or as a mystical solution dissolving the harder forms of matter. Pushkin chose to see it as life's "free element."

When Tsvetaeva saw the sea the next day -- and fell into it -- she did not love the sticky, salty actuality as she had loved the idea of it. In fact, she turned her back on it, and with a fragment of slate she scratched on a rock, line by line, Pushkin's poem. There was just time to sign Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin at the end. Then a wave broke, and "everything is washed away, as if licked by a tongue."

With characteristic bluntness Tsvetaeva summed up the moment, and the rest of her life: "The 'free element' proved to be poetry and not the sea."

A human being, we teach our children at an early age, cannot exist without water. Do we realize how much we also need a poetry of water -- a poetry of nature -- in order to be human?

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