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29 may 2017

I'd already read one book from Reaktion called Water, Ian Miller's entry in the Edible series. Miller concentrates on potable water, but Veronica Strang's remit for the Earth series is considerably broader: she sets out to consider the whole of human interaction with H2O. It's really "water, water, everywhere."

Water turns out to be kind of important. So much so that, from the earliest conceivable stages of culture, water has functioned as a divine, animist force. Strang posits that early religions made use of androgynous, zoomorphic concepts of Water, often conceiving of the essence of the great substance as a primal serpent. Later, when agricultural, patriarchal societies brought the waters of mighty rivers under control, these primeval, fluid gods were replaced by male wielders of water.

"Monotheistic religions arrived in concert with water management practices that were increasingly directive and instrumentalist" (84). I'm not sure I buy that schema as a generalization. The Hebrews developed monotheism while wandering around the desert taking water wherever they could find it, even if they had to smite rocks in Horeb. Polytheism flourished in water-obsessed Rome. But there is no denying that, ever since Western Civ coalesced around the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile, and Chinese civilization around east Asia's great rivers, the power of the state, and often of its official religions, has been clearly correlated with its power over the flow of water. Maybe the rock in Horeb was just a small, local instance of that power.

Water famously has a mind of its own: it won't stay put, it "seeks its own level." It is so vital to us, and such an unavoidable part of our environment, that at times it's like water isn't there (just as we say of a room full of air that it's "empty"). At times in Water, Strang seems to discuss the stuff more as a pure medium than a force with agency. But as T. S. Eliot said in "The Dry Salvages," water can be

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

Strang presents "worship of the machine" as a symptom of a fallen world. Almost nothing we've done to manage and control water has been a good thing overall. Dam-building projects, ubiquitous since antiquity wherever a large state includes a large river, are usually sold as "providing" water (and more lately, electric power) to people. But Strang notes that the water was already there, and people had developed sustainable, symbiotic relationships with it and its creatures. Dams displace the people, destroy the creatures, pollute the water. Strang even cites studies that suggest that the impoundment of water by dams "has altered the speed of the earth's rotation and the tilt of its axis" (142). This sounds next-to-impossible, but if true it would be one of the most distinctive, if dubious, achievements of the Anthropocene.

One of Strang's themes is that we think about a whole bunch of other things in hydrological terms. This is true of my business – writing, teaching writing, reading, and teaching about texts. Students talk about literature as having a nice easy flow, are concerned about the current of their own writing and its becoming blocked or stagnant. Administrators demand a flow of production from research faculty, presumably thinking of the guy who takes fifteen years to write a book as having dammed a stream, and then opened the floodgates with disastrous consequences. Such metaphors are usually pretty unhelpful, but at least they provide us with a common language. If we ourselves are mostly water (75%? 90%? 99%? Strang actually says somewhere, but I always forget), then it makes sense that we contemplate the world outside of us in terms of what's within us.

Strang, Veronica. Water. London: Reaktion, 2015.