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A Few Words In Appreciation Of H2O



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A Few Words In Appreciation Of H2O

By Curtiss Clark

At dawn last Friday, the mercury dipped below zero on the kitchen thermometer for the first time this winter. I didn’t really need to report that fact to Kate. She had ventured into the arctic “cold end” of the house first and was hunched before the wood stove piling twigs upon a fragile flame. The world was in a deep freeze, locked up, and hardened into stillness — a two-degrees-below-stillness that speaks more directly to our awareness than any thermometer. It was cold.

We may think about hard freezes in terms of temperature, but we experience them in terms of water. It is water, after all, that freezes. It is water that hardens the landscape, from the ice on the lakes to the tiny frozen carcasses of last summer’s katydids. It is the water in our bodies that would freeze us solid if weren’t for our houses and our home fires.

We are mostly water, and parts of us are wetter than others. Our lungs, for example, are nearly 90 percent water. Our blood is about 83 percent water. Our brains, 70 percent. Top to bottom, from bangs to bunions, water accounts for up to 60 percent of what we are.

Water essentially defines life. Where there is evidence of water, even on distant planets, there exists for us, if only in our imaginations, the possibility of life.

Water is the only natural substance that exists in all three states — solid, liquid, and gas — in the relatively narrow temperature range that exists on earth. And this is the time of year when a walk in the countryside can present that shape-shifter H2O in all of its forms. But when the temperature is as cold as it was last Friday, it seems only ice is ascendant in this winter world. That is, in fact, one of the remarkable things about ice. It ascends.

The solid form of most substances is denser than its liquid form. As temperatures cool and the molecular barn dance of atoms slows down, the substance contracts, which is the operating principle behind the kitchen thermometer. Mercury contracts as it cools.

H2O, on the other hand, expands and becomes less dense as it turns from liquid water to solid ice. If it did not, there would be no hockey or ice fishing in winter. All the ice would be at the bottom of lakes. On hot summer days, the cubes would sit silently at the bottom of the ice tea pitcher, and our ice cream cones would be a lot smaller.

We take water for granted because it is everywhere and plentiful. There is even a kind of institutionalized grumpiness we adopt by rote on rainy days. And if it’s a snowy day, we tune into “storm team” coverage and add a measure of trumped up hysteria to this glum mood. But what if we got our implicit wish in this charade and it didn’t rain, or snow, or sleet — ever? The hysteria would be justified.

Most of the water in this very wet world of ours is saline and is sitting in the oceans — 96.5 percent to be precise. Of the 3.5 percent that is fresh water, two-thirds is stored in polar ice and glaciers, a little over 30 percent is groundwater, and just 0.3 percent is the surface water in lakes, swamps, rivers, and other smaller watercourses. And all this water is in motion — some of it glacially slow, some of it precipitously fast, but it keeps moving thanks to H2O’s vapor state, which returns water and ice to the atmosphere through evaporation, sublimation (in which ice and snow change directly into vapor without becoming liquid), and through evapotranspiration from plants.

This ever-churning water cycle flows through every living thing thanks water’s stickiness. Water flows because the molecules stick together, and this happens because of the way the one oxygen atom and the two hydrogen atoms arrange themselves.

 The H2O molecule looks like Mickey Mouse, with the hydrogen atoms serving as ears. The ears impart a positive charge on one side of the molecule and a negative charge on the other. Opposite charges attract, so water molecules stick together, ears to chin, until enough energy from heat or agitation breaks those bonds.

This stickiness creates the surface tension of water that keeps water bugs and aircraft carriers afloat. It also accounts for capillary action, which allows water to move through the roots and stems of plants and through the smallest capillaries of our own circulatory systems. And since water happens to be the “universal solvent,” enabling it to dissolve more substances than any other liquid, it moves nutrients from the earth to plants to animals and back to the earth as the great stew of creation simmers here on earth. Sadly, it also spreads the toxic byproducts of civilization to all living things with the same efficiency.

Not only is this endless process critical to keeping our planet from becoming just another charred cinder in the universe, it is extraordinarily beautiful in all its manifestations. Think of the art, poetry, and literature that have been inspired by seas, rivers, and lakes. Think of all the tales of great floods and storms. Think of all the daydreams shaped by clouds. Even our high and dry landscapes have been sculpted by the ceaseless flow of water.

Now, in midwinter, when we can watch the simultaneous interplay of water, ice, snow, and clouds, perhaps we should use the rare still moments of a subzero morning to say a few words in appreciation and gratitude to that Mickey Mouse molecule, H2O: Thank you for this world. Thank you for this life.

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