Writing on Water

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Water links all aspects of our existence. From the politics of watersheds to the romance of turtles climbing up from the sea to the beaches, from Leonardo da Vinci to Octavio Paz,from death at a hot spring to the practicalities of liquidation, the writings in this collection reflect on many aspects of the human encounter with water.The book contains some science, a few plans for managing and protecting water, and plenty of stories, poems, essays, and artwork. The writers include Bob Braine Robert Grudin, Wilson Harris, George Keithley, David Morse, Octavio Paz,physicist Sidney Perkowitz, Eva Salzman, Ted Steinberg, and Peter Warshall, editor of Whole Earth magazine. Photographers include Cyril Christo, Adam David Clayman, Monique Crépault, Helen M. Ellis,Sally Gall, Margaret McCarthy, Kristin Ordahl, Jerry Uelsmann, and Marie Wilkinson.This is the second in a series of Terra Nova books from MIT Press, which aim to show that environmental issues are cultural and artistic as well as practical and political.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A great choice for anyone who wants a little watery reading to nourish the soul."New Age Journal

"An important anthology on a precious element." Lori Kranz The BloomsburyReview

"An ode to water composed by a range of admirers." American Scientist

"...Gushes with torrents of words that dance and ebb and eddy and swirl." DavidBolling Whole Earth Review

"Refreshing as a cool drink from a deep well on a steamy July afternoon...."Publishers Weekly

"Promises to be a significant contribution in addressing a neglected but important environmental topic." Cheryll Glotfelty, Department of English, University of Nevada, Reno

Library Journal
Between 1996 and 1998, Terra Nova was MIT's environmental quarterly magazine, receiving high praise for its unique approach to issues of nature and culture. Writing on Water is the second in a series of books from Terra Nova, and it embraces the same credo of its periodical parent: environmental issues are as much artistic and cultural as they are political. In this collection of poetry, essays, and photography, writers and artists muse on the importance of water, offering myriad interpretations in both scientific and philosophical terms. Peter Warshall gives a practical checklist for watershed governance. Ted Steinberg questions the morality of weather modification in "Morton Salt Disaster." In "Blue Moon Tide," Kartik Shanker offers a poetic treatise on life, harmony, and sea turtles. Physicist Sidney Perkowitz revels in the molecular mysteries of water in "The Rarest Element." The late Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz narrowly escapes drowning in his short story "My Life with the Wave." Interspersed are photographs by Sally Gall, Adam David Clayman, and Monique Cr pault, among others. Highly recommended for academic and large public libraries. Stephanie Maher, Warwick, RI Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262681360
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 3/7/2002
  • Series: Terra Nova Books
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 300
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

David Rothenberg is Professor of Philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and founder of the Terra Nova book series. His most recent books are Always the Mountains and Sudden Music: Improvisation, Art and Nature.

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Read an Excerpt


David Rothenberg

In the beginning, all was water. Swirl, wave, swell, crash of ocean upon ocean. Or maybe not. The Rig Veda has enough gall to conclude that no one, perhaps not even the creator, can really know or presume to tell.

    But no one can doubt the fundament of water, the curiously clear liquid that buoys the whole drift of life, making this planet so interesting to those of us creatures distanced enough to want to look back at it all, to dry off and once again dive in, to bear witness to the results of this endless flow. That cool, quenching taste is the ultimate metaphor of liquid motion, the one feel everyone knows and needs. We're thirsty for change and constancy, for the same rivers through which different waters endlessly flow.

    It is silent and booming, placid and rough, random and bound by the laws of chaos and swirl. Silent blanket as snow, solid berg as ice, raging torrent as flood. It is the easiest thing out there in nature to want to describe, because it moves gently in and out of us. We are mostly water. The planet's surface is mostly water. Once a single element among classical elements, today we're supposed to realize that it's always a compound, not a single thing. Still, there's wonder at the fall of rain and the breach in the dam and the cool of the drink.

    How fortunate for human life that the stuff exists! All would be dry or unpalatable without it. Well, how could anything be thought of as dry without wetness to compare it to? Inside the sense of water is the very idea of liquidity Then which camefirst: flow or stagnancy, identity or motion? Any long gaze at a swirling stream or an imposing glacier can bring the observer swiftly to metaphysics. How can we begin to understand such a world? Simply by attending to it, perceiving it with the greatest attention, drinking it up.

    Say anything about water, and you will sense the truth in its opposite. So Heraclitus can be remembered thousands of years later for saying that we may never step in the same river twice. He also said that among those who do step in the same rivers, different waters flow. Was he trying to explain himself, or wanting to become known as a prophet of opposites? Probably neither, because none of his works has survived the inevitable erosion of time—that wasting away from the efforts of pounding water and open air. We've lost the flow of his words. Only fragments remain, and we can be sure that the author of the notion that all is flow and movement was not a composer of aphorisms of detachment.

    Water does not divide; it connects. With simplicity it links all aspects of our existence. We feel its many meanings. It is elemental to human perception even though chemistry has long told us how it can be broken down, but that's not to deny the mystery of that eddy and swirl.

    There is some science here in our collection—enough to remind you that experiments have been conducted and that we have learned a lot that can be reproduced over years of hypothesizing and testing. Still, science has no general theory of water, nothing able to explain the essential accidents of molecules bumping up against one another, always in different ways. We also include a few plans for what to do with water, an elemental resource and yet another fundamental part of nature threatened due to human ignorance and hubris despite all of the exacting knowledge we have amassed for ourselves. We must do something about it, and we offer just a few clues here.

    Most of what we have chosen are stories, poems, and essays that build on some felt insight of a human encounter with water in any of its many forms. The notion of flow is a testament to our recognition that everything always changes, that the world and our selves, our loves, and our friends are ever on the move. The world comes back upon itself like the tides. We live inside cycles, as the rain becomes the fields and the dew goes back to the clouds.

    Do we all have clear memories of water? The fresh lift of seawater, the salty taste drying on our skin in the sun. The solid presence of the memories of thirst, as a desire that can be quenched. What a great word, so singular, so squeezy and tight, from the Olde Englisch cwencan, to disappear—as if our thirst ever will, for water, for ideas, for change, for meaning. I still remember the one moment I felt it most: at the end of a two-day hike at age sixteen in the Canyonlands desert, a few hours after our supply of water had run out. It was a long walk in the late morning sun heading home. There was no water. Not one of us would last. Following the long march, a drip of paradise waits, just one rusty faucet, the cabin by the trail's end and the asphalt road back to our culture. Never mind the accoutrements; the pipe was calling, valve open, the flow of clear water right over the face. Yes! Cool relief, this world still wants us ...

    It is amazing how many words we have for water and its places. Spring, trickle, cascade, rapid, fall, creek, river, tarn, pond, lake, bay, sound, sea, ocean, rain, sleet, snowfall, snowflake, snowdrift, snowbank, snowmelt, icepack, iceberg, glacier, ice cap, mist, fog, vapor, steam, rings of ice guarding the atmosphere as it ends far out in space—just what are those things called?

    There is no escaping its metamorphosis from liquid both ways, into solid or gas. It is chemistry that we experience each day. To account for it, in word or image, is the most immediate kind of nature writing there is. What do these responses to the necessary moisture have in common? What kind of soup have we planned here?

    The mission at work in Terra Nova has never been to separate a natural life from an artificial one, or to argue that a particular sensibility will save our species or our souls. But I have always had faith that there is more out there to see, to drink, to bathe in, and to be immersed in with both joy and peril if we value more highly our perceptions, not just the "facts," about how the world reaches us and why it makes us possible. Choose your rules, your elements, your first principles. But choose them well, so they enable you to inhale a world as real and wonderful and as ambiguous as is the actual truth.

    Taste water everywhere, and you will not die of thirst. Feel its omnipresence, and you can always go for a swim. Fill your cup with as many stories as you dare take. Let water work for you.

    I suggest something pragmatic here. Art can do something useful, though that has never been its first goal. Think of the river of humanity observing the liquidity around us, and of the continuing immediacy of ancient reports about how the world seems—that sense in which the five classical elements still resonate with our experience. As much knowledge as we have amassed through the ages, we still see in much the same way as did the ancients. If Thales thought the earth to be afloat or suspended in water, it is because many things surprisingly do float in the drink, from human bodies to even ice, which is strangely less dense than what it melts into. It's not true; this planet doesn't drift in water, but the image continues to make sense. Water is so much a part of us that we are inclined to see the world in watery terms. Looking into water as image and metaphor, listening to it as music, feeling it as rushing substance, it quickly seems to contain or be contained in everything. Let it inspire us; let us explain through it. It welcomes us; it makes us possible. It is clear and muddy, nourishing and dangerous.

    Let us never forget that it is imagination that makes any progress possible. Someone first imagined water as the element, then qualified it as one of several elements, before the notion of element could be fine-tuned over the centuries into something removed from our real experience of the world. Art can guess before it sees and presage what will one day be discovered. As homebound a poet as Emily Dickinson wrote crisply of the icy pull of the Arctic in her poem #525, with an ecological cry for "Lapland's necessity," where "the Hemlock's nature thrives on cold. The Gnash of Northern winds is sweetest nutriment to him." It has been suggested that she could claim having discovered the polar snow line decades before science would admit that nature required such a thing. It took an icebound leap and extrapolation from the snow in the heavy boughs of the evergreens outside her Amherst home to guess how the trees in the far north must feel.

    Indeed, as science has become more and more penetrating, it has also receded from our immediate experience of the world. We are taught not to trust what we see or feel or imagine, that these are mere human guesswork, while information, layered upon itself and developed over centuries with meticulous care, can do more and ultimately knows best for us. It might explain why our tongues stick to the frozen flagpole, but never what it feels like. We need more than ever to keep imagining, not to get trapped in what we are taught incessantly about the cycle of things: freeze, thaw, rain, cloud, trickle, flood. Water may not be life, but it lives, moves, carries us along, and churns us to the bank.

    We are made of it, we are enmeshed in it, we need it to survive, and it needs us to preserve it. About so much of nature can those same words be said! Still, I don't think the solution to the problem is admonishment, easy moralism on how far humanity has sunk into the muddy depths of ignorance. We should learn again to love the world, to trust our senses, to swim naked in waters of all temperatures whenever we can. No amount of layers of civilization and information should take such pleasures from us.

Jacket Notes:

Writing on Water A Terra Nova Book edited by David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus

Water links all aspects of our existence. From the politics of watersheds to the romance of turtles climbing from the sea to the beaches, from Leonardo da Vinci Octavio Paz, from death at a hot spring to the practicalities of liquidation, the writings in this collection reflect on many aspects of the human encounter with water.

The book contains some science, a few plans for managing and protecting water, and plenty of stories, poems, essays, and artwork. The writers include Bob Braine, Robert Grudin, Wilson Harris, George Keithley, David Morse, Octavio Paz, physicist Sidney Perkowitz, Eva Salzman, Ted Steinberg, and Peter Warshall, editor of Whole Earth magazine. Photographers include Cyril Christo, Adam David Clayman, Monique Crépault, He M. Ellis, Sally Gall, Margaret McCarthy, Kristin Ordahl Jerry Uelsmann, and Marie Wilkinson.

This is the second in a series of Terra Nova books from MIT Press, which aim to show that environmental issues are cultural and artistic as well as practical and political.

David Rothenberg is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and founder the Terra Nova book series. Marta Ulvaeus is Associate Director of Terra Nova projects at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

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Table of Contents

I Source and Substance 1
The Rarest Element 3
Constructing a Confluence 15
Water Aphorisms 33
Rain 38
Watershed Governance 40
Tidal 58
II Teachings of the Flow 61
In Salmon's Water 63
Everglades 76
Waters under the Earth 81
The Bronx River 89
The Lessons of the Well 90
Warm Rain 98
Morton Salt Disaster 100
III Diving Deep 111
A Myth for Sophie 113
Agate Beach in Rain 120
Blue Moon Tide 122
The Limit of Love 147
The Sea Changes 157
Swimming with Children and Three Hundred Dolphins 161
IV Swept Away 171
Life at the Cauldron 173
There's a Lot of Room 184
Liquidation 189
Dragging the River 206
Tainted Torrent 209
River 224
V Rising Currents 227
The Lost Notebook of Aqueous Perspective 229
Thoughts Breathing in a Blizzard 236
The Music of Living Landscapes 239
Aquifer 249
Jottings Inspired on Perusing Cantor's Transfinites 256
Spring Flood 260
Soaking Paper 262
My Life with the Wave 267
Water/Theos 273
Contributors 279
Sources 287
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