[Guest Post by Lowell Duckert, commenting on the “Forms of Water” group of papers]
First, a note for everyone: I hope you’re doing well in your respective shelters,both physically and mentally. Second: thank you.Meditating on your “forms of water” proved to be the perfect exercise for my cooped-up mind. To my “Flake,” I add:
[Bodies:] Gwilym Jones, “‘As you to water would’: Staging Wet Bodies”
[Memories:] Bill Kerwin, “River Memory”
[Recipes:] Rob Wakeman, “Thinking Through Biodiversity on the River Trent”
An underlying current in my “Forms of Water Group” was a mutual affinity for incomplete forms. “Form,” as we see it, is a slippery thing—completion, an illusion. Water’s states do not shift, Proteus-like, from one fully-defined state (solid, liquid, gas) to another. Flux is part of the de- and re-formation of watery things: it’s built in to the wetware, and it’s not finished working.
I point out that the principle behind a snowflake’s six-sided symmetry remains a secret to this day. To early modern observers like Olaus Magnus and Frederick Martens, this tiny star-shape possessed a magical ability to radiate (“flake” out) into assemblages of human and nonhuman forms, seemingly without end. This cold type of cogitation (“flake-thinking”) could come in handy at the moment: “The radiating quality of the snowflake models the sort of interdisciplinary inquisitiveness necessary for addressing today’s most pressing problems, inspiring collaborations that may diverge into more-than-human modes of thinking.
Jones leaves us gazing into the eyes of wet onstage bodies in Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge’s A Looking-Glass for London and England. Jonah and the shipwrecked sailors – thinking themselves drowned – experience the feeling of damnation and salvation at once, and the resulting sense of survivor’s guilt is unbearable for the sunken prophet. Jonah bids his eyes, “Weep so for grief, as you to water would.” “Would” a spectator of drowned worlds do the same? When “the organ of perception gives way to the organ of emotion,” as Jones puts it, we realize that grief is unquantifiable—that a liquifying sphere could have no bottom.
Kerwin develops his notion of “river memory” – “a kind of distributed cognition . . . that falls largely into the control of the non-human world” – from (“Watery”) Michael Drayton’s chorographical poem, Poly-Olbion. Personification, however, resists siding with the human; his anthropomorphism is more expansive than that. But since Drayton “does not” – cannot – “give us the non-human world completely,” the rivers resist complete access. The nymph Sabrina/River Severn, the poem states, “[s]tarts, tosses, tumbles, strikes, turnes, touses, spurnes and spraules, / Casting with furious lims her holders to the walles.” Poetic lines can only follow a riverbank so far, and only if the water stays its course—what’s memorable (now), may swiftly be washed from the “wall[e].”
Finally, the “last storgon” in the River Trent: a waterway named for the “thirty” species of fish that were in decline (or absent altogether) in already in the seventeenth century. River-to-table recipes, according to Wakeman, supplied a fleeting sensation of ecological security. Listing serves a valuable function; it “evidences a desire for a structured wholeness in a world that is receding, just as the recipe books long for the perfect recipe that will never be achieved.” And yet, he maintains, the bound recipe book managed to (literally) incorporate newness in the face of loss: “the acentric organization of the manuscript household recipe book – with its many hands, with its many stops and starts, its many blank pages – imagines a different kind of ecology, a world of continuous revision and metamorphosis, a world without finality. Contingency is spelled out on the open page.
Dwelling on water’s protean forms – crystal (flake), eyeball (body), river (memory), food (recipe) – only deepens our awareness of its mutability. These are all shapes that refuse to finish their trans-formations. But shiftiness, as these papers suggest, should also be an invitation – as well as an imperative – to create (to branch, emote, remember, cook). I look forward to Zoom time; until then, I would like us to focus on a single thought:
As a substance whose form chronically escapes delimitation, what forms of ecological thinking does water not only sponsor, but also demand?