Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Can You See Her?

"Well-behaved women rarely make history."

That quote, one of my favorites, has been winding in and out of my thoughts quite often lately as I pondered my wish to address Womens History Month in this blog.

It's no secret by now that I love rivers, and I have come home from recent forays to the Chattahoochee to download some photos of the river that have stirred my soul. Neither is it a secret for those of you familiar with my "dreamseyeheard" blog that I love myth, but it was only with the notification of World Water Day (March 22, 2009) in an email from Ecologic that I saw a way to weave together all of these loves.

In "A Brief History of the Druids," (pps. 134-5), Peter Berresford Ellis writes, "A fascinating myth in respect of the supernatural quality of wells is told in the story of The Dagda and his consort Boann." The Dagda is the Father of the Gods and Boann is referred to elsewhere in the book as a goddess. Ellis continues, "In other versions of this story, The Dagda is replaced by Nechtan, who seems to be an early water god, for the name implies to 'wash' in sacred water, to be 'clean' , 'pure' or 'white' ... The Dagda or Nechtan had a well which was called the Well of Segais (also called Conlai's Well). Nine hazel trees of wisdom grew over the well and hazel nuts, described as rich crimson in colour, dropped into the well causing bubbles of mystic inspiration. Only The Dagda/Nechtan and his three cup-bearers were allowed to go to the well to draw water. But his young wife Boann disobeyed the taboo (geis). The waters rose up, pursued and drowned her. Their course formed the river named after her - the Boann or Boyne. "A similar tale is told of Sionan, daughter of the ocean god Lir's son Lodan. She went to the Well of Knowledge even though it was forbidden. The water rose from the well and chased her westward forming the great river which was named after her, Sionan (Shannon)."

I respond to these myths differently than Mr. Ellis. The truth in these myths shows me they are meant to impart more than exotic tales of wells with supernatural qualities. These wells were the places from which Knowledge and Wisdom, symbolized by the hazel trees and nuts, were drawn. Until Boann and Sionan broke with tradition, broke taboos, the authorities specified who could draw from these wells and under what conditions. These goddesses did not settle for that.

It is tempting to compare these myths with that of Eve sampling the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, but I feel the similarity is poignant because the consequences for everyone are radically different. Rather than expelling us from an idyllic garden, the Boyne and the Shannon have surely nourished untold flower gardens, herb gardens, and vegetable gardens through the ages.

Some are likely to quibble about the discouraging behavior of breaking taboos and traditions. Oh, really? Well, surely they can see that the myths say nothing at all about the 'supernatural' water subsiding back down into the wells!

I tend to think the goddesses and the waters likely rose up to correct an injustice. Ellis (p. 128-9) wrote, "The great rivers of northern Europe tend to still bear Celtic names, many associated with goddess figures ... the Danube ... takes its name from the goddess Danu. Here, we are in the land in which the Celts are recognized to have originated; the headwaters of the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhone. And here we find that the Upper Danube, with its tributaries and sub-tributaries is a region full of Celtic names, as is the valley of the upper Rhine and also the Rhone. The Seine takes its name from the Celtic goddess Sequana. In England the Severn takes its name from Sabrann ..."

Further, Ellis quotes John Arnott MacCulloch: "The mother-river was that which watered a whole region, just as in the Hindu sacred books the waters are mothers, sources of fertility ... the Celts regarded rivers as bestowers of life, health, and plenty, and offered them rich gifts and sacrifices." These rivers and their attendant myths were etched into the consciousness of the people just as the rivers had etched themselves into the landscape, into the physical geography. Life, health, and plenty dammed in wells and restricted to certain people performing certain rituals at certain times? No. The gestures Boann and Sionan made affirmed life. The traditions and taboos were gestures that restricted life.

Perhaps now, sadly, too many of us have become so familiar with water that we have become blind to that transcendent force in water. We desperately need to open our eyes to the truth about our rivers and that is why I am quite happy, given those Irish myths related at the beginning, at the synchronicity that World Water Day falls in this month celebrating the contributions and achievements of women in history.

So, what can this woman or any woman, well-behaved or not, or any man, do on an everyday basis to contribute to the restoration of water's transcendent force? First, I think, is to recall two inversely proportional bits of science. On the one hand the human body is mostly water; infants are composed of more water (90+%) than the elderly (70+%), but both percentages are very high. However, the percentage of all the water on the planet that is fresh, e.g. rivers, is only 2.5%. Two-and-one-half percent of the water on the planet is all that we can use to nourish ourselves, our watery selves, physically!

I would like to suggest that you take time to visit a river near you. Go. Visit. Take a picture so it will last longer. Visit, too, sites like Ecologic, waterkeeper.org, or rivernetwork.org, for information about rivers in your area and updates on the progress in reclaiming our rivers. The rivernetwork site is also affiliated with iGive so a percentage of your shopping done through that site benefits the rivernetwork.

One area in which every household, no matter its size, makes an impact upon rivers is that of household cleansers - laundry and dishwashing detergents, general cleaning products. Two sorts of chemicals, surfactants and phosphates, pose particular threats to the life of rivers. Surfactants clog the gills of fish and block their ability to extract oxygen from the water. Phosphates promote algae growth which, when imbalanced, blocks the sun and leeches oxygen away from other marine life. "The Green Home" column of the New York Times (02.26.09 HOME section) has a list of appropriate cleansers, but I have been most happy with products from the Method and good old baking soda!

I also highly recommend the use of a personal water bottle. Think of it as a 'signature' item if you want. As you can see mine is a SIGG. I love the blue and I really appreciate that the spout lets little, if any, water leak out all over the place should I happen to tip it. Of course, a personal water bottle reduces the number of plastic ones used, but it helps further to recycle whatever plastic bottles we do use. When recycled materials are used in manufacturing there is significantly less air and water pollution generated and significantly less water and energy used.

Eat less beef. Nearly 2,000 gallons of fresh water are used to produce one pound of beef. I know cheeseburgers are paradisiacal, but I admit I have become quite fond of turkey burgers with a bit of spinach and feta mixed in for a nice flavor. I have even had success - yes, success - feeding turkey chili on occasion to my meat-and-potatoes husband! While you're cooking up that meal that used less water, give yourself a pat on the back for that energy- and water- efficient washing machine and for the lovely landscaping you've done with plants native to your climate.

In the end, very simply, I write this because I do not want to lose our rivers. I do not want photos like these of the Chattahoochee to become anachronisms. While I do not even begin to class my painting (shown at top) with the work of Claude Monet, I do not want it or Monet's 'Water Lilies' to become anachronisms.

My heart would surely break if Stratford-upon-Avon became an anachronism.

'Stratford -upon- What is the Avon?'

A bibliography for this post:
Ellis, Peter Berresford. "A Brief History of the Druids". New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002

Van Straten, Michael. "Organic Living". London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2001

Top Image: 'Ophelia', oil on canvas, 2006, Barbara Butler McCoy
River Photos: The Chattahoochee River near Island Ford, Jan. 2009, Barbara Butler McCoy

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