The value of water world: Beyond metaphor to Blue Mind

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Wallace Nichols, author of Blue Life, talks of the importance of water at North Avenue.
Credit: Dale Bowman

As post-frontal west winds straight-lined from a winter-blue sky Tuesday and washed over us on the North Avenue pier, water talk built naturally for Wallace Nichols.

He carries the value of water into science, but even the author of the best-selling “Blue Mind’’ dabbles in metaphors and poetry.

All the water’s a stage.

“Turn this way and it could be anywhere,’’ he said as we stared east where water merged with sky on Lake Michigan. “If it was the Pacific, you might have a dolphin in it.’’

He thinks the value of water is underutilized, under-estimated. So he scientifically documents the economic, cultural, health (medicinal) and emotional value to water.

“Think how many people in Chicago look at water at least once in their day,’’ said Nichols, a marine biologist and research associate with the California Academy of Sciences.

Nichols knows the area. He attended Barrington High School, where he had an eclectic experience, both playing football and co-captaining the math team. An English teacher, now retired Dale Griffith, pushed Nichols to be a writer, but he wanted to be a scientist who writes.

When Nichols came back for his 30th class reunion, he gave a copy of “Blue Mind’’ to Griffith, who remembers the writing promise of Nichols and his reading of such intense works as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and Albert Camus’ “The Fall.”

Nichols lived in Lincoln Park for a while while he figured out what he was doing. There he was also training for an Iron Man triathlon, the only Iron Man he would do.

Yes, water is natural for a man who runs Blue Mind Life, which reconnects people to water. It grew out his book, whose full title is self-explanatory: “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.’’

Nichols was in Chicago to present the third annual Blue Mind Award to Carbondale, for its first public swimming pool, which culminated a 40-year process.

Most communities take public swimming pools for granted. As somebody who stacks evidence of the wide-ranging benefits of water, Nichols sees swimming pools as “a gateway’’ to getting people into water.

To take a flying leap into the water for a “blue reset,’’ you need to be unafraid of jumping in.

“We need to teach that on the water, in the water, is really good fun,’’ Nichols said.

As much as I want to take this as slightly hokey, I think he’s right. And he has been amassing evidence, neuroscience, to back it up. He is more than willing to help people working on valuing water’s overall worth to communities.

But he also understands water as metaphor and poetry. His next book, “writing itself,’’ builds off Shakespeare, “Go Deeper: Seven Ages of Water.’’

As we chatted, he touched on one of the most imagery-stoked texts in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the 23rd Psalm (King James Version). The “red mind’’–“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’’ is soothed by the “blue mind’’–“he leadeth me beside the still waters.’’

Nichols knows the “Blue Mind’’ with his head and heart. Key parts of his life have been by water.

“Not sure, but our children were probably conceived by water,’’ he said.

And ultimately, Nichols noted, “The more people get in the water, the better it is. The more they will fight for what it is.’’

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