I recently returned from a trip with Philippe, my son. We were in hot climates and at high altitudes and he reminded me several times a day to drink water. He bought bottled water for me and made me carry it around in my little sack.
My other son, Francois, is calmly critical of my water intake telling me that the thirst instinct fails in old age and that when I sense thirst it is already too late.
I irritate them by reminding how much coffee I consume and how much water is in the fruits and vegetables I like to eat (not to mention Scotch whisky and gin I like to drink); and they scoff.
When Philippe and I were at the airport returning from our trip, I watched a young woman arguing with an official at the security x-ray machines. She didn’t want to give up her half-empty bottle of water. The line grew as the woman argued before, of course, ultimately giving in.
She was about to board a flight on which water would be available and free. I didn’t understand what she was fighting for.
I rarely drink water but I know that in this respect as in so many others I am out of step with modernity.
I was born and raised in Baltimore which had when I was being born and raised there one of the most advanced water systems in the country. We were proud of it particularly my family whose friend Abel Wolman was the architect of the system and the founder of modern sanitary engineering.
We Baltimoreans thought our water was the best.
Even so no one ever suggested to us that we “ought” to drink water. When we were thirsty we drank from the tap and from public water fountains (that were segregated by race). We took water for granted. It was ubiquitous. It wasn’t important.
If, when I was younger, someone had used the word “hydration” I would have thought it was a mispronunciation of the flowering bush.
What did “hydration” come from? I have always known the word “thirst;” but “hydration” seems to me to be one of those ailments we invent to excuse ourselves from personal responsibility. Instead of saying, “I am thirsty,” we create an explanation to justify a feeling, “I am dehydrated.”
I must acknowledge my sons’ loving fears. I am old, perhaps too old to know when I need water. Drinking water is indeed more important at the top of Machu Picchu than at Cape May.
But most of the water we put into our bodies comes from fruits and vegetables and coffee and tea and milk and much of we put in our mouths.
As nutritionist Marion Nestle says, “Watermelon is called watermelon for a reason. It is mostly water and perfect for hot summer days.” She also points out that thirst is a good indicator of the need for water as are some other bodily signs too intimate to write about here.
Photo by Quinn Grundy
So how did the world’s mostly widely consumed beverage become so quickly treated as a need we were being deprived of? And particularly why have people turned to bottled water to satisfy their “need.”
I see people on subway trains here and on the streets, summer and winter, carrying bottled water. Sometimes the bottles are refillable steel, more frequently they are flimsy plastic.
People buy water in grocery stores. Why do people spend their money to buy something that is available free everywhere?
Some people buy water, I suspect, because they don’t like the chlorine and other strange flavors and odors that come from their taps. Others don’t like their tap water. (I share those sentiments.)
We have not kept up our water either. What has happened in Flint Michigan is an extreme outcome of our indifferent investment in water systems, not to mention all other public services and facilities.
Others are buying bottled water as they turn away from sugared and artificially sweetened drinks. And the consequence is more and more plastic bottles to dispose of. (Read, if you wish, about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of trash the size of Texas.)
But we’ve been drinking water for all of human history – long before plastic was invented. Ceramic jugs were carried on camel trips in the desert and more recently metal water bottles were carried on long hikes. But drinking bottled water in ordinary life was mostly unheard of except that we were advised to do so in countries that were said to have undependable public water systems
People in those dark and ignorant days did leave home not carrying water. They did walk on city streets without water. People rode the subways and busses and bicycles without water bottles. It’s a wonder the human race survived.
Now people carry bottles with them as if they fear they won’t find water when they are thirsty. Now we don’t trust our thirsts and wearing water has become a fashion statement like the silly often turned-around baseball caps young men now wear.
Could there be some nefarious commercial interests in all this? Tap water is such a better choice. It’s cheap and doesn’t involve polluting plastic. It is so much better in every way even if you have to put a filter on your faucet as I do.
As Marion Nestle puts it:
…let’s start with the fact that bottled water is the most brilliantly marketed product ever invented. The companies get it practically free out of a tap and charge you a dollar or more – sometimes a lot more – for a quart or less). The plastic bottles pollute the environment. Worst of all, drinking bottled water makes people less apt to be vigilant about protecting public water supplies.
I could not believe that when Philippe and I were standing on the Equator a couple of weeks ago so many people also there were carrying with them bottles of Dasani bottled in Latin America and sold to suckers like us.
I confess to you that like my grandmother, I have no love for water as a beverage. When I see all those people carrying all those plastic bottles, I want to say to them, “Water is for bathing.” But even those who are fond of drinking it – even those who think they are preventing horrid maladies ought to consider getting their water in the old-fashioned way.