Jul 25

Wherever I go these days I think of water.  During a couple of days in Annecy in France I find myself immersed in water issues.  When I am away from home I find I think about water the most!  Perhaps there is a lesson in this? 

Today it is particularly the senses of water that spring out at me.  Here by the lake in Annecy there are many notices reminding you not to put a toe in the water, but if you cannot feel the water, how can you use the other senses to create a relationship with it?  A walk by Lake Annecy reveals to me a number of ideas:

 Lake Annecy in July

The view (Sight = ophthalmoception)

Lake Annecy, the River Thiou and the canals that run through the town of Annecy are an integral part of the structure of the place.  Lake Annecy lies nestled amongst the mountains with the water stretching away from the town.  The tourist and museum literature suggest that lakeside villages have been occupied here as far back as 4,000BC (Neolithic) and houses were built on stilts to cope with the changing water levels.  Viewing the water of the lake in the heat of a summer day is a hypnotic experience (as also described by Strang, 2005, in her study of water and cultures).  The River Thiou was an important resource in the development of the town in the 19th century; used as a source of energy for traditional crafts.  On this Saturday in July, the lake is fantastic – alive with small boats, birds and people wandering around the perimeter.  Grebes, Swans and Coots are careless about both boats and people.  Once common grazing land, the Champ de Mars and the Pâquier is now a large open greenspace next to the water; it is absolutely heaving with people today.  The water is out of bounds here for swimming and paddling, you have to go a little out of town to designated bathing areas for that.  The clarity of the water is obvious from watching the birds graze on the weed visible on the bottom of the lake.  In the summer light the water glints and sparkles.  Around the Palais de l’isle you can see the way the houses formed the sides of the river before the quays were built; the buildings seem to ‘bathe in the water’.  In the town centre the views of water constantly change as you cross small bridges over the river and canals that seem to split and reforms in a watery maze.  The Pont des Amours (1907 ironwork) is particularly picturesque and seems to be very busy – there are many similarly labelled bridges in cities I have been to recently (and I wonder why?).  This is the first time I have seen a canal running under a church: The Saint Dominique canal disappears under the Saint François Church in the centre of the town.

Coot grazing 

One way of bringing water to the attention is to use installation art.  In Annecy the Déamule Festival des Paysages (www.deambule-annecy.com) provides a number of examples of this, from the ‘Floating Flowers’ on the Quai de la Cathédrale  (by Emmanuele Panzarini), the ‘Float ‘n Filter’ (by Florent Morisseau) on the Quai Vicenza and the ‘Court Circuit’ (by Les Gens Nouveaux) at Haras (away from the lake).

'Float ‘n Filter’‘Floating Flowers’‘Court Circuit’ 


The smell (Olfacoception or olfacception)

There is very little discernable smell from the water here.  The air is fresh and the water is clean.  Perhaps it is the absence of water smell that is interesting.  Once humans probably could smell good water, maybe some still can.  Certainly animals and birds can sense water in some way, and probably this is about smell. Elephants are supposed to be able to scent water from long distances, but some suggest that this is more about traditional memory of elephants that water holes exist rather than being able to smell the water itself.  Creatures that live in water have highly developed senses that can taste, hear, and smell through the water.  Sharks are notorious for smelling prey from large distances, perhaps as much as a third of a mile away. 

In thinking about smell, I go back to Illich (1986) (that I have brought with me to France!) and find that pretty much all the book is about water and smell – I particularly like his proposition that: ‘Universal olfactory nonchalance came to an end when a small number of citizens lost their tolerance for the smell of corpses’ (p50).  I love this idea of ‘universal olfactory nonchalance’ and consider my own shock (i.e. lack of nonchalance) in places where water-related smells seem to be overwhelming: memories of a Florence hotel when the drains which ran under my room were blocked; another of arriving at a small village in coastal Ecuador where there were open sewers; and another of a slum area in Mumbai, India between the airport and the city centre.....  As Illich says: ‘Many people today have lost the ability to imagine the geographic variety that once could be perceived through the nose’ (p.49).  For me these places stay strong in the memory because ‘the atmosphere of a given space has its own kind of permanence, comparable to the building style characteristic of a neighborhood’ (Ibid, p.52). 

 Interdit de depot d'ordures

Hearing water (audioception)

Along the lakeside there are fountains – the mesmerizing sound of water has long been used in many different cultures to create a calm and often healing atmosphere.  Strang reports that studies on forest cultures has shown that some prioritise the sense of hearing above sight  and suggests that although such studies ‘have underlined the importance of acculturation in sensory experience, they also point to environmental differences that suggest that the cultural outcomes are at least partially constituted by external factors’ (see Strang, 2005: 96).   Illich suggests that by bringing water from the mountains into the city in pipes and using it in fountains, the Romans ‘broke the magic circle’ and helped water become not the water of dreams, but simply a substance or H2O. This seems at odds with the sense that the sound of fountains evokes for me.  Along the canals in Annecy the water overtopping the weirs and the water gates also provides a gentle sound that is enjoyed by passers-by - both human and bird.

Water fountains by the Lake


The feel of water (touch = tactioception)

Although you cannot get into the water – i.e. swim or paddle – you can get into the water in a boat on the water.  Lake Annecy proves that ‘there is nothing- absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’ (Grahame, 1908).  All kinds and sizes of boats are for hire here: rowing, paddling, pedalos, motor and canoes. 

Messing about in boats: Coots nesting/House boat


The taste of water (gustaoception)

Two runners stop for a drink.  It’s really warm just walking today.  In the town here there are traditional drinking fountains on the street corners.   Why have we lost these in the UK?  I can’t remember seeing any working street fountain at home for a very long time.  It is obvious that in hot countries they are more needed, but perhaps if we had street fountains there would be fewer people wandering around with bottles of water – and therefore less need for an industry that seems crazy in a country like the UK where the water is potable?

 Runners at a water fountain


Sensing the water-sphere/the sense of place

Aristotle’ ‘De Anima’ is often quoted as the source of the idea of five senses.  There is much discussion about whether the categorisation of human senses should be combined into fewer e.g. mechanical, chemical and light (Jarrett, 2014), but there is also study about animal senses and those creatures that are immersed in water are often used as examples.  Keeley (2013) is useful (and has a good set of references) on the philosophical aspects of human and non-human senses.  Balance is sometimes seen as an additional sense.  Other ‘animal’ senses he identifies include e.g. electrical, magnetic, ultrasound, ultraviolet, infrared and strong olfactory. Humans seem incapable at sensing infrared.   It could be said that each species (including humans) have different types of senses and different sensitivities of senses.  Thinking about water simply seems to me to illustrate this well. Sharks are sensitive to electric fields generated by other creatures in the water.  Catfish have tastebuds on their bodies that help them detect prey.  The Anableps anableps or ‘four eyed fish’ has actually two eyes but they are partitioned so can see above and below at the same time. Dolphins and whales use an additional sense, echo location to understand their surroundings and fish use their lateral line system to detect changes in water pressure and feel movements and bodies nearby.  A National Geographic (2010) article suggests that animals may be able to sense Tsunamis and other environmental changes, but no studies have been done on this.   The Manatee or Sea Cow has tactile hairs all over its body so that it can feel through the water changes in current, temperature and tidal forces.  Seals have whiskers like a cat that can do a similar thing and track fish swimming 180m away (see www.largestfastestsmartest.co.uk).

Unsensed water: water underground 

Back in Annecy, a fire hydrant by the road reminds me that there is much water in the city that we do not (cannot?) sense.  Years ago I walked hand-in-hand with a douser while he found the route of an underground river that supplied our old well – an amazing experience.  In towns and cities there is much hidden water in pipes and covered-up watercourses, with few indicators of their routes. The exhibition about Alpine Lakes at the Observatoire at the Château d’Annecy provides much information about lost water sensibilities, traditions and knowledge (see http://musees.agglo-annecy.fr/Chateau-d-Annecy/L-Observatoire-Regional-des-Lacs-Alpins).  Strang (2005) suggests that water qualities can be responded to by multiple sensory pathways across cultures.  However Illich rather suggests that in particular, the meanings gained from the smell of water in western noses has changed and become so dulled that we may be unable to understand what smell is telling us; so assuming that funny-smelling water is ‘bad’, may not be the case.   Both these writers emphasise the importance of the human sensory and perceptual experiences of the qualities of water.  At Annecy there seem to be plenty of opportunities to revel in thinking about the sense of water, but in other places where the water is primarily hidden and when our senses are dulled, what a poverty of the water senses!


Grass 'beach' on the lakeside out of town 



Atema, J., Fay, R.R., Popper, A.N., Tavolga, W.N. (eds)(1988)  Sensory Biology of Aquatic Animals , Springer Verlag

Grahame, K. (1908) The Wind in the Willows, chapter 1

Illich, I. (1986) H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness. London, Marion Boyars.

Jarrett, C. (2014) ‘Psychology: how many senses do we have?', BBC Future, 19 November 2014. www.BBC.com

Keeley, B.L.(2013)  ‘Nonhuman Animal Senses’, in Matthen, M. (ed) The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Perception (Final draft version). Available: www.mechanism.ucsd.edu

National Geographic News (2010) ‘Did Animals Sense Tsunami Was Coming?’ Thursday October 28 2010 www.news.nationalgeographic.com

Strang, V. (2005) ‘Common Senses: Water, Sensory Experience and the Generation of Meaning’, Journal of Material Culture 10:92-120. doi: 10.1177/1359183505050096





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