That’s what I tell my kids. At ages 3 and 5, it’s the best answer to many of their incessant “why” questions these days. Water is special. And since water is so special, we each have to do our part to take care of it. It’s why we don’t run our faucets too long, why we pick up trash along the river, and why we collect rain for our garden. We also know water is fun, water is wet, water is great when you (or your mom’s plants) are thirsty, and lots of other great things. There really is no end to its specialness.
But why? Why is it so special? Why do we love water so much? Thankfully, the kids haven’t thought to ask that one yet. This is the question scientist and author, Wallace J. Nichols, explores in his bestselling book, 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. Nichols synthesizes research from a variety of disciplines, ranging from neuroscience, psychology, education, and economics, to healthcare, spirituality, and the arts. He makes the case for learning more about WHY we love water so much. Ultimately, he suggests that by understanding why we love water, we will all be better able and more likely to do our part to care for it.
In the book’s foreword, Céline Cousteau points out that “Because our love of water is so pervasive, so consistent, it can seem that asking why is a question that needs no answer. But once you begin to go deeper (no pun intended!), things are not as simple as we might initially think.” Water is so ubiquitous, so fundamental to life and everything we humans love about life, we sometimes overlook its importance. Nichols argues that “education should be based on simple awareness: Awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.'”
Last month, I was invited to participate in a Blue Mind Summit organized by Nichols and his team. The website bills the day-long events as “an annual conversation with thought leaders to look at life through a water lens.” Summit 7 explored seven ages of water based on Shakespeare’s seven ages of man: birth, play, lover, fighter, justice, ebb, and death. Each presenter spoke about their life’s work with water in relation to one of these ages. We heard from a global leader and advocate for water birth, a couple that traversed wilderness for a year to help save it, and a woman who used water to help ease her son’s suffering and now helps other kids facing death. Their stories were intense, compelling, and diverse; and all inextricably linked to love and water.
In fact, when I got home, my candid assessment to my husband went something like: “yeah, there were lots of smart people there talking about research, education, and activism, and I learned some cool things, but it wasn’t your typical conference. It was more like a festival of love for water; a gushing, overflowing, unapologetic, pure expression of love for water.” Don’t get me wrong, that is a huge compliment coming from me. I dread normal conferences. In fact, the more I’ve reflected on the experience over the last few weeks, the more I think that the best and highest value of the Blue Mind Summit is providing space and time for professionals and so-called “thought leaders” to gather and remind themselves why they do this work. Why we love water.
Over and over again throughout the day, Nichols brought us all back to the question, “What is your water.” We paused between speakers to share our personal stories about why we love water. What specific water delights us? Where were we when we first fell in love with it? Totally weird and different questions in a professional setting, right? But should they be? That is just the point Nichols is making. There is untapped power in what he calls our Blue Mind. We ignore it to our own detriment. Why do we attempt to keep these parts of ourselves so separate? Can’t we be non-biased as educators or scientists and admit we love the resource in question? What if love for water weren’t a side note to our work, but a more central premise and focus?
Nichols admits his “goal is less about providing absolute answers and more about asking new questions.” He taps into the science of emotion to make his reader, or a room full of scientists and educators, comfortable enough to explore their own. From there, new questions emerge as we explore ways to incorporate this universal love into whatever we do in work or life. That’s big stuff. A little weird. But in the very best way.
After the Summit, I sat in on a call with a group of professionals who had attended and wanted to talk more about how to incorporate what they learned at the Blue Mind Summit into their community outreach work. Much like Nichols, their ideas arrived in the form of new questions rather than clear cut answers. Can researchers extrapolate from the small-scale, case study work presented at the Summit to get to larger scale results that might validate Blue Mind research? Are these ideas scalable? For scientists and decision makers, the hurdle is just getting them past the “touchy feely” aspects to legitimize the emotional science. Can we provide simple messaging tools that combine Blue Mind insights and Water Words that Work concepts to help advocates reach beyond their own choir?
We talked about ways to shift conversations about science and conservation from “gloom and doom” to a more empowering narrative focused on what people can do and why they’re doing it. Even when the data is undeniably gloomy and doomy. Especially then. If people feel overwhelmed and like it’s too big a problem for them to help, they won’t. Are there new and better ways we can use whatever data or science we share in a way that connects people to their intrinsic love for the resource? Are we remembering to stay connected to water and why we love it so much? How can we allow ourselves more space and time to professionally maintain our connection to the resource; rejuvenating ourselves by collaborating outdoors and near water?
A Blue Mind idea that has caught on around the world is the Blue Marbles Project. Nichols gifts his audiences a small blue marble that represents his message of love and care for water. He calls it “a simple gesture of gratitude for taking care of our little blue planet” and he’s aiming to have a little blue mind marble pass through the hands of every person on the planet. Yes, everyone. “Rock stars, presidents, kids, scientists, artists, explorers, business leaders…even the Dalai Lama and the Pope have received blue marbles.” Nichols gives them freely, and also with a personal challenge: when you get one, give it away to someone as a token of gratitude, and then share your story with the world.
After hearing Nichols’ evening keynote, my husband and I drove home and gave our blue marbles to our kids. Now don’t freak out. The marbles are just big enough to pose no choking threat for my littles. And no one loves water more than they do. There is no puddle, lake, or river they would not splash into given the opportunity. And they’re doing a pretty great job doing their parts to take care of water. We thanked them for reminding us how to be so carefree with water; how to dive in and appreciate every drop. They didn’t hear us of course. They were too busy slinging blue marbles around the house.
Without even meaning to, I’ve started to teach my kids about water and stewardship. And they’re teaching me. Really, it doesn’t take much explaining. My kids know water is special. We all do. It’s why we humans love to live by water, camp by lakes and rivers, swim, bathe, drink, and play with water in any way we can think of.
After more than a decade of working in the field of environmental education, and specifically on behalf of water education and educators, I’m pretty sure these are still the most important lessons we can teach and learn about the relationship between water and humans. Without understanding why we care so much, we can’t really get to any higher level learning or more effective collective action.
Nichols reminds us all that people only fight for what they love. And people love water. His Blue Mind initiative is diving deeper into questions about why we love water and how understanding our intrinsic love and affinity for water might help us do a better job as water stewards in our daily life and work.
So what is your water? Why do you love it? Are you aware of your Blue Mind?