on Water, a multi-genre collection edited by John Knechtel (MIT Press, Alphabet City)

In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino tells of the abandoned city of Armilla. “The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no floors,” he writes. “It has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be.” But the city isn’t uninhabited: young women appear, “luxuriating in the bathtubs or arching their backs under the showers suspended in the void.” Calvino suggests that Armilla was built to “win the favor of the nymphs, offended at the misuse of the waters.”

waterbottlesstacked.jpgEqually insulted, John Knechtel notes that “all cities foul their water … Our urban water systems were built to prevent cholera and other water-borne scourges, but their unintended legacy has been the long-term degradation of our cities’ water ecology.” Knechtel lives in Toronto, a water city: “The scale of what I can see gives me the measure of what I cannot: the invisible depths, the topography of the lakebed, and the wet shadow of groundwater below that. Invisible as well are the ancient aquifers running beneath the city.”

watercover.jpgKnechtel’s new book Water may be inspired by ecological activism, but it’s no dull polemic. (The book was printed using waterless print technology on 100 per cent post-consumer fiber.) Blending philosophy, science, photography, architecture, urban planning, music, advertising, poetry, journalism and memoir, Water takes a creative and inclusive look at its topic in an unconventionally designed volume.

“Cosmology is the study of the world in its totality, and the Ocean is a venerable cosmological metaphor,” writes Timothy Stock in “The Waters of Metaphysics.” “For the creatures of the sea the chemical composition of the ocean is ideal, whereas for others, like us, it is hazardous and even fatal to drink. The oceanic paradox teaches us that purity is relative, at least at the species level, and that ‘pure water’ would be an ecological curse.”

waterbottlemass.jpgUnderlying the project is the vision of water superseding oil as the world’s most coveted and fought for commodity. Capturing water isn’t always a state venture. Each year Niagara Falls draws twenty million visitors who take millions more photo-images of the tumble. Meredith Carruthers and Susannah Wesley here offer “Watching Water,” an homage to the German-born artist Godfrey Frankenstein (1820-1873) who obsessively painted the falls from every angle, in every season. They’ve crafted photo-collages from images gathered on Flickr, Facebook and other photo-sharing sources.

There are twenty contributions here in all, from Christie Pearson’s fine piece on public baths, to Robert Kirkbride’s cautionary tale on the laying of pipelines, and from Nina-Marie Lister’s photo-and-prose essay on cities situated beside water bodies, to Bhawani Venkataraman’s “The Price of Clean Water.” If you can read music, you may enjoy Melissa Grey’s score for “Psychodrama: 13 Variations for Eleven Instruments, Tape, and Video," featuring a female figure in a shower, at a slant from Hitchcock.

waterbillboard.jpgA few years ago I clipped an article about the discovery of an ancient river found beneath Knechtel’s city of Toronto. First, a cap blew off an artesian well. While a crew repaired it, the top blew off another. Hydrogeologists bubbled with news: the Laurentian River, in a soaking bedrock valley of debris, had exposed itself at last. They determined that it’s drinkable, with a ferrous tang. But water isn’t its fine excess. The rumor of discovery is. This is the pleasure of Knechtel’s Water: discovering how much we have to learn about water. As David Orr wrote in Reflections on Water and Oil, “The wise use of water is quite possibly the truest indicator of human intelligence, measurable by what we are smart enough to keep out of it, including oil, soil, toxics, and old tires.”

[Published October 1, 2009. 320 pages, 200 b&w and color illustrations, 4 3/4”x 6 ¼” trim. $15.95 hardcover]

Re: On Water

That sounds like quite the book, as well as quite the kind of review that makes a fellow want to go out and get it to read. Thank you. On the subject of water, I was trying a minute ago to work out if water is another heterotopia of the type that Derrida wrote about briefly somewhere long ago. Whether it has got location and not a point, or the other way around. I confess that I got a bit lost. We notice that water is managed to the degree that its managers have any foresight, along with some rudiments of geography, but thanks to its steady mismanagement, water is now a very marketable commodity with a big price on it. Well, we've had the planet on High for too long. Woe. And woe too is the absence of water, a chief reason for migration, which is a different fuel when the winds gather force and howl, and desertification forces people from their lands. Do without water for a couple of days, you find yourself walking toward the idea of water, and it doesn't matter a damn where it is.