The answer seems obvious. But it’s not so simple.

In Scotland’s mild, damp climate we tend to take water for granted. But just now the loch beside our house is as low as I’ve ever seen it. The expanse of dried mud and stone all around its shore keeps on getting wider and wider. We had to chase the neighbour’s cows out of our garden after they paddled across in search of fresh grass. I can scarcely hear the flow of water that normally fills our garden with sound, the stream reduced to a trickle. Thankfully, the holy well of St Magnus at the top of our track is, so far, still flowing clear and sweet. But we need a good steady replenishing rain, and lots of it, over the coming months.

Even as the south of the UK has sat under summer rainclouds, here in Orkney we are getting a taste of the drought that’s affecting so many parts of the world. Elsewhere, devastating floods and coastlines slipping into a rising sea. I’m still continuing my slow contemplation of water. I draw it, write about it, photograph and film it, read about it, canoe across it, swim in it, and of course drink, cook, and wash in it. But this contemplation is not all tranquility and wellbeing. It’s true, as Wallace Nichols, Catherine Kelly and others argue, that being near water makes us feel better. But there’s a deep unease too
The climate emergency brings our relationship with and reliance upon water into sharp focus, revealing stark inequalities of access and deep environmental injustices. As Jamie Linton has argued very eloquently in ‘What is Water?’ the reduction of water to the scientific abstraction of H2O has given us license to treat it as an inert commodity to be dammed, piped, extracted, polluted, bought and sold.
I’ve been trying to work out what my own ‘way in’ to such a vast subject might be when so much has been said and done and made and written already. My own contemplations of water are personal, partial, located, small, and slow. But I can begin to see this as part of a necessary rebalancing, relocalising and re-enchantment of water. Because for me the root of water’s fascination is more philosophical and perhaps even, dare I say it, spiritual.

Water is a real, tangible phenomenon in our familiar, shared, everyday world, but something about its inherent nature helps us to reach towards parts of our lived experience that are mysterious, puzzling, humbling, elusive, or just too big, complex and paradoxical to hold steady in the mind; the way a simple glass of water in our hand reaches back through taps, pipes, reservoirs, and rivers to clouds, atmospheric ‘rivers’ like the Gulf Stream and the oceans. The way the reflected sky sparks out of a puddle showing us a gleaming otherworld, down there where we bury our dead, just here but somehow unreachable. The way it’s constantly undergoing processes of change, as if embodying the passage of time.

Sun in a pool of water
Every day, the steady passage of moments, days, weeks, years. How we spend our minutes is how we spend our lives. I just want to be here while it’s happening. This is behind the slow and repetitive way of drawing water that I’m using. Something accumulates. I’m aware there’s a paradox, working so slowly to record something so mutable, but art and writing both let us slow time down, slow our thoughts down, so we can take a proper look at things. Not to stop anything, but to introduce a meander, an eddy.
It was in Linton’s book that I first learned that the Romans, those great engineers, never stopped the flow of water in their many aqueducts, fountains and bathhouses with taps or valves. This wasn’t because they couldn’t work out how, but because they respected water’s nature. To stop its flow would be to extinguish its essential genius. Each water source feeding into ancient Rome had its own named aqueduct, was never mixed with others, and had its own associated spirit, uses and distinctive properties. Not one, homogenous, indistinguishable, neutral H2O, but many waters, each distinctive and irreplaceable, and yet also part of an unstoppable universal flow. This seems to me like an idea worth pondering.

May your own local waters flow sweet and clear.

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