Correction: Alex Antram is the executive director of Headwaters at Incarnate Word.
Four experts talked about the philosophical, psychological, anthropological and spiritual aspects of water.
By Alison Graef
Water is not only necessary to sustain life, but also plays a significant role in culture and spirituality, four experts said at a panel April 26 at Sinkin Eco Centro.
Dr. Will Taegel, psychotherapist and dean of the Wisdom School of Graduate Studies, set the tone for the evening by starting the time with a few minutes of active imagination meditation. He encouraged guests to slough off the worries and stresses of the day by using their imaginations to take them back to a positive memory of water and to recognize that they are mostly water.
“This is not so much about the value of water, or even about water, as it is becoming identified as water,” Taegel said. “We all know that we are essentially water beings. Are not 70 percent of our bodies water? It’s no accident, I think, that almost exact percentage is the water of Gaia, or Mother Earth.”
After the meditation, Taegel asked everyone to share the names of the waters they imagined.
“What I love about this is just how my body feels enriched to have these streams coming in as we’re talking,” Taegel said.
Taegel said he has explored how humans’ inner psychology interfaces with water. He said each human is not one entity, but a collection of inner identities that he thinks of as members of a council. As an example, Taegel explained that someone can have an inner critic, inner child, inner father, inner griever and an inner teacher.
“When you introduce yourself as Meredith or Julie, you have the assumption that you are a unified entity,” Taegel said. “As a matter of fact, we are a collection — a counsel — of sub-selves.”
Taegel said most of the inner selves are formed to help people cope with life. However, Taegel said the core of a person is connected with nature. He explained that nature is not limited to grass and trees, but encompasses everything, including “man-made” aspects. This connection with the world can be stifled, though, when the inner selves become too dominant over the natural self.
“At the core of our lives, is the natural self that is most energized in its linkage and connection with the environment,” Taegel said. “That natural self needs to be nourished and awakened because it’s been overlaid with so many different parts of ourselves.”
Alex Antram, executive director at the headwaters at the University of Incarnate Word and ecological anthropologist, spoke on the historical and cultural context for the origin of the San Antonio River. Antram encouraged people to reconnect with “this hidden place of creation that has been devalued by modernity.”
Antram said she considers cultural systems to operate within ecosystems and views all human societies within the context of a global ecosystem.
“Going beyond my academic training, I find myself extending the layering further to consider culture inside nature, and then an all-encompassing cradle of spirit around it … at the very least an energetic interconnectedness,” Antram said.
Antram said the source of the San Antonio River, the Blue Hole, is “itself a cradle of spirit.” She said the spring has been a sacred pilgrimage site for indigenous people for thousands of years and is central to several cultures’ creation stories.
Antram said the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word have owned the land containing the Blue Hole since 1897. She said documents from the 17th and 19th centuries note the spring shooting geyser-like up to 20 feet high. She said by the time the sisters purchased the spring, it was running very low.
Antram outlined the cultural significance of the spring to the indigenous Coahuiltecans. She said in their language, the Blue Hole is called “Yanawana,” which means “big up-flowing waters of the spirit,” and is believed by the Coahuiltecans to be the source of all life. Native peoples pilgrimaged sometimes hundreds of miles to visit the spring, a significant spiritual destination.
Antram said when the Spanish colonized Texas, they used the Blue Hole to irrigate their settlements.
“The Blue Hole evolved from a larger spiritual, communal place to a way the dominant culture could irrigate the missions. … But it did not take long for the missions to overshadow the very source that gave life to their gardens and pasturelands,” Antram said.
Even in its current depleted state, the San Antonio Spring is ranked sixth largest among the “16 great springs” of Texas, Antram said.
As the city grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, Artesian wells dug into the Edwards Aquifer depleted the flow of the spring. Many years, Antram said, the spring has not flowed at all, and the river was sustained by smaller springs in the Olmos Basin.
“The ecological health of the spring fell, but the robust spiritual importance of the Blue Hole never faltered in the local Native American community,” Antram said.
Antram also outlined the ecological significance of the spring. Four different eco-regions come together in the San Antonio area – grassland, brush land, woodland and wetland. She said while climates changed elsewhere, the Olmos Basin’s lush landscape remained largely unchanged since the end of the last Ice Age.
“It’s been an oasis in this generally hot and dry South Texas climate,” she said.
Antram said cultures are formed in response to environment.
“From their interactions with natural resources, from engaging with everything in the material environment, Native American cultures were born,” Antram said. “Culture does not exist outside of nature. Indeed, culture is the way the symbolic human mind makes sense of the natural world.”
Antram said spirituality is the relationship between everything. She said every human, animal, plant, mineral and element is interconnected.
“Life is a system of cultures and ecologies and the energy of it all – the spirituality of it all – is found not in individual beings, but in the spaces between them,” she said. “You are only you in relation to other people, places and things. You are in a constant state of ‘becoming with’ other beings. And spirit is what is found in the spaces between. And, to me, water is the clearest medium that closes that relational space.”
Dr. Vincent Lopes, environmental studies professor at Texas State University, said he was involved in demand water management for more than two decades, in which the philosophy is that more dams and pipes need to be installed to cater to human needs.
“But little by little, I had this anxiety that this was not working,” Lopes said. “I came to the conclusion that what we really need is a paradigm shift.”
Lopes said humans need to shift their view of themselves and the world. He said water and environment are connected and both need to be attended to.
“The water crisis is just a picture of the larger ecological crisis,” Lopes said. “Therefore any efforts to address the water crisis without concern for the larger ecological crisis is a loss. … For any approach to water, to water management, to succeed, you have to take the ecological system into consideration.”
Lopes said humans need to shift their view to see water unselfishly as a universal resource.
“We should look at water as the source of all life, not just for humans,” Lopes said.
Lopes said humans often fail to see themselves as a part of the solution, but instead see problems as distant and impersonal.
“We never include ourselves in the equation,” Lopes said. “We believe a problem is a problem out there that needs somebody to solve it. We see a problem as something distant.”
Lopes advocated for a paradigm shift away from “mainstream ecology,” which he described as a detached view of ecological issues, to “engaged ecology.”
“(Mainstream ecology) is a detached type of science and ecology,” Lopes said. “It is one that you do not feel a part of the great web of life.”
Lopes said engaged ecology is a worldview in which humans see themselves as a part of the bigger picture.
“How can we address our social and ecological problems from within rather than from without?” Lopes said. “From within requires you to feel as a part of that ecology.”
David Baker, artist, founder and director of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, described a time when he spent an afternoon with theologian Thomas Berry.
“He told us this story of creation and what he was really trying to convey to us was … when we made the world a machine in our thinking about it, something in our spirit died,” Baker said. “Something became disconnected inside of us that separated us from nature.”
Baker said that conversation made him realize he had that division inside of him and he needed to reconnect with nature.
“In that quest, somehow life brought me to the edge of Jacob’s Well,” Baker said. “When I saw that spring, it brought back to me … when standing at the edge of Benet Springs in southern Missouri, and seeing all the fish swimming in that crystal-clear water, and just that complete — it was just love. It was just being in love with that moment and with beauty, and just in this rapture with creation.”
Baker said living with his family next to Jacob’s Well was a wonderful experience for him. He described the well as “magical” and “a great mystery.” He described painting the spring on a canvas as a flowing out from inside of him.
“What that did for me was it connected me with something inside that was the well in me, it was just flowing out of me, just like that water is flowing out of the earth,” Baker said.
Baker said it is through creativity that he can reconnect that severed connection with nature.
“What all these years have helped me realize is that this creativity is where wisdom lives,” Baker said. “Anytime we are creative, there is wisdom. And that spontaneity, it’s almost a non-rational kind of movement comes up. That’s what we’ve lost our trust in. We’ve lost the trust that that spontaneity is OK. ‘It doesn’t fit in; it’s too radical.’ But I think that’s where we reconnect with that part of ourselves that’s been separated through thinking nature is something else.”