Sep 17
Bristol’s High Water Line Project is an ambitious attempt to map out the 32 mile edge of Bristol’s flood risk zone to highlight the threats of rising sea levels and accelerated climate change. Originally conceived as a solo performance by artist Eve Mosher, who walked the line in New York shortly before Hurricane Sandy made it a reality, the High Water Line project has become an international pop-up community project bringing together people in diverse cities around the world to think and talk about community responses to climate change... Read More
Sep 23

After a day of marking the line in St Werburghs, the community gathered for a water walk led by Harry McPhillimy which explored the neighborhood’s past, present and future relationship to water.

After that, artists Jethro Brice and Seila Fernandez led participants through an interactive art making process in response to St Werburghs and its water relationships.


Feb 12

If you want to feel what it’s like to be immersed in a water culture, visit a cloudforest like Tulipe where the clouds swirl around you and everything is dripping.  Tulipe is high in the Ecuadorian Andes.  It is an extraordinary and beautiful landscape which was manipulated by the Yumbo people to reflect their spiritual connection with the world through water.  The area is high pre-montane cloudforest; 900-1,600m (2,950-5,250ft) above sea level and approximately two hours to the north-west of Quito.  This area (Tumbes-Choco-Magdalena) is regarded as a biodiversity hotspot.

Everything's wet: Andean cloudforest biodiversity is amongst the richest in the world

The Yumbos were an ancient civilization of peaceful agriculturalists and traders who carried goods up and down the mountains to the coast via narrow sunken tracks (culuncos) reminiscent of ancient hollow roads, created so that the vegetation would grow across the top of the routes to act as a cooling and shading green roof.  The site I visited at Tulipe was the main sacred gathering site.  A visitor centre acts as the gateway to the main site which is approached across a small river.  In an area of flat land next to the river appear large pools, or piscinas.  The walls of the pools are made of stone of approximately 1m in depth.  Over 2000 mounds of various sizes have also been found in this area. The central piscina area is enclosed by four large flat-topped mounds or tolas (approx. 20m/65ft ht) set at the cardinal points of the compass.  The term tola means artificial mound or other elevation of special significance in the Tsafiki language (see Lippi & Gudino, 2010 p.270 for a very interesting analysis of the mythological and linguistic links).  The Tsáchila people (who speak Tsafiki) are descended from the Yumbos.  On first sight the tolas do not appear to be manmade because the pools seem to nestle amongst them naturally. Some tolas have steps and associated terracing and are thought to have had ceremonial functions.  The Tsachilas have flood myths which indicate that tolas were also used as refuges and dwellings and thus become ‘icons of danger, salvation and sanctity’ (Ibid).

At the Visitor Centre at Tulipe: Petroglyphs found at the site are based on natural patterns symbolising eternity, infinity, life, earth, mankind, divinity and fertility 

It is thought that the pools – or stone basins - were used for a number of rituals, including reflection, bathing and baptising, and thus had astronomical, religious and cultural significance.   The museum shows some pictorial imaginaries of the layout and construction of the pools as well as the possible nature of these activities.


One of the astonishing things about this landscape is that the water supply for this series of pools was fed by a gravity system of drainage.  This is where the Silbury Hill-like mounds come into the picture. One of their functions was to provide runoff water that was directed by a number of drains, gullies and smaller cisterns into the main pools.  Some of these runnels allowed the water to cascade into the pools like waterfalls. Indeed the word ‘Tulipe’ is a word from the Quitu-cara language which means ‘water that comes from the tolas’.

The mounds surrounding the site provided the water runoff that fed the pools                       through a series of runnels. 

Another extraordinary thing is that excavation and study of this landscape has shown the clear mathematical nature of the layout and construction of the pools, and the variety of pool shapes. The site is very near the equator and high up; perfect for a good view of the heavens, but in a cloudforest, it is often difficult to see the sky.  Two semi-circular pools are believed to have been constructed particularly in response to a desire or need to reflect the sky – both during the day and at night.  Here in the Andes the skies are amazing.  The moon and stars would have transformed the pools into sparkling mirrors.  Other pools are rectangular and one is through to represent the jaguar, an animal sacred to this culture.  Further away from these pools is another, circular pool which is perhaps the most extraordinary of all.   Excavation has found the remains of a long bamboo pole which, it is thought, was situated in the middle of this pool to act as a large sundial. 

The ‘sundial’ pool which has terraces like an amphitheatre.

The combination of the symbolic and aesthetic considerations and the amazing construction of mounds to supply these pools indicate the importance of the site. There are many questions which arise here, but the impression of this place is very much one of performance; something not unusual in landscapes primarily determined and moulded for the purpose of ritual proceedings and sacred expression.  Water was apparently of considerable importance to the Yumbos, particularly the curative and purifying properties. The importance and use of reflection both during the day (for the giant water clock) and the night is intriguing.  It is thought that shamans examined the movements of sun and moon in the mirror pools; the water apparently ‘imprisoned the moon, trapping it in the world below. Believers would throw small stones from the river into the ‘piscinas’ as part of a ritual, receiving the spirit of the water, manifested in concentric circles’ (see http://www.tulipecloudforest.org/index.html).

Tulipe was a place where the natural water landscape of waterfalls and rivers, in addition to the constructed pools, provided the resources for ceremonies and rituals of initiation, purification, fertility and thanks to Mother Earth.  Of course this is not surprising; water has a long history in perhaps almost every culture as a material with sacred and spiritual association and function.  Some sources describe the Yumbos civilization (800-1660s) as a ‘sun’ culture, but my impression is that this was very much a water-, or aqua-culture. 


 The sacred jaguar, transformed into a jaguar-shaped pool at Tulipe



Site observations December 2014.

Tulipe Museum: http://museodesitiotulipe.com/

Friends of the Tulipe-Pachijal Cloudforest: http://www.tulipecloudforest.org/index.html

The excavation of Tulipe (in Spanish): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRjaQu67IGk

Lippi, R.D. & Godino, A.M. (2010) ‘Inkas and Yumbos at Palmitopamba in Northwestern Ecuador’, in Malpass, M.A. & S. Alconini, S. (eds) Distant Provinces in the Inka Empire: Toward a Deeper Understanding of Inka Imperialism (Iowa: University of Iowa Press) pp. 260-278. (Google eBook) https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=xJwwHi2n-kgC&oi=fnd&pg=PA260&dq=tulipe+ecuador&ots=nscAQYstRW&sig=gsi9EyNiDzPB0plyAp0sMgvaNXw#v=onepage&q=tulipe%20ecuador&f=false



Jul 28

Borth Beach looking towards the South

View of Borth Beach, looking North

The Hydro Project team visit to the Welsh case study area gave multiple opportunities for watery reflections.  I arrived in the quiet of the evening on the single track train at Borth.  A first view of the bay was of a wide sweeping beach with a narrow row of houses parallel to the railway line.  At first, everything here seems to relate to the railway – the morphology of the village, the need for the new sea defences to protect the line to Aberystwyth, and the character of a sleepy rural village.  The taxi man suggested that ‘things’ had changed in the village as a result of the sea defences; that it had grown quieter as the former wide sandy beach had been lost to a mixture of rock armour islands and pebbles.    The medieval settlement at Borth was called ‘Portuherad’, now subsumed by the existing village.  Along the high street, the houses in Borth are mostly modest, many look like they were once fishermen’s cottages; some are painted in a lively mix of pastels reminiscent of the much-postcarded images of Tobermory on Mull.

Views from Borth Station

What a place to consider water!  A ribbon of houses aligned between coast and river, sitting between flood plain and the Irish Sea.  By any logical thought, this is probably a village that should not have been built where it is.  What is apparent in the landscape is the physical evidence of a fascinating story of engineering and community action to create the new defences against the wrath of the sea.  These include a multipurpose reef (MPR), rock groynes and breakwaters, and beach ‘nourishment’ with shingle and sand.  These are identified in Meek’s (2012) report which also lists much of archaeological interest in this area.  The defences are best viewed from the cliff walk to the War Memorial.  From here you can see along the Heritage Coast to the south, and right across the bay and out to sea.  As I walk, a pair of Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) scream at a group of teenage boys messing about on the rocks below the war memorial cliffs; the birds are enraged by the incursion to their nesting site.   In the dry meadow grasses of the coast path the Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) are fluttering amongst the wildflowers.  Newly blown across the water from Europe they look far too fragile to have survived that journey and are being chased by the local Meadow Brown butterflies (Maniola jurtina) apparently jealous of the food. 


A visit to the bog – what in Northumberland is called the ‘moss’, and in Yorkshire the ‘waste’ – was a really ethereal experience bringing together the natural world (Sphagnum Moss, Nightjars, Asphodel, and peaty water) with science (core sampling, species management) and artist interpretation (songs, music and stories).   Water here is part of the structure of the landscape – the essential composition of the physical and cultural environment, giving life and form to the peat, the moss and the underlying clay.  Here we hear stories of plants and medicinal use:  Sphagnum moss, with its mildly antiseptic properties is recorded as being exploited since at least the 11th century.  It was used in both the First and Second World Wars for wound dressings.  It absorbs moisture from the air as well as the ground and has extraordinary water-holding properties.  It has had many other practical uses including cushioning broken limbs, babies’ nappies and lamp wicks.  Peter Ayres in his (undated) essay Wound dressing in World War 1: The kindly Sphagnum Moss, suggests that it should have recognition for its significance - along with the Flanders (field) poppy (Papaver rhoeas) -  for its extraordinary life-saving practical role in the First World War. 

The Bog Myrtle is all around us, growing in low glaucous green shrubby clumps.  Crush a leaf and the sweet scent is easily liberated.  According to Mabey (1972 & 1996) Sweet Gale or Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale) was traditionally used for flavouring a kind of beer before hops were used.  Evidence indicates Myrtle was used by the Anglo-Saxons and its location, often growing near monasteries and other early settlements, indicates it was sometimes cultivated.  It can be used to flavour existing drinks and gives a retsina-like tang to wine.  The leaves are good as stuffing for roast chicken, or can be used like lavender in sweetly scented bags to put in wardrobes to keep moths away.  A volatile essential oil extracted from the leaves is good for keeping midges away.  Some of us could certainly have used this particular property for our ‘bog-trotting’.    We also discover that the Bog Asphodel (Narthecium ossifragrum), which has a beautiful bright yellow flower, was believed to make the bones of animals brittle.  However it was the peaty land – or calcium-poor land – that was the actual culprit here.  According to Mabey (1996) it was apparently sometimes used in the North of Britain as a substitute for saffron and as a yellow hair-dye. 

I was very excited to see a young Nightjar (Caprimulgus europeaus) on this bog trip.  This is a very rare migrant sometimes known as a fern owl, or churn owl.  Nightjars feed at dawn and dusk and often roost along a branch or on the ground.  I was lucky enough to see Nightjar species in Ecuador earlier this year roosting like statues high in the rainforest trees.   Mabey describes the strangeness of Nightjars and their song: ‘there is something powerfully mysterious about the birds, particularly the sudden inverted awakening at dusk, the wildly erratic flight, even the huge eyes and immense rose-pink gape….The dry, throaty mechanical notes pour out at a rate of 28-42 a second’ (2005 p.295).  Gilbert White in The Natural History of Selborne (1788) also gives a good indication of the mysterious character of the Nightjar, which he describes as a ‘wonderful and curious creature’.  The bird he studied was ‘most punctual in beginning its song exactly at the close of the day; so exactly that I have known it strike up more than once or twice just at the report of the Portsmouth evening gun, which we can hear when the weather is still.  It appears to me past all doubt that its notes are formed by organic impulse, by the powers of the parts of its windpipe formed for sound, just as cats pur’ (sic).  He goes on to relate a story: ‘as my neighbours were assembled in an hermitage on the side of a steep hill where we drink tea, one of these churn-owls came and settled on the cross of that little straw edifice and began to chatter, and continued his note for many minutes; and we were all struck with wonder to find that the organs of that little animal, when put in motion, gave a sensible vibration to the whole building!’ (Letter XII Selborne, Jan 2nd 1769).  Indeed Cocker and Mabey suggest that the song ‘seems at times that it is emerging directly from the landscape itself' (p.296).  This mirrors my own feeling of our whole visit to the bog, with the ethereal playing and singing of musicians and stories which seem to emerge and merge with the landscape around us.   When I get home I consult my 1907 copy of The Welsh Fairy Book by W. Jenkyn-Thomas and am surprised (or perhaps not?) to find that the majority of the stories involve water in one form or another, and reflect the senses, associations and yearnings that our artists portrayed so well out on the bog. 


Pages from 'The Welsh Fairy Book' by W. Jenkyn-Thomas (illustrated by Willy Pogany) (1907)  pub. Fisher Unwin, London.

At a lunch break the Hydro team watch the ‘boil’ of fish in the bay at Borth.  This is indicated by a flock of feeding shearwaters and gannets and the fin of a dolphin slicing the water in smooth arcs. At low tide in the sand the roots of the sunken forest lie revealed along the shore.  The trunks strangely soft and spongy to the touch; they are scattered around with the translucent pink and grey shells found all along the west coast of the UK.  Meek’s (2012 p.8) Archaeological Watching Brief quotes a fascinating account from the Lost Lands of Our Ancestors publication: ‘The remnants of fallen trees and stumps around the coastline are perhaps the most enticing evidence we have for the existence of long lost lands. They offer a tangible link to our ancestral landscape and have helped inspire numerous myths and legends of cities and countries swept away by the sea. Indeed, before their true nature was understood, they were believed to be the result of the biblical flood and were referred to as ‘Noah’s Trees’. They are revealed at low tide at many locations around the Welsh coast, from Rhyl and Abergele in the north, Borth and Newgale in the west to Amroth and Newport in the south. The preserved stumps of willow, hazel, oak, pine and birch are evidence of former woods and forests swamped by the encroaching tides and irrefutable testimony to the devastating effect of climate change.  The tree stumps are rooted in peat levels lying below the marine sand and have been preserved by the continuous waterlogged conditions. The sites around the Welsh coast do not represent a single phase of inundation. The radiocarbon dates from the trees at Ynyslas, Cardigan Bay, suggest that they died around 5,500 years ago, while those just over a kilometre to the south at Borth died some 2,000 years later. The remains of animals have been excavated from the deposits around the tree stumps, including auroch, red deer and brown bear from Whitesands and pig from Lydstep, both in Pembrokeshire. Although observed and commented upon through the centuries, including by Gerald of Wales in 1188 and Samuel Pepys in 1665 no serious study of the submerged forests was made until 1913 when Clement Reid, a geologist, published a book on the subject. His 'Submerged Forests' was the first survey to put these trees into a wider archaeological context and to argue conclusively that they were the result of a rise in sea level.’

The report goes on to suggest that further along the beach to the south more peat deposits have been recorded and these are thought to date to the Bronze Age (c.2000BC).  It also says that ‘human and animal footprints as well as probable archaeological features were recorded in an area of peat exposure to the south of the Phase 1 Borth Coastal Defence Scheme……………..This submerged land would have originally been established during the last Ice Age, which ended some 12000 years ago. The lands seem to have been good hunting grounds for Mesolithic hunter/gatherers. The land was evidently waterlogged enough to enable peat levels to become established. Following the end of the last Ice Age ice sheets receded and sea levels rose and these low lying lands around the coastal margins became inundated. The apparent late date of the final inundation at Borth during the Bronze Age would suggest that other factors delayed the progress of the sea. It is possible that this could have been due to a large land form, sand bar or similar which slowly eroded over a few thousand years, eventually letting the sea break through and cover the land to form the coastline, roughly as exists today. It is notable that at Borth there is still a low lying bog on the eastern side of the town, which would become quickly inundated in the event that the existing sea front were breached.’(sic) (pp.10-11)

Today (as I imagine there have been all down the ages) jellyfish the size of dinner plates lie stranded on the shore at Borth.  These are organisms that are the perfect utiliser of the water as structure, but now bereft of that support, they lose their own structure.  Amongst talk of watery imaginings and project achievements and futures there is much consumption of liquid.  Conversations make you thirsty, and thirst provides opportunities for sociable interaction over coffee machines and water taps as well for as new understandings and interpretations of water. 


Useful References:

  Ayres, Peter (undated) Wound dressing in World War 1: The Kindly Sphagnum Moss,  Field Bryology No. 110, Nov 13, pp 27-34.  Available: http://rbg-web2.rbge.org.uk/bbs/activities/field%20bryology/FB110/FB110_Ayres_Sphagnum.pdf

  Cocker, M. and Mabey, R. (2005) Birds Britannica (London, Chatto & Windus).

  Mabey, R. (1989, orig. 1972) Food for Free (London, Collins).

  Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica (London, Sinclair Stevenson).

  Meek, J. (2012) Borth Coastal Defence Scheme: Phase 1 Borth, Ceredigion: Archaeological Watching Brief, Dyfed Archaeological Trust Limited. Available:  http://www.dyfedarchaeology.org.uk/projects/borthcoastaldefence.pdf

  SNH (undated) Sphagnum Moss Fact Sheet: http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/education/sphagnum%20moss.pdf

  The Lost Lands of our Ancestors: Exploring the Submerged Landscapes of Prehistoric Wales, website: http://www.dyfedarchaeology.org.uk/lostlandscapes/index.html

  White, G. (1941, orig. 1788) The Natural History of Selborne (Harmondsworth, Penguin).

  Wales Marine Planning: http://lle.wales.gov.uk/apps/marineportal/#lat=52.4769&lon=-4.0466&z=13&layers=54,55,56


Jul 29

I’ve been thinking about snow and the properties of water-as-snow.  Perhaps strange in a UK summer, but I did spend quite large parts of my early twenties in the snow as a ski guide so I do think about it quite often.  However the main reason I’m thinking about snow now is because my daughter (age 17) has been climbing the mountain Stok Kangri, near Leh in North-western India, and I’m wondering about the snow she has encountered there.  I have no means of knowing if she is even encountering snow because she did not take her phone and communication has been thin.   So snow and mountains are on my mind. 


The 'wastes' of Northumberland 

As ski guide I learned to detect avalanche risk in mountains by looking at the layers of snow.  Water as snow becomes like soil or other solid matter, laid down in discernible layers that may or may not cling together.  Snow on a mountain like Stok Kangri in the Himalayas is of course very different in physical form and behaviour to the snow we get in Northumberland which we would generally describe as ‘wetter’.  Mountain snow would be described as ‘drier’ – a rather strange way to describe water of any sort.  A BBC film produced and directed by my old friend Karen Partridge, ‘Himalayas: Water towers of Asia’ and the associated website suggests that the name Himalaya ’translates from Sanskrit as “abode of the snow”, a name that seems appropriate for the largest body of snow and the highest concentration of glaciers outside of the polar regions…. melt water from the peaks feed the great rivers of Asia, including the Indus, the Ganges, and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra. This water – and the sediments they hold – form the backbone of agriculture of the whole region.’  It is the water supply to 40% of the planet.  The Himalayas hold most of the global water outside the polar regions. All sorts of myths, beliefs and legends are linked to water in India.  The Ganges is India’s most sacred river.  The rituals of life and death are performed all along from the headwaters in the Gangotri Glacier in the Garhwal Himalayas, to its mouths into the Bay of Bengal through the Sundarbans delta area which reaches across both India and Bangladesh.   The many characters of the river and the interactions with people are shown in Peter McBride’s (2014) elegant photo essay, reminiscent of Eric Newby’s classic trip recorded in ‘Slowly Down the Ganges’ (1966).  Newby lists the 108 names of the Ganges, he particularly highlights the one hundred and second name Jambu-dvipa-viharini  which he translates as ‘Roaming about, or delighting in, Rose-apple-tree Island' (meaning India).  

   Forms of water, Schwartztor & Zermatt, 1984

One year when I was working in Zermatt, I went with friends snow trekking around the back of the Breithorn near the Monte Rosa between Zermatt and Cervinia.  We went to do what is known as the Schwarztor (Porta Nera) between the ridge of Breithorn and Pollux.  After walking uphill off-piste on skis for a little over an hour (about 800 meters) - it seems much longer (softees now do it from a helicopter) - you start down a glacier with crevasses and mounds of deep powder snow, then down into a field of ice columns (seracs) and on through to the Gornergletscher. There are a number of websites that describe the route as ‘serious’ and ‘one of the best descents in Europe’, which is saying something if you are a skier. This was an astonishingly exhilarating experience that horrifies me now.  We don’t often think about glaciers as living – but they flow and surge, deform and reform, creating ‘fields’ of furrows and crevasses and curved structures called ‘ogives’ (see Glaciers online website for some amazing images).  My knees wouldn’t stand the quick turns needed now for this trip. But I think even wild swimming does not beat immersion in deep, deep powder snow where no-one else‘s marks are evident.  At the bottom of the glacier field, water was pouring out from the underground river through what seemed like a luminescent blue-green ice mouth; we roped down across the gaping hole, carrying our skis to avoid being swept away.  That was in 1984.  Now, thirty+ years on the glacier has changed.  It has apparently retreated 200 metres in the last six years. 

 A friend on the Schwartztor, 1984

The strange properties and characters of snow can be found described in the records of many journeys, particularly by explorers and climbers.  In ‘South’, the story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 expedition to  the South Pole, Shackleton describes pack ice  as: ‘a gigantic and interminable jigsaw-puzzle devised by nature.  The parts of the puzzle in loose pack have floated slightly apart and become disarranged; at numerous places they have pressed together again; as the pack gets closer the congested areas grow larger and the parts are jammed harder until it becomes “close pack”; then the whole jigsaw puzzle become so jammed that with care it can be crossed in every direction on foot.  Where the parts do not fit closely there is, of course, open water, which freezes over in a few hours after giving off volumes of “frost-smoke”.  In obedience to renewed pressure this young ice “rafts”, thus forming double thicknesses of toffee-like consistency.  All through the winter the drifting pack changes – grows by freezing, thickens by rafting, and corrugates by pressure…..I have given this explanation so that the nature of the ice through which we had to push our way for hundreds of miles may be understood’ (p4).

Thinking about all this reminded me of the famous Ice Man who was found high in the Alps in 1991, still frozen but gradually being revealed from his snow blanket and the changing levels of snow.  There is a fascinating exhibition (until January 2016) at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology ‘Frozen Stories - Discoveries in the Alpine glaciers’.  The website has an excellent section on Ötzi the Iceman.  So snow, like bog water - and it seems the sea (see the drowned forest stumps off Borth beach) - can act as a preservative.  Snow is, like water, both celebrated and reviled and described in language and stories.   There is still much debate as to the number of names for snow by cultures who live mostly in it.  There has long been debate over the ‘Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax’ with some suggesting that research shows Inuit and other cultures such as the Sami have many more names for snow than English language, and others suggesting this is all about linguistic interpretation (see Martin, 1986 for example).  Innumerable stories are associated with snow, have snow as a central character or use the character of snow to signify what is going on in the story.  In our own culture we have the recent Snowman (Raymond Briggs), and adopted stories such as Jack Frost (probably from Norse myths), the Snow Queen (Hans Christian Anderson – Denmark) and Dr Zhivago (Boris Pasternak - Russia).  In a number of these, snow is not a backdrop, but an active participant, an anthropomorphised protagonist or character in the story, just as in water stories where we have water sprites, mermaids etc. 


Jack Frost by A.E. Jackson, 1905, from 'the Children's Song Book', (Ed A.W. Tomlyn), a book inherited from my Grandmother. 

Snow is only one alternative form of water, think of ice, hail and steam.  My travels up and down the country inevitably take me through Darlington, the proud home of steam manipulation and past Cragside in Northumberland which was one of the first real hydro-houses; where Armstrong used all sorts of ways to manipulate and use the power and forms of water for his domestic benefit (ice house, steam lifts, water closets, ornamental landscape features).   The Scandinavians are perhaps the best at making the most of the bodily experience of all the different forms of water, from sauna, to steam, to plunge pool, to a naked rolling in the snow.  In Iceland the sulphurous steaming pools and geysers and snow provide side-by-side non-manmade possibilities of this experience.  Perhaps wild swimmers should consider extending a wild water experience to thinking how you might get up close with the various different forms of water to become true Hydro-lovers? 

  Schwartztor, 1985.


BBC Worldwide: Himalayas: Water towers of Asia.  Available: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130122-himalayas-water-towers-of-asia

Frozen Stories Exhibition, South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology: http://www.iceman.it/frozen_stories_en

Glaciers online: Glaciers of the world (Swiss Education site): http://www.swisseduc.ch/glaciers/earth_icy_planet/index-en.html

McBride, P. (2014) Chasing the Sacred: Down the Ganges From Snow to Sea. Available: http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/04/chasing-the-sacred-down-the-ganges-from-snow-to-sea/ and High in the Himalaya: 36 Avalanches and a Silent Refuge. Available: Refuge http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/05/high-in-the-himalaya-36-avalanches-and-a-silent-refuge/

Martin, L. (1986) "Eskimo Words for Snow": A Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example, American Anthropologist, New Series, 88(2): 418-423.

Newby, E. (1983 orig. 1966) Slowly Down The Ganges (Picador, London)

Shackleton, E. (1925) South: the story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 expedition (Heinemann, London). 

Feb 21

Increasingly it seems there are reports of people are drawn to dunk themselves into extremely cold water.  The Yenisei River, Siberia is the largest river system that flows into the Arctic Ocean.  According to an article in The Guardian Weekend (Luhn 2016), Natalia Usacheva and her daughter Nastya swim in the river with the Megalopolis swimming club throughout the year.  In winter they have to cut a hole in the ice with a chain saw to do this.  Such people are known as ‘walruses’ in Russia.  Natalia suggests that it is ‘an addiction’ a ‘necessity’ that ‘gives you a shot of energy and puts you in a good mood’.  She also suggests it strengthens the immune system.   With air temperatures reaching -40◦C and water temperature below zero, there would have to be something pretty compelling to make anyone venture in but it seems, from various accounts that I have read that people gain real feelings of wellbeing from being immersed in such cold water.

This story made me think about the temperature of water and immersion in different temperatures of water more generally. A good long hot bath is something that is often recommended to those with aches and pains, and thermal baths are used, particularly in cold climes such as Russia, to raise the spirits.  It seems that immersion in hot water as well as cold water is good for us.  Stories of how it’s more comfortable to be warmed up gently if you are boiling a live creature (e.g. lobster or frog) rather than drop it in to be scalded are somewhat horrifying and the now infamous ‘boiling a frog’ suggestion has been contested by a number of conservation bodies (e.g. see Kruszelnicki, 2011).  However as a metaphor for how humans simply do not see change that is all around them, it is I think still useful. 

Mothers now use thermometers to test the water before bathing babies whereas the ‘elbow’ test was always used in the past to judge the right temperature for bath water.  It has always seemed to me to be bearable to get into a completely cold bath or shower or plunge pool, or one that is definitely on the hot side, but never one that is tepid.  Submersion or sponging with tepid water is sometimes recommended for those with a high fever to allow the body to lose heat through conduction, convection, or evaporation.  However there is considerable disagreement about whether this is really a good idea or not (see the NICE Evidence Search website) and actually it can be pretty uncomfortable and distressing, particularly for small children and babies

Polar bears have an extraordinary capacity to withstand very cold water.  In a study in 2008, an adult female polar bear with a radio collar ‘made a continuous swim of 687 km over 9 days and then intermittently swam and walked on the sea ice surface an additional 1,800 km’ (Durner et al., 2009 p.975).  This ability to survive in cold water is mainly as a result of a thick layer of fat, up to 11 cm (4.3 in.), thick fur and a tough hide.  But long-distance swimming in cold water means considerable weight loss and reduces the chances for survival, so it is probably only something to be done in real extremes of need.  

In humans, the body’s response to the impact of immersion in very cold water has been described as the ‘cold shock response’.  It is suggested that the human body ‘can survive in 41-degree F (5-degree C) water for 10, 15 or 20 minutes before the muscles get weak, you lose coordination and strength, which happens because the blood moves away from the extremities and toward the center, or core, of the body’ (Dr Christopher McStay in Ballantyne, 2009) (see www.ussartf.org/cold_water_survival.htm for useful information on cold water survival and how to treat cold water victims).

 Stories of survival as well as death as a result of immersion in extreme cold water form part of a rich heritage in both film and literature.  Perhaps the most famous is the story of the sinking of the Titanic when on April 14 1912 1,514 people died in the freezing sea of the North Atlantic.  In 1940 Jack Thayer, a 17-year-old survivor of the Titanic, wrote down his memories of what happened that terrible night (Sherwell, 2012).  The story hardly bears reading.  The only survivors were those who were out of the water – either in lifeboats or clinging to some wreckage, like Jack. 


Ballantyne, C. (2009) ‘Hypothermia: How long can someone survive in frigid water?’ Scientific American, January 16, 2009.  Available at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/airplane-1549-hudson-hypothermia/ [accessed 20.02.16]

Kruszelnicki, K.S. (2011) ‘Frog Fable Brought to Boil’, University of Washington Website. Available at: http://conservationmagazine.org/2011/03/frog-fable-brought-to-boil/ [accessed 20.02.16]

Luhn, A. (2016) ‘Natalia Usacheva and daughter Nastya beside the Yenisei, Siberia, December 2015’, The Guardian Weekend, 20 February, 2016, p.82.Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/19/natalia-usacheva-daughter-beside-yenisei-siberia-swimming [accessed 20.02.16]

NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) Evidence Search website for ‘Tepid Bath’ 20.02.2016: https://www.evidence.nhs.uk/Search?ps=40&q=tepid+bath

Sherwell, P. (2012) ‘Vivid account of how the Titanic sank by survivor Jack Thayer, 17, resurfaces in time for centenary in New York’, The Telegraph, 25 Mar 2012.  Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/titanic-anniversary/9164976/Vivid-account-of-how-the-Titanic-sank-by-survivor-Jack-Thayer-17-resurfaces-in-time-for-centenary.html [accessed 20.02.16]

Durner, G.M., Whiteman, H.P., Harlow, H.J. , Amstrup, S.C., Regehr, E.V., Ben-David, M. (2011) ‘Consequences of long-distance swimming and travel over deep-water pack ice for a female polar bear during a year of extreme sea ice retreat’, Polar Biology, 34,7, pp 975-984

Mar 18

I arrive in Japan on Friday March 11th with the realisation that five years ago on this day the giant tsunami hit thousands of miles of coastal landscapes in Japan.  The Guardian article I read on the plane reports that almost 19,000 victims lost their lives and the devastation cost the equivalent of £105bn (McCurry, 2011).  Many children were orphaned and the trauma still sticks to many in the form of flashbacks.  I hear more about the aftermath of the disaster during the workshop I attend on green infrastructure planning and brownfield sites, particularly in relation to the clean-up after the failure of the Fukoshima Nuclear plant. This is astonishing.  The topsoil has been removed from all the agricultural land and gardens; walls, paths and other surfaces have been power hosed or sand blasted and thousands of tree leaves have been collected and bagged ready to be removed.  There are large and orderly piles of bags of the radioactive material.  Long-term disposal of these has not yet been worked out.

In the same paper an article discusses the benefits of a huge tidal energy lagoon proposed for Swansea Bay compared to the power obtainable from the nuclear power plant proposed for Hinkley Point (Mason, 2016).  The third article shows an image of Alconbury in Cambridgeshire where the River Great Ouse overwhelmed its banks. The accompanying article is about the reduction in funding for research related to flood forecasts, warnings and defences.  Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell of the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University suggest that the situation is serious because ‘innovation is the way we can do more with less, and innovation comes from R&D’ (Carrington, 2016, p.13).

What links these three stories for me is the power of water.  Can we harness the power of water and also hope to protect communities from its destructive power?  What are we willing to pay for and how will use the knowledge of research?  Can it help us to build relationships with water that provide greater human and environmental safety?  

Hokusai’s famous image of the 'Great Wave' comes into my mind: it has always seemed like an angry image to me, but it also portrays the contradictions of the beauty and the power of the sea.  Although it is not thought to be an image of a tsunami but of a rogue wave (a freak unpredictable wave occurring out in the open sea), it shows the terrifying potential power of water.   


The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川 Kanagawa-oki nami ura, "In the well of a wave off Kanagawa")



Carrington, D. (2016) Anger over 62% cuts to ‘vital’ research on floods, The Guardian, Friday 11 March 2016, p.13.

Mason, R., (2016) Commit to Swansea tidal energy scheme, ministers urged as deal on Hinkley falters, The Guardian, Friday 11 March 2016, p.29.

McCurry, Justin (2016) Five years on from tsunami, Japan rebuilds but its orphans battle to live with their loss, The Guardian, Friday 11 March 2016, p.21.    

Video of the power of the Tsunami:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uln3NEVn-M0 

Jul 05


Glastonbury mud, June 2016 (Source: Charlotte Roe)

The train from Newcastle going south is a post-stag-party nightmare which only (just) allows for concentration on the Sunday newspapers.  Out of the window the countryside is looking amazingly green as a result of the almost tropical mixture of warmth and rain in the past few weeks in the North East.  Billowing grey clouds threaten more of same. Scanning the newspaper today provides little on direct water-related issues, however one or two reports catch my attention.  The first is a striking image created by Jamal Penjweny, an Iraqi artist whose new project ‘Pink Dream’ is about his home landscape depicted in black and while and embellished with his own graphics overlain as pink comment.  The image that jumps out at me is of the dried up marshlands where abandoned boats lie amongst the dead reeds.  Superimposed with Penjweny’s pink fish this dried mudland landscape becomes a memorial to the loss of livelihood faced by local fisherman whose whole existence depends on water (Cooke, 2016 pp12-13).

As I read on, mud seems to be a particular theme today.  The next article is about the Glastonbury festival and its ankle-deep mud.  I wonder if people think about water when they are wading through the mud?  Water is important at Glastonbury. For example, certainly this year there has been much chat on the radio about the improvement in the toilet provision (in 2015 more than 3600 toilets were located on the licensed site - 1 toilet per 55 persons) (Glasto Sanitation Report, 2015).  More compost loos and long-drops have replaced the notorious chemical toilets which people hate so much, particularly when they are used to water closets (Rosseinsky, 2014).  My first introduction to long-drops was in a traditional chalet in the mountains of Norway some 30 years ago.  Glastonbury has been going for even longer (started in 1970).  It’s amazing to me that such low-tech solutions have taken so long to be properly adopted there.  However the sheer quantity of excrement produced at Glastonbury doesn’t really bear thinking about, what with 135,000 people over a five day festival.  This makes me consider the perception of ‘clean’ mud and ‘dirty’ mud.  The Glastonbury mud is generally regarded with affection and therefore is presumably generally regarded as ‘clean’.  Another kind of mud which comes to mind, particularly with the nearby centenary of the Battle of the Somme, is that of the First World War trenches – definitely regarded as ‘dirty’ mud; rat and blood mud.  The experience of flooding in the trenches hardly bears reflecting upon. This ‘no-man’s land’ mud landscape represents devastation and yet it was from this that the poppy fields bloomed, a symbol of remembrance and hope.  About 6 million men were mobilised during the First World War in the UK, and of those just over 700,000 were killed (about 11.5%). Das (2012) describes the mud as ‘not just churned up earth, but compounded of organic wastes, empty shells, iron scraps and rotting human flesh’.  He quotes Jack Dillon, a solider in the trenches, who described his experience of the mud:

Now the mud at Passchendaele was very viscous indeed, very tenacious, it stuck to you. The mud there wasn’t liquid, it wasn’t porridge, it was a curious kind of sucking kind of mud. When you got off this track with your load, it ‘drew’ at you, not like quicksand, but a real monster that sucked at you’ (see Das, 2012).

The landscape of the Western Front was always muddy - a 'mudscape' - even when the weather was dry because of the nature of the landscape which was flat with a water table near the surface (see Leonard, undated).


Man in the mud 

(Source: https://www.awm.gov.au/sites/default/files/visit/images/PAIU1989_140_01_

Mud, Ypres, October 1917. [AWM E00870] 

(Source: http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/zonnebeke/menin-road.php#)

As a child I seemed to spend a lot of time playing in mud of various kinds.  We played in farmyard mud creating whole worlds with model animals and toy farm vehicles. Hours were spent building dams and channels to divert water that sat in the ruts of tractor trails.  This was squishy mud, wet mud, mouldable mud.  There was definitely a discernment between the ‘clean’ and the ‘dirty’ mud in our engineering activities  Our games were not in the cow mud.  Many animals love to wallow in mud (think of pigs, elephants and hippos).  In hot countries mud helps animals cool the skin, acts as a sun-screen and keeps away flies.  They travel miles to seek out mud hollows. It is also an important habitat for many small creatures.   Worms are wonderful sculptors of mud, from mud casts to mud tunnels.  Amphibians such as newts often hibernate in the mud at the bottom of ponds. Mud is important, it's consistency and type. One of my favourite LPs of my childhood was ‘At the Drop of a Hat’ by Flanders and Swann.  The chorus of their ‘Hippopotamus Song’ captures the glory of mud:

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood

So follow me, follow, down to the hollow

And there let us wallow in glorious mud…..


Humans put mud of their faces to draw out impurities; presumably this is ‘clean’ mud.  Whole tourist and beauty therapy industries have grown up around mud treatments and there is discernment between the mineral content and properties of such muds.  The ‘best’ cosmetic muds are often based on volcanic ash.

The engineering qualities of mud are of course well-known and used, not only by humans in traditional buildings and structures (flood defences, bunds, motte-and-bailey structures, wattle and daub, cob, adobe houses all come to mind) but by various creatures.  Bricks are really a sort of baked (mostly clay) mud and many houses in hot countries are plastered both inside and outside with mud, like a kind of skin – sometimes called a render or slurry.  Understanding the water-holding qualities and composition of the soil and how it dries out is of course critical in such constructions. Topsoil usually has too much humus or organic material to be of use for construction, so only subsoil (about 60cm down) is used.  Swallows and housemartins are experts when it comes to mud construction.  They twitter over the mud puddles in tractor ruts on farms.  In the past few weeks, despite the rain, I have been topping up a particular puddle with water for the swallows and housemartins.  The strange weather has not really provided enough mud for their nests.   I seem to be doing this increasingly frequently in the last few years and it is amazing how quickly the birds cotton on to the supply of fresh mud for nest building.  This year has been particularly difficult to have a consistent supply of mud, with swamp conditions alternating with cracked earth-like-concrete in the farm yard.  In a classic study of housemartin nests, McNeil and Clark (1977) identify different layers or types of mud (black and red) being used.  Nests take 12-14 days to build and in the study they found alternating bands of muds.  Birds were travelling about 1.25km to sources of mud.  The explanation for the banding seems to be that the birds understand the composition and elasticity of the mud and probably use one type as a kind of mortar to stick the other type of mud together to make their nests.


Housemartins in Nest (Photo: Claus Ableiter - commons.wikimedia.org).

Wrestling in mud has long been an attraction for some.  Mud runs seem to be growing in popularity with people slopping around in mud over anything from 3 to 10 miles.  Trail biking also seems to be a grow activity, particularly along bridle paths.  The problem with this is that the consequent muddy rut conditions make it impassable for walkers, and often for those on horseback as well.  The consideration of mud management is bread and butter to those involved in countryside management, particularly in relation to long-distance footpaths where routes can quickly become rivers–of-mud in conditions of heavy rain.   With such squishy, oozy, sucking and squelching mud lost wellies are not the only problem.  The compaction of soils and the resulting anaerobic conditions are a massive and increasing headache for managers.  Resurfacing may result in loss of character of the routes and sometimes exacerbate rather than relieve the problems.  Victoria Coren Mitchell’s piece in The Observer (26.6.16) suggests that inserting plastic grass or crazy-paving over Glastonbury would solve the problem there.  This would perhaps ‘sanitize’ the place, but is the mud really a problem?  Isn’t the mud of Glastonbury just a part of the English summer landscape experience? To be woken by thousands of squishing wellies and the smell of wet canvass (although no longer the smell of chemical loos) seems increasingly to be seen as a normal part of growing up in middle-England.  Some part of me feels that this is probably healthy in a world where the venturing into the great ‘outside’ and contact with earth of any kind in developed countries is vanishingly rare for many people. Perhaps those at Glastonbury could be described as contemporary mudlarks, in search of something in a muddy environment?  

Mudlark seems to me to be a strange word.  The mud part is obvious, the lark part less so.  Although there is an Australian bird called a mudlark  or magpie lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) it does not inhabit the UK.  ‘Larking’ around usually means ‘messing about’ which would seem a strange way of describing what mudlarks in former times did.  The work ‘larrikin’ derives from the term mudlark and refers to  ‘mischievous young person’, sometimes to thieves, vagabonds etc.    But this is an Australian term, not often used in the UK.  My father suggests that the term mudlark was probably used in the past to refer to mud-wading birds in general, and thus people wading about on the river mud were called after such birds, not because of their happy, messing about habits, but because of their activities which involved hopping in and out of the water on the river mud.  The general definition of a human mudlark is someone who scavenges in river mud.  It is particularly associated with the 18th and 19th century London and poor, unskilled people.  As the River Thames is tidal it is possible to walk out onto the mud at low tide.  Although mudlarks are often characterised as young boys in the literature, all kinds of people, including the elderly tried to make a living by scavenging the riverside.  Much of what Charles Dickens relates in ‘our Mutual Friend’ (1865) about the life on and around the River Thames was influenced by the descriptions of the London poor in Mahew’s (1851–1861) book.  There are two sections in this book relating to mudlarks.  One (‘Felonies on the River Thames’) describes mudlarks generally as children between the age of 8 and 15, usually accompanied by an older person.  In ‘Narrative of a Mudlark’ (pp.370-373) a 13 year old boy tells his story collecting pieces of coal, iron, copper, canvass and driftwood from the Thames mud.  His earnings from this was between 2d and 6d a day.  Mudlarking on the banks of the Thames has had a revival and now it has even become a tourist activity.  Steve Brooker and Nick Stevens have been mudlarking for a number of years.  They have become well-known through the TV series ‘Mud Men’ and have collected an amazing assortment of found objects. They belong to the Society of Thames Mudlarks which was formed in 1976 and has 51 members.  Finds are recorded under the Portable Antiquities Scheme and are displayed at the Museum of London (see Thames Museum website).


Mudlarks of Victorian London (Source: The Headington Magazine, 1871)

Although these days, riverside mud scavenging is fun, it was and is not always such a lark. Mud in saline conditions such as beside the sea and in tidal rivers can be very salty and it can also contain many unpleasant pollutants which are carried by the water and are deposited in the mud.  During a research project in Bangladesh funded by the British Council/DfID I investigated the impacts of the shrimp industry.  Bangladesh is mostly a vast flat delta landscape which the Ganges runs through.  Much of it is flooded annually by monsoon freshwater coming down the river; this flushes out the landscape and deposits new soil and nutrients. In this way extreme salinity of the soil is avoided and fertility retained. The shrimp industry creates lagoons to grow shrimps.  Women and children collect (or scavenge) wild shrimp fry from the saline mud of the many small rivers, to be grown on in the lagoons and then harvested to grace restaurant tables around the world.  The collectors suffer terrible skin problems from constant wading and sticking their hands and arms into the salty mud and water.  Over-collection of fry has an impact on the ecology, and intensification of the shrimp lagoons and management can cause problems because the natural water flushing is reduced resulting in increased salinity in the soil.  This affects the ability of the soil to grown other crops such as rice on a rotational basis in periods when the shrimps are not being cultured. 


Shrimp lagoons, Bangladesh

As with many aspects of our watery environment, a closer look at mud reveals many contradictions.  Quite apart from the wet mud pictures of Glastonbury, images of dried-up water holes in drought-ridden countries with acres of cracked mud caused by lack of water are powerful reminders of the importance of water as a constituent part of fertile soils.  There are also many important and interesting cultural connections with mud.  A few years ago while on my own mudlarking expedition wandering along the shores of Lake Baikal in western Siberia I picked up a small bone netsuke, presumably lost many years ago and worn by constant buffeting by the lake waters and pebbles.  The carving is of the traditional three monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.  Found objects in the mud like this one provide the potential for revealing powerful stories of the past, but it seems to me in light of recent events in the UK, this one in particular holds some kind of parable for our times. 


A Mudlark on the shores of Lake Baikal, Siberia.

 Bone Netsuke found on the shore of Lake Baikal: See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil

Sources Consulted:

Cooke, R. (2016) ‘Rose-Tinted Dreams from Iraq’, The New Review, The Observer, 26.06.16 pp.12-13

Coren Mitchell, V. (2016) ‘Give Glastonbury Some Fake Grass’, The Observer. 26.06.16.

Das, S. (2012-05-24 11:32:48) Slimescapes. Available at: http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/?p=851

Downton, P. (2013) Mud brick, YourHome (Australian Government) website: www.yourhome.gov.au

Flanders, M. and Swann, D. (1959) The Hippopotamus Song, Recorded at the Fortune Theatre, London, 2 May 1959.  See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjnOj9O16_I

Glasto Sanitation Report 2015. Sanitation - Licence Monitoring or Other Statutory Duty, Officer Report Glastonbury Festival 2015. Available at: http://www.mendip.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=11605&p=0

Mud Architecture – Construction Details and Techniques (2008-2014) www.archinomy.com (provides a really useful and straightforward  information sheet on mud construction).

Leonard, M. (undated) Muddy Hell: The realities of the Western Front conflict landscape during the Great War.  Modern Conflict Archaeology website Available: at https://modernconflictarchaeology.com/my-academic-work/ma/muddy-hell-the-realities-of-the-western-front-conflict-landscape-during-the-great-war/

McNeil, D. And Clark, F., (1977) ‘Nest Architecture of House Martins’, Bird Study, 24:2, 130-132 doi: 10.1080/00063657709476546

Mayhew, Henry (1851–1861). London Labour and the London Poor. (Researched and written with various others) London: Charles Griffin & Co.

Mudlarking tourism: https://sites.google.com/site/thamesandfield6/try-mudlarking

Rosseinsky, K. (2014) ‘Glastonbury toilets get £600,000 makeover’, The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/glastonbury/10908863/Glastonbury-toilets-get-600000-makeover.html

Roe, Maggie and Hasan, Dr. Mahmudul (eds) (2004) Participatory Planning and Environmental Management for Salinity Affected Coastal Regions of Bangladesh (BCHWSD/British Council-DfID). ISBN 984-32-1099-9. pp.47-70

Who are the Mudlarks? Thames Museum website: http://www.thamesmuseum.org/

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




Apr 13

"For this they (deceitful scoffers) are wilfully ignorant of, that the heavens were before, and the earth out of water, and through water, consisting by the word of God." (2 Peter iii. 5; in Theiler, 1909 p.7)


Strang (2014) suggests that water is an example where the way people interact with the material properties of things ‘generate recurrent ideas and patterns of engagement in diverse cultural and historical contexts’ (p.133).  This suggests that we do not simply place our own values and meanings onto water, but the interaction is influenced by the particular characteristics and behaviours of the material itself.  This is a contested view (see for example Normark, 2015), but the interaction between peoples in many different cultures and water within sacred festivals, ceremonies and rituals in order to cleanse and ward off evil is widely recognised and understood and would seem to be influenced if not instigated by the character of the 'stuff' itself.  The traditions of many religions reflect the belief in the sanctity of water; total immersion in sacred rivers and pools is commonly found as well as drinking and daubing the body with water. 

Font from the 11th Century Church of San Govenale, Orvieto, Italy.

The blessing of water and the idea of ‘blessed water’ is found in traditions including Buddhism, Islam, paganism and Christianity.  In some cases the water seems to represent the spiritual, in others there is a belief that the materiality is actually changed.  Some traditions believe that water has to be contained to be able to be blessed, while others believe that flowing water (such as rivers, springs and streams) can also be sacred.  There is a strong belief in the strength of the power of holy water or sacred waters which may perhaps reflect or stem from an experience of the real physical power of water.

In the Roman Catholic faith, water is used for exorcism, purification/cleansing and protection.  Theiler (1909) suggests that salt is commonly added to contained water and this saline solution may have some cleansing properties.  Pilgrims make journeys to holy springs where the water is commonly drunk in spite of the growing evidence of contamination and disease potential from various sources of ‘holy’ water.  Kirschner et al. (2012) found a range of microbiological and chemical problems that can cause serious illness in both springs and church fonts.  In Ethiopia pulmonary tuberculosis has been shown to be present in holy water sites.  Oestigaard (2017) suggests that people’s interactions with holy water in various forms helps to establish and define holiness itself.  He does also recognise the paradox in a belief of the holy water as beneficial, while in many cases actual dangers exist from pollution of the waters used.


Federighi’s Acquasantiera in the Chiesa di Sant’ Andrea e Bartolomeo, Orvieto, Italy

In Catholic churches fonts and holy water basins are commonly found.  Antonio Federighi’s acquasantiera (stoup or holy water basin) in the Duomo, Siena, Italy is a marvellous marble representation of the medieval combination of patronage (e.g. coats of arms) Christian thinking, pre-Christian classical and pagan mythology and tradition.  Richter (2008) describes the elaborate decoration that Federighi (c1428-83) used in his work and the influence he had on important buildings such as the cathedrals in Siena and Orvieto.  He was important in the revival of pagan imagery and sensuality in religious art and architecture and by doings so influenced a number of artists including Michelangelo. Richter describes Federighi as a ‘major contributor to Renaissance art’ (p25). 

During a recent visit to Orvieto I stumbled across an acquasantiera in the Chiesa di Sant Andrea e Bartolomeo, a 12th century Catholic church situated in the piazza della Republica.  All the guidebook said was that it was sculpted by Federighi.  What caught my attention was the extraordinary sculpting inside the bowl.  Most such basins are quite plain on the inside; a simple container for holy water while the external appearances vary tremendously.  This one has both fish and eels apparently swimming within the holy water of the basin.  The external design was unusually plain for Federighi’s work, but perhaps he had saved up his imagination for the stoup that resides in the nearby Duomo.  On further investigation I found that Federighi was particularly fond of filling his stoups with fish and marine animals.  Richter describes one fairly recently found in a collectors possession in London as having ‘fish and sea serpents’ (Ibid p24).  Certainly the creatures in the Siena stoup resemble fish and eels and are recognised as such by the Courtald Institute label on the image.  Those in the Sant’ Andrea stoup were most definitely eels rather than serpents.

Holy Water Basin (Acquasantiera) by Antonio Federighi in the Duomo, Siena 

Another and even more internally elaborate acquasantiera designed by Federighi can be seen in the Duomo at Grosseto.  In addition to fish and eels, this has turtles, crabs, frogs and other creatures filling and overflowing from the bowl.  In addition cherubs riding dolphins on the column support the basin.   While Federighi was not the only sculptor to use fish in holy water basins, it does seem to be unusual, and certainly the inclusion of eels is interesting when they are commonly associated with darkness and mud rather than cleansing and sanctity.

Acquasantiera by Antonio Federighi at the Duomo, Grosseto, Italy.



Church of Saints Saint Cajetan and Maximillian, Salzburg, Austria


A&A Art & Architecture, The Courtauld Institute of Art.  Website: http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/conway/77998e87.html

Abatene, D.D., Moges, F. and Tessema, B (2017) ‘Smear positive pulmonary tuberculosis and associated risk factors among tuberculosis suspects attending spiritual holy water sites in Northwest Ethiopia’, BMC Infectious Diseases 17(1): 1-8. DOI: 10.1186/s12879-017-2211-5

Kirschner, A.K.T., Atteneder, M., Schmidhuber, A. and Sommer, R., (2012) ‘Holy springs and holy water: Underestimated sources of illness?’ Journal of Water and Health 10(3):349-57. DOI: 10.2166/wh.2012.005

Normark, J. (2015) Going against the flow. Reaction to Veronica Strang, Archaeological Dialogues 22(02):199-206.  DOI: 10.1017/S1380203815000252

Oestigaard, T. (2017) ‘Holy water: the works of water in defining and understanding holiness’, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water e1205. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1205

Richter, E.M. (2008) ‘Pulling out All the Stoups: A Newly-discovered Acquasantiera by Antonio Federighi’, Artibus et Historia 29(58): 9-27.

Strang, V. (2014) ‘Fluid consistencies: Material relationality in human engagements with water’ Archaeological Dialogues 21(02):133-150.  DOI: 10.1017/S1380203814000130

Theiler, H. (1909) Holy Water and Its Significance for Catholics (New York, Pustet & Co).  Available: https://archive.org/details/holywateranditss00theiuoft


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