A small creek runs through the back of all the homes and shops. Not really a creek though, more like a shallow aqueduct, lined with stone, and just narrow enough that a child could step from one side to the other without much trouble.
In my thoroughly westernized mind, it seemed a problem. This public water channel, which runs through the private space of each building. Surely it would become polluted, fouled by animals, or poisoned by an evil-minded person. For various reasons however, none of these issues—even if they were issues—is quite relevant to this particular water channel.
In the rear garden of a home, the sound of this fresh water is always next to us. It runs between the edge of the ornamental garden and a vegetable patch. It makes the small yard—about the size of two parking spots—feel expansive, connected to something far larger than what it is. Indeed, before the water arrives here, it has already flowed though the rear gardens of two small hotels, a sake brewery, a paper maker’s studio, a pub, stationary shop, police station, hospital, three apartments, and an assortment of forty-three homes.
Dozens of other channels in the city travel their own routes, mostly open to the air and daylight.
The source of the water is a series of natural springs in a protected forest area, just at the north end of the city. Most of the spring water is piped into the buildings for use as drinking water—but never for flushing toilets—and what is not used for drinking, is moved through the backyards of the city by a series of stone aqueducts, before finally contributing to the main river, next to the train station.
When viewed simply as an amenity, the water channels seem superfluous. Certainly, they are nice to listen to. They are also convenient to pull water from for the purposes of gardening, bird baths, or paper making. One could even call them an equitable way of moving water through a city. But these are not the main purposes of the water channels.
When the city was founded some 2,300 years ago, it was already noted in historical documents, or lore, or fiction, that the forest and its waters here were sacred. Then again, the same kinds of historical documents, or lore, or fiction, are commonly cited as evidence of sacredness for nearly every forest or source of water in the country, each one saying as much in different ways, with different gods or deities acting as keepers of the sacred nature.
Here, the keeper is a dragon. A fierce one, who wants to keep an eye on the water. She sits on a mountain perch above the city, making sure the water is respected and treated for the sacred treasure that it is.
Well. Not all of the deities in these parts have been successful at protecting nature, but after 2,300 years this dragon still gets her way. The water channels are an ode to the dragon deity—and all locals and visitors understand this.
Flower beds, shrubs, and patches of wild weeds are watered from the channel. The vegetable patches and fruit trees are watered from the channel. Even stones, having become well-known and well-liked homes for moss and lichen, are watered from the channel. In this way, all life here is somehow nourished by the sacred spring.
Though all of this may have practical ends, it does not come from a reasoning rooted in practical ends. “One era’s practicality is the next era’s menace” they say, as practicalities have come and gone like the wind over the course of twenty three centuries. And so they have another reasoning, one that stands the test of time. The small stone waterways still running through nearly every yard over these centuries, come from the reasoning that a channel of communication and nourishment must be forever kept open between people, the forest, and the sacred water which springs from it. In this way, so long as humans live in this city, the health of all of these points is understood to be completely intertwined, and this understanding maintains itself as a normal part of daily life.
Perhaps that is what the dragon wished in the first place. A cunning mythical creature.
No matter where we live, we are the beneficiaries of our forests, mountains, and the sources of our water. Which makes me think that now is as good a time as any to get to know our own local deities—or whatever the eternal keepers of the sacred nature where we live happen to be.
Thanks for reading The Possible City. I’m Patrick, and every week or so I write and illustrate a short story to help us imagine more equitable, resilient, regenerative cities through art and nature. If you enjoyed this one, please subscribe and share it with others.
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