The Uses of Water

The first day of spring arrived on March 20th this year. You could feel it coming all week.  The sap started running in the trees and the sun, now stronger, started to eat away at the snow. Everything is on the move.  Walking through the trails with the dog, he dislodges a chunk of snow, leading to a sudden whooshing torrent of ice melt right in front of us. Come with me, on my favourite walk at this time of year, down Mill Road alongside the La Pêche river. Let’s start at the back of the mill, where the river roars over the dam.

The river ice is beginning to break and buckle in the strengthening sun. Every day the formation of ice blocks changes as the surface of the river freezes and thaws.  Chunks break off and make their way downstream, crashing and tumbling in the fast current, before being caught up against other ice blocks. Before I lived in Wakefield, I always gave myself a day off in March. It was my secret delight to drive to Wakefield and wander from the village up Mill Road and back, studying the river ice and its complex patterns.

Every year, the breaking ice tells stories of winter in retreat: the intense cold days, the severe snowstorms, the January thaws, and ice storms. Those stories are held in the layers of ice and snow, now visible as the river breaks its cover.   It is a time to reflect, to remember the days of winter hardship. I had never visited Canada during winter before moving here from the UK, so surviving each winter felt like a minor miracle.  I learned slowly through watching my husband. He grew up in this area, so delighted in the cold, unafraid of driving on snowy roads, skating, or skiing at temperatures that literally took my breath away.

Canada is a land of snow and ice, but more than that, it is a land of water. March 22nd, the day after this post goes live, is World Water Day. I pause to watch the river begin to free itself from its icy coating.   It is a day to stop and reflect on water’s importance, of the need for sustainable access to sufficient clean water for everyone.  We are more than fortunate to live in Canada, where a full nine percent of the area is fresh water. Even so, we know that not all of the population in Canada has access to safe drinking water.  In 2010, the United Nations recognized water as a human right, but in many places globally, the water is not safe to drink and has to be carried many many kilometres before being used. As I stand and watch the gallons of water tumbling down the back of the mill, I recall the poem I wrote many years ago for a niece who, after spending a year volunteering in Africa, stayed with us for a little while in Leicester (UK), before travelling back home to Canada.

In: Warm Bodies: Foreign Parts (1996) Pub. Loxwood Stoneleigh: Bristol, UK.

Coincidentally, sandwiched between the first day of spring and World Water Day, March 21 is a UNESCO awareness day for poetry. I think about a quote I came across recently, “Poetry has to make it strange. It has to make us see something afresh.” The dog and I stop and meditate on that for a bit. At least I do, he is off in his own doggy brain, processing the smells vapourizing from the snow banks. I’m not sure I fully agree. I don’t think that poetry needs to carry more weight than inviting us to stop and absorb the sights and sounds and smells around us. A sudden noise above the river’s roar and our concentration breaks. We’re off again.

I confess, I didn’t think very much about ice and snow before moving to Canada.  There was very little of either in the winter in Leicester.  Ice was ice, a thin layer on a puddle that made a satisfying crackle if you jumped in it. I had to learn the difference between blue ice and white ice. I watched with fascination that first Christmas Eve as the Ottawa River’s edge began to slush into ice. A sudden plunge in temperature turned the river into glass overnight, and two days later, I was able to skate outside for my first time ever.

Water has all manner of physical properties that I know I take for granted.  Living so close to rivers, first the Ottawa river, then the Gatineau and La Pêche rivers, I started to notice more and wonder about water as a substance. It’s simple enough; two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom (H2O). Not very mysterious at first thought, but then, what other molecule can exist in three states simultaneously?  Early in the morning, walking along the river at this time of year, it’s there right before your eyes: the frozen sections of the river and snow banks (solid); open sections of the river (liquid); and the mist rising off the hills or sometimes even the river (gas [water vapour]). Magical.

As the northern hemisphere tilts more towards the sun, the sunlight’s energy strengthens, and I’m constantly fascinated by watching how the snow seems to disappear.  Not all of it melts and turns to water; some goes straight from solid ice to gas. It sublimates.  Stand with me a while and watch a snowbank crenellate in the midday sun.  The snow crystals shrink and shift, sometimes making small sounds as they evaporate, leaving beautiful fractal patterns.  Trying to understand better, I found a 2018 scientific paper published in Nature.  Apparently, up to then, the phenomenon hadn’t been well-studied. Such fun, imagine answering the “what do you do” question at a party “oh yes; I’m studying how pointy-ice drops melt”. Of course, it’s serious work; predicting how the snow-pack evaporates has enormous implications for understanding climate change. But, I delighted in a particular sentence in the paper where the authors discuss the impact of the differences in snowflakes “the precise evaporation dynamics of snow and ice crystals remains challenging to predict”. An understatement; it is pure magic.

I once heard the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, a fellow Welshman and a poet, interviewed on radio.  He maintained that there are two types of people, mountain people, and water people. I love mountains, don’t get me wrong. I have spent many happy hours hiking up and down the mountains and hills, particularly the Welsh mountains.  But I now realize that I am first and foremost a water person. Further along my walk, I find myself thinking about the ways that water percolates through my writing.  I was oblivious to it until leaving the UK in 1994. As a goodbye gift, my writing friends produced a small booklet that included a farewell poem from each of them. They titled it “The Uses of Water”. Even if I didn’t recognize it myself then, they knew the great importance that water holds for me.  

I now live two minutes from the Gatineau river and perhaps a five-minute walk to the La Pêche river.  I visit both nearly every day.  Even more magical, though, is the stream that runs down the back of the yard. At this time of year, the ice formations can be breathtakingly beautiful.

If you’ve stayed with me on my walk, you’ll recognize that we’ve reached that section of the La Pêche river, where its pace slows, and it collects itself to join with the Gatineau river. It’s suddenly quiet, the rushing energy spent. Here you can read the layers of exposed ice, the stories of this year’s winter. It’s disappearing now, and soon we’ll forget those days when the wind howled and the ice pellets stung and our eyelashes froze. 

I cross the road and stand on the bridge looking back up the river towards the mill, I think of my friends back in the UK. Spring has already arrived there, I have been photobombed with pictures of snowdrops and crocuses and Lenten roses appearing in their gardens.  Though I long for the arrival of flowers, I am more than grateful for the opportunity to be in this time and this place and to witness the daily transition of snow and ice into that most important of all resources; water.