Tuesday, October 15, 2013

When We Were Nomads

No man ever steps in the same river twice.   –Heraclitus, 5th century BCE

Checking out the map showing all the rivers in the United States, I got to pondering water, thinking that the United States could be called instead the land of many waters, which reminded me of the Heraclitus quote above.

I wonder if Heraclitus, a stern philosopher of his own time, ever pondered the good fortune or divine providing, depending upon one’s point of view, I suppose, of living in a land plentiful with water, for only a people well-provided with water would understand an axiom predicated upon standing in a river and contemplating the passing of its collection of droplets as it swirled on its way between and around his legs.

When considering the planet as a whole, we have indeed been blessed with an abundance of water, but not so in many particular localities, where water is so scarce it’s but a dream on a wisp of a cloud in an otherwise cloudless expanse of sky, where it’s a thing fought for and over, where ownership is claimed and contested, as if the truth of Heraclitus’ observation could be subverted and the claim made for this drop of water be made universal to every drop this way comes.

I wonder, thinking on such things and want to create, at least in my own imagining, a world where nomads wander freely with the waters and where, because of such mobility of purpose, there is no strife, for there is always enough, if one has but legs to get him there.

But that’s a dream and I know it.  In Iraq a few years ago, there was such a drought (it may continue, I do not know) that shepherds walked their flocks from southern Iraq ever northward into the higher elevations, seeking water.  What could seem a pastoral story of the struggle for survival became something uglier as fights and violence broke out between the southern Arabs on the move and their northern Kurdish neighbors over grazing and water rights and one shepherd was killed in the fighting.

I dream sometimes about peace in the Middle East being tied to the international development of desalination on a large scale, solving the problem of water scarcity.  But friends are always quick to point out that whatever is offered for free or the common good is all too often exploited for the good of the few.

It’s enough to make an optimist despair, this unwillingness or inability to even imagine that there might be another way.

Life was harder in many ways when we were nomads.  But the desert rule of hospitality, of the welcome of the stranger and even the enemy, was born in the hearts of the nomads, who well knew how essential such reciprocity was.

How have we lost that?

Was it always only a myth?

I don’t think so, for I have been on the receiving end of the hospitality of enemies, sharing their table out of that ancient idea and custom.

When we were nomads, we well knew where the waters lay.

But now, sedentary people, we forget that the rivers move and nothing is forever.  We forget that the blessing of many waters we may enjoy in one region will move with the sands of time to another.  We forget that blessings are for a season.  We forget at our peril.

And so it is that in our forgetting, the Colorado River no longer flows into the Pacific as it once did via the Sea of Cortez, because of the many dam projects in the US when the Colorado ran plentiful and there was no drought.  PBS

When we were nomads, we knew the blessing of standing in the river and we knew it was a different river than the ones in which our ancestors drank and washed, even as their feet and ours touched the same bedrock.

We knew some things when we were nomads.

I don’t know if it made us kinder or better, but in many ways, I think it made us wiser.

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