Life lessons from water

This week our guest blogger is Brenna Sweetman, a social scientist working with NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management.

Freshwater was the first water that seeped into my mind’s curiosity. I grew up in the woods and fields and along the creeks in Southeast Pennsylvania. With a botanist father dividing his time between working at an arboretum during the week and our family farm on the weekend, I was raised a wild child in nature. I spent most of my time delighting in the curiosities hidden in streambeds and garden beds. This is where I started to notice the subtle relationships between land and water and its vital role to sustain all life. My childhood fascination with water led me to study environmental science and pursue career paths to understand the science associated with preserving and protecting water resources.

We know that water circulates between the Earth’s surface and atmosphere continuously, “recycling” itself constantly. Just as molecules of water easily shift phase, the primary sources of water in my life shifted from freshwater streams in the Northeast to Caribbean seas along the coasts of Costa Rica and Belize. Working at a Biological Station on the Costa Rica coastline, teaching environmental education by day and tracking and tagging sea turtles by night, the ocean became the forefront of my life.

I saw the detrimental impacts from marine debris through the steady inflow of trash to the beaches daily. Thousands of plastic bottle caps, shoes, toilets and TVs washed up from all over the world. At the same time, I saw the beauty of resourcefulness as the community “recycled” the washed-up discards to art, decorations, and home enhancements. The lens from which these communities viewed the world allowed them to live in close harmony with– and in a state of reciprocity to – the ocean upon which they relied for economic value. These communities were linked to the water beyond economic value alone; there was a more intentional repurposing and beautifying.

During this time, I realized that flowing water is our great connector and when one lives close to the earth, there is a keen sense of responsibility to be a steward.

A confluence of my personal and professional experiences related to water resources has caused a shift in my perspective and understanding of water’s value over the course of this past year. These experiences have sprung new questions and insights. In the scientific and academic communities, we have collections of thoughts on a variety of topics and the term “paradigm shift” is often used to describe changes in foundational ways of thinking.

But what is a paradigm shift if not a shift in worldview?

What better opportunity to shift our worldview than by facing the roaring upspring of a global pandemic and awakening to social injustice? Can we pause and form a new paradigm and not let this moment leak out like water from a broken faucet?

Our understanding of biodiversity, complexity, and uncertainty in ecosystems is compounded by the events of this year. We are all steeped in a collective moment on Earth we cannot rush through. I have found that this is a time to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned from water in my life. 

  • Water reminds me that politics and geographic boundaries may create definitive borders, but water unites us all.
  • The concept of water doesn’t confine itself to one label. The humble water molecule can exist as solid, liquid, or gas. Shouldn’t we as humans also embrace the differences that often divide us?
  • The movement of water downstream over the Earth appears linear, but science tells us it’s cyclical. Nature continuously recycles the planet’s water supply through a dynamic process – atmospheric streams to rainfall to surface water to groundwater to ocean and back up, a constant reminder to be fluid and open as we ride the unexpected waves of life.
  • Water emulates the property of constant self-renewal, a trait humans should also strive for.

These questions and insights emerging now are the heart of how to better protect and value our waters and our fellow humans. As we enter a new era of humanity unlike ever before, I wonder, can we restructure our relationship with water? Can water be used to help learn to broaden our values and perspectives? Can we treat all humans, our resources, our time, energy, money and community, as precious as our vital waters? Can we teach the next generation to express awe and discover wonder through connection with water? Can we find the wellsprings of passion, purpose and acceptance within ourselves to continue forward with greater resilience and open-mindedness than before? How can we live closer to the Earth and use the many lessons offered by water to teach us to be better humans, protectors, adapters, and community members?

Observing sea turtles in Costa Rica. Photo by Brenna Sweetman

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