Water: a love hate relationship

Water fountain

I like the playfulness of water – this photo above is one of two Fontaines de la Concorde in Paris that depict French maritime history and commerce. Water when directed by a fountain or sculpture can fall and spirt out in all sorts of unexpected directions. Outside the Pompidou centre in Paris there were some brightly coloured water sculptures ten years ago and I saw a dog run into the fountain and chase the rotating spout of water. There is something so free in animals or kids interacting with water and it really comes into its own in summer. I remember one extremely hot day when I was living in a share house, we all went outside and took it in turns to lay down on the boiling concrete driveway and someone would pour a bucket of cold water down the length of our body – cooling but bracing, and it made us laugh.

Water can be gentle too, and soothing. At the National Gallery of Victoria, there is a water wall one the front face of the gallery, where water falls continuously down a large glass pain. I read recently about someone for whom it’s a tradition to touch their hand through the water to the pain of glass each time they visit the gallery. Sometimes the tactile experience of water is so magnetic that you can’t help but want to put your hand in it. Of course there are all sorts of reputedly healing or holy waters all around the world, from Bath, England, where people used to go to drink the waters, to the holy waters of the Ganges in India, even to the mystical search for a fountain of youth.

I learnt to swim in a salty envigorating ocean pool, where the tide would send waves crashing over the poolside when it was high. I learnt early on that water had a dangerous streak: tidal rips that could pull you out to sea unsuspecting, enormous waves that could send you tumbling and plant your head in the sandy sea bed with enough force to injure you. Swimming in the coastal waters off Coolangatta, Queensland one time I felt something slap my leg with great force. I never saw what it was, but for the next hour or so my entire leg went numb and I had trouble walking. I still wonder what denizen of the deep slammed against me. There is a great beautiful world of coral and tropical fish dwelling under the sea, but also the seas’ predators large and small: sharks, crocodiles, alligators, box jellyfish, blue ringed octopus and no doubt many others. Apart from what lurks beneath, the world has seen the devastation of tsunamis in recent years and knows how quickly water can rise and destroy. Floods all over the world also damage more slowly – once many materials are touched by water, they are never the same again – soggy and mouldy and water can breed disease and encourage insect activity.

But water is closer to home yet – our very bodies are made up of a large percentage of water and without water we thirst and eventually die. Water is sustaining and clean water enables us not just to survive, but to cook and clean ourselves and our animals and the things we use. Since the droughts we’ve experienced in Australia, even in the cities, the site of someone cleaning their car in their driveway became rare for a while – but there is nothing more stunning than seeing a shining new car emerge from the shell of a dirt-smeared vehicle after the application of soap and water.

So, on the whole, although I’m wary of her moods and deep secrets, I think I’ll say I love water: in her gentle, moods she calms us, in her playful moods she amuses us and through her nurture she sustains us. It all just makes me want to go and bathe again in a rock pool in Kakadu, but unfortunately I have to go to work instead, so I’ll have to take the portable kind of water. She’s a constant companion.

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