In today’s Chronicle, the Oakland writer Jon Carroll was musing about fire: “Usually it’s an obedient little creature, about the size of a cocker spaniel—until one day it turns into the largest, meanest cocker spaniel on Earth, and there goes the house.” Water, another of the four ancient elements, is the same way.
Water is great in metered doses, delivered by tank and faucet. But “water dissolving, water removing” is no tamer than fire. Some time you should see firsthand what keeps it constrained: giant dams and stout mains, treatment plants, intricate feeder lines. The antique examples of dams and treatment facilities in Oakland are not the state of things today. Every now and then something breaks, like this line under Santa Clara Avenue in 2005, and a hint of chaos leaks out.
Last week a handyman had our water turned off for most of the day, with no word about when he would finish. As sunset approached we panicked enough to go out and buy 48 pounds of jugged water. But we didn’t need to use most of it. And so another bit of our earthquake preparedness is in place, a little lurch of progress. After the next big-enough one there will be water, water everywhere.
The ancients had a handle on things with their notion of four elements. Fire and water are worthy of the status, both full of motion and power. As for air, every weather report vouches for it. But it took someone more observant than most of us to see earth the same way and sum it all up as panta rhei, everything flows.