Saturday, July 4, 2009

Well, Well, Well

I thought I'd offer an antidote to my last cranky post, discouraged as I was by the enormity of the task that will, largely, fall on the shoulders of our offspring: the "welling" of the earth, if you'll pardon the neologism. I'm usually highly critical of messing with language, but this strikes me as being somewhat apt.

"Well" is what we want to be, both as individuals, and as inhabitants of the planet. It's also what we want the planet and its other occupants (animal, vegetable, mineral) to be. Wellness is an appropriate state toward which to strive, even though it's become something of a new-agey cliche in recent years. Thinking about it spawned a lengthy consultation with my favorite font (an intentional pun) of linguistic wisdom, The Oxford English Dictionary. (Not the Oxford Junior Dictionary--which has apparently obliterated most of the natural world.)

As an aside, I thought it worth mentioning that although its name is based on an acronym (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), one of the first virtual communities ever to grace the digital universe (and ancestor to blogs like this) was The Well, begun in 1985 by Stuart Brand and others who saw the connective potential of the internet.

At any rate, as a noun, a well can be just such a source or a point of origin; we speak as someone's being a wellspring of knowledge or wisdom. The French word for both spring and well is source, which captures the sense rather elegantly.

Around this town, a well is a water-source, and those who draw their water from wells are better off in drought conditions because they don't have to deal with city water restrictions, so a well is also a powerful political symbol here in the sanctified land of property rights. People can tap willy nilly into the aquifer and extract as much water as they want, without penalty--except to the rest of us, in the very long run, since the aquifers are increasingly being exploited by the same industries I was complaining about the other day.

The verb, to well, comes from an Old English stem that means to boil or bubble up, whence the archaic meaning of the noun as "a spring of water rising to the surface of the earth and forming a small pool or flowing in a stream" (OED). In fact, in my compact edition, "well" takes up twenty-eight columns (about ten full pages in the standard version). In most cases both nouns and verbs relate to the "source" meaning. Since there's also an implicit overflowing, one might easily say "my cup welleth over" and translate the biblical passage more poetically. Alas for my neologistic efforts, the verbal uses of "well" all have to do with analogies to the bubbling up: such as boil (as in heating water to 100 degrees C), and related notions about heat--from where we get the word weld.

The image that opens this post is of a mineral well/spring known as "Dirty Sock," on the southern tip of Owens Lake, near Olancha, California. In my youth it was a favorite swimming hole, having been enhanced with a concrete lining and a central fountain by my step-grandfather, Fred Saner, who ran a nearby motel. In fact, the water did indeed "boil" up from underground geothermal sources, and really did smell like Beloved Spouse's tennis socks after a few sets in the hot sun. Over the years it suffered from ill repute, as a haven for teenage drinking parties and biker gangs. I'm not sure what it looks like now, because the last time I was home we couldn't get onto the site due to "official" activities having to do with getting more water into the lake and re-establishing wetlands habitat.

The adverb, well, on the other hand, comes from an entirely different root: weal, related to the notion of well-being. It has a related noun once used in opposition to woe. From thence we get the affirmative connotations (well built, well met) and moral implications of "doing well" and the like.

I often think of springs as wells of well-being, because of the connections they inspire. Wells, in fact, connect the surface to subterranean water, the life source hidden in the body of Mother Earth. I haven't read much Gaian philosophy, but I can imagine that it's full of analogies to blood-flow and bodily fluids. Springs that bubble up from mountainsides and turn into little streams are sources of joy to hikers, because they're less likely to contain contaminants than surface water. It's no wonder that springs and wells figure so prominently in stories about journeys of renewal (such as William Morris's The Well at the World's End).

My attachment to such things stems undoubtedly from fishing trips with my father in the Sierras, where he was always quick to point out where springs emerged. Water preoccupied my family because of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (living on the edge of it as my grandparents did), and even as I child I noticed the comings and goings of water. In Taiwan our second house was on the edge of a small gorge, down which a waterfall tumbled into the river below. Most of our baths in various houses were fed by sulfur or other mineral waters, flowing in through bamboo pipes leading directly from the volcanically warmed "wells" that bubbled out of the mountain.

This is also probably why I long for some kind of a water feature in my garden--even a small artificial recycling fountain that makes the noise of moving water. At the moment, the little sprinkler is going in the potager (probably illegally, since our official water days are Friday and Monday--but it's a food garden, so I allow myself liberties), and the birds are enjoying themselves immensely. I've even thought of buying an inflatable pool, just so I can sit in water out of doors, in the shade, when it's really hot.

There's something primal about water, especially in summer, when folks around here head for the nearest lake. Of course, they go to ride noisy watercraft (which is why I haven't been near a Texas lake in years) and get drunk on bad beer. I do understand the attraction, because I fondly remember trips to Green Lake in Taiwan, where we'd rent a canopied boat and an oarsman, take a cooler of food, American beer, and Chinese soda pop, and spend the day diving and swimming, albeit without benefit of motors.

Thirty four years ago today, I visited the late Daniel O'Kane and his wife at their camp on Lake Placid. He was my boss at Penn (Dean of the Graduate School) and had become my environmental mentor. Dan O'Kane died on my birthay a few years ago, and I didn't find out until this year because we'd lost touch. Much of my appreciation of things wild and natural results from his tutelage, and I miss him enormously. I do, however, have several fond memories on which to draw, including this one. We spent the holiday canoing, swimming, hiking around relics of the 1932 Olympics (building for the 1980 games hadn't yet begun), and enjoying good company.

The best thing about Lake Placid was that no motorcraft were allowed, and the only boats were powered by sails or oars. I was newly pregnant with my son, but didn't yet know it, so in retrospect I connect the lake with new life and possibility.

At the opposite extreme, in terrains and climates where water is scarce, wells well up only when dug into, and become treasured sources of not-always-potable water. Wellness here depends on reliable access to uncontaminated water, or to small-scale technologies for water purification. When I was looking for pictures of wells and springs on Wikimedia Commons, I came across the image below from a series by Dr. Bob Metcalf on solar pasturization of water supplies. Once again I am reminded that simple solutions to important problems frequently exist--and just don't make the news because they're not sexy enough. But being able to easily purify water can offer hope to marginal populations when their traditional wells have been compromised.

Perhaps that's what both senses of "well" do: hope "springs" eternal, allowing for the possibility of wellness. They meld into a notion of well-being, bubbling up from untapped sources. I could probably get really silly with this, but I think I'll just leave it as it is and go spend a few minutes watching birds frolic before I have to turn off the sprinkler.

Happy Fourth of July, Folks. As grumpy as I get, I'm still mindful of what it means.

Image credits: The picture of Dirty Sock is from the Wikimapia article on the site; Gann Matsuda took the picture of an unlined section of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, just south of Manzanar, near US Highway 395. I got it from the Wikipedia article on the Aqueduct.Mwamanongu Village water source, Tanzania, by Bob Metcalf via Wikimedia Commons. His article on water purification is linked above.

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