Jerome Shea       October 7, 2007      Weekend Wonk

So tap water, as I said last week, got a bum rap. Even for many who drink water from the kitchen faucet, a very lucrative industry of home water filters has sprung up. Don’t drink the water until you have tortured it to a fare-thee-well, shriven it of its chemical sins. Ironically, much bottled water these days is just purified (and glorified?) tap water. And they are supposed to say so on the label. But back to that in a minute.

The whole marketing strategy of bottled water is to “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” So if you really have found a pure spring in Minnesota or a melting glacier in Alaska, you will romance the life out of it, transporting the customer to the deep and silent woods where, centuries ago, the Ojibwa first discovered this bubbling treasure, or to the glacier where Inuits once greeted the sunrise and celebrated the solstice. You are just a poor schlub of a freshman overburdened with acne and term papers and enduring the dorm mate from hell, but for a brief moment (and for only a buck twenty-nine) you too can partake of this Eden! On the other hand, if the huckster hasn’t found that spring or that glacier, he can just bottle the tap water on Staten Island or somewhere. In which case, he goes not the pastoral route but the scientific route. The water may be “from a municipal source,” but every drop is forced through a state of the art Hydrostatic Osmotic PX571tc Titanium-lined Filtrion, a machine—no, a “system”—that the crew of the Starship Enterprise would envy.

It’s your choice, but may I suggest that you buy one bottle and then simply refill it from the tap? That bottle is, after all, indestructible, so you can have your cachet and drink it, too.

One last development. While researching, I noticed the newest wrinkle: Aquafina now offers “Flavor Splash.” You guessed it: flavored (orange/lime, peach/mango) water, a kind of ur-soda! Now if they just add sugar and carbonation, we’ll be back where we started!

The Greeks considered water, along with air, earth and fire, one of the four elements, so it is no wonder that it has such a place in all cultures and religions. We wash our sins away in the River Jordan, the Apostles were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, two rivers cradled Eden (an old sobriquet for water is “Adam’s Ale”), and so forth.* We sprinkle squalling babies to save their souls and we spritz holy water to ward off Satan (which is where the expression “to cast aspersions” comes from). We ourselves are 97% water. And, of course, we came, eons ago, from the sea.** We can’t get away from water.

But you don’t have to be religious to “take the waters.” People have been enjoying hot springs for centuries. Prosperous cities (Bath, Baden-Baden, Saratoga Springs, etc.) have sprung up around hot springs, aka mineral springs. And the waters spawned saunas, mud treatments, sulfer cocktails, massage therapy—anything for what ails you. The Sheas like to go up to Ojo Caliente (literally, “hot spring”) in northern New Mexico. At Ojo, you can luxuriate in the arsenic pool, the lithium pool, the iron pool, and four others, and then you can fill up the empty milk jugs you have brought along. Back in Albuquerque you can literally drink to your good health until your half-dozen jugs run dry. (Another irony: that Star Trek filtration system is designed to get rid of the minerals that these aficionados swear by.)

A couple of random observations. There is a Sweetwater, Texas, and a Sweetwater County in Wyoming. I am surprised there aren’t more Sweetwaters in the West, but just those two examples let you see how some settlers must have rejoiced after a long, long trek, to find good water. “Tall grass and good water” is a cliché for western ranchers. “Water in the West” is in fact almost an oxymoron; farmers had to be lured here by the theory of “dry-land farming,” which was at best a semi-success. The other Sweetwaters may be ghost towns or just be too small to be recorded in my road atlas, but I’ll bet they were there.

We are told—it is hard to doubt it—that the next century’s wars will be fought not over oil, but over water. We know that keenly in the American Southwest. I hope it never comes to Arizona’s and New Mexico’s National Guards facing off against one another, lobbing mortar shells across the sands. But thirst, broadly considered, does breed desperation.

Thinking of the secular and the religious—water for the body and water for the soul—I finally remembered the nexus of the two. You may be ahead of me here, but let me give you some clues: small French town in the Pyrenees. 1858. Bernadette Soubirous. Yup: Lourdes (not to be confused with Fatima, in Portugal, in 1917, which I don’t think included a “water feature”). Bernadette claimed that Christ’s mother, Mary, appeared to her in a grotto, a grotto which also sheltered an underground spring. Lourdes quickly became, and remains, the pre-eminent destination for religious pilgrims, at least in Europe. Lourdes is still rather small at 15,000 people, but in all of France only Paris has more hotel rooms on offer. Five million pilgrims, many of them desperately ill and crippled, come there every year. Some do leave their crutches, but millions leave thinking that at least something holy has happened to them. And they take home with them that holy water.

Oh, let me make it plain that I am NOT suggesting that someone bottle that Lourdes water so that my students can swig it between classes.

*And then there was that unfortunate business with Noah and the 40 days of precipitation that we won’t go into.

**I have always been fascinated by the fact that the ancestors of whales and some other mammals chose to go back to the sea. What’s up with that?

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