The Drought Dialogues

Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist

Linda: As climate change engulfs the planet with different results in different places, the once-sacred life element of water cries out for special attention in California this year as it disappears from our fields, mountains, streams, lakes, reservoirs and homes. The drought is at the forefront of our minds now all over the state. Not enough rain, disappearing groundwater, browning landscapes, heightened wildfire risk. Furious fingers are pointing at possible culprits - water-guzzling bottled beverage companies? Greedy industrial farmers? Montecito lawn-waterers? Fossil-fuel water-contaminators, spewers and frackers?

But of course the scarcity of water is not a new issue on the central and southern coasts of our continent. There have been many droughts over the ages, and in recent centuries great crimes have been committed in our greed to "own" and use every last drop without thought for the future or the rest of nature. Tales of previous water thefts and wars in our state are arising once more from the mists of history as new quarrels proliferate. Desperate citizens are turning on each other: who has water? how much is left? who can get it for me? and how much will it cost?

Craig: “Once-sacred” is perhaps key to understanding the water wars and the drought in any deep way.

Water has been a commodity in California ever since the missionaries arrived and started down the long road of developing a semi-arid coastal region. Most of that development has ignored the nature of this place. Look around at the greenery in San Diego, LA, Santa Barbara, San Francisco: almost all of it is artificial, existing only because we irrigate it. The same with the crops grown in the exhausted Central Valley. Although we are in the most severe drought on record, most of our water pours into agricultural monocrop business long known to be unsustainable, meat production, and bottled water (think about that when you eat a Nestle candy bar).

How is this possible? Many factors apply, but underlying most or all of them is what Malidoma Some referred to in our ecotherapy book as a desacralized relationship with water. We dam it, frack it, even pee in it and flush it. Our profane mistreatment of water contaminates the very language we use to manipulate and control it. How did we get so alienated from the sacredness of water?

Linda: Speaking of peeing…ever since I took the Permaculture Design Course and learned about composting toilets, I’ve been obsessed with the absurdity of modern people peeing and pooping into their scarce drinking water. How truly insane is this wasteful abuse of the planet’s rare and sacred freshwater? We need to look at the whole aptly-named “wastewater” cycle. Where does our toilet water go? To the expensive and energy-intensive water treatment plant where it’s “treated” with things like toxic chlorine bleach to kill germs to make it “clean” again. But even that extreme “treatment” doesn’t remove the artificial hormones and medications we’ve excreted into this formerly clean water, so any reuse of it involves whole-community ingestion of nasty drugs!

I think we’ll know we’re reapproaching ecological sanity when we understand once more that “humanure” can be a useful fertilizer when properly treated through biological means, as it was in some earlier civilizations who understood that “nightsoil” was organic gardening gold. Savvy farmers and gardeners use diluted urine as a nitrogen source for their crops. And if that is too gross for modern industrial people, I’d recommend we explore a shorter term solution: replacing the old water-based toilets with electric toilets that use no water and “zap” the humanure into ash that in some cases may also be used as tree fertilizer. And isn’t it also interesting that as we learn more about the importance of the intestinal microbiome we’re finding that kids who are born by Caesarian or kept too clean get sicker and may need “fecal transplants”? We’ve lost the understanding that “dirt” is really sacred earth and that all water is the planet’s and our bodies’ lifeblood.

Craig: Freud would probably agree that as a civilization we don’t manage our shit well. Anal retentive and anal expulsive all at the same time, the first with money and "resources," the second with toxic waste. And so what is traditionally considered profane, feces, is allowed into what we use for drinking, ablution, and baptism.

Our bodies are mostly water, and most of our planet is covered with it. At the poles it is melting. The seas are rising: a symbol, as Jung would have pointed out, of our rising unconsciousness. How did we start treating water so wastefully? Is it just that we began seeing it as a commodity? As power over others: “hydraulic despotism”? As salt-raising irrigation?

Linda: When we stopped seeing nature – including water and the other elements – as sacred, everything degenerated. It was a short step from there to commodification. If water is nothing special, why not just buy and sell it as we bought and sold slaves, lumber, oil and other “commodities”?

It seems to me that the solution to drought is to re-sacralize not only water, but the whole of nature. As you mentioned, West African shaman Malidoma Some (2009), in his essay “A Shamanic Reflection on Water,” is an excellent guide here. “Whether it is the literal inability of so many to access healthy water to sustain their lives, or the spiritual dryness of a dehydrated culture that has forgotten its sacred dependence on water, we now find ourselves in a desperate situation…We must look at water’s fundamental cosmological power to cleanse and purify, both ourselves and the world we live in.” (p. 252)

Craig: Here we run up against a prejudice of Modernity: rejecting the felt experience of the quality of things, including water, in favor of their abstract quantity. We have a lot of words for measuring water: liter, gallon, head, acre inch, friction loss….everything from head to acre foot, but where is the texture, the fluidity and lucidity, the purity? We can’t contact them and be moved by them, moistened by them, unless we live in our subjectivity, and we can’t do that if we approach water only from the outside, however useful the measurements.

Linda: Yes, this is a hugely important point – the necessity of subjectivity as well as objectivity. The guide I look to in this regard is David Kidner (2001), whose book Nature and Psyche: Radical Environmentalism and the Politics of Subjectivity stresses the necessity of internal experience as well as external observation. And we often need our nature-oriented artists, poets, dancers and writers to help us explore this sensual immersion in all of nature’s aspects, including water – and the lack of water in a time of drought. The joy of liquid immersion is balanced through openness to the physical and emotional experience of deep longing and alarm that our bodies feel as dryness and thirst. These are collective subjective experiences on dry days – for humans, plants and fellow animals. Kidner explains that problems like drought and other environmental ills “stem from the historically fabricated opposition between self and world on which industrialism relies” and reminds us that “we need a concept of subjectivity that is ecological rather than individual.” (p 8)

For decades most of us have taken for granted the instant availability of “H2O” direct from the tap, conveniently ignoring the long journey it has taken from distant sources, some natural and some completely dependent on theft and long-distance pumping. So merely slowing down and deeply experiencing the water we are lucky enough to have today – especially the freshwater our bodies are so utterly dependent on – is a huge consciousness raiser, not dissimilar to the epiphanies many modern eaters now experience when they question the source and nature of their food.

Craig: This would help deepen our relationship to water, but I’m wondering about unconscious associations we have that make water scary. For instance, how does it feel, at some level, for the members of a culture that does not recognize the value of mourning to look at a river? Or a dripping faucet?

Linda: I like the idea of taking the time to think and feel deeply about our associations to water, both those that are positive and also the shadow aspects that are not so pleasant. Water is beautiful, refreshing, cleansing and necessary to life; water can also kill, drown and overwhelm all opposition. It seems deeply significant that as biological animals we express both our positive and negative emotions through moisture -- from energetic or fearful sweat to tears of loss or joy to our most ecstatic reproductive liquids. It’s also profoundly moving to explore what science, philosophy, literature and mythology can tell us about the nature and significance of the waters in our own bodies and throughout the “water planet.”

I used to work for ocean explorer and co-inventor of the diving regulator Captain Jacques Cousteau, who opened up the previously threatening and murky world of the deepest waters to modern eyes. When he saw the rapid degradation and pollution of the Mediterranean Sea while diving in the early 1970s, he became a passionate educator and campaigner for the protection of earth’s waters and their wild inhabitants. Yet even decades later, to many of us it’s still news that we’re overusing, mistreating and contaminating the water we and other animals and plants need in order to survive. What will it take for us to heed nature’s message?

Those of us who live in California are experiencing a special “teaching moment.” While in other areas nature is delivering hard-to-ignore wake up calls through furious watery hurricanes and frozen blizzards, here she is withdrawing water’s life-giving presence. We’ve cut down the trees that protect the streams’ origins; we’ve depleted the underground aquifers; we’ve paved over the soil that needs to drink in the rains; we’ve allowed corporations to bottle a life necessity as a commercial commodity; and we’ve stolen the waters from the north to feed the endless development to the south. Is there something almost alchemical about what is happening in California right now?

Craig: Alchemists often warned against using too much heat (calcinatio). They also described Solutio and washing, which are water operations. Too much heat desiccates and rigidifies, whereas water moistens and gets things flowing. These outer operations are also internal. As things dry up and species vanish, we remain dessicated dammed-up watersheds of unshed tears.

Linda: It’s the problem of extremes, isn’t it? Too much heat and even too much water can be so destructive. The whipsawing back and forth between extreme weather states seems to be the “new normal” of the global climate at this point. The image that comes to my mind is a wounded snake writhing in pain every which way, just as the polar vortexes and the ocean currents are now doing, destabilizing weather and life conditions everywhere on the planet. And speaking of whipsawing back and forth, meteorologists and climate scientists are predicting an intense El Nino this coming winter, so the extreme drought in California may be followed by extreme rainstorms, producing equally disastrous results even though we’ll be so grateful for the rain. And as a result of this turnaround, Australians are preparing for the drought we’re now experiencing. I wonder what it will take for us to get the message?

Craig: I think actually enjoying a different relationship to water and other elements of nature is what can make the difference. I’ve seen a lot of preaching, activism, exhortation, scientific factism, and it’s all so numbing. For Americans in particular, as soon as we think somebody wants us to do something, we stop dead. We also think that only great wealth or power drive change, when in fact they rise only in the wake of new possibilities being imagined.


What’s convincing is to offer the carrot of our enjoyment, our reverence, our sacred stories, our nature art and ceremony, music and poetry, and let Nature take care of the stick: the dangerous consequences of our being out of alignment. We live in a time of debts coming due, and water is a big one.

Linda: That approach makes so much sense. Those of us in ecopsychology and ecotherapy can focus on facilitating a sensuous, loving and enlightening relationship between people and the rest of nature and allow nature to be the ultimate healer, teacher and parent.

Which brings us back to the topic of how best to facilitate that relationship with water. What sacred stories, nature art, ceremony, music and poetry can we call upon to help us enjoyably and reverently reconnect with the waters within our bodies and throughout the planet? As a gardener, I find that any water feature within a human-tended place calls deeply to our bodies and souls. The sight of sun playing on drops or surfaces and the tinkle or roar of cascading streams – even in a tiny fountain – play subtly and powerfully on the psyche-soma, relaxing us into sensual connection with all planetary liquids.

Craig: Story, art, ceremony, music, poetry: these and other sensuous media are crucial for changing consciousness, whether personal or collective. Plenty of science shows that exhortations filled with facts do not change minds or hearts: stories and the arts do. That’s why politicians afraid of change work so hard to de-fund the humanities. Nevertheless, by being open to whatever media and ceremonies and stories run down to us, we become examples of a renewed relationship to water, a relationship that will gain ever-greater poignancy as the water we waste runs low.


Permaculture advises us that, in the presence of water, we should slow it, spread it, and sink it. This is good advice, but it remains in the realm of instrumentality. Because water is much more than a resource, let us also share it, story it, and sacrilize it by allowing it to flow undammed (and undamned) through the imagination, the human fountain of lasting renewal, and tell us how to appreciate what watery abundance remains.

Linda: Speaking of a resacrilized relationship to water, tomorrow a colleague and I are guiding an eco-grief gathering at the ocean’s edge to help our community deal with the emotional pain and despair that have arisen here from repeated oil spill contamination of our local waters, wildlife and beaches. We will share poetry, singing and our own stories and finish with a ceremony involving hands on the sand, commitment to renewed activism in protection of our land and waters, and then pour small handfuls of sand into the ocean with our blessings and compassion for all life.

As we begin to revalue our water planet’s liquids in all their forms – rain, oceans, rivers, woodland streams and our bloodstreams – perhaps we may begin to recover from the extremes of both physical and spiritual droughts and their opposites, the extremely destructive physical and emotional floods that threaten to destroy living beings around the planet.


Kidner, D. (2001). Nature and Psyche: Radical Environmentalism and the Politics of Subjectivity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Some, M. (2009). A Shamanic Reflection on Water, in Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, eds. Buzzell, L. and Chalquist, C. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.




Click the book cover to purchase at