Humans are very rarely in a state of stillness. We live in a culture of constant drive, in which being stationary or taking time to reflect is viewed in a negative way, or as an affectation of the rich, for only those who are wealthy can afford to be lazy. This, however, is a mistake — on both parts — because stillness is anything but still, and anything but quiet. And it’s hardly laziness, but rather incredibly hard work, and perhaps a necessary part of being human, for at least some of us.
Sometimes I like to go out to the haul road and take a few steps off its crumbling concrete remains and onto the headlands, covered in short, salt-loving grasses and determined wildflowers. I find a spot where the ground is dry and not too prickly and I lie down, facing up, looking at the sky, taking a minute to settle. Like most people locked into the constant drive to be doing something, it takes time for me to fall out of my mind and let my body sink into the grass, shoulders falling back, tension in my neck ironing itself out. Sometimes I jerk back into full awareness, have to start all over again.
When I can reach the state of perfection, which I don’t always do — sometimes I just remain restless and fussy, sprawled out on the grass with my mind slowly eating itself — I start to hear the earth under me, not just feel it. The grass crackles slightly as I move, and the wind whistles softly over its longer strands. If the day is particularly sunny and warm, I can hear plants shrinking up, pinching, drying against the heat. Sometimes I hear gophers or other underground animals, sense a snake traveling through the grass. The rise and fall of my breath feels impossibly loud, and yet it’s the quietest I ever become.
The roar of the ocean turns into individual waves, distinct, each with its own signature of sound, talking over and around each other. I hear a little half-hearted partial start, a conversation, I hear another large, defiant wave, I hear the tide slowly creeping in or pulling out, I hear the ‘shhhhhh’ of waves pulling through rocks and the rippling noise of water pooling around rocks and logs before rushing away. If I were to sit up, everything would turn back into a chaotic symphony again, not necessarily a bad thing, because I love listening to the ocean when it’s more abstract, as a collective entity rather than a series of notes, but I also like the ocean I hear when I am still.
I like to connect with the water. I like to do the same thing by lakes, rivers, and streams. I like to get the sense and feel of a body of water without necessarily being in it, and you can learn a great deal about water by lying down next to it and letting it talk to you. Saline or not, sweet or sour. Inhabitants large and small. The birds that like to come ’round. It becomes a landscape in your mind, all without having to open your eyes.
California is a state in the throes of a water crisis, coming to the slow realisation that available water supplies are dwindling and we have no meaningful way of dealing with it other than changing the way we relate to and interact with water. The state has historically taken the resource for granted, even in the water wars of the early 20th century, when cities like Los Angeles thought they were entitled to more than their fair share — that entitlement, right there, describes the state’s relationship to water. It’s there for the taking, bottomless and ever replenishing. Or it was, until it wasn’t, and now the state is beginning to wonder if this was a freak event, a few hundred years of unusual rainfall, rather than the norm. That thought is certainly being bolstered by tree ring evidence — California is the dry, scrubby place actually turned lush just in time for someone to colonise, and the descendents of those who made assumptions about the state are paying the price for their mistakes.
Connecting with the water isn’t going to fix the drought, or the water crisis. We could all lie out on the headlands and beaches all the day is long and nothing would change. But it might give us a deeper understanding of water beyond its function as a resource, placing it more in the position of something that we have a complex and rich relationship with, one of give and take. We might be reminded that it was and in many ways still is the cradle of life, that it’s not here solely for humans and we aren’t the only ones who rely upon it for survival.
I have a vision of state officials being forced to line up by the troubled waters of the Sacramento River and lie down all in a row, obliged to lie there in silence and stillness until they get it. But I know it’s never going to happen — even if they could all be convinced to do it, I doubt that very many of them would be able to sink into the strange, quiet, ephemeral space of simultaneous awareness of the world and a dropping away of the body.
Image: Pacific Ocean shoreline of Drake’s Bay, Wouter Kiel, Flickr