Reiko’s Reflections on ‘Conversations with Water’ (More than Human Research)

The More than Human Project was organized by PI Michelle Bastian, with Co-I’s Richard Coles, Phil Jones and Owain Jones. This is the fifth in a series of reflections on the workshop, written byReiko Goto Collins.

Co-design with water: an aesthetic conceptual provocation


Originally published: On the more than human research website.

At the end of the workshop Michelle asked us how a new language might emerge from this workshop. I have been thinking about this question in relation to “empathy” that is my research interest and practice. Empathy is an act of perceiving in which we reach out to the other to grasp his/her state or condition. It consists of one’s emotional and physical experiences.The workshop was an experience-based enquiry. I did not know much about the workshop area, its landscape or catchments. I knew only a few of the people from previous conferences..The workshop really began over dinner, with information shared by experts. Then the next day we would have an expert tour of the Culm a unique ecosystem, at the top of the catchment basin. We then had a boat ride in the estuary guided by a fisherman. We felt the landscape changes from the mouth of the river (with its old industrial structures, and new summer homes) to the wooded upper river that came alive with wildlife. Meanwhile Antony was checking the conductivity in the saline water, everyone was taking pictures and talking together. The last day of the workshop we were asked to go into the Torridge River. In early October it was a cloudy day. I did not bring my swimming suit. Niamh was impressive, she jumped in the Torridge River first, then others followed little by little. François said something touched her foot in the water. Was it fish? This encouraged me to follow them. The middle of the river was deeper but people could stand on the smooth riverbed. The water was cold. I put my face down to float. I felt little fear until suddenly I felt a sharp pain on my shoulder. (I am being treated for a bad shoulder.) But when my body started floating, I became relaxed. I could see under water. It was greenish brown. The colour of the water reminded me of similar experiences in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.  Tim and I worked on a research project called 3 Rivers 2nd Nature (3R2N) between 2000 and 2005. It was one of the summers we were on the project boat. Tim and I had dived in the Allegheny River. The water was warm but refreshing, it felt endlessly deep and big, it felt wide and very long. I could not see much, just greenish brown colour. We had spent years learning everything we could about the ecological recovery of nature and culture. I still hear the voice of that place, its experts and communities. And in my mind I still see myself going through the landscape, with millions of Mayfly in the air, and schools of fish cfollowing and playing with our boat.

Empathetic experience moves towards something foreign rather than something familiar. In this workshop the greenish brown coloured water was something familiar and the coldness of the Torridge River was the foreign experience for me. I was surprised when I did not become panic in the water when I could not rely on my arm because of the shoulder pain. I sat on the anchor of the bridge to watch other people. It was another foreign experience to be in the water together. I thought about the last two days talking, eating and doing things together with a respectful manner, but we did not know each other much. We kept smiling at each other. After we dressed again, we became a little more playful. We dropped twigs from the bridge to see which one could go through the bridge first. Owain’s fern won.


Touching the water in the Torridge River was important. In this case asking the water by touching it. It was a trigger for an “empathised experience” that would come from real life or form within ourselves, our inner perception.Any one can touch the water of the river. It is quite possible a person does not have any memorable experience of a river. Then, the experience becomes foundational; but this is not likely. Everything we do is a learning opportunity that may expand experience it may not prove to be meaningful until some time in the future. How about people who have had a water epiphany already? Touching water is a beginning of the discourse to listen to others including people, things and the environment in deeper level. After the workshop some people submitted their reflection writing. Different individuals experience and expertise result in diverse stories. Each of us is connected to different parts of the world. Each of us shuffles the words and re-constructs the story for the new audience. In this repeated process a little schism occurs. Empathy tries to fill the gap between familiar and foreign, known and unknown within new experience, and perhaps with other people’s voice. If we meditate well in this process we may understand others a little further. New language can emerge when we understand the other and find the reason why it as important us, as other people are.Reiko Goto Collins, 30 November 2013





Tim’s Reflections on ‘Conversations with Water’ (More than Human Research)

Workshop – 2013 October
The More than Human Project was organized by PI Michelle Bastian, with Co-I’s Richard Coles, Phil Jones and Owain Jones

Our fourth workshop took place on the 1-2 of October at/on/in the River Torridge. We worked with artist Antony Lyons and members from the North Devon Biosphere Reserve and the Devon Wildlife Trust  to explore whether the recent Connected Communities-funded Ethical Guidelines for Community-Based Participatory Research might be extended to working with non-humans, specifically water. This is the first in a series of reflections on the workshop from our participants and is written by Tim Collins.

In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water….has become the victim of indifference.

Rachel Carson, the Silent Spring


Going into this I thought about what I know. I am a water being, nurtured in the amniotic sea then born to the Pawtuxet River Watershed. I know water as an image that can be re-presented through a range of art media. I know water as an idea and a poetic reverie through thinkers like Bachelard. I know water as a requirement of life, delivered, purified and putrefied as it passes from watershed through potable systems and back out again to the world as sewage and waste water. I know water as the substance that dissolves all things, that picks up traces of everything it comes into contact with. I know water in terms of its relationship to the air, and the airs relationship to it; I have seen its breath in the fall.  I know water in terms of its process of erosion and deposition. I know water as a physical chemistry, as a nutrient laden fluid that dissipates its own life giving oxygen content, as a bearer of pathogens and toxicants. I know water in its freshwater forms and saltwater forms, its densities shaped by both minerals and temperature. I know water as Mother Ocean; her tides and waves, the source of fog, wind and life on earth. I spent years chasing swells and tides, reefs and sand bars, peaks and troughs. I know water as the home of creatures that have played along side of me, otters, dolphins and seals that take the same pleasures in engaging that environment with others. I know water as the miraculous expanded gas that collapses into liquid then a solid that miraculously floats. This latter fact is an odd essential material condition of life on earth; otherwise the ice sinks and overwhelms the warmth of the sun.  Three days, maybe five without water and I am dead, this is all that I know about water as a human on planet earth.

“Water is the one substance from which the earth can conceal nothing; it sucks out its innermost secrets and brings them to our very lips”

Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944), “The Madwoman of Chaillot”

As an artist I know that a drop of water in an overhead pool produces shadows that levitate from a spot on the floor that rises up the walls in concentric circles. I know chemicals that burst into flame with a drop of water. I know that if I place ten quail’s eggs into an aquarium filled with salt water and fresh, at least six of them will settle in the middle of the tank, suspended on the salt water. I know how much water it takes to counterbalance myself ten feet out a third story window, raising questions about water within and water outside the body, questions of balance and flow, public and private, nature and culture. I know that the water system of the City of San Francisco was purchased from private industry for the same price paid for the entire state of Alaska. I know that Kana Wai, is the law of water, the Hawaiian alternative to the law of the land. Curiously it demands equitable co-responsibility and sharing of the resource versus private ownership and property rights. I recognize water as material, as phenomenon and as ecological system in the work of the grandfathers and grandmothers in my field of research, practice and creative inquiry. I recognize water it recognizes me, maybe this is why dowsing works.

The fairies who have just surprised a boor who has polluted their spring are in secret conference: “What do you wish for the one who muddied our water, my sisters?” “That he become a stammerer and never be able to articulate a word.” “And you my sister?”  “That he always go about with his mouth open and stand gaping in the street.” “And you my sister?” “That he never take a step without, all due respect to you….breaking wind.

A legend from Lower Normandy recorded by Paul Sebillot in “Le Folklore de France”

As a Workshop Participant
As we say in Scotland, there were times I was lost in the blather. Wondering why we were sitting on our asses when there were springs to be hunted, to be chased on muddies knees, to listen to the spot where water emerges from the soil… but I learned that was not what we were about. At least not logically. Clara on the way would say… “‘Look’ the landscape has changed what is that?” It was the colm (culm) we were searching for. But we were prepared for a landscape survey, a visual relationship rather than the mud and boots, body, mind and soul, the sound and the mud variation of spring hunting that I prefer.

At least not to start, but… the boat trip changed that, a long reveries, a Conradian adventure, where we were not so much lost, but dazed and confused in the depths of the land, steered by a waterman who I think drank to our madness that night. Starting from where the social/cultural infrastructure had collapsed at the mouth of the river, from when we began, to the trip toward the headwaters where the hand of man faded, then the riparian forest dipped in. The saline flood of the tide, manicuring that forest to create an exquisite line, above the air began to fill with the birds and we all – sensed this IS the right place. The salt water / sweet water experiments entertained me to no end, its important when mucking about in boats to have a reason to put your hand in the water!

But the kicker was the immersion; Reiko and I didn’t believe that British researchers would do it. When we realized it was so we were down to our underwear (one does not skinny dip in Britain, despite the sensibility of it). In we went, a ponderous swim for me who is usually the water person. I was worried (Reiko has a bad shoulder and struggled to clear the bridge abutment) and as a result distracted and cold, but nonetheless managed a stream-addled version of ‘Breath’ by Birago Diop under the bridge.

Listen more to things                           Than to words that are said   

The waters voice sings                        And the flame cries     

And the wind that brings                     The woods to sighs

                        Is the breathing of the dead

—Birago Diop–


That dip in the water reminded me that it is only in immersion that we can hope to have any clarity about a relationship with a non-verbal thing. The river speaks to all of us. It shaped our emotions and perceptions, it threatened us and embraced us. We swam despite passer-bys warning us not to… but more importantly as we stood in the stream we realized that beneath the surface was an incredible life force as living things rolled across our feet. Picking up a rock, I found the caddis fly chamber I had been looking for, Reiko said ‘them’, they –are- here… ; )

Eutopia versus Utopia: Issues of the Regional Imperative:

When Patrick Geddes coined the word Eutopia, meaning “good place,” in his address to the Sociological Society in July 1904, he proved too much for some of the intellectuals of London. In comparing it with the commonly understood Utopia coined by Thomas More, a word derived from the Greek “no place,” he summed up a fundamental tenet of the regional imperative: that it makes sense to design with the forms and cultural and ecological processes already present in a location rather than to force an idealized, preconceived plan upon a site. Eutopia is assured when culture and ecology become part of the design thinking. Utopia is the consequence of ignoring them.

Michael Hough “Out of Place; Restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape”

Why work together, with water?
I don’t think that we can simply work together with water; it works through us, it is us. ‘Why listen to it?’ and ‘What can it tell us?’ might be better questions.  When we link human to communities of ecology and the complex material/life interactions in place we have to remember to think differently and reshape our ethical parameters. To listen to water takes all the skills and ability, tools and technology, chemistry and attention that we can muster; in which case, simply put, it tells us everything about the world around us.  The fundamental question is how is an artist or humanities scholar’s method differentiated from that of a scientist? Traditionally it’s through looking, but a gaze is not enough anymore, it requires sustained being-with, it is about intimate inter-relationship over time so that we begin to see a normative aesthetic, a condition of baseline health which allows us to see the signs that tells us that something has changed. To do this work well (which we have in common with science) we must love the subject of our inquiry. Differentiating the arts and humanities, it is what we want to know, what we need to experience, the purpose of aesthetic empiricism if you will. We are not looking for definitive reproducible answers; we are looking for core experiential truths that dip below the surface, that engage the heart, the mind, and the soul at the same time. But at the end of the day, we have to work with water on its own terms.Thoughts on the Community-based Participatory Research Guide.
[In our last session of the workshop we worked through core questions from the  Guide to Ethical Practice in Community-based Participatory Research to explore how they might apply to research with water – Ed.]

“Water is the principle, or the element of all things”

Thales of Miletus

Who should be involved?
Anyone who has spent the time to develop an empathic relationship with living water in that place should be engaged. Empathy only emerges in place over time, it is recognition of the normative health of a living thing that leads to attention to those things that indicate disruption. The question is can we see pleasure and joy in living things that have neither language nor eyes with which to speak to our ears or our heart.

“In the dialectical theme of the purity and impurity of water, the fundamental law of material imagination acts in both directions, guaranteeing the eminently active nature of the substance: one drop of pure water suffices to purify an ocean; one drop of impure water suffices to defile a universe.”

Gaston Bachelard “Water and Dreams; An essay on the Imagination of Matter”

What are the Aims and Objectives of the Research?
Funny questions: Surely we all realize that the objective is to trust ourselves as we strive to hear things from something that does not speak, to find emotional communion with a living thing that has no eyes. Our goal is to find our health and wellbeing in it, and it in us; to recognize the ethical principles that underpin this endeavour.

…Water is the only substance on earth that naturally occurs in all three states at temperatures we normally experience: solid, liquid and gas.  “No scientist ancient or modern has ever managed a quantitative description of the thermodynamics of water, it is to the structural analyst what Waterloo was to Bonaparte. Tens of thousands of years ago our wise forbearers shared myths wherein water was said to be the primal, chaotic substance from which all forms proceed. It is clear that our forbearers have not been refuted, clarified or improved upon. ”

Titus Irving Gerrad speaking about the structure of water in the monograph; “What is Water?”

How to analyse and interpret data?
Honestly, with humility and attention to the role that the arts and humanities play in the conception, perception and experience that leads to a critical understanding and potential evolution of human values through a reflective relationship with water. Water speaks to us through its component parts, its dissolution and erosion, its non-structural integrity, by its ability to flow around and about, through all things, to embody the lightest breeze, the smallest drop and the wildest gale, taking the form of the force which engages…Fini: Tim (with Reiko in mind, although she has her own notes.)