Tuesday, December 11, 2012

water, part 2.

My life is the story of water. My cells, my mitochondria and riboplasm and DNA swim in pools of water. I pour it into my body and still I want more; I lust for it. It drives me forward, pulls my feet toward its source. I swim under waterfalls and break the surface of a crystal pool high in the mountains. I drink it deeply, let it fall over me, into me, around me, and still I want more.

Though I have moved often, I have lived most of my life in wet places. Unintentionally, I am drawn to them, perhaps because I grew up in New England's green summers, among plants and gardens fed by a generous sky. In college I studied in Ireland, wrote papers while lying on dew-covered fields beneath banks of clouds. Later, gone to the Marshall Islands to teach, I happened upon the wettest and most fertile island among thousands of parched white-sand beaches. The seams of my clothing rotted in the humidity. Everything stank. Later still, I went to live in southeast Alaska, to a place that receives 160 inches of rain a year. I moved up and down the misty, echoing passages of the Tongass Forest one canoe stroke at a time, vainly trying to stay dry in a world carved by water.

Thinking I needed to dry out, I left Alaska and went to Hawaii, but inadvertently chose to live on the eastern shore, the one deluged with rain and dripping with waterfalls while black lava bakes in the sun on the west coast. And now I have surpassed even my own standards, finding myself in one of the wettest places in the world, a place that makes the Amazon basin seem arid, a place that receives an average of 22 feet of rainfall each year.

Outside, the rain is falling incessantly and has closed the Homer tunnel, which provides the only road access to this remote corner of New Zealand. We are stuck here in Milford Sound, rained in. New waterfalls appear every time we look outside at the sheer cliff faces surrounding us. They multiply by the hour, trickles of rain turning to ribbons of mist, ribbons turning to cascades and cascades becoming spouts of whitewater that run violently into the sea, creating temporary microclimates at their bases.

Though these sea cliffs are covered in green, there is virtually no soil holding the plant life together, nothing to absorb this water that pours from the sky. Lacking soil, the mountains shed rain like water off a duck. Thousands of waterfalls appear, more than you ever imagined, more than seem realistically feasible. They stream into the sea, gathering tannins from plants on their way down. The brown, tannin-rich freshwater floats atop the saltwater in a visible layer that can be several feet deep and filters out sunlight, creating a unique phenomena called deep water emergence, in which extreme deep-water species are tricked into living in depths of just 30 feet.

Last year was the driest summer on record in Milford Sound. The rivers ran low and the layer of freshwater floating atop the saltwater shrank and the peaks of the sea cliffs stood starkly gray against an unwavering blue sky. Today, that world seems far away. The sky has cleaved open and rain is pouring out of it and our kayaks lie upsidedown on the gravel, waiting for the rivers to rise. Without water, the granite walls of Milford Sound would resemble Yosemite's blank rock faces, but thanks to massive rainfall they are blanketed in vegetation. One in ten trees manages to bury its roots in a crack in the granite. The others simply entwine their roots together, spreading them over the thin layer of moss and ferns that clings to the sheer cliffs. When it rains hard there are tree avalanches, massive swaths of plant life ripped from its tenuous foothold and sent crashing down into the sea. The mountainsides are streaked with the scars of these avalanches, dark green where the oldest ones have struck, lighter green for avalanches from 20 or so years ago, where moss and ferns have started to grow back, and gray for the most recent, where only bare rock has been left behind. It takes 80 to 150 years for the forest to re-establish itself.

This is a place defined by water. My life is defined by water, so it is fitting, perhaps, that I find myself here. But sometimes I feel the rain is too much to take. I told someone at a party that I might be growing moss myself, become moldy and waterlogged by living in so many wet places. I was told, graciously, that I am not getting moldy. I am glowing.

That may or may not be true. But either way, I am ready for it to stop raining. 


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