“There is nothing more uniting in this world than water”
Water researcher Cees Kamp hands over the role of Voice of Water to nature philosopher Matthijs Schouten. A double interview with two water sages.
The Embassy of Water is a collaboration between various governments, social organisations, and designers. Since 2020, the Voice of Water has had a place at the table during consultations. If a conversation becomes very technical or political, the Voice of Water can take up a different position. This voice reminds those present that water is not a product but a living entity that we treat with respect. Water researcher Cees Kamp performed the Voice of Water in 2020 and handed over his role to Matthijs Schouten, nature philosopher, and biologist.
As a biology student in the late 1960s, Schouten was told that a global environmental crisis was developing. Later he researched peat moor in Ireland and saw the destruction of the excavated areas with his own eyes. This characterised his student days and gave him the inspiration to work on a better world. “Years ago,” he says, “the National Nature Policy Plan contained this sentence: ‘The national government intends to make agreements with the provinces about which nature will be realised where’. I often read that sentence during international lectures, and the audience would burst into laughter.” Cees Kamp also laughs. It is an example of the people-oriented thinking of our time, explains Schouten. The Western worldview is completely objectified: only man possesses a soul and a spirit, everything else is in our eyes mindless and soulless and for us to use. “If we really want to make sustainable choices, we will first have to change that image and learn to really connect with nature again,” he says.
Water as a living entity
Kamp felt a real connection with water years ago during a trip to Siberia. He swam in the Katun River and drank from it. The water felt and tasted very different from what he was used to. It sparked his curiosity. After decades of research on revitalising water, Kamp has come to the conclusion that water is alive.
“If we start to see water as a living entity, we will handle it very differently. Water must be given a voice. It actually already has a voice, but we hardly listen to it anymore.”— Cees Kamp
Schouten is delighted with Kamp’s story: “What I find very remarkable: I come from a different route than you, but we do end up at the same place.” As a student in Ireland, Schouten saw those beautiful peatland areas being drained and destroyed. It was there that he first wondered: “Why in God’s name are we treating the world this way? Why are we knowingly destroying our own home?” Biology didn’t answer that. That is why he also studied religious studies and philosophy and has since been researching the relationship between man and nature.
“Who the hell do we think we are?”
Schouten discovered that in the Western worldview, we have separated ourselves from the world we live in. “Aristotle (384 BC) distinguished man from all else by his mind. Subsequently, in Christianity, so much emphasis was placed on the eternal human soul that the soul of nature had been lost. Descartes then also removed the mind and what remained was a collection of senseless, soulless, mindless things, containing one subject: a man who does have reason, soul, and spirit.” That brings Schouten to the question: “Who the hell do we think we are?” He argues that this worldview is at the root of all environmental crises in which we now live.
Restoring contact with nature for a sustainable society
Schouten indicates that in the Eastern worldview, nothing stands alone, and everything is connected. Water is an important element in this. “There is nothing more unifying in this world and in all ecosystems than water,” says Schouten.
How do you change that Western, destructive worldview? “We have to ask ourselves who we should become to create a sustainable society for ourselves and all life,” says Schouten. “That’s why I think a voice of water, or a voice of everything that is non-human, is an incredibly important starting point as the basis for a sustainable future. And moreover, simply out of love for life and the world!”
“I think, if we don’t fundamentally change our relationship with the non-human world, and see it in terms of a partnership, respecting the voice of the other, then we’re going to keep muddling about.”
“Then nature just throws us off,” Kamp adds. “Yes, exactly,” says Schouten. “Those humans just don’t want to participate. That’s the end.”
“But there is a way to be able to work in dialogue with nature,” says Kamp. “When we learn and see the language of nature again, then I realise that nature is an enormous source of wisdom.”
Practice makes perfect
Schouten agrees. “It is important that we reconnect with nature and that can only be done through practice.” For example, he often gives an assignment to business people: take fifteen minutes every day to look at something that is not man-made without judgment and without expectations. That can be a tree, an animal, or a stream. “Just look. Just observe, for a few weeks. Well, I find the results very gratifying.” He talks about an entrepreneur who initially thought this assignment was ‘soft’, ‘a ridiculous exercise’, but still looked at a tree in front of his house for fifteen minutes every day. This man admitted that after the exercise, he can no longer leave his house without greeting the tree. “At that moment something has already happened,” says Schouten. “A relationship is formed again.”
“It’s about your essential experience of being connected with the world,” says Schouten. To really connect, you’re not only using your ratio, but also your intuition, feelings, emotions, your senses and even another language. “You’ll use poetry, metaphors, and myths. And that is a different way of being in the world, a different way of interpreting reality. That rediscovering of being meaningful in the world, I think that is one of the great tasks of our time.”
Kamp gives courses in communicating with nature and confirms what Schouten said earlier: “You really have to relearn it, it’s a craft. If people actually start practicing that communication, wonderment comes back. The wealth that people suddenly see and experience. It can change your life.”
Schouten adds that you can also use rituals in your daily life to restore contact with nature. “I propose that we start introducing rituals around water again. We have always celebrated our relationship with the elements and the seasons with, for example, spring rituals and midwinter rituals. I am very much in favour of re-introducing rituals around our relationship with the world, which constantly remind us of the preciousness of these connections. That would be wonderful.” According to him, this also includes an annual moment of mourning, where we reflect on what we are doing to nature.
Kamp endorses the importance of rituals. “Giving the Voice of Water a place in the Embassy of Water and performing this transfer annually, that is also a new ritual.” Kamp hands over the role of the Voice of Water to Schouten this year by virtually pouring a glass of water.