Agua Caliente is an unincorporated town on Highway 12 in Sonoma Valley. The name dates to 1840 when this area was on Mexico’s northern border and the 3,200-acre Rancho Agua Caliente was granted to Ignacio Pacheco, a Mexican army sergeant. The literal translation from the Spanish is “hot water,” referring to the thermal springs here.
Before that, the area was called wukiliwa by indigenous people, speaking what we now call Coast Miwok. The meaning is the same — wuki means “hot,” and liwa means “water.” After California became part of the United States, the communities of Boyes Hot Springs and Fetters Hot Springs sprouted in the same vicinity. This whole area is now referred to as “The Springs.”
Though languages shifted dramatically, the place essentially kept its name. Every human being understands the pleasures of bathing in hot water — the experience cuts across even stark divisions of time and culture. The commonalities among these names may be more than just skin deep.
Linguists estimate there are about 7,000 languages in the world. (Sadly, half are heading toward extinction.) On the surface, this appears as cacophony, each tongue choosing apparently random sounds to express itself. Yet a fondness for mimicry is common among all humans; one theory holds that language began as our distant ancestors imitated the sounds around them.
Consider these words for the same thing in Coast Miwok, Spanish, Russian and English: liwa, agua, voda, and water. Notice how the “wa” sound is prominent in each one. Why? Throw a rock into a pool of water and you’ll hear the answer: first the “wa”, then the splash. Given our love for imitation, it’s not surprising to find diverse peoples using similar names for an essential thing.
Mimicry may also explain the variety of human tongues. The sounds of Arctic tundra, Amazon rainforest and California Coast Range are echoed in the words of cultures inhabiting those places. Languages grew out of local soundscapes, out of the way the land itself “talks.”
So where does Agua Caliente’s hot water come from? Millions of years ago, there was lots of volcanic activity in this area, associated with the movement of tectonic plates. After the volcanoes went cold, our thermal springs, warmed by the same primal heat of the earth, lingered on. It’s said that many area hot springs cooled or stopped flowing after the 1906 earthquake. Today, you can still bathe in natural hot water here, but only because deep wells have been drilled to keep it flowing.
Hot water, the sounds of nature, our love of mimicry — all threads of our common experiences as human beings alive on this earth.