The Mystery and Might of Water
By Maria Popova
Rivers, like trees, are irrepressibly themselves and, in being so, more than themselves — sources and symbols of life, impartial witnesses imbued not merely with the elemental but with the existential. “There is a mystery about rivers that draws us to them, for they rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today,” Olivia Laing wrote in her stunning meditation on life, loss, and the meaning of rivers after she walked the River Ouse from source to sea.
Several decades earlier and several hundred miles north, the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893–February 23, 1981) — another woman of uncommon poetic insight and peripatetic determination — considered the mystery and might of water in her forgotten masterpiece The Living Mountain (public library).
Wading into the Wells of Dee — the pools at the spring of the River Dee in the Cairngorm Mountains, the highest source of any major river in Britain — Shepherd contemplates the enigmatic vigor of the element:
This is the river. Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.
Shepherd locates the mesmerism of rivers in their interplay of brutality and musicality:
The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower. One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking. But to a listening ear the sound disintegrates into many different notes — the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate. On one short stretch of burn the ear may distinguish a dozen different notes at once.
From the elemental, she wrests the existential:
The most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength. I fear it as my ancestors must have feared the natural forces that they worshipped. All the mysteries are in its movement. It slips out of holes in the earth like the ancient snake. I have seen its birth; and the more I gaze at that sure and unremitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled. We make it all so easy, any child in school can understand it — water rises in the hills, it flows and finds its own level, and man can’t live without it. But I don’t understand it. I cannot fathom its power.
The Living Mountain (public library), which also gave us Shepherd on the interconnectedness of nature and the ideal walking companion, is a sublime read in its slim totality. Complement this particular portion with how the number pi may plot the paths of rivers, then revisit Rachel Carson on protecting the elemental wealth of our Pale Blue Dot.
Published July 9, 2018