When it occurred to me that the animals are swimming
around in the water in the oceans in our bodies.
And another had been found, another ocean on the planet,
given that our blood is just like the Atlantic.
– Modest Mouse, “3rd Planet”
Everybody knows we’re mostly water. But I remember the kind of mystic revelation that hit me the first time I read that scene in J.D. Salinger’s short story “Teddy” where the ten-year-old describes watching his little sister drinking milk, how he suddenly saw that she was God and the milk was God, and “all she was doing was pouring God into God.” David Suzuki echoes this startling but simple truth when he writes in his book, The Sacred Balance, that “we are intimately fused to our surroundings and the notion of separateness or isolation is an illusion.” Our physical being weaves us intimately into the world of air, water, soil and sun, and as Suzuki says, “these four ‘sacred elements’ are created, cleansed and renewed by the web of life itself.”
When we eat, we participate with Spirit and the gods in a dance of growth, death, decay and rebirth, as even our waste returns eventually to the land to nourish and enrich the soil from which our food grows. Plants transform the energy gifted to them by the sun into forms that can be absorbed and exchanged, and when we work, we release that energy again through the efforts of our hands, legs, mouths and minds to shape the world. Our breath is the breath of our ancestors, but also of the atmosphere and the weather, the winds and storms that encircle the planet and rustle the leaves of the tree just outside the window. And when we drink of those waters that well up from the earth, blessed, guarded and sustained by the gods and goddesses of the oceans and the holy springs and the caves of the underworld, all we are doing is pouring god into god.
Druidry recognizes this sacred truth in its reverence and appreciation for the four classic elements of earth, air, fire and water, those threads that weave together our bodies within the greater fabric of the universe and entangle us in the numinous dance and song of the world. These four elements are the “building blocks” of all matter and life, the basic stuffs that compose us the way notes make up a melody. Yet Druidry also has its own three elements or aspects: calas, gwyar and nwyfre. Of these, gwyar is commonly said to correspond to the classic element of water, and yet in Old Welsh the word gwyar literally means “blood.” While we might think of water the element as one kind of note within the Song of the World, gwyar is that aspect of flow or fluidity which connects one note to another as the song moves and changes. The element of water might take the form of a solid, liquid or gas, of rivers, oceans, streams, wellsprings, mists, clouds, rain, glaciers or blizzards — gwyar is that aspect of transformation from one to the other. Gwyar is the quality of flux, movement, connection and exchange. While we can see this best with water itself in all its myriad forms cycling through the circulatory systems of the earth, gwyar exists within each of the elements. All those ways in which the four sacred elements connect us to our ancestors and our gods, weaving us into the physical world and binding us to one another — this is gwyar.
It makes sense, then, that gwyar means “blood.” Our blood flows through our bodies, carrying not just water, but nutrients, hormones, proteins and waste products as well, providing oxygen and fuel where they are needed, and removing harmful chemicals or leftover byproducts where they are not. Our blood is the agent of exchange, connection and transformation within our bodies. Yet, Suzuki points out that although we live now on land, we were originally creatures of the sea and our bodies have their source there — and so the blood and other fluids in our bodies are like a kind of internal ocean, being constantly cleansed and renewed and carried with us wherever we go. “These fluid connections result in another aquatic habitat on land, an internal sea flowing between living things” that spans the entire world in a network of give and take from body to body, organism to organism. While our blood is a kind of inner sea, we can also think of the oceans themselves — as well as the rivers, streams, springs, groundwater, rain, runoff, atmosphere and all the forms that water can take — as the blood of the earth, carrying the elements along, circulating and keeping them in a dynamic balance. Once again we see the close relationship between the element of water, and the aspect of gwyar as a principle of exchange and flow.
So it’s no surprise that the general numbness and disconnection of our modern culture — our alienation from gwyar as the expression of sacred connection and exchange with the planet and its many beings and gods — can be poignantly seen in our damaged and dangerous relationship to the element of water. The tragic poisoning of our oceans, rivers and lakes with pollution, refuse and oil spills; the almost one billion people across the planet without access to clean, safe drinking water and basic sanitation; the wasteful and exploitative use of water in well-off countries, where people carry around artificially-flavored “vitamin water” in trendy plastic bottles that ultimately end up in landfills leaching chemicals into the earth, or floating in a huge continent of trash in the middle of the Pacific… All of these are just some examples of how the illusion of our separateness from the earth and the other beings who live here with us lead to relationships of disharmony, imbalance, sickness and harm.
Yet to redress this dis-eased relationship, it is not enough to imagine clean water as a finite resource that must be equitably allocated throughout the human population, as though it can be manufactured, packaged and shipped in discreet bundles to where it is needed. Water — the blood of the earth — has its own vital part to play in the circulation of the other elements, and it would be as foolish to disrupt or override this process of movement and exchange as it would be to try to reorganize our own internal organs in the hopes that we could do without our liver or kidneys. Such an attempt would be to completely miss the lessons of gwyar, to ignore the deeper implications of connection, relationship and flow. Gwyar teaches us, for instance, that the problem of clean water is also the problem of clean air, as wind currents carry our smog across the oceans or fall in polluted rains into our rivers and lakes. The problem of clean water is the problem of clean energy, as our oil spills coat the seas with a film of sludge and new technologies like hydrofracking inject poisons into the skin of the earth in order to extract natural gases, leaving waste-water thick with chemicals to leach into the groundwater of the surrounding landscape. The problem of clean water is, too, the problem of clean soil, biodiversity and balanced ecosystems, as our petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides covering miles and miles of monoculture crops run off to taint our drinking water, and natural habitats like wetlands that once helped to filter out and break down harmful chemicals are being overwhelmed or destroyed by over-development.
And finally, the problem of clean water is also the problem of clean spirit, a spirit open to honorable relationship with the rest of the world, a spirit which can acknowledge other living creatures as equally valuable and worthy of life as human beings. This is, perhaps, the hardest lesson that gwyar asks us to face: the fact that the fresh water that we so desperately need to survive is also the rarest form of water on earth, with most of it locked away in glaciers and ice-flows. The fact that there just may be some places on this planet where human life cannot thrive and flourish as we seem to think is our birthright, and that our efforts to dominate and domesticate every inch of the earth, every landscape, ecosystem and bioregion, cannot ever free us from our intimate participation in the greater ebb and flow of life which does not privilege us, or owe us anything.
So what can we do to help? Here again, we can remember the penetrating and transforming insight of gwyar: we are all connected, we all participate in the dance and song of the world. When we have so much evidence of how our small, everyday actions can cause such extensive harm, it can be difficult to remember the corollary. But even a small act of restoration can have long-reaching effects that cumulate and ripple outwards in many unexpected ways. I have no cut-and-dry list of tips to give you — that would assume that the solutions are going to be the same for everyone, everywhere, and that just isn’t true. But I do have one simple piece of advice: learn to reconnect. Spend some time meditating upon the lessons of exchange, fluidity and connection that gwyar has to share, and how they manifest in your life and in your relationships with the earth and its ecosystems. Examine your lifestyle for ways in which you can better honor your connection to the world. Pay attention to cause and effect. Study the science and politics of ecology and environmentalism, and stay informed about how larger global trends express themselves in your local area.
And then, embrace change as a sacred aspect of life, and commit yourself to participating in that change in ways that are healthy, harmonious and balanced. Change your life in myriad small ways — water your lawn from a rain barrel, give up plastic bottles and switch to a reusable thermos instead, participate in community stream and wetland restoration projects, take shorter showers, trade in your old washing machine or dishwasher for a water- and energy-efficient model. Then take it a step further. Find the courage and strength to make the changes that may be difficult or frightening — move to a new home that’s closer to where you work, commit to buying only local, organically grown produce, incorporate gray-water recycling into your home water use… Remember, everyone will come up with different solutions depending on their needs, means and abilities. Working together in community provides a place of the on-going exchange of ideas, resources, support and inspiration, and that too is a sacred expression of gwyar.
And last but not least, read The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature, by David Suzuki. Take it along with you on a walk in the woods, and sit in the sunlight, palms pressed to the earth, breathing deeply of the delicious air and feeling the blood pulsing in your veins — and know that you are holy, you are god pouring into god.