Strange Rain

“The wave does not need to die to become water. She is already water.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

The planet Venus rains sulphuric acid. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—believe it or not—rain diamonds. Our sun produces a beautiful, arcing coronal rain of plasma, visible through telescopes on Earth. There are planets in the universe that rain rocks, molten iron, and sideways glass. But Earth alone, as far as current science can tell, rains water. Accordingly, I watch my son and his friend immerse their fat toddler forearms up to the elbows in rainwater that has filled a wheelbarrow I left by the overgrown strawberry patch weeks ago, which has now become a record of the summer’s rain.

Earth rained my husband and me a son. He entered the world in sun, but the next day, after a 9:00 a.m. call telling us a baby had been born and his birthparents had chosen us to be his parents, it poured. It was the kind of hard, straight downward rain that, when it begins, hits the roof of the building you are in like a being you didn’t know was there, its sound surrounding you like the steady, confident arms of someone protecting you from something you didn’t know to fear. It was the kind of rain that makes everyone pause for a moment to see if the sound is internal—a furnace turning on, something in the building’s duct system, blood in your own veins—and when they realize it is external ask, “Is that rain?” For me, however, teaching that day through all of my classes until 6:00 p.m. because it was my first week at a new school and I felt I could not leave, the question was not “Is that rain?” but “Am I a mother?”

By 10:00 p.m., after driving to the hospital through cycles of torrential rain and rainbows, meeting the birthparents, signing papers acknowledging the child as a legal risk adoptive placement, and spending the night with the baby—I was.

My son and his friend, like me as a child and like all children, love playing in water. I give them two water guns and a five-gallon bucket of water and they “clean” the dusty Allis Chalmers tractor in our barn for half an hour. I think about the wet year we’ve had. A walk to the forest with my son last spring revealed a full-flowing, icy stream where before there had been none. Snow was melting quickly from a hill above the forest then running down over that same hill’s run-off from the day before, which had frozen at night into a slick, flat, sort-of streambed, water flowing on top of ice. As we stood there, confused in familiar terrain, I remembered similar discoveries of abruptly changed landscapes—always by water—with my sisters and childhood friends: a well-known, backyard hillside cut with deep channels of turbulent, muddy run-off after a particularly big storm; an oft-visited creek we suddenly could not reach because it had overflowed its banks, transforming an entire flood plain of usual stopping points and play areas into a placid lake that seemed to appear out of nowhere; that same creek after an ice shove, when high winds blow ice chunks onto land. I cannot confirm that ice shoves occur on bodies of water so small—usually they are associated with oceans, lakes, and large rivers—but I know what I saw: this little creek’s once-smooth, muddy banks now like a pile of giant Legos we had to angle over to view the water.

The moment with my son, happening upon that sparkling and temporary, zig-zagging stream, brought back that same physical feeling of being in a familiar place but finding the geography suddenly, illogically different; of having all the coordinates in one’s mind on par with the coordinates of Earth, the inner ear balanced, but all other sensory input—the images, the sounds, the smells—contradictorily foreign. Like an instrument re-calibrating, in that moment, I seemed to flip from mother to sister, from adult to child, from present to past. University of Michigan professor of anthropology Melvin D. Williams writes in the Journal of Social & Evolutionary Systems, “Water, a part of the other or ‘normal’ cosmic world, enables humans to have brief sojourns in that world. It enables humans to briefly transcend (e.g. gazing or bathing) the life-struggle experience . . .Water is a medium that finite humans exploit to grapple with the infinite of which they are a part.” That day in the woods, watching the meltwater ripple over its icy channel, and my son, in soaked snow-pants, sliding down it, I momentarily lost my care for who I was, for what was present and what was past, for what was temporary and what was forever. I felt at once detached, but also bonded to my son and the land in a way that went beyond being a mother, or even being alive.

*          *          *

The human affinity for water is well-documented. Wallace J. Nichols traces it in Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. Wallace defines the blue mindset, brought on when near water or near things associated with water, as “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.” Such a mental state brought on by water is no surprise: we live on a planet that is mostly aqueous and water is necessary for life as we know it. The human body is more than half water; even our bones, our most solid part, consist of 31 % water. Research on landscape preference shows that adults and children favor scenes—whether natural or urban—that include water, and befittingly, more than three-quarters of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of an ocean, lake, or river. We have even evolved abilities to find drinking water that are evident in infanthood.

Locating water sources would have been a major selective pressure on early humans: if you couldn’t find water to drink, you would die. Water in a natural setting reflects and glistens under sunlight. Not surprisingly, adults tend to apply the quality of wetness to surfaces that are glossy or sparkling more than to surfaces that are matte or sandy. More interestingly, infants and toddlers seem to be innately drawn to reflective and glossy surfaces as evidenced by their mouthing of mirrors and reflective toys and objects more so than the dull parts of those same objects. This could be, according to researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of California-Davis, “the precocious ability to recognize the glossy and sparkling features of water long before this information is useful later in development.” In other words, the children researchers observed were responding to innate visual cues for finding water—practicing, at play, the life-saving skill of satisfying thirst.

My son, it seems, spent the first few years of his life practicing this skill, consuming any water he laid eyes on. The article this research comes from—“All That Glistens II: The Effects of Reflective Surface Finishes on the Mouthing Activity of Infants and Toddlers”—includes a photograph of an Indonesian child drinking from a pool of fresh water, lips in the water, hands and knees planted firmly on the rock at the water’s edge. The picture could be my son, who was always leaning down to lap up a glistening surface, like the black stepping stool we kept beneath our hummingbird feeder. After a rain, the surface of the hard, plastic stool, perhaps a bit convex from use and glossy when wet, would bead with water. It would be the first thing to catch my son’s eye when we exited the house, and he would toddle over, lean down, and begin to lap up its bounty. He wasn’t the only creature drawn to this manufactured oasis. The stool’s surface unlatched to reveal a compartment for storing things, and one day while attempting to empty the stool of all water, we found a gray tree-frog nestled inside. Like my son, this little frog had found what he needed to survive (up to 75 % of a frog’s body is water); the frog had found his own little sauna, and he stayed there all summer, gone and then back again every few days or so.

By no means did my son limit his water source to the stepping stool. He would lap up dewdrops off of railings, conveniently located at mouth-level; or bend to lick the puddled surface of the porch; or the seats of his wagon, left in the driveway after an escape in-doors during a surprise storm. He drank bathwater, poolwater, half-drunk cups of water left on night-stands at anyone’s home, the dog’s water—which is pretty common, I read, set up like an African watering hole in the wood-floor desert of our homes. He even tried to drink the water for cleaning his watercolor brush. Even now, beyond the mouthing stage, when he swims in a nearby lake, treading water in his life jacket, he appears like a spitting cherub, sucking up and emitting lake water in great calculated arcs. Of course, precocial, life-saving skills practice notwithstanding, all this compulsive water-drinking is much to my chagrin, lest he be poisoned, infected, sickened. I cringe and lurch to intervene each time I see him open his lips to imbibe any water that is not in a cup that I have given him. “Yucky,” I used to say. And now that he is older: “We don’t drink lake-water; the bugs in it might make you sick.” Mostly, he just gazes at me, water dripping down his chin, his blue mind immune to my adult warnings of all that can go wrong in a human life. He, as a child, still so close in years to wherever or whatever we both came from, seems to answer back: but this is what I am.

*          *          *

Earth is the lone planet that rains water. Its first rain didn’t occur until, at the earliest, 200 million years after the planet’s formation, when temperatures cooled enough to allow water vapor brought through collisions with comets and ice-encrusted meteoroids to condense. Then, as the saying goes, when it rains it pours—and pour it did, for centuries, filling earth’s oceans until 71 % of the planet was water.

However, as Cynthia Barnett notes in Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, Earth has sometimes rained other things. “Peculiar rains reported over history have included hay, snakes, maggots, seeds, nuts, stones, and shredded meat” as well as, more commonly, frogs, toads, fish, and red-, yellow-, or black-colored rains, Barnett writes. Frog, toad, and fish rains, relatively widely reported over time and across the world, are believed to come from whirlwinds over water that pick up, move, and then deposit the creatures elsewhere. Colored rains may come from similar high winds over dry places, such as desert: the Gobi Desert produced a yellow rain in Washington in 1998, as revealed by testing of the particles dropped by the rain; the Sahara occasionally produces red rains on the complete other side of the Atlantic; and black rains can be traced to pollution and volcanoes. Some of these rains, such as a red rain that fell over Kerala, India, on July 25, 2001, and appeared to contain biological cell-like particles from somewhere other than Earth, are left unexplained. Barret calls these rains—all of them, including those with conclusive causes—“strange rains,” and they have been recorded in history from ancient times through the middle ages to modern day.

Even Earth’s regular rains, though, could be considered strange because water itself is strange.  For one thing, water is “stickier” than other liquids. This stickiness—of water molecule to water molecule and of water molecules to almost any other substance—is the reason your pants get wet up to mid-calf even though only the hem has been scraping the wet street, or the reason groundwater can travel through the roots of trees and up to the leaves. In addition, when water freezes, it expands, as anyone who has frozen a full, capped bottle of water has experienced. This is because of ice’s lower density than water; whereas in other liquids—think of lava contracting as it cools to form pumice—the solid form is denser than that same substance as a liquid. As a result of this unique behavior, ice forms and floats atop ponds, insulating the water and life beneath through the cold winter, rather than ponds freezing from the bottom up, killing everything in them. Water can hold much more heat than other liquids, allowing oceans to regulate temperatures and distribute heat across the planet. The list of water’s anomalies goes on and on. Water doesn’t play by the rules.

It’s not easy to play by the rules—for water, or for little kids, as any parent knows. Particularly with board games involving chance, children have a hard time following the rules when they feel they might lose. One of the first times we played Candy Land, when my son had to go back to the cherry pit at the beginning of the board, he cried and cried. My husband and I guided him through it, talked about how rules keep games fair, give players equal footing, and make winning meaningful. My son made it through the game and later, getting him ready for his bath, I praised him for his perseverance and ability to deal with a bad situation.

“I can still feel the rain on my eyes,” he said, touching his face, referring to his tears. I smiled at his interesting phrasing and drew his naked body into a hug. It could have just been the limits of his developing vocabulary, but I like to think his choice of words went deeper, meant something more, was not a metaphor, but some primal knowledge of what we really are: water incarnate.

*          *          *

Like the bodies of water I visited regularly as a child, the ponds to which I take my son in his early years on the hunt for frog eggs each spring, will be the bodies of water—I hope—that stick in his mind, not only as his childhood playgrounds, but which he will one day realize, like I have, were really ecological wonderlands; teaching places where he learned firsthand the ways of plants and animals he could not name at the time. My son did not spend nine months inside my watery womb, so I give him these ephemeral ponds full of burgeoning life as another sort birthing place, not of his body, but of his experience. The spring that he is four, on Mother’s Day, we fill a canteen with water; grab a kitchen strainer, which transitions nicely from draining pasta and beans to collecting amphibian eggs and aquatic insects, and then back again, each year; and head for a long, crescent-shaped pond that intersects a favorite hiking trail.

The pond’s water has risen to the underside of the flat, narrow, wooden bridge that traverses it. While I make a pile of our jackets and canteens safely on the shore, my son sprawls on his stomach across the bridge-planks; his chin, lips, and nose sometimes dip simultaneously with the strainer into the tannin-filled water.

“Don’t drink that!” I remind him. “It’s stagnant water!”

I join him on the boardwalk, quickly identifying the dragonfly nymphs and water boatman he catches before he whips them back in, more interested in splashing us than a course in entomology. I stare down into the nebulae of algae his scooping disrupts. We are closest to a pond when we are young—quite literally. Babies, at birth, are 78% water. Plants are 85-90 % water. I look from the weedy shore, to the pond, to my son, and back again. Three very different-seeming physical things: a blade of grass, a pool of water, a little boy. How can they possibly be so similar?

When neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor experienced a stroke, she felt fluid rather than solid. In her memoir, My Stroke of Insight, Taylor explains how she could not discern her body from the wall she used to maintain her balance—where she ended and the next thing began, no longer evident. It was as if, Taylor writes, the world became a solvent and everything in it a solute. I have felt that way once, hiking this very trail on a much hotter, more humid day, when what was likely the beginning of dehydration actually made me feel more watery. In my lightheadedness, I felt both totally present and not quite there at all. Without a breeze, my sweat couldn’t evaporate fast enough and water from the humid air condensed on my skin, blurring the line between me and my surroundings.

Today at home, my son will place the net we have used to catch animals on the kitchen counter, then quickly pick it back up and, unable to resist the urge, press his tongue for an instant against the glistening mesh at its center, to taste what I do not know—the last drops of the pond adhering to the wires? He stops when I scold him—That’s dirty! His look is compliant yet doubtful, as if his actions were meant to nourish some part of ourselves I am too old to remember.

By one year of age, the amount of water in our bodies drops to about 65%. We solidify.  I see now the cause of my confusion when attempting to discern the similarities between my son and the pond and the plants on the shore. I was stuck in the wrong discipline, focusing too much on form and not enough on composition, searching for this or that type of frogspawn or insect, naming things, when I should have just been playing in the water—as he was—getting a little in my mouth by accident. Taxonomy divides, but chemistry bonds. Psychologist Dan McAdams writes, “identity itself takes the form of a story, complete with setting, scene, character, plot, and theme.” Perhaps it is less a sense of place I mean to give my son on these trips to the woods, and more a sense of personhood; the pond and its water not the setting where he becomes himself but more a character, another type of birth parent in his personal story.

*          *          *

During a visit, my son’s birth parents take us to a nearby swimming hole amidst a series of rapids. We squeeze our car in amongst a long line of others at the turn-around on a short gravel road. The smell of weed thrums along with loud music from a smoky car full of teens. We take the short hike to the water’s edge, where we can barely find a place to put our towels. The locals have set lawn chairs in the water, sipping beers while watching their children, bedecked with inner tubes, splash along the shore or ride a small set of rapids to an open pool. The air smells of cigarette smoke; laughter competes with the sound of rushing water from a larger set of rapids below. I look around, meeting eyes with the earlier arrivals who are also checking us out; it’s not my usual crowd, but I forgive them, as they forgive me, because we are all drawn here for the same reason: the water. Water bonds. It bonds us to the Earth and to each other. And it bonds to itself in a weird way that gives it all its odd properties and makes it seem especially suited for supporting life.

Most of us are familiar with atomic bonds, where atoms reach a stable state by either sharing or giving up electrons, forming covalent and ionic bonds. But the truth is—as with most things—atomic bonds don’t fit neatly into these two categories. Rather, there exists a spectrum of possible bonds determined by the electronegativity of the bonding atoms.

Electronegativity is defined as how strongly an atom attracts a bonding electron. More a property of atoms within molecules than individual atoms, it derives from the number and distance of electrons from the atom’s nucleus. If two atoms are equally electronegative, they will equally share the bonding electron, producing what is known as a “pure” covalent bond, one where the shared electron—which is always moving—spends an equal amount of time near, and is equidistant from, each atom. Atoms usually differ just a little bit in their electronegativity, causing one atom to hog the electron that the two share.

Think back—if you can bear it—to high school chemistry class, to those circles and dots you drew across the blue lines in your notebook representing individual atoms, distributing the atom’s electrons according to each shell’s desired number. You learned how atoms would combine to create molecules in order to achieve the desired number of electrons in their outermost shells, and that for most atoms involved in biology the desired number was eight—known as the octet rule. Soon you advanced to drawing some of these molecules, chemical compounds such as water, or H2O. Water looks a bit like a Mickey Mouse head. It consists of one oxygen atom (6 outer shell electrons) covalently bonded to two hydrogen atoms (one electron each), to reach the octet rule. But oxygen’s higher electronegativity causes it to hog each hydrogen atom’s electron, giving Mickey Mouse’s hydrogen “ears” a slightly positive charge. Then, the two unshared, lone pairs of electrons in the oxygen atom’s outer shell happily form weak but important bonds with the positively charged hydrogen ears of other water molecules, a process called hydrogen bonding. Hydrogen bonding gives water its “stickiness,” its cohesion to itself. Hydrogen bonds are weaker, though, than covalent bonds, so they continuously break and reform, several thousands of billions of times per second, giving water its fluid nature. One of my sources describes the bonds in the water molecule this way: “If you liken the bond between oxygen and hydrogen to a stable marriage, the hydrogen bond has ‘just good friends’ status.”

At the rapids, I wade into the water with my son’s birthmother, while my husband swims downstream with his birthfather to attempt a challenging river-crossing. The two of us position ourselves around my swimming son, our bodies only half visible above the surface. Mosquitos probe and bite all exposed skin, so sometimes we duck down so that only our heads are showing. I park myself at the bottom of the pool, above the second set of falls, helping my son to swim back up each time he floats toward me, keeping him from going over the edge. I look upstream and the scene relaxes me. I mention aloud that, despite the crowdedness, this is the kind of place I love. My son’s birthmother seems pleased. She smiles. The water breaks and rejoins easily around our bodies.

*          *          *

Scientists have focused their search for life in the universe on water. Philip Ball, author of H2O: A Biography of Water, warns against this sort of mystification of water as the defining substance of life. But mystify water we have, as Melvin D. Williams points out: there is holy water, medicinal water, recreational water—all socially constructed ways in which water provides life and good health.

Scientists even sometimes speak of “biological water.” This term refers to the water inside the cytoplasm of cells, where the 60% of you that is water lies, where water, perhaps, performs its strangest dance of all, and breaks what many of us believe to be a fundamental rule: that we, the living, are different from the non.

One night, while I am teaching, my husband sends me an alarming video, my son at age three, snorkeling in the bathtub. The water level at mid-chest, he sits pretzel style with face mask and snorkel on, counts to three, gives my husband a double thumbs up sign, then bends over, submerging his face in the water for an unimaginably long time, so long I can hardly watch. A song plays through a full verse and into another in the background. I lean my ear in close to the video to ascertain he is still alive and hear the breath of my little one laboring through that plastic tube. Then all of a sudden, he pops up smiling.

With a son who loves water, drowning is always on my mind. I have pulled him by the hair out of the deep end of a swimming pool when he decided to test it out by himself sans lifejacket; I have knocked on the glass window and pointed during his first swim class when he left the tadpole group without his teachers noticing and headed for the diving boards which he had once been allowed to jump off of when my husband took him swimming.

Water is essential for life, but it can also kill. Here’s another irony: we are mostly water, but there is a difference between the water that exists in a bathtub or swimming pool—called bulk, or extra-cellular water—and the water in our bodies’ cells. The term biological water may be falling out of use, but, according to Phillip Ball, water inside the cytoplasm, the fluid that fills a cell, “is not a background, but every bit as much a biomolecule as the DNA, sugars, salts, fatty acids, and hormones the cytoplasm contains.” Water actively participates in the cell’s work. The lattice of hydrogen bonds between water molecules embrace the biomolecules of the cell in such a way that those biomolecules become part of the liquid. “This unites the biomolecular solute with its solvent in a mutually responsive dance” writes Ball. As the proteins change shape, the water changes shape as well, and the movement of the water in turn influences the changes of the protein. In short, the water inside our bodies, maintains Ball, “is a versatile, responsive medium that blurs the boundaries between mechanism and matrix.” Water is not just backdrop, but activator. Not just landscape, but body. Not just setting, but character. Water does not exist in the background of our lives, but becomes us.

*          *          *

When winter comes, my son becomes very enamored with ice. I take him to a new trail where I know there are shallow swamps that, though frozen, should the ice break, won’t result in any harm. He plays on the swamp-ice for a bit while I watch, losing his boot a few times in the mud when the ice breaks, which he finds hilarious and thrilling. I hold the dog’s leash and watch, retrieving and replacing the boot on his foot a few times, but soon we are both drawn, on this cold December day, to the sound of running water. We cross a footbridge to view the Tomorrow River, about twelve feet wide at this point and maybe three feet deep.

He moves ahead of me towards the river, pausing to hear its trickle, and says to no one in particular, “I wish I was this water.”

“You are,” I reply, pleased. The river is flowing at a good clip, frozen only on its edges, as rivers do, producing two shelves of ice not really visible because they are covered in the same snow as the river’s earthy banks. On the extendable leash, the dog walks forward onto the shelf of ice and seeing that it holds her, or perhaps not realizing that it is not earth but the frozen river she has embarked on, my son follows. Before I can launch into an explanation of how he weighs twice as much as the dog and how her weight, as a quadruped, is distributed over a much greater area, the shelf cracks and he is in the water.

I pull him out quickly, then laugh, because I know we’re not too far from the car and because he’s learned a good lesson about how rivers freeze and that it’s not necessarily okay to imitate what he sees another animal doing. I shake my head at the moment’s ironic collision of my two main parental duties caused, yet again, by an experience with water: keeping my son from dying, and instilling in him a sense that we are—all of us—less than we are anyone’s child, or man, or woman, or this or that occupation, or victim, or hero, more an abruptly changing landscape, a temporary coalescence of strong and weak bonds, as unusual as ice, as fecund as a vernal pond; we are a strange rain that falls upon this planet for a very short time. We are water, and so much depends upon how we carry the weight of that knowledge.