Be Like Water

A meditation in five parts.

David Ulin History



_ There is a photograph that captures the genesis of modern Southern California, the very instant the region comes into recognizable focus, the instant the place takes shape. The date is Nov. 5, 1913, and the image portrays William Mulholland speaking from a raised platform decorated in bunting as he dedicates the first Los Angeles Aqueduct.

This is the moment of Mulholland’s famous quote, “There it is, take it,” which he called out to the assembled masses as water, diverted from the Owens River Valley, began to fill the concrete channel he had built. That it was all a PR come-on, private greed dressed up to look like public interest, is just part of what makes the moment resonant; this has been the secret story of Southern California all along. We know now, as we didn’t (couldn’t have) then, that the aqueduct came through the Newhall Pass so it could irrigate the San Fernando Valley, which Mulholland and a consortium of other powerful Angelenos had bought up at cheap prices, with the inside knowledge that water would be coming, that their investment could not help but grow.

This is the story explored six decades later in the movie Chinatown, which takes its liberties but gets the substance, the machinations and the inside dealings, pretty much exactly right. This is one of the stories Southern California likes to tell about itself. What it suggests is that we are a rogue region, rough and ready, willing to do whatever needs to be done. What it suggests is that, in this place at any rate, there is a direct linkage between collective and individual good.

Still, there’s more to such a flashpoint than merely capitalism and deception; there’s Mulholland’s utterance, which stands out as both promise and prayer. There it is, take it — the truest and perhaps most resonant signifier of what let’s call the faith that underlies the region, the idea that the elements themselves are ours for the manipulation and the taking, that in Southern California, as Charles Dudley Warner once observed, “nature seems to work with a man, and not against him.”


I never appreciated water until I moved to the West. Growing up in Manhattan, spending time in the lush green 
of New England, I considered it (if I considered it at all) a right rather than a privilege, a state of nature rather than a state of grace. My grandparents’ place in Connecticut was bordered by a brook that ran its crooked curves over stones I stepped, small crawfish, blue and red, visible in the cracks. In New York, I would hang out with my friends in Central Park, smoking cigarettes along the path encircling the reservoir. 
It never once occurred to me to think of water as a resource; 
it was always there. I didn’t even drink it much: Its lack of taste and olfactory satisfaction made it, to me, the liquid equivalent of air. And air was everywhere. Who thought about air? It 
was something I took for granted, like breathing, or the beat of blood in my body.


“There are these two young fish swimming along,” David Foster Wallace began his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, published after his death as This Is Water, “and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’

A similar sentiment applied to me. I liked swimming, spent a lot of time as a young child in pools or at 
the terminus of that brook behind my grandparents’ house: 
a small body of water bordered by weeping willows, with a wooden raft buoyed by barrels of polystyrene, anchored in 
the silt 30 feet from shore. Once, on a slow night in the middle of a slower summer, my grandfather set up a projector to 
show home movies; halfway through, the screen displayed 
a few seconds of tinny color footage shot during the 1940s — my grandmother diving naked off that raft. We all ewwed
 and giggled, as if we’d been confronted by a ghost, or worse, 
a harbinger of the future and the past.



It is not true that I never appreciated water. I appreciated rain. “Monsoon. Uttar Pradesh. Twenty-eight days of rain,” Robin Coste Lewis writes in “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari.” “At dinner, someone says, During / the nineteenth century, all this water / caused the British to go / mad. They constantly committed suicide.” Is it coincidence that Lewis is a Southern Californian? 
I don’t think so. In any case, the affliction of the British is not one 
I share. No, rain is like my inner weather, the way that living feels. Rain is complicated, contradictory; it removes us from, but also returns us to, ourselves.

Rain is the perfect weather for someone who, like me, doesn’t like to go outside. Rain out, rain check, raining cats and dogs, rain on my parade. “The sky is crying,” Elmore James, greatest of all the Chicago blues players, sang in 1959; “can you see the tears roll down the street?” James died in 1963 of a heart attack. He was 45; no wonder he sang about the rain. 
The sound of his slide guitar is 
like the sounds of tears falling. 
I can’t get it out of my head. Rain, however, is also cleansing, or clarifying, a different variety of lens. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” That’s Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a movie made in 1974 when I was 13. To look at it now, to see those images of Manhattan, of Times Square, is to fall into a time warp so profound I lose track of where I am. I remember those streets, that scum, that city before it was sanitized beyond all recognition.

I remember going to Times Square with my friends from school, all 
of us in our private-school blazers, crest on our breast pockets, to buy knives and nunchucks under the influence of Bruce Lee. Some days it rained, but nothing ever washed away. Then I moved to California, where the rain came in bursts if it came at all — the first year I was here, it was dry until February, when the torrent began: Days of rain, washing out the hillsides and the flood channels, water running down the walls of my living room in rivulets, streaming like a set of tiny brooks. Twenty-eight days of rain? Perhaps not so much, although it felt that way. And I? I sat inside, wiping at the messes, staring at the weather, understanding for the first time how elemental was this landscape and feeling for the first time as if I might call it home.


I spent this past winter and spring in Las Vegas, another arid landscape. Desert, high desert, windswept and unforgiving, unlike the semi-desert of Los Angeles, with, as Joan Didion has written, its “subtropical twilights and … soft westerlies.” For much of the time I was in Nevada, I guzzled water constantly. Normally, 
I’m a strategic water drinker. I drink water after I have been drinking, to avoid a hangover. I drink it when I am sick, or when I am out in the heat. It is not, has never 
been, my go-to; I prefer a beverage with more pop. And yet, in Las Vegas I almost never left the house without 
it, kept a bottle on my nightstand while I slept. I grew to treasure the sensation of that first hit, that first sip, the immersion of it, the saturation, the feeling of that cold wetness pouring down my throat. Or no, not just my throat but also my body, the very structure of my cells.


I could feel the water flow into my muscles, I could feel 
it lubricate my limbs. Imagine it: The long slug of cold liquid, dispersing through me, as if I were a parched piece of ground. I understand now how the desert feels, in the first flash of winter rain. The water spreads, as water does, a puddle or a stain. It seeps through cells like grains of sand, spreading, dissipating, until I am hydrated again. It’s a cliché to say that it’s refreshing, although this is precisely how it feels.

Re-fresh-ing: a gerund word that catches us in the middle of something, part of a process, as we always are. Each syllable carries equal weight, the first suggesting some sort of restoration, the second that this renders us new again. In Las Vegas, I would walk in the afternoons, through the heat and desiccation, a terrain so dry it caused my skin to itch. I would wait until I could barely stand it before pausing to take a drink. Picture me there, one lone human figure, still and small against the backdrop of the Spring Mountains and the Sheep Range. I could feel my body soften as the water unfurled within it, as if I were being licked by tiny tongues.



The El Niño that was supposed to land last year hit Los Angeles this winter while I was away. Or, at least, there was a 
lot of rain. I noticed it every time I returned, a few days here 
and there to see my family, before driving back east across the Mojave to Las Vegas. The contrasts were dislocating: all that green in California, an explosion in my neighborhood and on the city streets. I could smell the water in the air, could almost taste it, bland and colorless no longer, an element asserting itself. This wasn’t the water I remembered from the East, from my childhood, but something wilder and more essential, like (let’s call it) blood. I would go and come back, go and come back, and each time the grass on my neighbor’s untended front lawn would be higher and more flowers would be in bloom.


It was no surprise to me when the governor announced that California’s drought was over; I had been seeing it, on every visit to the city, as if the water table was rising before my eyes. And yet … the drought is over? This seems as premature to me as declaring that El Niño is coming, or has come. Look what happened last year, when we had one bracing day of rain 
in early January, and then little more than spittle after that. 
I moved to California in a time of water restriction; the state 
was on the tail end of one of its longest droughts. In 2007 another drought set in, bringing with it, as drought always 
does, wildfires and other instabilities, the ecosystem of the region at work again. We have four seasons in California, 
the old joke goes: earthquake, fire, flood, and drought. Is it 
a surprise to anyone that water plays a role in all of them?

This past winter, the one that has just ended, was the 
wettest on record in California. But that does not mean it 
will happen again. “You must be shapeless, formless, like water,” Bruce Lee, who inspired those adolescent excursions 
to Times Square, is reported to have said. “When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in 
a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a 
teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water, my friend.”

David L. Ulin is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and the author, most recently, of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.