Every Faucet Is a Miracle

Thoughts about water on a rare rainy day.


Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway  (1844) by J. M. W. Turner. Do you spot the aqueduct?

Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway (1844) by J. M. W. Turner. Do you spot the aqueduct?

You know the cliché: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” (Incidentally, the best response I’ve ever heard to that is “Well, some of it was.”) Wikipedia intrepidly reports that the quote originated in this collection of French proverbs published around 1190. But there is another version circulating that is more interesting, because it captures the flip side to the story: “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it burned in one.”

In her essay “Eleanor Clarks Rome” published in The New Criterion, Emily Esfahani Smith revisits Rome and a Villa, Ms. Clark’s 1950 book. Calling it a “brooding literary meditation on this mysterious center of the Western world,” Smith eventually addresses a passage dealing with what everyone knows is coming (spoiler alert):

If water gives life — is life — then its absence must be death, which brings Clark to the topic, always in the background, of Rome’s tragic fall:

It all happened in a day, during the Gothic siege. The aqueducts were blocked up so they would not serve as passageways into the city and with one or two minor exceptions they were never used again. The rooms of the baths, of which a part of one is sufficient for the worlds biggest opera stage, went dry like a little household tap waiting for the plumber; they became in one day, in all essentials, what they have been ever since. The hyperbole had collapsed.

The nature of reality, of these realities, continues to be troubling.

It sure does! But perhaps a little less so than yesterday, because today it happened: It rained in Los Angeles.

All of California has been suffering through a record drought. Professor B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at Berkeley, says it may be the worst drought in 500 years. Much of the state’s water woes are the result of political malfeasance (this is California, after all). Regardless, Los Angeles experiences on average about 183 nice days a year, so when for consecutive years little snowfall and rain are seen up north too, it starts to get a little disconcerting down here.

Water and its relative clarity and safety have also been in the news recently as an army of coddled journalists descended upon Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics, only to find that the plumbing there isnt quite as tip-top as they might be accustomed to. It’s all somewhat amusing from a distance, but for the people of Sochi and other places where this is the norm, it’s sad.

Just as with any other material substance or condition, when we have water, we take it for granted. And not just Angelenos. The fact that we can rely on well-maintained reservoirs and can enjoy hot showers whenever we want and can simply turn on a tap to get a cold glass of clear water barely even registers most days. But when considering the long view, it’s a relatively new feature of life and an astounding feat. And of course there are far too many people around the world for whom clean water is a barely attainable luxury, which is why organizations like charity:water exist (it currently has a top four-star rating from Charity Navigator).

Here’s hoping that clean water becomes available to more and more people, and that the rain in California continues, and that the lucky among us remain so, and that it all doesn’t come crashing down any time soon.

As Smith recounts in her review:

When the barbarians sacked Rome, looting and destroying the city, they came to the Pantheon and stopped. The basilica, with its massive dome whose eye opens luminously up to the sky, overwhelmed them in awe. They did not destroy it, which is why the structure ... remains so well preserved today.

The Pantheon apparently was too impressive even for vicious Visigoths to sniff at, but they burned most everything else to the ground. Still, their first move was to dry up the city’s water supply. Surely the Romans had long taken their running, heated water for granted, just as we do, miracle of engineering though it was and is — and then it was gone. Some of those Roman aqueducts are still standing. What might future civilizations think of the Los Angeles “River”? Its odd enough as it stands today.



Posted on February 6, 2014