Reflecting on the symbols and science of water to understand Gaia

by | Jul 17, 2023

This is an extract from a piece by Schumacher College Fellow, Stephan Harding, that first appeared in Wonder of Water by Ingrid Stefanovic, under the title Water Gaia: Towards a scientific phenomenology of water.

View of the Hermitage of Santa Eulalia d’Alendo from the Centre d’Art i Natura, Farrera, Catalan Pyrenees.
The tranquil waters of the River Dart that runs through the Dartington Estate

Water is very old.  Not of course the water that you are breathing out now as you read this page.  No – that’s new water, a fresh re-minting of two hydrogen beings with one of oxygen made by that oxygen-fuelled slow burn of food in your cells which we call metabolism.

Old water has been around in the cosmos in vast quantities for a long time, long before our solar system existed. The oldest water was created at least 12 billion years ago during the early life of our cosmos just after the explosion of the first supernovae – those huge stars in whose innards all the chemical elements heavier than hydrogen are created.

Thanks to these massive exploding stars, we live in a water-spangled cosmos where about 10% of all the matter in the vast reaches of space is water in the guise of water ice.

Since we can’t see this old cosmic water with our naked eyes, perhaps the first step in our scientific phenomenology of water requires us to engage in the practice of what I call ‘imaginative visualisation’.

Imagine, then, the cosmos shortly after the supposed Big Bang.  Visualise, if you will, in whatever way you can, vast clouds of hydrogen, the primordial element created in the big bang itself, smeared out throughout space as a diaphanous tissue of shifting gaseous vapour, clumping here and there into denser pockets due to gravitational attraction.

Now visualise some of these clumps aggregating down to such huge densities that the pressure inside them causes the hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium atoms, emitting vast amounts of light in the process. Thus are stars born.

Visualise now how in some of these bigger stars the inward pull of gravity amongst their helium and hydrogen atoms causes further fusion, giving rise to many of the heavier elements, including oxygen.

Visualise these huge stars exploding as supernovae when their inward pressure becomes so immense that a kind of massive nuclear blast is created, spewing out the heavy elements into the surrounding space.

Out here, oxygen and hydrogen atoms can meet each other in more peaceful surroundings. See them now, finding fulfilment by sharing electrons with each other, creating a new emergent molecular being with the unique, unexpected qualities of that slippery, sometimes liquid H2O we call water.  If, as some of our greatest philosophers have intuited, the cosmos is a great psyche, then water must be one of its most ancient ideas. Seen thus, each water molecule is a primordial concept made real due to the elemental attractions between hydrogen and oxygen.

We could keep on visualising old water in the distant past out in space, but since we are aiming for a more current phenomenology of water, let’s now shift our focus to water right here on our plane, on Earth, Gaia.

Where did our water come from?  Here we encounter two possibilities, not necessarily mutually exclusive.  The one with the most mythological appeal involves the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter.  In essence, the idea is that, early on in the life of our solar system, the orbits of these two huge planets shifted, sending some huge chunks of water ice from the asteroid belt hurtling towards Earth and the other inner rocky planets.  It would have taken perhaps only a few of these icy comets to give us all the water now on Earth.

In my more poetic, less scientific moods, I like to imagine Father Jupiter looking in at the inner rocky planets of our solar system, and, feeling sorry for their desiccated state, using his gravitational power to send those comets in Earth’s direction.  Some must have missed, plunging into the sun with colossal puffs of steam.  Others would have hit Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, giving them all their primordial water.

The other, more prosaic hypothesis is that the water was there in the very grains of cosmic dust that slowly accreted to form Earth and her rocky neighbours.   There’s more evidence for the latter hypothesis, which, sadly, shows that evidence doesn’t always confer with poetic intuition.

Put some tap water into an ice cube mould and place this in your freezer until you’ve made some ice cubes. Now you have ice – solidified water. Next, drop some of these ice cubes into a glass of water, and carefully observe the starling result.  The ice floats!  The exclamation mark is essential, because this really is a most astonishing phenomenon that has massive implications for life on earth.

Most substances become denser as they cool, which means that their solid phases (ices) sink into their corresponding liquids.  Ice is less dense than water, so it floats. Imagine we could work some devious chemical magic so that the entirety of the world’s ice suddenly became denser than water. The ice would sink, and many areas at the bottom of the oceans would soon be covered in thick layers of ice, making life impossible for bottom dwelling creatures such a kelp forests, crabs and many sediment bacteria.

These same sediments would lose their contact with sea water, so ocean currents would not be able to carry nutrients in the sediments to the ocean surface. This would starve the photosynthetic plankton, the foundation of the entire marine food web.  So, no fish, whales, and so on, and no carbon fixation from the atmosphere by the phytoplankton, so the global temperature would increase substantially.  There would be further catastrophes.

Imagine the polar regions no longer sporting their reflective sea ice – this too would make the planet warmer due to a loss of the ice’s sun reflecting surfaces.  Without sea ice to keep them in place, ice sheets currently grounded on Greenland and on the Antarctic continent would slide into the sea, raising both sea level and global temperatures.

There is one final aspect of water which we must mention, even though we risk evoking a strong cultural taboo against such things. I refer to water’s symbolic meanings. Symbols are images that point to ineffable, numinous and hence only partially knowable qualities in the fabric of reality that bring tremendous healing for the psyche if rightly pondered and integrated into daily life.

One such image is that of water as the elixir of life, as a powerful medicine for the soul, as a holy source of healing, appearing as such in countless myths and stories around the world to do with sacred fountains, wells and springs. Temples and shrines are often located adjacent to such holy places.

Water can also take on more disturbing symbolic meanings, sometimes appearing as vastly dangerous turbulent seas racked by massive waves, as tsunamis, or as deep, still lakes full of threatening menace.  Water’s light and dark symbolic manifestations reveal how the psyche, like Gaia, is a self-regulating system, compensating for one-sided attitudes with contrary images that guide the ego towards wholeness.

Could we gain a more profound understanding of the physical aspects of water if we contemplated these symbolic images gifted to us from the deepest layers of the psyche in conjunction with our scientific knowledge? I believe so, for I’ve noticed how I participate more fully with nature when inner image and outer reality are reconciled, when my awareness is transformed and enlivened by the integration of apparently irreconcilable opposites such as psyche and matter. A truly phenomenological exploration of water would therefore work in a highly personal way with these two mysterious aspects of water’s ever shifting presence – with its inner and outer appearances.

I return to the river Dart, to a stretch hardly touched by human hand.  The river flows shallow here, and in the evening light a mosaic of pebbles and stones on the river bed is bent into shifting shapes by the flowing water.  Large trees extend moss covered branches over the river’s breadth, confirming its wildness. A low flying mallard duck splashes, feet splayed, into dark water on the opposite bank.

Water science and water symbol merge into an ineffable phenomenological experience as I witness all this. The river is no longer something exterior, something dead, alien.  No. The river is alive, full of meaning and personality – a dream image, a non-human intelligence of tumbling water molecules welcoming me into its living depths. The river opens me to the wholeness of water, to the wholeness of Gaia. At last, I am home.

Stephan Harding is a Deep Ecology Fellow at Schumacher College.  He will be speaking the Small is Beautiful Festival in September together with Satish Kumar and Helena Norberg-Hodge.