Eau, Water! A Personal Essay10 min read

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Published in 16.2

I would like to acknowledge that I wrote this essay while living on the traditional, unceded territories of Coast Salish peoples. The essay also covers experiences I had during a time when I lived on the traditional territories of the Huchiun (Ohlone) peoples. My gratitude for the privilege of living and being a guest on these lands.


I RECENTLY MOVED BACK TO CANADA after living in the San Francisco Bay area for three years. Just before leaving California, I moved into a sublet. The style of the apartment building was quintessentially Californian: very Melrose Place. It was a low-rise complex with all the units opening onto a courtyard and a kidney-shaped pool tucked at one end. In three months, I never saw a single person swimming in the pool. In fact, I rarely saw anyone in the gated pool area, except for the building manager skimming leaves off the surface now and then, and a 20-something couple who sometimes took lunch on the picnic tables and made use of the poolside barbeque. I spent the three months of my sublet living out of boxes and riding out a tumultuous year that included taking my PhD orals, eviction from a beloved home, and my father-in-law suddenly falling ill. Most of my good friends had already left the Bay area for the summer or for good, and my husband was in Vancouver preparing for my arrival. So, I spent the better part of my time when I was not teaching alone in the apartment watching the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries on a loop or walking up and down Piedmont Street in Oakland carrying groceries. On sunny afternoons, I often sat on the edge of the pool with my legs dipped in, reading and preparing my lectures. It calmed me to be near water, and one or two nights I stayed like this behind the gates until it was too dark outside to read.

By the end of June and early July, when all this came to pass in my daily routine, news broke that tar balls were washing up on an almost daily basis on the southeastern shores of Louisiana. By the time it was capped in mid-July, the BP oil spill—which had been set off by the explosion of a drilling rig in a marine oil field on April 20, 2010—had released just under five million barrels (780,000 m3) of petroleum, in three months’ time into the Gulf of Mexico. Not only was the event the petroleum industry’s single largest accidental marine spill, but it was also identified by White House energy advisor Carole Browner as the “worst environmental disaster” in U.S. history. Tar balls are semi-solid clumps of crude oil that form through weathering in the ocean. As an oil slick spreads into the ocean, pieces of it begin to separate and disperse, aided by wind and waves. Some of the chemical components evaporate, and what remains mixes with ocean matter and undergoes further physical and chemical changes. This results in globs of oil that eventually wash ashore onto beaches. In the months following the BP spill, tar balls appeared on beaches in all five U.S. states touching the Gulf of Mexico: Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, and Florida. Reporters repeatedly described the tar balls as having “the shape of coins,” and I heard news of parents in the affected states bringing their children to nearby beaches to see the tar balls. I pictured these beach-going families in their cover-ups with umbrellas and plastic buckets, walking in small groups with their heads down, hunting a perverse treasure. The image of “tar coins” and the words of a pilot, Tom Hutchins, flying over the area above the spill, who compared the reddish streaks of the spreading oil slick to a bleeding wound, came into my thoughts suddenly, and then every so often that summer, disturbing the calm surface tension holding me together through my last days in California.

When I first moved from Vancouver to Berkeley, I was struck by the presence in gardens of succulents: a class of water-retaining plants that includes cacti. Even in the relatively temperate Bay area, the word “drought” carries everyday resonance.

Years ago, I had read Joan Didion’s essay, “Holy Water,” which describes in great detail the immense yet intricate infrastructure required to keep water in flow around the state of California. Occasionally, when I stood over sinks in California, the words “drain Quail” would come into my head. “Quail,” as Didion notes in her essay, “is a reservoir in Los Angeles County with a gross capacity of 1,636,018,000 gallons”; “draining Quail,” in Didion’s essay, is synecdoche for the elegance and power of a massive engineering structure—one largely buried from view in a complex system of canals, pumps, pipes, and containers—that is able to move vast amounts of water across extensive geographical distances. All of this to sustain the quotidian habits of washing, drinking, and flushing the toilet. California is the third-largest U.S. state, with the country’s highest populace and largest economy; it ranks among the top ten global economies, with a larger gross domestic product than the entire country of Canada. Although much of the state has a Mediterranean climate, three deserts—the Mojave, the Colorado, and the Great Basin—cover 16 percent of the landmass in California. Writing in the late 1970s, Didion reflects on the regularity of the well running dry during her childhood, and notes that “[e]ven now the place is not all that hospitable to extensive settlement.”

Didion’s essay turns on her observations about water and control. On the symbol of the California swimming pool, Didion writes, “a pool is misapprehended as a trapping of affluence, real or pretended, and of a kind of hedonistic attention to the body. Actually a pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable.” But appearing soon after as the title essay in the 1979 collection The White Album, “Holy Water” is not so much an affirmative commentary on human control over the elements as it is a meditation on the deep and absolute chaos fomenting under the surface of the United States in the aftermath of the sixties. Perhaps even more so, the essay points out the intense irony of having created so many measures for control that result only in ever greater feelings of powerlessness.

“Water is important to people who do not have it,” Didion writes, “and the same is true of control.” Didion’s analogy rings true, but it is not wholly accurate. Water is as important to people who do not have it as to those who have too much of it. Recent water-related natural disasters, like the massive tsunami that followed an 8.9-magnitude earthquake near Japan’s Tohoku region in northeastern Honshu Island, demonstrate that the chaos produced by flood can be as devastating as the inability to provide water during drought. Since 2004, there have been three major submarine earthquake and tsunami disasters in the Asia-Pacific region. The first and deadliest of the three was triggered in December 2004 by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, whose hypocenter was located underwater in the Indian Ocean, in an area northwest of Sumatra, Indonesia. The 9.0-magnitude earthquake initiated a series of powerful tsunamis that amassed over 230,000 casualties in 14 countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka. In the months that followed the catastrophe, donations to the Canadian Red Cross alone delivered over $70 million in emergency relief funds to the affected areas. Of this disaster, I recall a few things: I remember waking up the morning after Christmas that year to headlines announcing disaster; I remember making an online donation to the Red Cross in the days following the event and filing away the tax receipt; I remember taking care to avoid footage on CNN and other newscasts of the tsunami, taken in real time by panicked tourists on their cameras and cell phones. A few years later, when I finished the last pages of the closing novella in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, I remember my heart racing, a thunder pulsing behind my temples and my eyes.

During the September 2009 Samoa earthquake, I was in Berkeley. I caught news of it off my Facebook live-feed; a few hours later, on the evening news, a precautionary tsunami warning was issued for the San Francisco Bay area but the effects were never felt on the continent. The Samoa earthquake happened during the week that Typhoon Ketsana passed over Southeast Asia. In total, this one week of calamity in the Pacific claimed hundreds of casualties, with more injured and many missing. Shortly afterwards, I happened to be cleaning out my closet at the same time that one of my friends was collecting donations to send to the Philippines. One afternoon I met her in the city and transferred two garbage bags of clothing from the trunk of my car to hers. As we parted, she thanked me and I recall being embarrassed, repeating, “It’s nothing, it’s nothing.”

I also happened to be in California, in a hotel room at a conference, when the Tohoku tsunami struck earlier this year. Like the Samoa earthquake, I first learned of the Japan disaster from my Facebook news-feed. I was working on my conference paper late into the night and, between paragraphs, I would flip to Facebook as news rolled in: first, about the earthquake, and then, the tsunami. It was an odd bricolage: rumours of numbers dead intermixed with posts announcing high scores on Farmville. On the same trip, a few days later when I was in San Diego visiting friends, a group of us gathered around the computer to watch a Youtube rant that had gone viral. One female UCLA student named Alexandra Wallace had posted a video blog directed at “these hordes of Asian people that UCLA accepts . . . every single year.” Observing that the Asian students in question do not “know American manners,” Wallace points to an example of students answering their cell phones in the library, noting in frustration that the students “must be going through their entire phone books, checking on everyone they know about the tsunami thing.” One part of the video which has since inspired huge response shows Wallace mock-answering her cell phone by saying “OH! Ching chong ling long ting tong!”

In the days that followed the earthquake, warnings were issued about aftershocks and possible tsunami effects that extended, this time, from California to British Columbia. During that week I spoke on the phone with my parents and my husband who were all home in Vancouver, everyone urging me to come home soon and safely. Back in Vancouver, I attended several earthquake relief fundraisers, including one at Vancouver’s VIVO Media Arts Centre, where Asian Canadian writers Fred Wah, Roy Miki, Proma Tagore, Lydia Kwa, and Hiromi Goto read recent work on water, Japan, and the tsunami. Again, I donated money, and collected books (“all proceeds to Japan Relief Fund”) and tax receipts in return.

If anything, the desire to control water extends deeper and projects more complex motivations than Didion’s essay suggests. Water carries many ironies. Its power is located on the extreme ends: excess and lack. While it is, as Didion writes, “the only natural force over which we have any control . . . and that only recently,” the spate of catastrophic environmental events that have transpired in recent memory seem to suggest that human control over water is nominal at best, illusory at worst.


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