Dr James Bonner
Post doctoral researcher and freelance writer
Connecting through water from afar
In 2018 I went to a Dark Mountain Project event at the CCA in Glasgow during the early stages of my doctorate. A group of us sat down and were asked to just talk about a recent occasion in which we’d engaged with nature- a specific experience that made us *feel* something. I spoke to the person next to me about being in water, my experience of being in the sea at Arisaig on the west coast of Scotland on the morning of the recent summer solstice. They spoke of an experience touching some soil in her garden.
But then they mentioned something that they’d recently heard on the radio, and that had affected her- and it is a thought that has stuck with me since. A discussion around the idea: what if we considered that the earth had a ‘skin’, like our primary organ of sensory touch- and where it could *feel* us in the way we are able to feel it? This seemed to intersect with some ideas I had been exploring at the time in some philosophical writings- and specifically in the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty who wrote on ideas of a ‘flesh of the world’... Anyway, without going into that here, it sparked something in my mind about considering water in this way- especially in the context of my experiences in the sea. Because, as I had come to think, that when I engaged with that ‘body’ of water- at the shoreline- its tidal ebb and flow, back and forth movement- seemed like ‘fingers’ reaching out and retracting. The water as something alive and sentient... I’ve been playing with this idea a lot over the last couple of years now- going to water, touching it, engaging with it, especially travelling there by my bike.
“water is articulated as always both ‘being’ and a process of becoming gathering water from certain bodies and flowing back into others in return” (Neimanis, 2017)
Arisaig, west coast Scotland. Summer solstice 2018.
But I had also been thinking something else. As water in nature is linked in a multiplicity of entangled flows, by touching a body of water, in essence, I became part of a direct chain of material connection to all other waters linked to it. In this sense water could be a ‘conduit’ of physical connection between me, and any other person engaging with water at the same moment!... This seemed to get at something I was really interested in- that rather than thinking about a kind of binary relationship between me and water (whether this was a subject-object, subject-subject, object-object kind of link)- this was a way of conceptualising it as a 'subject/object hybrid' or entanglement that I was part of; I was ‘within’. And that, really interestingly, could become included in- indeed fundamental to- an interpersonal relationship between me and another person from afar. A way of breaking down or deconstructing the object/subject, human/nature, dichotomy in both a material and symbolic sense? But here, it seems, I'm getting a bit close to falling off a cliff edge into a sea of philosophical thoughts.
So going back to water- I had an idea. Could I set up some situations whereby I arranged (through digital communication) to engage with a body of water at the *exact* moment as someone else I knew- but who was in a very different spatial location? Where we would, for example, both go to either ‘sides’ or ‘ends’ of a river, a lake, a sea, an ocean… and make a physical (and emotional) connection in this way... By late 2019, after my fieldwork in Malawi where I'd undertaken numerous physical water engagements, I had resolved to come up with such a project in spring/summer 2020- a way for me to take my research into new places and forms outwith my doctorate…
And then Covid-19 came. I spent so much of my time on my own, inside- both my home, and my head. My cycles were limited to nearby where I lived in the city. My water engagements were significantly limited, and I didn’t get to the sea for months. But, by summer I was able to get out more (I cycled to the coast on summer solstice in June)- and all these ideas came rushing back to me. And it occurred to me in a world of physical distancing, all of this took on a new level of significance. I’d already read about the Icelandic Forest Service having recommend people to hug trees as a means to overcome isolation during the pandemic lockdown- could water be thought of, and engaged with, in similar ways?...
In August 2020 I started recording some connections with friends and family, near and far, through water engagements- from which I created the following audio visual montages to represent those experiences. While they were initially conceived as a way of representing human and non-human relationships, and breaking down preconceived notions of our 'separateness' from 'nature' (in this case, water), they have taken on another layer of significance during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 (and beyond). They become a means of maintaining and representing a level of social and physical connection with people at a time in which I had been unable to do this through more conventional means.
I have given each engagement a short introduction and some context. This is very much a work in progress, to which I will keep adding to over time. Thank-you to all my collaborators- those of you whom I have connected with in this way. And, of course, my main collaborator and conduit for all of these- the water itself...
Some quotes to 'hold in tension' when thinking/feeling about water, knowing, and our engagement within it:
"The body is our general medium for having a world" (Merleau-Ponty, 1945) yet “no body can ever fully know water” (Neimanis, 2017). And while "to understand water is to understand the cosmos" (Emoto, 2004) this seems to counter D.H. Lawrence's poetic view that “Water is H2O, Hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, But there is also a third thing, that makes water, And nobody knows what that is.” (from Deakin, 1999).
Tayport, Fife, Scotland - North Sea - near Gothenburg, Sweden
This was the first attempt at this project- while I was on a visit to Fife on Scotland's east coast. Mutually experiencing a similarly sunny evening across the North Sea, a friend and I both cycled some distance to our respective waters, and made our connection at the same moment between the Fife village of Tayport, and the coast near the southern Swedish city of Gothenburg. It worked beautifully in a memorable moment as I had hoped. Here the montage contains pictures I took, and some sent to me at the time across the sea. Like the ebb and flow of water these shift back and forth between the locations. I also entangle the images with some sounds of water from each place.
Glasgow, Scotland - River Clyde - Culzean, south-west Scotland
This engagement was much closer to home for me- and which I pedalled just a few minutes to a spot on the River Clyde nearby my home in the city of Glasgow. Meantime my wee nephew was some distance down the Scottish coast to where the river flows to the Irish Sea, and cycling with his dad. And, here we were able to make that physical connection through water from afar- and where he demonstrated some full on immersive embodied engagement with the sea. Brilliantly with both feet, and hands, into the water (though I also had to get my feet wet a bit too)... The sound recording is solely from my time at the Clyde- and though it felt relatively quiet at the time, it still mostly picks up on that banal and unrelenting sound of the city. The dull constant rumble of nearby car traffic.
Glasgow, Scotland - River Kelvin - Mallorca, Spain
For this engagement I had intended to cycle from my home in Glasgow to the coast, about 50km away, to connect with a friend in the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca. But unrelenting rain stalled my progress- and I ended up camped out under the outdoor shelter of a city cafe. But herein is the beauty of water, and this project- all I needed to do was find a natural water course which would make its way to the sea, and let it undertake the journey for me. So I found a spot I could access the River Kelvin in the nearby Kelvingrove park- and from there we made our water connection from afar. I managed to make a recording of the nearby Glasgow University's clock tower striking 2 in the afternoon. The combination of echoing church/ city clock bells with flowing water is a favourite audio entanglement- and I regularly seek this out in other places.
Port Logan, south-west Scotland - Irish Sea - Isle of Arran, Scotland
The Rhins of Galloway are a distinctive double headed peninsula at the very south-west of the Scottish mainland- indeed the southern most point of Scotland. I've been coming to this area, and in particular the village of Portpatrick since my earliest days, spending many nights in a caravan with my family. Visiting for a few days with my mum, who still owns a caravan on the same site we have always stayed at, I cycled to the village of Port Logan to engage though water with a friend also cycling- but on the Isle of Arran along the coastline to the north (a place I engaged with water often during 2019). Coinciding our pedals we reached our respective waters, and then each other though touching the sea at the same moment. Once again I intertwine sound recordings from each location to align with the images of place. Shortly after our water engagement my mum arrived at the beach by car, and with her Cara the dog. Cara would become involved in my next water connection- her breed, a Labrador, being a very appropriate spatial connection to that place...
Port Logan, south-west Scotland - Atlantic - Ontario, Canada
While at Port Logan having only really intended to make the connection to Arran that day I received a text message from a friend whom we had tentatively talked about trying to set up a water connection- but without any definitive plans. She was, at that moment, visiting a lake nearby to her home- would there by a chance to connect at that time?... This seemed almost the definition of serendipity to me considering I was by the sea! This would be the furthest connection I had made- both by distance and in time difference- all the way to Ontario, Canada. With Cara, the Labrador (linked to the Labrador region on the east coast of Canada, their breed used as working retrievers in the practice of water-fowling) to help me, we were able to make this impromptu connection across thousands of kilometres across the Irish Sea, over the Atlantic Ocean, and through the waterways that connected to that lake in Ontario...
Technically I also try something new here, intertwining three sound recordings (rather than two) matching the images of places I represent. First in Port Logan, then from the lake my friend is at in Ontario, and then later after I have cycled back to the nearby village of Portpatrick where I was staying. As the final images from Portpatrick depict, it is a weekend of a majestically clear full moon. It, of course the heavenly body both physically and symbolically deeply interlinked with water and the sea- controlling the tides and setting our conceptions of time. Furthermore, I have been thinking more of these engagements, particularly those at the sea, in terms of this ebb and flow of the tides and its carrying of a to and fro 'conversation' between me and the other person I am engaging with. It has made me think of the call and response, or question and answer, format of traditional Scottish music. Words sung, then responded to; and then again. It feels the water, and the connections I am making, are something of that...
Portpatrick, south-west Scotland - Irish Sea - Dunoon, Scotland
During a week of some beautiful late summer sunshine, I took some time to revisit the coastal village of Portpatrick in south-west Scotland with my bike. Having spent many weekends with my family in the area during my youth, it was a chance to visit some of those locations that were in my memory, and also discover some new ones. This is a beauty of cycling, being able to freely discover new routes and places- even in parts of the world you felt you were familiar with. At the harbour shore I would connect with a friend in the town of Dunoon on Scotland's west coast, out for a walk along the coast near to where she lives. The images and sounds describe a more 'excitable' sea at Dunoon than the benign water I was experiencing in the calm conditions, and harbour's shelter, at Portpatrick. Both touching the water at the same moment, and exchanging pictures, videos and sounds, we were able to both describe the water's conditions, but also express our feelings after a long summer of Covid-19 restrictions. Perhaps I would soon be able to cycle to Dunoon and visit her if the situation allowed, and see for myself the water she was engaging with?... Herein undertaking this water engagement perhaps an opportunity to have a physical meeting in the future, rekindling past friendships and relationships.