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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

It's Elementary

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 hand lenses, not to mention compasses and GPS 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 boats. It 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 foresee that.

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 us.

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 reserved.

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