10/29/2012 02:20 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

Water, the Gods and Us

Water. Out of the great rivers long ago, mermen of a kind -- the Seven Sages -- emerged. It was they, ancient Mesopotamians told, who brought the gifts of civilization to humankind. But water was also the amniotic soup of chaos. Only after a god-hero split the sea monster Tiamat in two was life on earth possible at all. With Hurricane Sandy churning up the coast, a steady rain muddles the surface of our central Virginia pond. A heron stands on the water's edge perfectly still.

For a god to be a god, it has always been crucial that she or he control water, if not actually be the water. From the Nile to the Ganges, from Flood to Galilee. Water.

So, is it an act of impious arrogance or (God forbid) secularization that leads us to conclude that human decisions and human actions can affect the seas, the rivers, lakes and dew? Or more: that it is imperative that human beings seek sustainable management of natural resources? No. It is as an act of the most universally religious sort to care. I'm not talking about care as just a mushy feeling, but an active mustering of all the tools that make us human -- of rigorous learning, wisdom and compassion -- to get past our egos and individual self-interest to promote the deepest well-being of all.

I don't know if Sandy's devastating strength is a direct result of human choices; but to imagine that changing our world as we do doesn't, well, change our world is just plain silly. I paddle sometimes on the reservoir near our house. Every so often it crosses my mind that I'm paddling over former fields -- pasture, woodlands. I've seen an aerial photo of the region before Charlottesville dammed the Rivanna River. Big green hills now make for good fishing.

Along the river's banks, with eagles, turtles and herons, live an amazing couple, deeply committed to caring for this waterway and more. They hosted a gathering of the Rivanna Conservation Society, where I met others actively working to help the region's residents appreciate the river and protect its health. Just yesterday, I received a flyer from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and I know that my most constant childhood companion, the great Gitchee Gummee, has its own Save Lake Superior Association.

Some weeks ago, I met an incredible group of people, mobilized by an Iraqi engineer, who grew up in the marshlands of southern Iraq, a unique region struggling to recover from Saddam Hussein's efforts to oust the people by draining their homeland. Nature Iraq is the product of a team of Americans and Iraqis joined in work along the Tigris river, reinvigorating its ecosystems from the mountains of Kurdistan to the Persian Gulf. It is accredited to the United Nations Environment programme (UNEP), Iraq's first and only affiliate to Birdlife International, and the only Middle Eastern affiliate to the

Thank goodness there are such people doing such work. It's hard always to know the right way. Such leaders help us to act. Yet even knowing, it's a discipline (no less than one traditionally religious) to choose the most sustainable way. I for one fail regularly. Sure there's grace -- grace in the earth, grace in the heavens -- however you define it; but that doesn't change the charge we bear as intelligent, thumb-wielding creatures to care.

The Japanese poet Basho wrote, "Patiently fishing in the lake, the crane's long legs have shortened since the rains." The heron on the pond behind my office just lifted off, its broad wings clearing power lines and the limbs of an old silver maple. They say the winds are coming.