In Braiding Sweetgrass, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer recalls her childhood experience being “raised by strawberries.” She contrasts the gift of wild strawberries with the commodity of strawberries from a private neighboring field, watching the latter sell for five times the amount she earned picking them. In receiving a gift, she explains, “your only role is to be open-eyed and present.”
If I begin to open my eyes and be present about water, the first thing that comes to mind is physics. This is perhaps unsurprising. Every semester, I teach physics 101 students about specific heat capacity. It’s not as daunting or as mind-numbing as it sounds. It just tells us how much heat something can absorb before it starts to change temperature. Metals, for example, have a low specific heat capacity, and we Arizonans already know this to be true. It doesn’t take much heat from the sun to make the doorknob, the seatbelt buckle, and sometimes even our phones too unbearable to touch. This is because the temperature of the metal rises quickly as it is exposed to the heat of the sun, and this increased temperature makes the metal conduct heat to our skin faster. Ouch.
In this respect, water is not like a metal at all, and we know this, too. The swimming pool is in the sun all day too, but we relish jumping in the pool while simultaneously recoiling from the metal skimmer or pool brush. This difference is because water has a high specific heat capacity. It can absorb a lot more of that heat from the sun before it starts to change temperature.
If climate change is on your mind, you can probably see where I’m going with this. Because so much of our planet is covered with water, a lot of the heat we’re accumulating by our greenhouse gas emissions is absorbed by our oceans before the temperature rises. The temperature does rise, but if our planet were covered instead with a substance that had a lower specific heat capacity like metals, then the temperature would rise a lot more quickly.
So the specific heat capacity of water is a gift. In a magazine interview, my friend and climate scientist Dr. Jorge Vasquez told the story of a decades-old conversation with his mentor, who explained that the specific heat capacity of water was the gift of time for humans to get our act together. (Yes, we have squandered that gift of time since that conversation occurred.)
I think of this interview often and share the conversation with my students. Kimmerer ends her chapter about strawberries with a comparison of the consequences of the story of gifts versus the story of commodities. Of gifts, she says: “One of these stories sustains the living systems on which we depend. One of these stories opens the way to living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world. One of these stories asks us to bestow our own gifts in kind, to celebrate our kinship with the world.”
One of the gifts we can bestow in kind, especially in a desert, is to conserve water. For many of us who grew up in Arizona, conserving water is as second nature as standing in the shade. Our new neighbors in our growing communities are invited to join us in activities like turning off the faucet while brushing teeth and using a broom instead of a hose to clean off the patio. WaterUseItWisely.com is an Arizona-specific website full of quick tips, activities for kids, and free resources for homes and businesses to conserve water. I recently went through most of their 100+ tips and learned that our showerheads should take longer than 20 seconds to fill a one-gallon bucket, and that it’s smart to use leftover water from steamed foods as the base for a soup.
As I bestow these gifts, I am reminded not only at the generosity of the world, but the generosity of you. I live in gratitude and amazement at those of you who bestow your gifts as well. I take a moment now to breathe in all the work that is being done locally and across the globe on behalf of our home for the sake of each other who live in it, and I receive that gift. I will be open-eyed and present. Let us be open-eyed and present.
Written by Allison Boley, PhD for the Arizona Sustainability Alliance