« Glaciation | 首页 | The Mirror, the Target »

The Call of the Water

I move my arm towards the shower, place my hand on the knob, turn it slowly, rotating to the left.

I've just woken up, my eyes are still full of sleep, but I am perfectly aware that this gesture I'm performing to start my day is a decisive and solemn act, one that puts me in touch with both culture and nature together, with thousands of years of human civilization and with the birth pains of those geological eras that gave our planet its shape. What I expect most from the shower is that it confirm my mastery over water, my membership of that part of humanity which thanks to the efforts of previous generations has inherited the prerogative to summon water to itself with the simple turning of a tap, my privileged state of living in a century and a place where one may enjoy the most generous abundance of clean water whenever one likes. And I know that in order for this miracle to be renewed every day a series of complex conditions have to be met, so that turning on a tap can never be a distracted, automatic gesture, but requires concentration, mental participation.

There! In response to my summons the water climbs the piping, surges in the siphons, raises and lowers the ballcocks that control the flow into the cisterns, as soon as a pressure-change attracts it it rushes there, sends out its message along connecting pipes, spreads out across a network of collectors, drains and refill tanks, presses against reservoir dams, runs out from purifiers, advances along the entire front of the pipelines that bring it towards the city, having collected and stored it in one phase of its endless cycle, perhaps trickling from glacier mouths into rocky streams, perhaps pumped up from subterranean strata, draining down through veins in the rock, absorbed by cracks in the soil, fallen from the sky in a thick curtain of snow rain hail.

While my right hand adjusts the mixer, I stretch out my left and cup it to toss the first splashes on my eyes and wake myself up properly, and as I do so I sense far far away the thin, cold, transparent waves flowing towards me along miles and miles of aqueduct across plains valleys mountains, hear the water nymphs from the wellsprings coming towards me along their liquid ways, any moment they'll be folding me in their threadlike caresses under the shower here.

But before a drop appears at each hole in the shower head to lengthen in a still uncertain dribble then suddenly swell all together in concentric circles of vibrant jets, I have to wait a whole second, a second of uncertainty during which there's no way of knowing whether the world still contains any water, whether it hasn't become a dry, dust-covered planet like the other celestial bodies in our vicinity, or in any event whether it contains enough water for me to be able to take it in the hollow of my hands, far as I am from any reservoir or spring, in the heart of this fortress of asphalt and cement.

Last summer there was a big drought in Northern Europe, pictures on the TV showed wastes of fields reduced to a cracked and arid crust, once prosperous rivers shyly revealing their dry beds, cattle nuzzling in the mud to get some relief from the heat, queues of people with jugs and jars by a meagre fountain. It occurs to me that the abundance I have been wallowing in until today is precarious and illusory, water could once again become a scarce resource, hard to distribute, the water carrier with his little barrel slung over his shoulder raising his cry to the windows to call the thirsty down to buy a glass of his precious merchandise.

If I almost succumbed a moment ago to a sense of titanic pride as I took hold of the command levers of the shower, it's taken less than a second to have me thinking how unjustified and fatuous my illusion of omnipotence was, and it's with trepidation and humility that I now watch for the arrival of the gush announced by a subdued quivering higher up the tube. But what if it were just an air bubble passing through the empty pipes? I think of the Sahara inexorably advancing a few inches every year, I see the lush mirage of an oasis trembling in the haze, I think of the arid plains of Persia drained by underground channels towards cities with blue majolica domes, crossed by nomad caravans that set out each year from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, camping under black tents where, crouched on the ground, a woman holds her gaudy veil with her teeth as she pours water for the tea from a leather bag.

I raise my face towards the shower waiting out that second before the spurts rain down on my half-closed lids to liberate sleepy eyes that are now exploring the chrome-plated shower-head peppered with little holes rimmed by calcium, and all at once I see it as a lunar landscape riddled with calcareous craters, no, it's the deserts of Iran I'm seeing from the air, dotted with small white craters all in rows at even intervals, showing the route the water follows along conduits three thousand years old: the qanat that run underground for fifty yards at a time, communicating with the surface via these wells where a man can climb down securing himself to a rope to carry out maintenance work. I too project myself into one of those dark craters, in an upside-down world I drop into the showerhead holes as though into the qanat wells towards the water running there invisibly with a muffled hiss.

A fraction of a second is all it takes for me to rediscover the notion of up and down: it's from above that the water is about to reach me, after a jerky uphill journey. In thirsty civilizations artificial watercourses run below or along the ground, much as in nature itself, while the great luxury of civilizations lavish with the vital lymph has been that of having water overcome the force of gravity, having it rise up to then fall down again; hence the profusion of fountains with plays and sprays of water, the tall pillars of overhead aqueducts. The imposing masonry of Roman arches supports the lightness of a torrent suspended up above; it's an idea that expresses a sublime paradox: the most solidly, lastingly monumental at the service of the fluid and transitory, the elusive and diaphanous.

I listen hard to the network of waterflows suspended above and around me, to the vibration spreading through a forest of pipes. Above I sense the sky of the Roman Campagna crossed by conduits perched on gently descending arches, and higher up still by clouds that vie with the aqueducts to draw up immense quantities of running water.

The point of arrival for an aqueduct is always the city, the great sponge made for absorbing and spraying, Nineveh and its gardens, Rome and its baths. A transparent city never ceases to flow within the compact thickness of stones and cement, a fine filigree of water swathes the walls and streets. Superficial metaphors define the city as an agglomerate of stone, many-sided diamond or sooty coal, but every metropolis can also be seen as a grand liquid structure, a space defined by vertical and horizontal lines of water, a stratification of locations subject to tides and floods and undertow, where the human race realizes an ideal of amphibian life that satisfies its deepest vocation.

Or perhaps it is water's deepest vocation that is realized in the city: climbing, gushing, flowing upwards. It's in their height that cities find their identity: Manhattan raising up its watertanks on top of skyscrapers, Toledo which for centuries had to draw off barrel after barrel from the Tagus way below and plod them uphill on muleback, until for the delight of the melancholy Philip II el artificio de Juanelo lurched into creaking motion and, miracle of brief duration, brought the contents of its swinging buckets up the cliff to the Alcazar.

Here I am then ready to welcome the water not as something naturally due to me but as a lovers' tryst, an encounter whose freedom and felicity are proportional to the obstacles it has had to overcome. To live in complete intimacy with water the Romans placed the baths at the centre of their public life; today this intimacy is the heart of our private life, here under this shower whose streams I have so often seen running down your skin, naiad nereid undine, thus I see you once again appearing and disappearing as the jets fan out, now that the water comes gushing in swift obedience to my call.