It’s without doubt the most valuable resource in the known universe. Talk to anyone living in a place where it’s especially scarce, and they’ll confirm that. Sometimes with hair-raising stories to prove it.

Yet most of us take fresh water completely for granted.

A dock at a remote lake in northern British Columbia, Canada

I live in Canada – perhaps the most waterlogged country on Earth. We have so much fresh water tied up in a mind-boggling matrix of lakes, rivers, ponds, streams and glaciers, that it seems virtually unlimited. And that’s reflected in our habits. Many of us in Canada take interminable showers, leave sprinklers running forever, and overuse our toilets and washing machines.

Water is so plentiful here that international corporations fight to bottle it for profit. One of them, Sun Belt Water Inc. of California is suing Canada right now for $10.5 billion dollars because the province of British Columbia has refused to sell it to them.

My own conditioned blindness to how precious fresh water can be was driven home on a trip through Egyptian Sahara a few years ago. I was on a two-week jeep excursion through the Libyan Desert, one of the driest and most inhospitable regions on Earth.

Atop a sand dune in the Great Sand Sea, Western Desert, Egypt

Once we travelled beyond the last oasis towns, there were no more grocery stores selling bottled water. We had to carry every drop of our water with us ourselves into the void. Boxes and boxes of it. Stacked on the roofs, and piled into every last niche of storage space. It was our heaviest freight.

Yet, even though it seemed we were carrying a lot of water, it was just enough to last us a few days beyond our itinerary. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t much.

At first we went through it as one does beer at a Oktoberfest. Guzzling it. Dribbling it. Spilling it. We even washed our faces with it, recklessly drenching the insatiable sand. But after a few days, as we started to see our supply dwindle and the empty bottles accrue, we became more careful with it. Ever more measured.

By around Day 10, all of us – tired, dust-besotted and ensconced in a landscape so dry that it sucks the moisture out of you – became paranoid about its scarcity.

Being in this headspace culminated in a bizarre moment:

During one of our meal stops, a porter removed several bottles of water from its cardboard box and placed them standing side-by-side on the ground beside one of the vehicles. At first I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. But as I kept looking at the sleek units of water, something happened: the labelling and details of the bottles, their commodified appearance, melted away leaving behind glowing blue capsules in their place. They looked alien, futuristic, glimmering in the way bars of gold might to the greedy. Each radiated life and insinuated fertility like a miraculous Planet Earth set in the desolation of space.

Desert travelers bathe in a Saharan hot springs near Farafra Oasis, Western Desert, Egypr

Travel at length in the desert and your cognition changes. The absence of objects, defined borders, hard angles and a sense of scale had obviously altered my perception. It made me see things “differently.” But the very absence of water, the profound appreciation and implicit yearning for it, also helped me regard it in a way I almost never do: as a rare element brimming with magic.

This was so much the case that when we returned sand-encrusted and unwashed to Farafra Oasis we flung ourselves headfirst into the local hot spring as madly and senselessly as we had romped through the dunes after first leaving the road.

ISIS and the Blame Game

We live in a blame culture. When things go wrong, we tend to point the finger at one person, event or factor that we can declare ultimately responsible.

But often that singular “cause” is just one part of a longer succession of intertwined events.

Here’s an article I co-wrote, with colleague John Bell, about how this applies to the formation of ISIS.

Ghost Ship

I’m interested in how and why people see and believe in things that are considered by most people not to exist. I’ve done a lot of reading about optical illusions, mind tricks, expectation, the power of suggestion, misidentification and how the brain acts on its own to generate caricatures and make sense of incomplete information.

Though realizing that humans often do make errors, I’ve often found it hard to understand how a person can actually see something that isn’t supposed to be there – especially something at fairly close range – unless it’s actually there.

We all remember times we’ve mistaken strangers, lookalikes, for people we know, for example. But as much as I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to catch more dramatic examples of this sort of misperception operating in myself.

But on a recent trip to Quebec I was finally able to experience something of this phenomenon – catching it just after the fact.

I was travelling on the freight ship Bella Desgagnés in the Atlantic, along Quebec’s remote Lower North Shore. We had stopped for a few hours at the small Innu First Nation village of La Romaine, and I got off to get some air and stretch my legs. I ended up going for a long walk along the rocky shoreline towards a small, enclosed bay, which I could only see the mouth of. A thin veil of fog covered the area. But visibility was relatively good.

At one point I noticed a rowboat with two fishermen in it floating in the mouth of the bay, just ahead. But I paid the boat little heed. I was more interested in the beach and shoreline, looking at the colourful rocks, twisted driftwood and skeletons of dead crabs.

Minutes later, I looked out again towards the water and saw a large rock exactly where I had seen the fisherman just before. I was puzzled – where had they gone? Perhaps further into the bay? As I followed the turn in the shoreline and found myself looking towards the head of the bay, I saw neither the punt nor the fisherman. They had completely vanished. If the boat and its crew were actually there before, they had disappeared – which was an impossibility.

It dawned on me that I must have mistaken the rock in the water for the boat. Or my brain did, rather. I had seen many fishing punts in Quebec over the previous two weeks – so my brain conjured up that image, that pattern, automatically. It took a perceptual shortcut. Triggered in part, perhaps, by the ambiguity resulting from the light fog.

It made me wonder how often things like this happen in our everyday lives – but go undiscovered. And how our perceptual mistakes, visual and otherwise, COLLECTIVELY impact on the world.

Invisible Labyrinth

A friend and I were recently hiking in the woods near the town of Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia, east of Vancouver. At one point the trail we were following led out of the forest and into a large clearing, where just ahead we could see the Chehalis River flowing. When we emerged from the trees, the path petered out. It was nowhere to be seen.

After a fruitless search we assumed (we later learned, wrongly) that the trail continued into the woods on the other side of the 100 foot wide river on whose banks we found ourselves standing. We made preparations to cross.

That summer there was little rain in B.C. The river, as a result, was running at half its normal volume. The water was knee-deep and many of the large rocks and boulders that made up its bed protruded above the surface.

For fun, my friend and I decided to see if we could cross the entire width of the river by hopping from boulder to boulder, without falling into the water – a similar idea to the old video game Frogger. It didn’t look too hard as there seemed to be enough rocks providing ample trajectory to cross.

But once we began, we realized the task would be slow and difficult.

Many of the rocks were further from each other than had appeared on shore – too far to hop between. Others were either wobbly or they just barely jutted out of the water, so that you couldn’t get a stable enough footing with which to balance. Those sorts of obstacles were a kind of “dead-end” in our trajectory. When we couldn’t go any further, we retraced our steps and attempted a new rock route across the river.

Because of this, it felt as if we were navigating a kind of invisible labyrinth – one without walls. What had seemed a simple idea had turned into a large undertaking, as complex as any board game.

It took us around 3 hours that day to cross half the width of the Harrison River. When we noticed another hiker behind us plodding the trail which we’d lost, we threw in the towel and turned back.

Though we didn’t succeed, we both noticed something interesting by the time we got back to the trail: our minds, our sense of perception, seemed somehow expanded. Novel ideas, on the topics we silently mulled, flooded in. Connections between disparate things revealed themselves. There was a feeling of heightened mental balance and flexibility.

Could we have given our minds a special workout by that river crossing exercise?


In order to navigate and physically cross the river, we had to employ mental modes, which though different, were complimentary.

On the one hand we were required to look directly in front of us while stepping from rock to rock (a left brain exercise). On the other, we had to constantly shift our attention to the bigger picture distribution of all the rocks in order to plot a route through them in the distance (which is contextual, a right brain operation).

We had likely stimulated, equally, both hemispheres of the brain, which helped them to function in a more synchronized, holistic way than normal.

I wonder what might happen if we were able to deliberately bring such stimulus to bear on our minds on a more regular basis – while cutting down on the tyranny of screens, categories, time, sequential linear experiences, and hard visual lines and edges that are the hallmark of our concrete lives?

The Harper Years

Here’s another op-ed for Al Jazeera, written with a colleague, about Canada’s recently deposed Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his autocratic style of rule.

The Limits of Logic

Linear LogicSometimes sequential “logic” turns out to be anything but.

Have you ever noticed that book introductions penned by secondary writers as a kind of preamble to someone else’s main work (they often appear in classics) are invariably more illuminating and meaningful when read after one completes the book?

When they’re read in this reverse sequence, they also don’t give the book’s plot away.


Missing Woman Finds Herself

The notion that real-life can be “stranger than fiction” has become a cliché. Yet it’s no less true for being so.

Examples abound.

Here is one of my favourites. The story did the rounds on the wire services when it broke a few years ago. It’s not as outlandish or crazy as some real-life tales, but it encapsulates something poignant. The text is taken from Outside online.

A woman reported missing from a tour to the Eldgjá volcanic canyon in southern Iceland ended up joining the search party formed to find her. The mix-up occurred when the woman left the tour bus and changed clothing. When she returned, the other tourists didn’t recognize her and began to worry about the missing passenger. Going off of the bus driver’s description, a search was organized for an Asian woman in dark clothing who spoke English well. The missing woman didn’t recognize the description of herself and joined in the search. The following day, as the coast guard prepared to send a search helicopter, the woman realized her mistake. Sveinn K. Rúnarsson, chief of police in Hvolsvöllur, said that the woman simply didn’t recognize the description of herself and “had no idea that she was missing.”


“During the First World War it became clear to me that a process was going on which before then I had only surmised. This was the growing difficulty of genuine dialogue, and most especially of genuine dialogue between men of different kinds and convictions. Direct, frank dialogue is becoming ever more difficult and rare; the abysses between man and man threaten ever more pitilessly to become unbridgeable. I began to understand at that time… that this is the central question for the fate of mankind. Since then I have continually pointed out that the future of man as man depends upon a rebirth of dialogue.”

– Martin Buber

Hidden Solutions


A few weeks ago, I was travelling with an Innu First Nation wilderness guide up a remote river while on a trip to the Quebec-Labrador border area. As we pushed up the lower reaches of the river – an area influenced by ocean tides – we came across a long stretch of sandy shoreline beside the woods. We decided to pull over for a short hike.

Because the tide was low and the river was shallow, our small boat could only come within several feet of dry land before getting stuck in the sand. I took a big leap from the bow and landed in an inch of water at the river’s edge. I did that to avoid getting my hiking boots wet.

Later, when we returned from our ramble through the birch and muskeg forest, my guide, Mathias, who was wearing gumboots, walked out into the water to pull the boat as close to shore as he could. Again it came within no less than several feet of land.

The only way for me to get back into the boat was to walk out into the shin deep water. That would have meant getting my feet wet. Not a catastrophic scenario by any stretch of the imagination. But it was cold out and my boots would have taken a long time to dry off afterwards.

The other option was to walk through the water in my bare feet. A much better plan. But the idea of taking my boots and socks off and then putting them back on again seemed laborious – and offputting.

Partly as a kind of challenge, a game for myself, I started wracking my brain to find a third method of reaching the boat that didn’t require either getting my boots wet – or removing and then reapplying my footwear (which for some reason felt like a cop-out solution).

Mathias, watching me curiously, sensed my hesitation.

“Do you want me to carry you on my back?” he asked.

For a moment I had a vision of that almost absurd scene, and shook my head. That would be an even bigger cop-out, I remember thinking. But also, deep down, I was certain there was another solution just under my nose. But I couldn’t think of it – or see it – no matter hard I tried.

Mathias intuitively knew the game I was playing. But by comparison he was relaxed and didn’t appear to be grasping mentally at any answer. He just stood there waiting, patient and receptive.

As I aborted a scheme to construct a birch raft and prepared to unlace my boots in defeat, I noticed Mathias’s eyes lock onto something behind me. He walked over to a piece of driftwood sitting partly buried in the sand. With effort he picked up one end of the heavy log and dragged it back to the boat. He then placed the log lengthwise in the water between myself and the boat, creating a kind of bridge through the shallow water leading to the craft.

I put one foot on the log and discerned the trunk was too narrow to walk across without losing my balance. So Mathias stood in the water beside me and offered up his arm. I grabbed it, took a second step, and easily balanced my way across to the boat.