top of page

Thinking (with) water

Written by Prof. Claudia Egerer, co-author of Water Lore: Practice, Place and Poetics.

"Exceeding definition and measurement, [w]ater is H₂O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing, that makes it water and nobody knows what it is."

DH Lawrence (6710) [1]

Franz Josef Island © Peter Sobolev.

Aquatic entanglements

A glacier shifts quietly into the Arctic Ocean. A storm rages in the South Pacific. An endless sea of microplastics drifts silently between the two – and the global thermometer ticks steadily, relentlessly, towards the tipping point. We know about humanity’s role in this accelerating harm to life on our planet. But what is the role of story-telling in this mass of silent destruction? What do creative narratives about water tell us that we don’t already know? They tell us another story, a story that predates both language and writing, one that is not bound by the empirical and quantitative analysis of scientific inquiry. It is a story that links water and human and narrative in innumerable ways, and therein lies hope. We know that civilizations arise near water, just as literature tends to arise in settlements near water. With my focus on water and its link to the stories we tell, especially in times of climate change, nay, climate crisis, let us start with the observation that water and stories constitute basic needs – we cannot live without stories just as we cannot live without water. Storytelling is as old as humanity. Every experience, every encounter, every event, is immediately turned into story as we make sense of the world through narrative. Stories create relations which in turn create meaning. The flow of water, in its eternal cycle, is another connective, meaning-making element and, just as water cleanses, stories provide catharsis. Water is not only the source of all life, it is also the spring of imagination, dreams and rituals, and has been, as I noted elsewhere, [2] an inherent part of culture, imbuing art and literature with a plethora of meanings as far back as the Gilgamesh and Homer's wine dark sea. We think with and through stories, and as water has a powerful hold on the cultural imaginary, we might say that water is an inherent part of our thought processes, not least through the multitude of tropes it gives rise to.

Aquatic affinities

The sea is in my blood, literally, for as Rachel Carson notes,

“each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water”

(The Sea Around Us 13) [3].

I have lived by the sea all my life so it is little wonder it has shaped my sensitivities, nor that it has found its way into my research. For some time now I have immersed myself in the environmental humanities, tracing the intricate interrelations between human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, with water as the great connective. The North Sea, Skagerrak to be precise, is the sea where I spent my youth and the photograph is of that secret place only to be reached by boat.

Island of Tjörn. © Claudia Egerer.

This is the spot where many of my projects took shape and to this day, I write with the sea just outside my window, trying to grasp something at the edge of vision, something Virginia Woolf referred to as a fish that “swayed … hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds” (A Room of One’s Own 7) [4]. Our basic understanding of embodiedness as aquatic, linking human and nonhuman bodies of all kinds of shapes, is what we have in common, but I arrived from a different route, via the stories we call literature, shaping my understanding as I read on. So, for me, from the very beginning, stories and water, bodies of water, have been entangled in more ways than I can count, and they influence each other in a multitude of ways. Stories, we know, can be told in different ways, and stories, like bodies of water, are difficult to contain, even in print, especially in print, they live their own lives, escaping the confinement of language into a realm that exists as much in image as in verbal expression – hence my focus on thinking water, imaginings of water, tracing how stories understand water. River stories, from source to sea and the other way round, seem to reveal that there really is no beginning, so, like water springs, stories are not autochthonous but migrant, peregrine, seeping out of and into other bodies of text in more knotty ways than terms like intertextuality can embrace. Hence what follows is not a fully-fledged essay but a collection of thoughts – memorable personal moments interspersed with academic inquiry – about thinking (with) water. Next a few thoughts about a memorable visit to Askö Marine Laboratory with a group of doctoral students, intent on thinking (with) water.

Environmental Humanities Doctoral School at Askö Marine Laboratory. © Claudia Egerer.

We know that fiction, especially climate fiction, cli-fi, has the ability to sensitize us to the hazards of climate change, but does it trigger these perceptions into comprehension, and action, instead of merely adding to our feelings of anxiety and impotence? Is fiction capable of translating the phenomenon of climate change, and its immense sea of data, into the microcosm of human experience? We are faced with the intricate yet vexed relationship between the entanglements of water and stories with human and nonhuman concerns as they take on new urgency in times of climate change, when despite the fact that scientific evidence is gaining more momentum every day, we seem to be oddly incapable of taking in the scope of what is at stake – life as we know it. We were convinced that the answer to the climate crisis is to be found in the humanities, in the human, to be precise, not in technology as so many argue. This is not to discard the possibility of technological solutions but maintain that the large-scale environmental problems facing us are never only of a technological nature; they are entwined in a complex weave made up of matters of knowledge, value, progress and development, power and responsibility, public welfare and, not least, questions of human identity. We decided to explore these issues at Stockholm University’s field station Askö Marine Laboratory, an island and nature reserve in the Trosa archipelago, and part of the network European Marine Biological Resource Centre (EMBRC). At the end of May, 2019, we took the PhD students enrolled in our Human Footprints course to Askö where we spent three days living and eating together, immersed in questions of water and deep time. Literally immersed as most of us started the day with a swim in the cool clear sea; academically immersed through David Farrier and Michelle Bastian’s talks.

Photo of Farrier and Bastian boarding Elektra of Askö. © Claudia Egerer.

Drawing on connections between deep time, water and stories, Farrier reminded us to also think of deep time as deep future, and the anthropogenic damage lasting for an unforeseeable time through the persistence of what Michelle Bastian and Thom Van Dooren termed the “new immortals” – microplastics, radioactive waste, to name a few [7]. Drawing on poetry by Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney, Farrier left us with a powerful impression of poetry’s capability to put “multiple temporalities and scales within a single frame,” thickening our lived presence with the “awareness of other times and places” [9].

What emerged in these lectures and talks is the tentative formulation of a philosophy where the human-centred ethics we have lived by for centuries makes room for an ethics that is sensitive to the nonhuman in a variety of ways, and in which water plays a pivotal role as connective. Microplastics may litter the sea, visible in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and on our shores, but also enter into any and every organism on this planet. The three days on Askö left us with much food for thought and started a process of how we, as individuals, can combat pollution of marine environments. So far, the sea has been at the centre of our inquiry but now we find affinities with rivers, first the great  Whanganui River in New Zealand, which we learn to call Aotearoa.

Ko au te awa, ko te awa, ko au – I am the river and the river is me

We think with others and learn with and from each other, and I would like to take you back to a moment in 2018, May 24 to be precise, to an instant that brought home to me just how important the thinking-with is. The “Deep Time and Deep Water – Water as a Being” workshop, organized at Stockholm University by Karin Dirke, Christina Fredengren and me, shifted the focus from speakers to speakers’-relation-with-water, which changed everything. Let me quote the words that brought this about in full, spoken by Earth systems scientist Daniel Hikuroa from the University of Auckland:

"Ka tika te mahi tuatahi he mihi ki ngā tangata whenua o tēnei rohe, no reira ngā mihi mai Aotearoa ki ngā tangata Sami.

In my culture it is correct to acknowledge and greet the indigenous people of the place you are visiting, therefore, greetings to the Sami people from New Zealand.

Ngā mihi mai toku maunga tapu ki to mātou maunga tapu, ngā mihi mai toku puna tapu ki to mātou puna tapu, ngā mihi mai mātou moana ki to koutou moana.

My sacred mountains greet your sacred mountains, my sacred springs greet your sacred springs, our oceans greet your oceans, by the mingling of our ocean waters we are connected.

Tuarua, nga mihi ki a Claudia, koutou ma, mai te Whare Wananga o Stockholm, mo to rangatiratanga i puta mai to mātou Environmental Humanities programme, me tēnei Wānanga ko Deep Time, Deep Waters. Ka rawe.

Secondly, I greet and acknowledge Claudia and others at Stockholm University for the leadership shown in launching your Environmental Humanities programme and holding this workshop on Deep Time and Deep Water. Awesome.

Kati, he mihi whakamutunga ki a koe Claudia, mo to tono, ki te tautoko tenei kaupapa tino whakahirahira ki a tātou ka haere mai i tenei ra, ara ki nga tangata katoa o te ao – he wai.

My final acknowledgement is to you Claudia, for your kind invitation that enabled me to attend and support this issue of most paramount importance to us gathered here today, and to everyone on this planet – water."

Effortlessly Hikuroa’s brief prelude shifts the balance from people separated from the rest of the living to people part of everything human and nonhuman, not speakers separated by country and language but speakers connected by their relations to water. This moment not only changed the tonality of the workshop but left a deep impact on our thinking, our thinking water inevitably proved to be a thinking with water. His talk, “Te Mana o te Wai – The Charisma of Water” took us on a journey through deep time and deep water experienced through Māori cosmology and the ways in which it had seeped into New Zealand culture [6].

We learned that -

The whakapapa ontology lies at the very core of Māori thinking, knowledge, identity and practice. Within this framing, water is an ancient kin, a revered elder, within this framing waterways can be ancestors.

And in this spirit of understanding water as “an ancient kin” my collection of memorable personal moments offers glimpses of my thinking (with) water projects, continuing with the two novels that trace the solace offered by walks upstream and downstream of rivers, the granting of legal rights to the Whanganui River, to close on a very personal memory where first love and the sea come together in an unexpected way, Caledonian Peregrinations.

Riparian narratives: Paper rivers

Invoking the mood of “ancient kin,” let’s take a look at two women’s personal relationships with rivers, their love of water shaping their narratives. First there is Olivia Laing’s riparian biography-cum-nature story, To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (2011) [7], following the river Ouse from source to sea, with Virginia Woolf as a spectral companion. My reading of Laing’s text is partnered by Katharine Norbury’s memoir-on-the-move The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream (2015) [8], yet another kind of solvitur ambulando – combatting stasis with the belief that like, rivers, “life couldn’t and shouldn’t stand still” (The Fish Ladder 6). What interests me in these narratives are their aquatic sensibilities, the ways in which water permeates their very core, and how the writers not only think about but with the river, inviting us to share their journeys in an aquatic stream-of-consciousness, meandering forth in a mode of solitude and contemplation.

Olivia Laing’s To the River had me hooked on its first phrase,

“I am haunted by waters”

qtd. in To the River

an aquaphile recognizing a kindred spirit [3]. I read it in one go, taking delight in its exploration of the Ouse from source to sea as much as in the literary ghosts that peopled its pages, headed by Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in that river in March 1941. I was enchanted by the sheer poetry of its language, river water “the milky green of sea glass, full of little shafts of imprisoned light” [4]. The recognition of our shared conviction that the “river was the bearer of secrets” and “the pleasure of abandoning myself to something vastly beyond my control” struck a note [4]. Laing observes that “humans by necessity must once, like all animals, have been attuned to the dark frequency by which water travels” and that despite the white noise of mobile phones, she often finds herself “drawn by chance or instinct to a pool or stream” she had had no idea existed [21]. By the same token, poetic souls seem to possess a knowledge that isn’t available in its entirety by university education, even though those barred from it feel deprived; outsiders. Virginia Woolf notes this gap: “Insiders write a colourless English. They are turned out by the University machine. I respect them …They do a great service like Roman roads. But they avoid the forests & the will o the wisps” [qtd. in To the River 64].

Laing dreams of “rivers [she] knew only from books turning like snakes through their shifting terrains,” Alph in Kubla Khan, Conrad’s Congo, Huck Finn’s Mississippi – “no more than paper rivers” [56]. Still, Laing feels “almost drunk upon them, for they were the true source of [her] own obsessive hydrophilia” [56]. Virginia Woolf’s presence in Laing’s mind and her book about walking a river reveals her insights into a fellow writer’s affinity with water:

Water, in Woolf’s personal lexicon, represented a way of slipping the superficial self – the self who played bowls, or minded when a hat was criticized – and ducking down into a deeper, nameless realm [194].

But more than that, Laing recognizes that water seeps into Woolf’s style, noting that when she “writes about writing, which is often, the images she employs are liquid” [194]. And it is this ubiquity of watery images that connects the two writers, where Laing sees a “mackerel sky” and describes the Brooks as a land “so flat and intermarried with water” [196, 197].

Stories and rivers flow together, words mingling with water, writers decades apart come together, which also characterizes Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder (2015). Her story is a captivating mix of genres, travelogue and memoir interspersed with Celtic mythology in which storytelling and walking flow together with the waters of the rivers. It opens with the phrase that the “theme for the summer is following watercourses from the sea to the source” together with her nine-year-old daughter Evie. Norbury has just lost a child and needs to keep depression at bay, the loss of her baby exacerbating memories of her being abandoned by her birth mother to be adopted. Inspired by Neil M Gunn’s novel The Well at the World’s End (1951), Norbury embarks on the search for the spring of the Dunbeath Water in Scotland, walking a silver blue sea “striped like a mackerel” to where “the identity of the river was lost, or discovered” to begin her journey upstream [157, 158]. By chance she happens upon a beach with the installation Another Place of one hundred life-size metal men by Anthony Gormley, whose “rows disappeared into the grey water, neither waving nor drowning” [36], which brings to mind Stevie Smith’s hauntingly beautiful poem “Not Waving but Drowning” invoking the lethal effect of not looking closely enough [9]. Norbury notes the sculptures’ “resolution to remain between the sea and the land,” whereas she was determined to “turn [her] back on the sea, on what it might mean, to walk back on [herself]” [36]. We then learn about the poet Taliesin, born as just a boy but who through the machinations of a witch and a mishap tastes the brew and is turned into a wise person, with shape-shifting powers. Still, the witch gets hold of him, eats him who turns himself into a baby, who at birth is “tossed out to sea” where he is rescued by a fisherman who calls him Taliesin, Radiant Brow. This “special golden child” is the fount of “astonishing tales” told in a voice “as pure as water” [39]. His life at the court of King Arthur was pure magic, but as Norbury tells us, what matters for her story is that the life of Taliesin “began at the mouth of a river” [39]. Uncannily, on that beach, one she never had seen, Norbury is overtaken by an eerie sense of familiarity, “not just that [she] had been there before – but that [she] had been born there” [40]. It turns out she was born there, saved by the nun Marie Therese who also named her.

When she at last, after a number of false starts, finds the well, it is just like the words on the page that set her on her journey: “a well whose water is so clear it is invisible” [281; italics in original]. Norbury scoops up a cup of water:

‘You go first,’ she said.

‘No, you’re my daughter.’

Evie drank off half the water in the cup, and then I finished it. We drank with speed as though we had run a race. It was sweet. Like swallowing light. [281]

Despite the ominous overtones of personal loss, climate change and long dead authors, these two novels could be described with Norbury’s words: reading them fills me with a taste of “swallowing light” and leaves me with hope.

Hope is also what characterises an action that seems to belong more to the category of Taliesin’s magic tale than to the modern world; the granting of rights of personhood to the Whanganui River.

Te Awa Tupoa: The Whanganui River and legal rights

Let me whet your appetite by a brief mention of the 2017 Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) where the New Zealand government granted the Whanganui River its own legal identity. Going back all the way to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and set in motion by the signing and celebration of Ruruku Whakatupua, the Whanganui River Deed of Settlement, taking place at Ranana on the Whanganui River Road on 5 August 2014, the Te awa Tupua brings us back to the close connections between river and Māori: Ko au te awa, ko te awa, ko au – I am the river and the river is me.

Some facts from the Whanganui District Council, Te kaunihera o Rohe o Whanganui: “In 2017 legislation giving effect to the Deed of Settlement was introduced as Parliament passed a historic bill to recognise the special relationship between the Whanganui River and Whanganui iwi. It also provided for the river’s long-term protection and restoration by making it a person in the eyes of the law… The move reflected Whanganui iwi’s unique ancestral relationship with the river. Iwi who lived along the river not only relied on it as an essential food source, but held with it a deep spiritual connection.” [10] But what does it mean to declare the river “a living and indivisible whole”? How should we approach and understand Aotearoa New Zealand’s decision to grant the Whanganui River human rights and how does this move affect our understanding of human-nonhuman relations? What does it do to our understanding of stewardship? What does it mean when a government decides that a river (but not all rivers) is to be seen as having the legal status of a person? For me, the most challenging, and promising, is the coming together of what would appear to be mutually exclusive philosophies – one based on ideas of human exceptionalism, the other on notions of kinship. Yet for scholars in the environmental humanities these notions of kinship, of being-with, of thinking-with, are by necessity replacing a paradigm that posits the difference, and superiority, of humans from all other organism.

By way of getting more insight into kinship-based thinking about the Whanganui, let me refer you to an essay by Anna M. Gade, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin–Madison. As a participant in the “Coming Together of Peoples Conference” sponsored by Indigenous Law at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the Spring of 2018, her contribution has resulted in the post “Managing the Rights of Nature for Te awa Tupua” published September 5, 2019 and updated October 12, 2019 [11]. I leave you to read and ponder her words as they describe the coming-together of peoples and the river with an insight and clarity that instills hope at a time when hope seems to be in short supply.

I opened my tale with the arctic ocean and would like to close on a sea closer in space and still closer to my heart, on what is now a memoir where love of the sea and love of the man forever are wedded.

Caledonian Peregrinations

On the Corran ferry, we leave the car, looking down the loch. Little wavelets move the surface, catching the rays of the sun, breaking them into rainbow-coloured prisms of light, and the land on both sides looks green and fertile. The air is fresh with a salty tang but already carries the promise of warmth. “These mountains you see to the right are extinct volcanoes: Ardgour, Morvern, Sunart,” he tells me. “I used to climb them as a kid. And look, you can see Glencoe, over there to the left.” I watch in silence, feasting my eyes on the multitude of greens and blues and russets and brown, and when I look at his profile, I think he looks like an eagle, wild and free and part of this seascape. Ah the sea, the sea. I know that my first glimpse of his home will stay with me and already has shaped my feelings for Scotland, my burgeoning love for its land- and seascapes. And its language. Ardnamurchan is where he grew up, but he tells me its Gaelic name is Aird nam mhór chuan, the point of the great sea, just as Morvern is A Mhorbhern, the sea gap, referring to the Sound of Mull. The eternal presence of the sea voiced in the Gaelic is a mere echo in the anglicisation of the spelling. Yet, still the sea is there, everywhere, shaping the land, our memories, as it does the shorelines.

At Inversanda the A861 climbs up through Glen Tarbert and again we are surrounded by breath-taking scenery. The flanks of the mountains are taking on their autumn flamboyance, one last fling of brilliance before winter will sheathe them in whiteness. We pass through Strontium, driving for miles without seeing another car and are both in an almost dreamlike state when a song on the radio has him singing along to music that is unknown yet instantly familiar. The male voice is strong, throaty, full of smoke and whisky and feeling. I think of Otis Redding, but learn it’s a Scottish singer, Frankie Miller. Soon the village of Salen finds us singing along to “The Doodle Song” at the top of our voices, lustily, and me very much off key. I know instantly that in all time to come his voice will take me back to this moment: the spectacular scenery, the purring of the car engine, the intense awareness of the man sitting next to me, close enough to touch, and the heady potion of unlimited freedom making my blood sing.

He calls me mo chridhe, his eyes the bright colour of the sea and for a fleeting moment I think of Heathcliff, less man than heath and cliff, more nonhuman than human. But the moment passes and I see a man filled with light, taking a contagious pleasure in being alive, being part of this beautiful place.

It is here and now, in love with the man and his sea, that I’m aware of our profound entanglements with the living and non-living, and begin to dream up stories that tell us something about human-nonhuman affinities and dependencies.

We were more than lovers, two of a kind, running hand in hand along the white sands through the machair into the sea. Like me, he was revelling in the cold water and swam like an otter, both exhilarated with the thrill of being alive, here, at his moment, together. The sea was our constant companion and as the days stretched out ahead of us, that autumn seemed endless, our closeness intoxicating. On Islay, he taught me to enjoy a malt so peaty, suffused with the salty tang of the sea, he said it tasted like licking the bottom of a boat. I thought, no, it has the taste of your kiss.

To this day, a swim in the sea, a dram of Islay malt and Frankie Miller’s voice take me back to these months of discovery, of myself, of intimacy, of the magic of sharing bodies and minds.


What I have engaged with here are narratives in which water is more than a resource at our disposal, in which water is characterised by a value beyond calculation, adding something that is lost in discourses concerned mainly with utility, with finding a technological solution to what is seen as a technological problem. These narratives suggest a change of perspective, invite us to see that it is a problem of the human, of the human understood as an individual both separate from, and in control of, the nonhuman environment which serves mainly as a backdrop to human needs and desires, a thinking that underpins much of traditional humanist thought. Increasingly, though, we turn to narratives that seek to formulate an alternative to this mode of understanding the human as separate from the rest of the living, reminding us of John Donne’s credo that “No man is an island,/Entire of itself,/Every man is a piece of the continent,/A part of the main” (first published 1624). Or, to turn to Deborah Bird Rose’s Reports from a Wild Country (2004), in which she, indebted to Aboriginal thinking, formulates a complex perception of time as inextricably linked with country and life in it [12]. Country, in Rose’s thinking, is a “multidimensional matrix of relationships” (Haraway 5) which “consists of people, animals, plants, Dreamings, underground, earth, soils, minerals, waters, surface water, and air” (Rose 153-54) [13]. Importantly, these interrelations that shape everything on our planet involve a new understanding of responsibility as “responsive attentiveness” that runs through the generations, responsibility to both ancestors and future generations.


[1] Lawrence, D.H. Delphi Complete Works of D.H. Lawrence. Illustrated. Delphi Classics 2013.

[2] Roulière, Camille and Claudia Egerer. ”Introduction: Flux and Change.” Water Lore: Practice, Place and Poetics. Edited by Camille Roulière and Claudia Egerer. Routledge, 2022. 1-9.

[3] Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. 1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.[4] Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. London: Grafton Books, 1990.

[5] Farrier, David. Anthropocene Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

[6] Hikuroa’s talk was later published in a revised form with co-author Billie Lythberg as “Te Mana o te Wai: relating to and through the charisma of water” in Water Lore: Practice, Place and Poetics. Edited by Camille Roulière and Claudia Egerer. Routledge, 2022. 109-123.

[7] Laing, Olivia. To the River: A Journey beneath the Surface. 2011. Edinburgh: Canongate: 2017.

[8] Norbury, Katharine. The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

[9] Smith, Stevie. Stevie Smith: A Selection. 1983. London: Faber and Faber, 1983. 128.



[12] Rose, Deborah Bird. Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2004.

[13] Haraway, Donna. ”Speculative Fabulations for Technoculture’s Generations: Taking Care of Unexpected Country.” Australian Humanities Review 50 (May 2011): 1-18.


bottom of page