Downstream: Reimagining Water,
Dorothy Christian & Rita Wong, eds.
Wilfrid Laurier University Press,
ISBN #978-1-77112-213-9, 283 pp.,
If there is a water crisis – looming shortages, toxic undrinkability, dams devastating habitat – it’s partly because the response to these distress signs has been pitifully inadequate. In his latest book, Back to the Well, award-winning author Marq de Villiers advocates monetizing water like a commodity, arguing that “pricing signals” are proven motivators for action. Downstream speaks to a different motivating force: a kind of consciousness raising; raising a new and at once ancient consciousness of ourselves as part of water’s stream. Water, several of its contributors suggest, is the lifeblood of the planet and as such, sacred. As its pulse quickens in our watery and water-born bodies, it reminds of this ancient reality – of radical, intimate interconnection – and of our larger humanity.
One of the ideas animating this rich and inspiring book is that ways of knowing what’s real crucially shape what is real and actionable. Modern, western, scientific ways of knowing, through abstract, objectifying data sets, have yielded great knowledge on the water problems facing the planet – beautifully summarized in Alanna Mitchell’s short chapter here. But they also treat water as an object, leaving the observer at a remote distance. The stats are always happening to someone else, and while they can inform, they are less effective in motivating response.
Throughout, several of the women authors imply or explicitly state that respect (or lack of respect) for women is mirrored in society’s respect for water and the Earth.
This volume, which emerged out of a dialogue between Aboriginal and Asian-Canadian women begun at a conference in 2012, describes and enacts a different way of knowing – embodied, experiential, social, and intuitively poetic.
Here, water is also a subject with which people have a relationship. Thus, the distance between mind and body, between culture and nature is bridged, and empathy is free to flow across what, in the mind colonized by western modern rational ways of knowing, had been a great “othering” divide.
Like water coursing tumultuously down a riverbed, the book follows its own unscripted course, with a wealth of concepts to feed the reader’s imagination.
In Renee Elizabeth Mzinegiizhigo-kwe Bedard’s chapter, “Keepers of the Water,” we learn that rapids are like the heart and lungs of the human body, helping to cleanse both the water and the land it covers. We also learn from her ancient teachings that water is a cherished “relative” calling us into a sense of family and, with this, a “faithfulness between human beings and the natural world.” In his chapter, “Interweaving Water,” Michael D. Blackstock points out that “biological diversity and cultural diversity have co-evolved, are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.” Throughout, several of the women authors imply or explicitly state that respect (or lack of respect) for women is mirrored in society’s respect for water and the Earth.
“The gravel of the road’s shoulders bears my tears as I remembered residential school days, girls running away from our school…. As I remember, Nibi (Water) again is doing her healing work, washing away toxic memories….”
Embodying the book’s inter-weaving theme, and seemingly repudiating the western tendency to treat knowledge as an authored commodity, contributors to this volume frequently pick up on and reinforce each other’s points. Astrida Neimanis begins her chapter by quoting Rita Wong’s discovery that “water has a syntax I am still trying to learn.” Similarly, in “Moving with Water,” Alannah Young Leon and Denise Marie Nadeau begin by quoting Aboriginal elder Ellen White who said, “The old people always knew what water was and what water said and how to connect with it.” Encouraged to “work from body wisdoms,” these authors go on to share many of the insights they’ve gained. Alannah notes that “water and Earth are my life companions – they accompany my spirit force,” as she goes about her water advocacy work.
In her poignant chapter, “Water Walk Pedagogy,” one of the founders of the Water Walkers water-advocacy movement, Violet Caibaiosai, combines knowing with doing. She recounts her experience of walking the roads, carrying a pail of water, around first one of the Great Lakes and then, next year, another, as personal memory. “I shed tears as I passed the numerous foster homes where I was placed, grateful for the many lessons learned in each, both positive and negative. The gravel of the road’s shoulders bears my tears as I remembered residential school days, girls running away from our school…. As I remember, Nibi (Water) again is doing her healing work, washing away toxic memories….” While the presence and movement of these women gains attention and active engagement, she herself continues to learn. For her, the walk is a form of fasting, for water, for Nibi. “When fasting anywhere, we are making spiritual connection,” she writes, “opening our spirit to the knowledge that is of that space.”
“The water walk heals because it is a moving relationship between the human body and water, mediated by Anishinaabe traditional understandings rather than any other cultural form.”
The book stakes out a bold and creative claim to collaborative and cross-cultural knowing and new approaches to policy and action. It ends with a poetic summary by acclaimed writer and scholar Larissa Lai. She picks up on what Violet Caibaiosai shared, suggesting that “As she step-stitches herself back together, she also step-stiches the fragmented living world back together … The water walk heals because it is a moving relationship between the human body and water, mediated by Anishinaabe traditional understandings rather than any other cultural form.”
She draws on many specifics the various contributors to the book have had to say, including the co-editors who “remind us that we are…water, walking.” And she especially honours the gift of traditional Aboriginal perspectives, suggesting that “To understand the body of the Earth as a living being, as part of a self that is larger than the self might be [is] to begin to understand what Indigenous peoples mean when they talk about ‘all my relations’.”
“Downstream is a project about reconnecting to the Earth,” she concludes, through “radical humility,” involving attentive listening “to water as a response-ability we have always had.”
And who might join in this response? Another book I read while reading Downstream was Tom Sherwood’s Listening to the Echo, about Millennials’ seeming commonality in describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” They are seeking connection and spiritual connection, especially with the natural world. The word comes up with almost hilarious regularity in the young people’s comments, yet equally, they describe themselves in radically individualized terms. Downstream might feed this hunger for connection while helping them heal the contradictions of isolated individualism.
Heather Menzies is the author of 10 books, including the award-winning Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good.