As human beings, we are born with two legs. We gradually learn to crawl, to walk, then to skip and run and jump, using the rigidity of our bones and the tensile strength of our muscles to hike up hills, clamber up mountains, and ski down slopes. Our two-legged nature lends itself well to long walks and marathon runs, while our lack of tails keeps us from balancing on twigs in the forest canopy and our absence of flippers makes us awkward in the stream or ocean. We are, it would seem, perfectly equipped to live on land.
It would seem a mystery, then, why so many human beings feel such a strong affinity for water. Sailors yearn for the sea, where mythological beings like sirens and mermaids were said to have once enraptured and enticed. Writers and poets weave stories of torrential storms and crashing waves, while centuries ago, Dutch and Flemish painters illustrated the calm, mirror-like reflections of the sea with remarkable clarity and detail. We take holidays at the seaside and spend afternoons at the pool. Clearly, water has occupied the thoughts and activities of many generations, despite the fact that our homes lie on continents and islands that are defined as by the absence of blue on the surface of any globe.
Water, of course, does not exist only in its liquid state. When the temperature dips low, the molecules crystallize into a perfect lattice and form sharp shards of ice, strong enough to crack and crush in the unforgiving Arctic, and cold enough to permanently remove the sense of feeling from fingertips and toes. On the other hand, let the temperature rise high enough, and the molecules enter a high-energy frenzy as water turns to steam, hot enough to cause dangerous burns. Environments that favor water in either of these two forms are shunned by most humans as too extreme for prolonged exposure. Instead, we prefer water in its liquid state, near our internal temperatures of 37 degrees Centigrade.
Even for the most land-locked of us, there exists an inherent pleasure derived from contact with water. During moments of extreme thirst, the sensation of a gulp of water, no matter how cloudy or warm or contaminated, can be the most sparkling, refreshing, crystal-clear, and thirst-quenching mouthful to be had, flowing across the parched membranes lining your tongue and throat. You can almost feel it flowing through your veins and reinvigorating every cell in your fingertips and toes. Or, after a day of lethargic travel by boat and bus and train and plane, where every surface feels foreign, dirty, or unfamiliar, slipping into a tub of gently steaming water feels like an enveloping wave that immediately dissolves the film of grime and tiredness clinging to your skin. At that moment, you remember what it means for your shoulders and back to be embraced and held close by something so clean and perfectly accepting of every angle of your limbs and torso, erasing the itch of a clothes tag or the tension induced by a lumpy seat cushion. In the event of a sudden downpour, the patter of rain on the pavement or the metallic ting of droplets bouncing off of a metal gutter is a kind of sound that cuts through the noisy blur of your surroundings and startles you with its clarity. At least once, it has made you stop and simply listen, as if the waiting for a message to descend from the sky.
One reason for these responses is, perhaps, due to our natural requirement for water. As for all living organisms, water is vital to our existence, maintaining our cells’ osmotic pressure and acting as the vital medium for the transport of molecules throughout our bodies. Furthermore, our lives begin in an environment in which we are surrounded by water, nourished and protected by the amniotic fluid that surrounds any developing mammal in the womb. When we are emotional or exhausted, we emit water from our tear ducts, our sweat glands, or our salivary glands. Perhaps because water is such an essential part of who we are as physical organisms, water is a comforting presence and a familiar place to which we return.