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This is Water

The itinerary of our semester follows a body of water — the Rio Grande — in all different forms. We first saw the river in orientation in El Paso, where we were surprised to discover that there, it is a dry, sandy river bed. We canoed along it in Big Bend National Park, where the forceful, breathtaking body of water doubles as a highly contentious and polarizing border. Just a few days ago, we hiked down into a gorge in Northern New Mexico and stood on the bank of the river, admiring its rapids and joking about what would happen if we canoed through (nothing good).

Beyond the Rio Grande itself, we talk about water constantly, planning our treks around how we can guarantee 4-5 liters per person per day and grilling our instructors on when we might be able to take our next shower. We talk about how our access to water is a privilege many in the desert do not get, and we are careful to express our gratitude for each sip that sustains us. It is interesting that something that is so present in all of our lives is rarely explicitly spoken about in other contexts. Water is undoubtedly one of the themes of our course, and my newfound understanding and appreciation for it have been unexpected yet welcome outcomes.

Coincidentally, “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace, a commencement address delivered to the students of Kenyon College in 2005, is my favorite speech. I heard it first during Transference of my 2018 Dragons trip and find myself going back to it frequently. David Foster Wallace begins the speech by telling a story of three fish in the ocean. In summary, an old fish swims up to two young fish and says, “morning, boys, how’s the water?” and the young fish respond in confusion, “what the hell is water?” Wallace then uses this story to explain that we are all constantly in our own water, which is what he calls our “default setting.” Our “default setting” centers our own perspective in every experience and makes us the most relevant character in our lives. We are often unaware of how self-centered and self-interested our default setting is, just as the fish have no idea what water is — it’s all they’ve ever known. Wallace tells the soon-to-be graduates of Kenyon that the true value of a liberal arts education is teaching you how to choose what to think about, with the ultimate goal being removing yourself from your default setting, or your water, so that you are constantly aware of it.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about “This is Water,” realizing how much this trip has helped me find the water in my non-Dragons life. I have found it to be both healthy and beneficial to be removed from what is normalized in our day-to-day. It is normalized to treat the earth as a commodity rather than a gift and to consume without thinking of who or what may have lived and died to let us do so. It is normalized to be much more focused on planning our future rather than maximizing our present — so much so that we have cultivated our own unnatural understanding of what makes life valuable that revolves around profit and competition rather than happiness and beauty. In the water of our modern society, we are drowning because we have lost sight of what is important — culture, beauty, true human relationships, genuine happiness, and daily enjoyment of the gifts life has given us. It is incredibly valuable to be able to recognize that this water surrounds us so that we can make decisions that we are proud of and that come from our own understandings of how to truly live.

Soon, we will go home, and in a few months, we will return to school. It is hard to articulate how different our lives will suddenly feel when we are thrown back into the water, surrounded by fish that have never heard of water or have no interest in pulling themselves out. When I am there and I feel it flooding over me, I will think of what David Foster Wallace said. I will remember what it was like to be in Northern New Mexico, standing on the river bank, looking at the Rio Grande, and I will remind myself: This is water.