Water, Water Everywhere

May 6, 2010

My father once took me to the site of his childhood home, or at least as close as we could get to it without scuba gear. We stood on the edge of a reservoir called Percy Priest Lake. Approximately fifty feet out into the lake, and probably another ten or fifteen feet down, was where his home had once been. It was a little eerie to think not only of his home but many other homes under that much water, but at least the residents had warning, and at least the reservoir would be part of a dam that would provide electricity to many more communities. The same can’t be said of the flooding that suddenly hit my home town last weekend. Although my wife and I were lucky to be unaffected, aside from a little water in the basement and a temporary pond in the driveway, too many people saw their homes flooded, or were stranded in their cars, and had only minutes to grab whatever they could before leaving. The water in most places has receded, but it’s going to take a long time and a lot of effort to undo the damage.

The suddenness of it all is what shocks me the most, and the fact that water, something so vital, can do so much damage. I’ve seen water destroy, but I’ve also seen what water can create. I’ve been spelunking in wild caves, and the formations made by water have always interested me because they demonstrate the slow power of water. Minerals are dissolved from one spot then deposited in another, and elegant architecture is built by accretion. There’s one cave formation that I’ve never forgotten. The guide led me through a tight hole and down into a room where sticky mud sucked at our boots. All around there was water that, in the darkness, could have been a few inches or several miles deep. In the middle of the room hung a dripping stalactite, and there was a stalagmite rising from the floor directly underneath it. If nothing had changed the two would have met to form a pillar, but something had happened to the water and it was no longer building a stalagmite but eroding it so the top had flattened and formed a small bowl. The water overflowed the bowl, spilling over the sides. Our flashlights made weird ghosts in the bowl’s rippling water and our shadows multiplied us around the walls. The guide said this formation was called Injun Joe’s Altar. If you’ve read The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer you’ll remember that Injun Joe hides in a cave after he’s found guilty of murder, and Tom spots him there when Tom and Becky get lost in the same cave. Tom and Becky find another way, out, but the cave’s main entrance is sealed with an iron door to prevent anyone else from getting lost in there. Injun Joe dies of starvation clawing at the door from the inside, a stone cup used to catch water that drips from a stalactite in his hand. One of the aftereffects of the flooding has been damage to some local water plants, so we’re being asked to ration water. An absence of water can be as destructive as too much.

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