A metaphor you can drink

Rachel Faber

The painter of The Last Supper and the smirking Mona Lisa, the anatomist and designer of the first helicopter. Leonardo Da Vinci was the original Renaissance man and one of the greatest minds to grace Western civilization. The surprising revelation about Leonardo is his true passion. He was obsessed with water. Poring over the notebooks where he sketched his studies on human anatomy and designed his war machines, practiced conjugating his Latin and delineated his experiments, one can see that his section on water is strikingly different. The notebooks devoted to water merely contain lists of what he aspired to study and endless questions on the nature of water rather than describing tests and conclusions. Despite the empiricism he employed in most other areas of study, Leonardo had an agenda with water. Dr. Stephen J. Gould, a Harvard professor of zoology and geology, explained that Leonardo sought to analogize the systems of the earth with the systems of the human body. In his desire to see nature in this way, Leonardo theorized that parallel to the body’s circulatory system, the earth drew water back from the oceans to headwaters and springs. He continued to ruminate on these ideas of water. As the body emulates the earth, he thought, so the waves of the hair resemble the waves of the ocean. Hence the Mona Lisa’s curly mop. The backdrop of the painting is also a scene of detailed waterfalls, borrowed from the maps he made of the Tuscan landscapes. He even conspired with Machiavelli to deprive their enemies in Pisa from river water and transport, scheming to make landlocked Florence a seaport via a sophisticated canal system. His inability to trace water’s path from the ocean back to the source was the major obstacle in realizing his lofty goal for a great opus on water. Leonardo’s earth mirroring the body theory has been shelved with other antiquated scientific ideas. I’d probably laugh if one of my professors offered some cracked notion about the mountains siphoning up saline seawater, mystically purifying it, and letting it bubble again toward the sea from a spring. Thus, Leonardo didn’t survive as the hydrologist immortal. But I dare say that 500 years later, we continue to dream of water as Leonardo did, believing in its mystical and boundless reappearance as a fresh, usable resource. According to a United Nations assessment on the earth’s freshwater resources at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, about one-third of the world’s population lives in a country with moderate to high pressure on its freshwater resources. To be blunt, there are millions of people in this world who don’t have access to as much fresh water as I have just sitting in my toilet bowl. This is not some short term El Ni¤o phenomenon that will correct itself and everyone will be fine, but a situation that is projected to get worse. First and foremost, human health is at stake. In a 1989 document released at the end of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade the United Nations Environmental Program estimated that 25000 people die from waterborne diseases per day. Imagine the ISU student population being wiped in one fell swoop. It’s a relief the College Creek coliform didn’t mutate. The global economy is also taking a hit from the misuse of water. Undeveloped water supplies retard industrial growth, waterlog or salinate marginal agricultural lands and basically cause countries with water and money to pump billions into foreign aid. If we employ only reactionary tactics in assistance, we are not channeling our resources to develop reliable global water supplies. Ultimately, the global water supply will be even more endangered due to pollution, mismanagement of agricultural resources, and wasteful practices. Without water, we’re up a creek. Finally, countries with very little water tend to get pretty nasty with their neighbors. I have a theory that if the Holy Land was a rainforest, the children of Abraham would quit terrorizing each other and just happily tend their herds near fresh running streams. Since this harmony does not exist, we get to police and mediate their conflicts. In the na‹vet‚ of our excess, we Americans see water conservation as running our lawn sprinklers every other day in August and taking a 15-minute shower rather spending half an hour. For a woman in Africa who has to walk with a pot on her head to get enough water for bathing, laundry and cooking for a large family, water conservation is a matter of miles afoot in the hot sun, hours devoted to menial tasks and carefully balancing a heavy clay pot so as not to loose a drop. That the rivers flow past Iowa go to Missouri is no pressing security issue. We haven’t schemed how to rid the world of the scourge of Missourians by damming up the river so they only get a trickle. Ask Ehud Barak what it’s like to be a softie on water rights, and he’ll tell you how it feels to be in the hot seat in the Mideast. For too much of the world, water is a matter of daily survival, food security, commerce, and the difference between disease and health. We are only escalating the pressure to consume this resource by our current mindset. Water is not boundless but finite. Water stewardship is essential for global sustainability. The day American taps are empty, no international body will save us, because we have not developed reasonable water use methods throughout the world. We are dreaming of water like Leonardo, 500 years late, and unless we awaken, the memory of our excess will be a little known story of antiquity. Rachel Faber is a senior in agronomy from Emmetsburg.