Jila is a place of ‘living water’. It identifies fresh water that never dries up. Often unprepossessing, perhaps the water is secreted deep in a well that has been dug and maintained for generations, perhaps it is a spring that bubbles up quietly, or maybe the water forms a pool that remains after the flow of a river or creek has disappeared. Jila, the place of living water, commands respect and care; it gives life and thus is a source of life. Here on the driest inhabited continent on earth, knowledge of living water can truly make the difference between life and death. Living water is cherished; it is a blessing.
If water is living, can it also die? Is water caught up in precarity, is it vulnerable? Is water, like life, variable and diverse; in this time of ecological loss, is it threatened? The great Sydney artist Janet Laurence says ‘yes’ to these questions. Water, she wants us to understand, is fragile and complex, precious and threatened. This message was offered in her recent installation ‘H2O: Water Bar’, set up in the Paddington Reservoir. Janet’s stated aim was to bring people into appreciation of water’s variability, and to raise questions in their minds about its fragility.
In the 1860s the city of Sydney built an underground reservoir to augment its water supplies. Constructed of brick, timber, stonework and iron, the reservoir was superseded around the turn of the century. For decades it was used for storage, then part of it collapsed. Finally in 2006 part of it was redesigned as a sunken garden and part of it was preserved as an historic site; it is only open to the public on special occasions. We were there on a very hot evening. The reservoir was cool and elegant, and beautifully peaceful; the city seemed to evaporate. The arches woke up memories of Roman water construction. We breathed the moist, earthy garden air, and in spite of the solidity of the construction materials, we felt surprisingly buoyant.
The water bar, gleaming with glass and mirrors, was set up at one end of the enclosed area. There were shelves of vials, each containing a different water, and each carefully labelled both for origin and for trace elements and pH factor. Janet’s assistants, wearing lab coats and managing all the vials, beakers and shot glasses, offered us water and engaged us in conversation. We were invited to taste and compare, to bring our own bodily sensorium into encounter with water’s diversity and charms. I was particularly taken with spring water from Mt Warning (in NSW). This volcanic water contains fluoride, manganese, magnesium, calcium, zinc, cyanide, silica, sodium and copper and is pH 7.3. Its taste on my palate was lively, with a bit of zip (cyanide, perhaps?).
The best art works a kind of magic, bringing us to experience the world unexpectedly. Janet’s water bar, with its hints of alchemy and its commingling of quantification and qualitative experience, transformed a glass of water from everyday necessity to precious experience. Without having to say it, the water bar reminded us that all too often we take for granted this glorious, life-giving flow; we forget its individuality, its relationships with place, its flowing nature.
My friend Luke Fischer organised an evening of readings on ‘The Language of Water’ to coincide with one of the water tasting events at the H2O bar. The aim was to honour Janet’s work, and to bring words into the celebration of water’s liveliness. I was invited to speak, and I drew on my experiences over many years with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory in order to address this question: if water is living, does it have a voice and does it have a face?
The area where I lived in the Territory was in the catchment of the Wickham River, a tributary of the great Victoria River. This is monsoon country, where rivers flow episodically and the extreme aridity of the dry season is counter-balanced by the massive downpours of the wet season. Across the course of a single year the extremes are enormous. And of course there are larger fluctuations linked to the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole. Sun and Rain, dry season and wet season, each have their moment. Sometimes they balance each other well, but in many years the usual extremes became even more wild. This past wet season the monsoon failed and life became very tough. Heat and humidity were intense, and the blessed relief of rain was largely absent. When it came, though, it was caused by a cyclone, making sudden, localised floods that killed people. In other years, though, the rains go on and on, floodwaters rise everywhere, communities are evacuated, and it takes most of the dry season for the country to dry out enough to be able to travel off road even in four wheel drive.
The great seasonal forces are for Aboriginal people expressions of the power of on-going creation; they are part of the eco-cosmology. Wet season and Dry season: Rain and Sun. The great life-shaping powers wrestle back and forth, Rain and Sun, Sun and Rain: living beings have learned to live with extremes, from the desiccated aridity of the late dry to the swampy ground and rushing rivers of the wet. You could die of thirst, or you could drown, each possibility is totally real and almost every year a few people do actually die.
The North Australian monsoon region is its own thing, but it also needs to be said that Australia is its own thing! Water in Australia is governed ecologically by the reality that this continent is the ‘driest, flattest, most poorly drained, and in fact largely inward draining land on Earth’, according to Mary White. Most of it is arid; rain is wildly variable, as I’ve said, and global warming is almost certain to exacerbate the unpredictability of water. Here in Australia ‘normal’ is already a set of extremes, and it is hard to imagine what may be coming.
And still, water flows through everything.
It flows through you and me, through soils and trees and rocks, through all creaturely bodies and through its own ever-shifting pathways. And everywhere it goes it is connected with life. When the rain falls, living beings respond: plants and other creatures liven up and new generation are begun.
Aboriginal eco-cosmology is expressed in the medium of kinship, and conveys the underlying knowledge of connectivities. Across all the big players like Sun and Rain, across species and landforms, across seasons and generations, patterns of connectedness reproduce bonds of enduring solidarity. One big social division in the Victoria River area is based on the Sun/Rain dynamic. People are born into one or the other: either Sun, along with earth, ground, the dry season and associated animals; or Rain, along with light or dark rain and associated animals.
I was privileged to be incorporated into the kinship system, and the perspectives I know best involve my close kin: dark rain, along with the flying-foxes (Pteropus alecto) who hang upside down over the water.
Dark rains are fierce and erratic. They can come as thunderstorms, sometimes they come as cyclones. They descend on the land, they fill up the billabongs and move into the underground waterways and aquifers. They get the rivers flowing, often get them running bankers and flooding far out across the land. And then they go away, and sometimes they don’t come back for a very long time.
Sun and Rain wrestle it out, and where they meet and join, there you see a rainbow. Pattern and connection: out of difference comes something new and powerful. The Rainbow Snake is the great being associated with all water: all rains, all rivers, but most of all with every permanent spring and waterhole. The fact of permanence is living proof that something powerful is there. That ‘something’ is the Rainbow Snake. Furthermore, the Rainbow snake embodies the idea that water is both a powerful presence and an ethical subject. What I mean by saying that water is an ethical subject is that it is enmeshed in, and responsive to, calls for care and responsibility.
Aboriginal stories really draw this out. Let’s go back to those flying-foxes hanging down over the water. Late in the dry season, when country is becoming almost unbearably hot, they come to camp above permanent water. Why do they do this? It is pretty dangerous – one false move and you become dinner for the hungry crocs that patrol up and down beneath the pandanus trees. One reason is that they need the humidity to counter the heat stress they experience as the Wet season (summer) approaches.
Another reason is told through Aboriginal story: they are calling out to the Rainbow Snake, telling it to bring rain. The people who taught me said that they are ‘mates’ with the Rainbow, and their calling out is a central part of the relationship. There is a pattern that works like this: flying-foxes live by following the successive flowering of Eucalypts and Corymbias. The flowering starts in the higher country away from the river and works its way across the land until it reaches the river banks. Flying-foxes follow the flowers, and when they get to the river they have reached the last of the blossoms. It is late in the dry season and there will be no more flowers until the rains come and renew the country. So they call to their mate, the Rainbow, urging it to get up and get going, and bring the rain. Others join in: the frogs shout their crazy chorus, waterbirds come flocking in, cicadas are shrieking. It becomes very noisy, there is heteroglossia to the max, and most of the time the Rainbow Snake responds. Across this continent of heat, dust and fires, the rains do come.
Water, I am saying, has a face, using the term as developed by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In his studies of ethics, to have a face is to be an ethical subject. Ethics arrive as a passionate call for connection. The flying-foxes call to their mate the Rainbow, and the Rainbow responds. Those responses bring life. We ourselves are expressions of water. All the creatures who live because of water, from frogs to birds to turtles and flying foxes, to you and me, all of us bear witness to water’s gifts of life.
Earth has been a watery planet for 3.5 billion years, and in all this time the relationship between water and life has been symbiotic water sustains life, and life sustains water. And yet, the liveliness of water is not faring well. Eileen Crist writes vividly that ‘human beings have taken aim at the very qualities that define the living planet, dismantling, with an intent that seems paradoxically both blind and demonic, the diversity, complexity, and abundance of life on Earth.’
We are water creatures, all of us. Life evolved in salt water and stayed there until about 400 million years ago when plants and animals ventured on to land. Terrestrial mammals such as ourselves recapitulate this history, floating in our own little sea of amniotic fluid until being thrust out and required to breathe. We are 78% water as babies, and drop to 65% (give or take) as adults. Many plants are 90% water; other animals vary around 60%. Even in the driest places, where living things have become incredibly adept at living with minuscule amounts of water, the story is still the same: no water no life.
The voices of water are around and within us, and they are passionate. The appropriate response is to join in. To celebrate and protect water, to taste and treasure its diversity, to delight in and defend the creatures who call on water, to be awed by water’s power, and to cherish the connections: this is the work of life; this is the work that really matters.
© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016
A beautiful account of jila places can be found in the book by Pat Lowe and Jimmy Pike: Jilji: Life in the Great Sandy Desert, published by Magabala Books. I learned about the sacred qualities of living water in my work on Aboriginal claims to land throughout the Northern Territory; a great many of the sacred sites we visited were water sites.
A description of ‘H2O: Water Bar’, and a video of Janet talking about the work, is available online (visit here). I have written about her work in other essays, for example ‘Blood and Chlorophyll’. Jim Hatley has an absolute ripper of an essay online (visit here).
To learn more about the Indigenous knowledge of weather and seasons mentioned in this essay, see my article ‘Rhythms, Patterns, Connectivities’.
The quote from Mary White is taken from her book Running Down: Water in a Changing Land, published in 2000.
The quote from Eileen Crist is from her essay ’Intimations of Gaia’ in a book she has edited: Gaia in Turmoil, published by MIT Press in 2010. This book contains an excellent essay on water. Numerous websites offer facts and figures relating to water problems; a good start is with the WWF (visit here).