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In Context #4 (Fall, 2000, pp. 9-11); copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute

Water's Obstinate Meanderings
Stephen L. Talbott

Books discussed in this article:
Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air, by Theodor Schwenk (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1965).

Water: A Natural History, by Alice Outwater (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).

A few thoughts as a follow-up to "The Straitening of Science," in issue #3 of In Context:

In his book, Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air, Theodor Schwenk pursues with striking observational prowess the view that "water is more than a mere flow of energy or a useful means of transport." He struggles to grasp its expressive gestures, its "archetypal forms of movement," which turn out to be curvilinear—spiraling, gliding, meandering, oscillating, rhythmically ebbing and flowing, going forth and returning. Even in the straightest and smoothest pipe, flowing water insists upon spiraling, and over time it will impress its swirling tendencies even upon the solid material of its channel.

But Schwenk is not content with such broad-stroke characterizations. He traces the flowing forms in delicate detail, and brings out their lawful and expressive interrelatedness. The structures of the human organism itself, right down to the bones, are found to be (as Novalis suggested) the result of partially arrested streaming; our organs are gradually shaped as the patterns of flow in the fluid embryo are materially "filled in."

Mathematical versus Qualitative Understanding

I can scarcely hint at the full range and richness of Schwenk's treatment, but this brief mention may suffice to raise the obvious question. Where Schwenk speaks of the archetypal circular or curving motion of water, the physicist tells us that all matter naturally moves in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force. Water is a form of matter, so who is right?

They are both right, for they are saying quite different things. The physicist's truth is an act of high abstraction, whereby it is discovered that certain mathematical treatments of moving objects gain their greatest simplicity when we juxtapose the idea of movement in a straight line with that of a disturbing force. Important as this achievement was for certain practical, mathematical manipulations, it entailed a studious ignoring of the qualitative nature of whatever object was doing the moving. And it is this nature with which Schwenk concerns himself.

woodland stream

The problem arises when the physicist takes issue with Schwenk's claim to be approaching the true nature of water, and dismisses as "Aristotelian" the argument that we virtually never see objects moving in perfectly straight lines. This is to forget that mathematical parsimony does not automatically equate to parsimony in qualitative understanding, and that for the latter what we see (and perceive with our other senses) is exactly what matters. It is fine to say you will have nothing to do with qualities, but that does not put you in a good position to criticize the results of those who have attended to the qualities.

One either ignores the expressive face of nature, or else attempts to read it. The often highly effective abstractions we arrive at through the ignoring are not always helpful when it comes to the reading. Mathematics always strives toward universality; reading gives us concrete meaning and content—something for our mathematics to be about. We should not complain if what the mathematics is about turns out to be more than just mathematics!

To attempt an analogy: in some contexts it proves easiest mathematically to treat the circle as a collection of infinitesimal straight lines. This does not mean that the expressive potential of the circle is identical to that of the straight line—as any dancer will doubtless be happy to remind us. It is this expressive potential that Schwenk is trying to get at—an expressive potential manifested in a dance that is neither private nor subjective, but the demonstrable reality of the phenomenal world wherever water flows.

Applying Occam's Razor to American Rivers

The alternative to reading nature is to be satisfied with what a quantitative science indisputably gives us: effective power. It was just such power over the nation's watercourses that led the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers to undertake a massive "rationalization" during this century. According to Alice Outwater, a naturalist and environmental engineer,

Over a period of eighty-six years—from 1905 to 1991—the Bureau of Reclamation and its predecessor built 339 reservoirs, 154 diversion dams, 7670 miles of irrigation canals, 1,170 miles of pipelines, 270 miles of tunnels, 267 pumping plants, and 52 hydroelectric power plants.

Likewise with the Corps of Engineers. Following the Flood Control Act of 1936, it modified 16,000 miles of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The natural course of a river, as Outwater reminds us, is not fixed in time; it "writhes like a snake, throwing off oxbow lakes as meander loops slip downstream." But the Mississippi, "dammed, channeled, and leveed, doesn't move much anymore. The rafts of logs and the alligators are confined to remote backwaters, the great fish that the river was once renowned for have slipped into legend, and the indigenous mussels, which once filtered the impurities from the water, are just about gone." The cost of the rationalization of our water systems, as Outwater points out, has been great.

In a 1960s study of the Tippah River, the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission found before channelization a total standing crop of 877 fish per acre, weighing a total of 241 pounds. After channelization, 99 percent of the fish were darters, shiners, and minnows. The total standing crop had nearly doubled—to 1,498 fish per acre—but the total weight per acre was only 5 pounds. In studies across the country, stream productivity was seen to crash when the streams were channeled.

In straightening, channeling, canalizing, and otherwise harnessing the nation's river systems, the engineers blithely assumed what any physicist would have told them: the most natural thing in the world is for water molecules to move in a straight line, undisturbed by "interfering" obstacles. Yet, left to its own devices, water has an oddly persistent way of raising such obstacles whenever they are not immediately found—through its own direct action, and, for example, through the urgent reverberation of its murmurings in the water-attuned consciousness of the beaver (who feels driven to plug every opening and stop every gurgling sound of moving water)—as if the inefficient circulation through meander and swamp, through beaver pond and subsurface reservoir, through eddy and whirlpool, were somehow needed. And when artificially coerced into unnaturally straight lines, a river system begins to die.

The equation-wielding scientist may find it easiest to say that water's nature is to move in a straight line. But no water we have ever known exhibits such a nature. For the past few hundred years scientists have ignored the qualitative reality as peripheral, phenomenal, poetic, Aristotelian, subjective, reducible to more convenient terms, and irrelevant to the progress of their quantitative dreams. The neglected facts may actually be irrelevant to those particular dreams. But it is not at all clear that the world we actually live in can survive another few hundred years of the same neglect.


Original source: In Context (Fall, 2000, pp. 9-11); copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: Water's Obstinate Meanderings

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