My Life In Water

My Life in Water: An Ecopsychological Autobiography

As I approach the end of my doctoral coursework, I am going over old papers and I found this one that I really loved as I read it with fresh eyes. It was written in 2017 during my first year of coursework for Dr. Ed Casey’s Ecopsychology I course.

“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” 

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours (2005, p. 65)

Dedication: To Water

 This paper was conceived while walking along the Cape Fear River, and some of the better ideas came, as most do, while taking showers or baths, submerged in water, between drafts. I thank the water within me and around me for its inspiration, for its sustenance, for its life.

Introduction: Water Is Life

Mni wiconi – water is life – the Standing Rock water protectors have called upon us to remember in their efforts to protect water and land from the destruction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Throughout the struggle at Standing Rock, and throughout this ecopscyhology course, water has been on my mind and heart, as I have been contemplating the way water has flowed through my life, through the various places I have lived on different continents, and the various issues surrounding water in these regions. 

As a peace studies professor, one of the first assignments I usually gave students was a “peace autobiography,” in which they were invited to share the formative moments in their life that led them to being in a peace studies college classroom. For this final paper I will embark on an ecopsychological water autobiography, a journey tracing the flow of water and my relationship through my life, and the collective sociopolitical issues surrounding water from Pittsburgh to Niger to San Diego to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Unfortunately, the story of water in my life is also a story of some of the most pressing issues relating to water in our time, such as fracking, drought, desertification climate change, and fossil fuel pipelines. An underlying current is my journey as a peace educator and how these streams converge in my life through these places and communities – both human and nonhuman –  that have hosted me and grown me. As my teacher, Zenmaster Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Peace in oneself, peace in the world,” and I will explore this connection between inner and outer peace, what in ecopsychology we might call the relationship between psyche and nature.

Pittsburgh: Three Rivers

Allegheny – beautiful stream (Lenape)

Monongahela – falling banks (Lenape)

Ohio – good river (Iroquois, Seneca)

Taking Fisher’s (2013) radical ecopsychological approach, I begin with my roots. My life’s journey started in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Steel City, land of the Three Rivers, where the Allegheny and Monongahela join to form the Ohio. Pittsburgh was built on this point of confluence, and the rivers quite literally shape the city and life within it. During my childhood, I spent much time at Three Rivers Stadium, home of the Pirates and Steelers, which sat prominently at the Point, demonstrating the role of sports in this working-class city. Growing up in the 1980s, the rivers were cleaner than they had been during the heydey of the steel industry, which by that time was in its decline. However, the many years of industry had taken their toll on these water systems, and we would never think of swimming in them, although they are the source of our drinking water. They had a deep green or gray color, depending on the day, and in most areas the riverbanks were lined with cement, echoes of their industrial past. My love of this land led me to study environment and development as an undergraduate student, which became the doorway to my journey as a peace educator.

Today, fracking (also known as hydraulic fracturing) in Pennsylvania threatens the quality of Pittsburgh’s water, its public health, and its ecosystems. In 2010 Pittsburgh city council banned natural gas drilling within Pittsburgh’s city limits, citing threats to drinking water and public health concerns (DeMelle, 2010). However, fracking is booming elsewhere in Pennsylvania, which was notoriously featured in the film Gasland (2010) for its flammable tap water. While banning fracking within Pittsburgh’s city limits is a good start, Pittsburgh’s water supply will inevitably be impacted by fracking elsewhere in the region, particularly from where these rivers flow, and the tributaries flowing into them. The Pennsylvania Medical Association recently called for a moratorium on new shale gas drilling and fracking in the state due to the currently understudied public health impacts (Hopey, 2016). As the Trump administration rolls back environmental protections and encourages domestic fossil fuel extraction, reasons to be concerned about fracking and its effects will probably only grow.

Fracking not only pollutes water systems through the chemicals it uses and releases in its process, but the quantities of water required for fracking are also of great concern. A recent U.S Geological survey has found that “[o]il and natural gas fracking, on average, uses more than 28 times the water it did 15 years ago, gulping up to 9.6 million gallons of water per well and putting farming and drinking sources at risk in arid states, especially during drought” (Magill, 2015). If water is life, using – and in the process, polluting – massive quantities of water for the sake of small amounts of fossil fuels (which then, when burned, contribute to climate change) seems that we have our priorities wrong. This struggle exemplifies what Vandana Shiva (2002) refers to as paradigm wars, or “conflicts over how we perceive and experience water” (p. vii). Modern, industrial American culture has lost the notion that water is a sacred source of life, only seeing it as a commodity to be used as is most profitable, and the struggles over fracking exemplify this.

Pittsburgh is my native habitat, and will always be my home. These rivers, clean or dirty, flow through my heart. On April 19th, I will be making a pilgrimage back to Pittsburgh for my grandma’s 90th birthday, and will pay my respects to these rivers, which in shaping the city, have shaped me.

Niger: Desertification and Climate Change

Hari – water (Zarma)

Issa – river (specifically Niger River; Zarma)

It wasn’t until I moved to Niger as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2002 that I truly developed an appreciation for water. The Niger River creates its southwestern border. The village where I lived, Nianfarde, was perhaps 30 kilometers from the river, but most of my villagers had never traveled that far, as there was no road and it would mean traveling through the bush. Nianfarde lacked running water but had two wells, one cement and one traditional, and a water table with a depth of about 13 meters. Water was available – hari go no – but it required work – a ga dooru. If I wanted to drink, cook, bathe, or clean, I needed to get water from the well. It was demanding but rewarding physical labor, walking to the well, pulling the water up from its depth in the Earth, and carrying it on my head back to my hut. The well was also the women’s social hub, as they would help each other, exchange news and gossip while filling their buckets. I would often be accompanied to the well by a posse of little girls – they were too young to be of meaningful help to their mothers and older sisters, but they were learning, with small buckets and receptacles, how to pull and carry water. Going to the well with them was a great joy, one of my fondest memories. Looking back, I wonder if their mothers sent them to help me so I wouldn’t have to work alone.

Over time, I discovered that I needed about one bucket per day for all my needs if I conserved water efficiently (unless I was hand washing clothes, which required more). I became adept at conserving water, using only the bare minimum of what I needed reusing gray water whenever possible. When I returned home to the US, the running water felt truly like a luxury, and I realized how we take this miracle for granted, and how much we waste – taps left running while washing dishes or brushing teeth, leaky sprinklers on the sidewalks, long showers, let alone how much is wasted through industry and agriculture. That clean water flows from a tap in our homes is truly a daily miracle.

In Niger, I also learned from thirst. It is a predominantly Muslim country, and most people fast during Ramadan, which means no drinking of anything between sun up and sundown. In solidarity, I fasted with my villagers. It is one thing to not drink water all day – it is still challenging – but it is another when it is over 100 degrees outside, and there is no break from the heat or sweating. At the end of the day, we would eagerly await the prayer call indicating we could take our first sips of water of the day. Water is life, quenching our thirst.

When I left Niger in 2005, the country was experiencing a drought that led to famine conditions in some regions. What was happening there was what Nixon (2011) describes as “slow violence”: “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is not typically viewed as violence at all” (p. 2). Much slow violence happens in Niger:  it is a country that is near the bottom of the Human Development Index, ranking 187 out of 188 in 2016 (UNDP, 2016), yet receives very little international attention. Gary Eilerts (2006) of USAID described Niger’s 2005 famine:

Famine arrives, devastates the community, is (poorly) resolved and goes away. But
Niger’s deadly famine-like crisis is driven by decades of chronic, extreme poverty that
has undermined the ability of individual households in the community to participate
effectively in the economy that surrounds them. It is permanent, and insidiously attacks
individual infants and children in a large and scattered number of households, all the
time. Children are acutely malnourished and die in numbers that are far beyond
emergency levels each year, irrespective of good or bad harvests, drought or good rains or
food prices. This is not a famine, nor a chronic nutritional crisis. It is something much

This slow violence of malnutrition and chronic poverty is being exacerbated by increasing desertification due to climate change. Any increase in desertification of the Sahel (by the encroaching Sahara) means there is less land to feed Niger’s burgeoning population. Desertification is not the only potential problem brought on by climate change, which some Shiva (2002) has perhaps better described as “climate chaos” due to the unpredictability of said changes (p. xvi). Thomas (2015) has documented how climate change is forcing villagers in Burkina Faso and Niger to migrate due to the unpredictability of weather and subsequent effects on food security. In a region prone to drought, too much water can create just as much of a problem, and flooding has increased in recent years, making this region of subsistence agriculturalists incredibly vulnerable. Nigeriens are experiencing the reality of the Oriya proverb, “Too much or too little water destroys creation” (Shiva, 2002, p. xxi). Like in many other parts of the world, those who have contributed the least to anthropogenic climate change – these farmers and herders in the Sahel who rarely use electricity or fossil fuels – are likely to be the first victims and hardest hit of the ensuing climate chaos. This is the heart of climate injustice.

Shiva (2002) also notes how water tensions can lead to armed conflict, which may account for – or at least have contributed to – the increased activity in the region by Al-Queda and Boko Haram. Shiva notes that “[i]n sub-Saharan Africa, the combined challenge of an increased population, demands on natural resources, and the effects of climate change (particularly drought) on food and water supplies are likely to lead to tensions, which could result in conflict” (2002, p. xxviii). Peace Corps pulled out of Niger in 2011 due to security concerns after two French nationals were kidnapped by Al-Queda operatives in the capital, Niamey, and taken to Mali to be executed. Along the southern border with Nigeria, Boko Haram activity is increasing, All of this makes me wonder if the drought and increasing desertification and climate chaos have been contributing factors to increased terrorism in the region. Shiva notes that “men who…would have been gainfully employed as farmers, fishermen, fish sellers, and pastoralists have now been conscripted into Boko Haram” (2002, p. xxx). Sayne (2011) has made this connection between climate change and conflict in Nigeria, and we can go beyond the colonially drawn borders to assume it is having an impact in Niger, as well. As climate becomes increasingly chaotic, and populations increases, I worry for Niger’s future.

Irkoy m’aran dogonondi. Irkoy m’aran halesi. May god make it easier for you. May god protect you. Irkoy ma kande hari. May god bring water. A wassa dey no. Enough, just enough.

San Diego: Drought and Teaching Environmental Justice

After Niger, San Diego became my home, which is also prone to drought. During the time I lived there, 2010-2017, the state was perpetually in a declared state of drought (which was only recently lifted after the recent rains of winter 2017). Many factors contribute to this situation, including population pressure and the use of water by agricultural industries. Household water use accounts for less than 20% of water use, while industry, such as irrigation and power generation, account for upwards of 80% (US Geological Survey, 2010). Even if households reduce water consumption, vast changes would need to be made to California’s agricultural and energy production in order to resolve this water crisis.

San Diego’s great irony is that it is next to the Pacific Ocean, yet it is drinking water scarce. The drinking water in San Diego is brought in from Northern California and the Colorado River, although an energy-intensive desalination plant just opened in north San Diego county. When I was teaching classes on sustainability, justice and peace at San Diego City College, students were deeply concerned about the drought, and we would talk about the need for both individual and systemic change – how even if every human in the state of California stopped showering altogether (which I did not recommend!), California’s water consumption would still be high, primarily going to the agricultural industry in the Central Valley, which feeds the nation in fruit, vegetable, and nut production (Palmer, 2013). 

Though there is a need for systemic change in the way we collectively use our resources, developing reverence for water at the individual level is perhaps necessary to enable this wider-scale change. In our class, we used Joanna Macy’s activity “The Council of All Beings” (Seed, 1988), which was always deeply impactful for students and shifted many perspectives from anthropocentrism towards what Wenz (2001) calls “environmental synergism,” which he defines as “the view that simultaneous respect for people and nature improves outcomes for both” (p. 297). One of the concepts that most resonated with students was Macy’s “honoring our pain for the world,” as much of our learning, from the tragedy in Bhopal to the environmental and human rights injustices at the maquiladoras a few miles away across the border, stirred up pain and anger in students. Their final assignment to write a love letter to the Earth, based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s (2013) Love Letter to the Earth (which we also used as a core text for the class), was intended to help nurture this reverence.

Vandana Shiva (2002) discusses how Water Democracy is at the heart of sustainability, justice and peace, and that “[b]ecause cooperation and self-governance are vital to protecting water as a commons, water creates conditions of peace” (p. xv). Water Wars would be a great addition to the reading for my future peace and environmental justice classes.

Fayetteville, North Carolina: Hurricanes and Pipelines

Since the start of 2017, I now find myself living in Fayetteville, Carolina, in the Cape Fear River Basin, next to Fort Bragg, one of the world’s largest military installations. The military is one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Simultaneously, although many in the Trump administration are climate ignorers at best and deniers at worst, the military, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, sees climate change as a major national security threat (Revkin, 2017). 

Coming here from San Diego, I am amazed by the quantity of water everywhere – ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, humidity. I have been spending a lot of time at the pond behind our apartment building, where geese have laid their spring eggs, and along the Cape Fear River and Cross Creek, which run through the city. Water is abundant – on the ground, and falling from the sky, with frequent rainstorms.

The region is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Matthew, which struck in October 2016, dumping over 8 inches of rain in just six hours. Statistical analysis using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicated that the rainfall levels produced by this storm only occur about once every 1,000 years (Gooray, 2016). Large parts of the city were under water and even six months later there are roads and bridges that remain out of service due to the destruction. Many people were displaced from their homes, and some businesses are still recovering. While it is hard to connect specific storms to climate change, we do know that climate change causes more “superstorms” and greater unpredictability in weather. Plumer (2016) notes that “climate scientists are warning that North Carolina can expect to face both higher sea-level rise along the coasts and more rainfall in the heaviest storms as a result of global warming.” Storms like Hurricane Matthew may be examples of climate chaos manifesting in North Carolina.

North Carolina is about to wage its own pipeline battle here, with the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline currently under review, and like Standing Rock, it is slated to cross Native people’s land – this time the Lumbee reservation. In March I attended the 2017 Sandhills Clean Energy Summit, where I met activists from the Alliance to Protect Our People and the Places We Live (APPPL), who were walking the length of the proposed pipeline, from Virginia to North Carolina, trying to raise awareness and educate about the negative effects it would have on the region. Coming full circle, the pipeline actually begins from fracking sites in Pennsylvania, connecting the water issues of my birthplace and current home.

I live my life in widening circles, that reach out across the world.

I may not complete this last one, but I give myself to it (Rilke, 2005, p. 45).

Peace in Ourselves, Peace With Water, Peace in the World

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has been deeply influential on my path to peace, from the first moment I picked up his book Peace Is Every Step, in which he teaches how each of our daily acts can contribute to peace in ourselves and thus peace in the world (Nhat Hanh, 1991). In September I will be ordained as a member of the Order of Interbeing, the core community of his Plum Village tradition of Engaged Buddhism. In our practice, we use gathas, or short poems that help us to remain mindful and present, and to live deeply in each moment. At Deer Park Monastery, where I have practiced for 7 years and where I will be ordained, a gatha about water is placed near the sink in the bathrooms, to remind us of the preciousness of this resource.

Water comes from high mountain sources.

Water runs deep in the Earth.

Miraculously, water comes to us and sustains all life.

My gratitude is filled to the brim.

Water flows over these hands.

May I use them skillfully

to preserve our precious planet.

Another core practice in this tradition is to “see the cloud” in our glass of water, or cup of tea or coffee – to see the tea was a cloud that is now our tea and which will become a part of us and flow through us back into the world again. This is a type of practice that Fisher (2013) calls upon ecopsychology to require: “forms of practice, largely forgotten, that involve meaningful and reciprocal engagement with the natural world” (p. xix). The act of drinking tea mindfully can be both radical and restorative.

According to Vandana Shiva (2002), repairing our relationship to water may be the ideal vehicle for finding peace. She writes, “The water cycle connects us all, and from water we can learn the path of peace and the way of freedom…We can work with the water cycle to reclaim water abundance. We can work together to create water democracies. And if we build democracy, we will build peace.” (2002, p. xiii). The Earth Charter (2000) describes peace as “the wholeness created by right relationship with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part.” In order to find peace, we must find a right relationship with water. As Shiva concludes, “To make peace, we need to make peace with water and with the Earth. We need to cultivate our deeper identities as earthlings and as water beings. We need to remember that we are water, soil, seed and earth”  (2002, p. xiii).

I remember the streams and rivers of my Pittsburgh childhood, the wells in the desert of Niger, the ocean waves in San Diego, the bubbling streams outside my apartment in Fayetteville. These waters have become me, and I hold these places in my heart as I take each step for peace, each step as an act of love for our planet, our home.

May we remember. May we remember. May we remember.


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