The Four Pillars of the Paddler's World
Part 1: Water
By Farwell Forrest
January 9, 2007
The ancient Greeks certainly left their mark on
the modern world. They're credited with the invention of democracy, for one
thing, and democracy has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, at least in
politicians' speeches. Then again, the Greek ideal of democracy was rather far
removed from the realities of present-day democratic governments. Truth to
tell, however, Greek democracy wasn't really all that ideal. Ancient
Athens, like most of the Greek city-states of the Classical period, was a slave
state. One historian even compared it to an old-style gentleman's club, in
which a small number of members (i.e., freeborn citizens) were waited on hand
and foot by an army of of forelock-tugging servants (i.e., slaves). "It was
very pleasant to be a member," this historian notes in passing, leaving readers
to draw the obvious conclusion that a slave's life was not a happy one. In any
case, the lesson of history is simple: However much we might wish it were
otherwise, democracy isn't incompatible with evil. Modern politicians, caught
up in the flood tide of their rhetoric, often forget this inconvenient fact
or choose to ignore it.
What does all this have to do with paddling? At first glance, very little.
Appearances sometimes deceive, though. Bear with me while I make the
connection. Democratic Athens was a happening place. The combination of
political stability and a robust economy left the well-to-do citizens with a
lot of time on their hands, and because these citizens didn't have television
to occupy them, they spent their abundant free time thinking and talking.
Moreover, since the Greeks were one of the first peoples to have a written
language, a smattering of their thoughts and words has survived. The resulting
body of literature influenced the evolution of Western civilization from the
end of the Dark Ages right down to the present day, and it included some of the
earliest scientific writings, as well. The Greeks hit on the idea of the atom,
for example. But they didn't do much with it. Why? Habit. Or fashion. Take your pick.
Their favorite tool for discovering truth was deductive reasoning, and logical
deduction told them their world was built up from only four elements, not the 100-odd
we recognize today. And what were these four vital elements? Earth, water, fire,
and air. Just that. Nothing more.
Absurd? Of course. Or at least it is when viewed from the lofty perspective
of 21st-century science. But the Greeks didn't have the luxury of hindsight.
Nor did they have particle accelerators, X-ray diffraction crystallography, and
digital computers. They didn't even have simple magnifiers of the sort that middle-aged (and
older) paddlers use to decipher the small print on their maps. The Greeks
had only the direct evidence of their naked eyes and their other unaided
senses. They had only what they could see, hear, taste, touch, and feel. And
they had their minds. That was all.
So the idea of a world made up of water, earth, fire, and air made sense to
them. It was obvious to the Greek scholars that these were very important
things, necessary things, even elemental things. After all, the Greeks were
tied to the sea many of their city-states perched precariously on rocky
islands and they farmed the land. Their food came from the water and the
earth. Fire heated their homes and cooked their meat. And air, moving air,
drove their ships to the far corners of the Mediterranean sea. Water. Earth.
Fire. Air. These were the four pillars of the ancient world. It made sense
then. But what about today? Surely we've moved on. Well, as odd as it seems at
first glance, paddlers, even 21st-century paddlers, are in the same boat as the
ancient Greeks. We, too, perceive the world directly, relying on our unfiltered
and (largely) unassisted senses. Yes, we carry binoculars and
lenses, not to mention compasses and
receivers. But most of us still get most of our information about the world
around us at firsthand, or at least we do when we're in our boats. So our world
our sensible world, that is; the world of our senses isn't
all that different from the world known to Aristotle, the Greek philosopher who
gets the credit for developing the four-element idea. Ours, too, is a world of
water, earth, fire, and air.
Now let's take a closer look at this world, beginning with
I can't think of a more natural place to start, can you? Where would
paddlers be without water? It floats our
quenches our thirst. It challenges our bodies. It nourishes the complex
ecosystems that feed, sustain, and shelter all living things. Water also
entrances, amazes, and delights us. It gives us
joy. But this isn't the end of the story. Water can scare
the hell out of us, too, and tragically it sometimes claims
our lives. Anthropologist Loren Eiseley summed up water's power about as neatly
as anyone has ever done: "If there is magic on this planet," he once wrote, "it
is contained in water."
Nowadays, of course, most of us shy away from words like "magic." We prefer
the more prosaic, matter-of-fact language of science. We can explain water's
ability to float our boats in terms of its weight and the consequent buoyant
force, for example. (This is another contribution of the Greeks, by the way.)
And we recognize that water's role in sustaining and supporting life flows from
a happy accident. Unlike most other things in our world, water actually expands
as it freezes, becoming less dense in the process. In other words, while cold water
sinks, ice floats. If you don't think this is important, just imagine what
would happen to the brook trout in your favorite beaver pond if
the water sunk to the bottom as it froze, and the pond was a solid block of ice
from December through March. How would the brookies fare if they were frozen
stiff for three months of the year? How would most other living things? It
makes my blood run cold just to think about it.
And that's only the beginning. Water's high heat capacity its ability
to absorb and release energy in the form of heat explains the vital part
played by the oceans in keeping our climate in the comfort zone. Of course we
can't afford to get too comfortable. Water's heat capacity also makes
hurricanes possible. Moreover, water has little power to check the rise in
greenhouse gases that now endangers our comfortable way of life. In fact, water
vapor is itself a greenhouse gas, even more potent than carbon dioxide. Nor are
greenhouse gases the only things on the way up. The sea around us is also
rising, threatening island nations and coastal communities everywhere. So far,
this rise in sea level hasn't amounted to very much. But the pace is speeding
up as the ice caps that cloak polar land masses melt away. Not too far down the
road, then, the life-giving ocean may turn against us all. The Greeks didn't
Too much doom and gloom? OK. On the brighter side, consider water's ability
to sculpt the landscape. The complex
hydrodynamics of moving water are reflected in the wonderfully varied and
ever-changing scenery of riverbank,
lakeside, and seashore.
That wasn't news to the ancient Greeks, one of whom, Heraclitus, famously
observed that you can never step in the same river twice. This was his way of
making the point that moving water alters
everything around it, all the time, in ways both large and small. Water
quite literally shapes the world we paddle through as indeed it shapes
Come to think of it, magic isn't too strong a word.
At first glance, the academies of ancient Athens seem mighty far removed
from 21st-century shopping malls and superhighways. But is this really true?
Modern paddlers often catch a glimpse of a world that hasn't changed very much
since the days of Aristotle, and we see it in much the same way that he saw it, too.
His was a world of water, earth, fire, and air. And so is ours. This week we
looked at water. In two weeks' time we'll complete the picture. See you then.
Copyright © 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights