Wet and wild

In a recent experiment into green landscapes and their salutogenic (health giving) potential (led by colleague Jenny Roe), we presented people with a range of images of urban and green space — dry images deliberately selected without “blue space” (i.e. water).

Such is homo sapiens‘ powerful affinity with life-giving water, we thought its presence would overwhelm any other positive, health-inducing factors in the environment. After all, people pay a lot of money for real estate with water views.

Dartmoor fields December 2013. Flooded field, gate, stone wall, hills behind, black and white pictureIn an interesting book entitled Thinking with Water, Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod, and Astrida Neimanis indicate the prominence of watery images in people’s emotional landscapes. They identify the “sensual charisma” of rivers, ponds, rain, coasts and puddles. Water holds and transmits stories, identities and memories.

Water’s presence, absence and transformations also impinge on the political landscape. For example, they identify how climate change is “immediately tangible through the volatility of weather patterns and the intensity of floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, and droughts.” They think that at the “scale of acidifying oceans, changed currents, wetland encroachment, and desertification, we are also part of watery transformations.”

I’ve observed that even when contained, partitioned, standardised, purified, and turned into a measured and consistent medium with chemicals added and controlled temperature, water’s power as a medium for the emotions trickles through.

Stripped of many of water’s signifying dimensions, an olympic standard swimming pool evokes mixed emotions of triumph, fear, exertion, health, restoration, exhaustion, exposure, embarrassment and pleasure. Here are some images from the sensuously formed Olympic Aquatic Centre by Zaha Hadid, the icy depths of which were opened to the public last weekend.

Olympic Aquatic Centre, March 2014. Looking down from seating area to the swimming lanes with swimmers; seats look like cream coloured corpusclesOlympic Aquatic Centre, March 2014. Interior staircase with pool behind


The authors of Thinking with Water emphasise our dependence on watery metaphors. They argue eloquently that:

Many fundamental concepts and ideas would be unthinkable without a language of flow, circulation, and depth. In everyday speech, emotions ‘flood,’ ‘bubble up,’ and ‘surge’; a ‘dry’ text is one that lacks feeling and passion. We ‘freeze up’ with stage fright, join or diverge from ‘mainstream’ populations. Money ‘circulates’; commodities ‘flood’ the market. The past is a ‘depth’ and time ‘evaporates.’ Neither is the realm of theory immune to inspiration from the liquid world: aqueous dynamics of ‘flux’ and ‘flow’ characterize qualities of indeterminacy and continuous change within many contemporary epistemologies, while feminist concepts of ‘leakiness’ and ‘seepage’ have been mobilized to identify crucial porosities in bodies and theories alike.

This is thinking with water: “Just as water animates our bodies and economies, so it also permeates the ways we think.” No wonder it affects our responses to landscapes.

Olympic Aquatic Centre, March 2014. Exterior showing sweeping form of the roof; Orbital building in the background; kids and bikes in the foreground


  • Chen, Cecilia, Janine MacLeod, and Astrida Neimanis. 2013. Introduction: Toward a hydrological turn. In C. Chen, J. MacLeod, and A. Neimanis (eds.), Thinking with Water. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press. (available via Google Books, though without page numbers)
  • Roe, Jenny J., Peter A. Aspinall, Panagiotis Mavros, and Richard  Coyne. 2013. Engaging the brain: The impact of natural versus urban scenes using novel EEG methods in an experimental setting. Environmental Sciences, (1) 2, 93-104. http://www.m-hikari.com/es/es2013/es1-4-2013/roeES1-4-2013.pdf
  • Whyte, M., A. Smith, K. Humphryes, S. Pahl, D. Snelling, and M. Depledge. 2010. Blue space: The importance of water for preference, affect, and restorativeness ratings of natural and built scenes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, (30)482-493.


Salcombe in Devon during the winter floods, 2013. Sandbags in an entranceway


  1. Such an interesting post. Water is a very strong element in early memory myths and metaphors. It is the element that time flows in. I personally find extremely interest in the artefacts that use water to count time e.g. clepsydra (the thief of water). Metaphors “leak” in to our world in very “literal” manners and the exploration of their effects is always intriguing. Thank you for the Saturday post 🙂

    1. Indeed, when you think about it, water is everywhere … and the relationship with the body: particularly if we think of immersion, baptism, rite of passage, floating, etc. But the idea of the water thief is fascinating. Is taking or containing water always stealing it?

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