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January 8, 2013


Aquam Perdemus

In his book Geography of Time: On Tempo, Culture, and the Pace of Life, author Robert Levine dedicates some early chapters to a historical understanding of time in an attempt to shed light on its current and varied perception in modern societies across the world. As with any deft historical account, Levine’s book naturally touches on a number of less obvious bedfellows of time, including water.

As Levine notes, ancient time measuring devices lacked the degree of granularity necessary to track the passing seconds, minutes, and hours of their ancient creators. The advent of sun dials, hour glasses, and water clocks – the sky, earth, and water trifecta of the ancient temporal world – some 5,500 years ago brought the passing of those ancient days into much sharper focus. Water clocks and hour glasses, in particular, also allowed for a revolutionary and meaningful division of nighttime, which had until then occupied the dark hours beyond the reach of the sun’s marching shadows.

The Aral Sea, once one of the world’s four largest lakes, has steadily atrophied as a result of water diversion for irrigation projects beginning in the 1960s. (NASA Earth Observatory)

Not surprisingly, the material matter so vital to the measuring of time soon became entwined with time itself. According to Levine, ancient Roman lawyers would commonly request that a judge “aquam dare,” or give water, when beseeching more time for the development of a defense. Conversely, a lawyer might refer to a measure that could cause one to “aquam perdere,” or lose water, when referring to time lost in a case. Practically speaking, water had become a proxy for time; conceptually, time had become water, flowing and finite.

As we look out over the next 100 years of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin we might be well served to adopt this sort of conceptual entanglement. Unlike alarming calls to action that equate water to the next oil – a finite resource that may be essential to our way of life, but not necessarily to life itself – the progressive loss of fresh, uncontaminated water is a sort of water clock for all types of life, human and otherwise: as it runs down, so too do we. When “aquam perdemus” – when we lose water – we also undermine the perpetuation of the improbable and fragile experiment that is life on Earth.