Image credit: “Welling Up” by Mindi Oaten, acrylic on canvas, 2016
Water is a universal motif across the history and breadth of humanity, associated with many themes:
Calm, Stillness, Reflection
Wisdom, Knowledge, Enlightenment
Transformation, Change, Renewal
Water is a force of nature with massive power, commanding awed respect. The same water that sustains all life on earth has the power to destroy life, property, and illusions. I witnessed water’s stark duality during the Greater Houston Floods of 1994. Standing in the back of a huge truck on a slow tour of my community, stopping on every street to rescue people and pets, the image that struck me and the one I remember was the calm beauty of the water that had perfected such complete destruction.
Thinking about water invokes images of purity, images of cleansing. City officials drinking Flint water on television–it looks clear, so it must be pure. Doctors wash their hands in it, so it must be clean. Images of productivity. Industrial plants use it for cooling, for cleaning, for processing. Images of beauty. Institutions have ponds and fountains; nature has lakes and rivers.
These sacred images mask the reality of water. It looks clear, but it’s not always safe. It can be harnessed, but its force is destructive. It is beautiful, but under the surface, it is hiding something ugly. After the flood water receded, the subtle image that most struck me when I returned home was hundreds of dead earthworms. I grieved the loss of the earthworms. I could fix my house–eventually–but who is going to aerate the soil?
It occurs to me that it must be a human tendency to cling to good images, even if they are a myth, and deny unpleasant realities. When I was a plant engineer, I headed a committee to revise some important safety regulations involving instrumentation for chemical processes. In my research, I consulted the plant’s Principal Engineer, Roger Hickerson. Roger said to me, “water is the harshest service,” meaning the harshest chemical product borne by pipe in our plant from a maintenance point of view. This was a surprising revelation because the plant’s pipes and pumps conveyed chemical streams that are hazardous, deadly, corrosive, stinky, and teratogenic. One thinks of such substances in negative terms, whereas water is clear and pure, isn’t it? I did not doubt Roger’s word. He is a chemical engineer, and he would not make such claims frivolously. Besides, I have seen the inside of drain pipes. When I told the committee that Roger Hickerson said water is the harshest service, they immediately and unanimously dismissed Roger’s claim as impossible. This is disturbing behavior from engineers.
My conclusion is that my colleagues on the committee were seduced by the illusion of water, like a clear glass that you hold up and drink on television. They were not open to the entire range of possibilities that water can be non-potable; water can be destructive; water can be disease bearing; water can be toxic; water can cause maintenance problems in industrial equipment.
From this perspective, it is a little easier to understand how legions of professionals can cling to a false narrative around Flint’s water problems in the face of contrary claims. Easier to understand, but not acceptable. Professional engineers are expected and required to look beneath the surface and expose the truth. I learned this lesson in biology class. The lab practical exam presented a plant in a pot of soil, and the arrow pointed to the base of the plant where it contacted the soil. What was the term? It was not “root,” for the teaching moment revealed a rootless plant, which was just resting on the surface of the soil.
It is not enough to blindly accept appearance at face value. We will see what we want to see easily enough. To have successful outcomes, the gatekeeper of the narrative must dare to look beneath the surface and ask the next question and the next until the truth is uncovered.
Image credit: Katsushika Hokusai (北斎改爲一筆), ca. 1832. The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 45434