Listening to water, how do you do it?
Every year at the Embassy of Water, water is represented by a water sage: someone who introduces the perspective of water in conversations with partners, administrators, designers and companies. Environmental philosopher and ecologist Matthijs Schouten will hand over his role as Voice of Water this year to philosopher and water expert Li An Phoa. In a conversation they come to the conclusion that the word ‘nature’ is actually superfluous and that there are many small, daily things we can do to restore our connection with the environment.
We meet in the beautiful house of Matthijs Schouten for the official transmission of the role of the Voice of Water. Surrounded by religious statues and other works of art, it is an inviting environment for a deep conversation about our relationship with the world around us. For Schouten and Phoa this is an important element in their role as Voice of Water. We’ve lost our connection with nature and they both seem to know how to restore that contact. By using different words, doing mini-meditations and small thanksgiving rituals, by making space and touching people.
‘Als we het water vervuilen dat we nodig hebben, dan gaan we tegen een wetmatigheid in. Dáár wil ik een nieuwe groef in maken: in hoe we keuzes maken, in hoe we onszelf zien en hoe we ons verhouden met de rest van de wereld.’
Get rid of the word nature
“I never use the word nature,” says Li An Phoa. “I think it brings us a false division. It etches a groove in words that shouldn’t have to be there. If we want to use the word nature to characterise a place, it would be better to say: the heath, the coastline or the forest. And if it is a quality, we can better characterise that quality, as natural, healthy or alive.” In this way she first of all tries to eliminate the distinction between humans and nature in language. “Our choices can align with health, living, drinkable rivers, or our choices can go against it. If we pollute the water we need, we are going against a natural principle. That’s where I want to etch a new groove: in how we make choices, in how we see ourselves and how we relate to the rest of the world. That’s why I think the word nature creates a level of separation, as if it were further away from us.”
“I completely agree,” Schouten responds resolutely. “When we use the word nature, we always think of somewhere else, or something other than ourselves. I suggest we use the term ‘life’: the quality of life, the beauty of life. It is about the well-being of life.”
Phoa: “Exactly! You can choose whether something becomes life-threatening or life-generating.”
Schouten: “In doing that the story changes. You become intrinsically engaged. You can’t be against life, can you?” Then, laughing: “But it will take a while before we can let go of that word nature.”
Learn to listen to fellow attendees
Schouten quotes the French philosopher Michel Serres, who argued that the basis of our society is a social contract. “This implies, my wishes and desires must be weighed in the light of the well-being of the other. I can want something, but I have to see how it affects the other. Serres says we should do the same with the rest of life, as a nature contract. In doing so, we must ask ourselves what the interests of the non-human presences are, as a basis for our decisions. That requires a certain restraint and then you get a completely different way of dealing with the world. As a democracy that we expand with non-human presences. They also have a voice. And so does water. We need to start seeing the world filled with fellow attendees, who have just as much right to be.”
Develop a greater appreciation for silence
It takes time, attention and practice to listen to non-humans. Phoa explains how we can learn to listen to water, for example: “By allowing it space. This can be done very symbolically by pulling up a chair during a conversation about water. As soon as that space slowly enters our minds and habits, it also enters our hearts and so that space expands. It gets quieter. Our voice becomes quieter and recedes more into the background. We can take longer before we make choices or form an opinion. That is the sense of modesty, restraint that is required in the nature contract of Serres. A different place in the order of things. I think silence is something we’re going to appreciate again. These kinds of elements can help to identify the needs of others.”
Give space to others and to yourself
“That takes practice,” adds Schouten. He sees that more and more people understand that they are part of nature, but do not yet act on it. “I am convinced that we can learn that again. You can do that by looking at something that is not man-made for five minutes a day. And what really touches and moves me is what only that can do.”
“It can also be done by being outside more, feeling the wind and just being present,” says Phoa. “And without naming it,” says Schouten. Phoa herself is outdoors as much as possible with her work for drinkable rivers*. “It also works for yourself. Giving the other space, creates space for yourself.”
Reintroduce rituals for water
Rituals with water are important in all cultures. At birth, at death and all kinds of things in between. Somehow we still remember that reverence and respect for water, but it no longer comes naturally to us. According to Phoa, a small ritual of thanks can already have a big effect. “When people ask how they can contribute to drinkable rivers, I say: ‘Thank the water before we use it.’ In this way you can bring wonder back into that functional relationship. If we give that space, it can have an immediate effect on us and everything else. You create reverence.”
Realise that we cannot exist independently of the world
Schouten: “All major cultures have known that we cannot exist independently of the world. We are connected to the world on a multitude of levels. The amazing thing is that there are new studies on water and interactions between creatures and water that confirm this. Every early culture knew this, as self evident. We are now rediscovering that through science. I find that a hopeful fact. There is also something wonderfully beautiful about it. If you try to treat the world, the non-human presences and water with respect, from a deeply felt connection, then the road to sustainability is not inspired by fear or doomsday scenarios, but by love and engagement. There is joy in that.”
The transmission of the Voice of Water
Schouten felt that joy in 2021 when he addressed government officials in his role as Voice of Water. “Working for the Embassy of Water has brought me a lot of hope.” What he found very special was the realisation that he really touched these administrators with his words during a meeting at the Dutch Design Week. “So it is not difficult to touch people, to open them up again, because it is part of being a meaningful, loving human being. We just have to be quiet for a while, listen more, shift our gaze just a bit and then a lot is possible.”
Phoa thinks it is important that the Voice of Water has been given a formal place and hopes that she can contribute to making it a “flowing institution”. “It will become really concrete this year because we will be working with the building industry. I hope they realise how important water is. That their participation appeals to their humanity. And that they feel a sense of responsibility.”
Schouten is “extremely happy that Li An is taking over. Another generation and… (drums his hands on the table) a woman. I find that very meaningful. I am also very happy that there is a different cultural resonance [Phoa has partly Chinese roots, ed.]. It is precisely because of this that we can see different perspectives.”
Schouten suddenly knows what the ritual should be to hand over the role of the Voice of Water. “Do you know Kuan Yin?” Phoa acknowledges, just like Schouten, she too has a statue of this Chinese goddess at home. Kuan Yin is the goddess of compassion. She is always depicted meditating with her back to the world looking out over the ocean, in direct connection with water. At a certain point she is called by the suffering of the world and stands up to lend a helping hand. “Isn’t that a beautiful image?”
“Very nice,” says Phoa. “She also has two children in her arms at my house. She stands for care for future generations.”
At this point Schouten states he is quickly going to “renovate the house”. He drags the ancient statue to the table and together they make a small altar for the libation.
*Li An Phoa is campaigning for drinkable rivers with her foundation Drinkable Rivers. She walked a thousand kilometres from the source of the Meuse to its mouth, mobilising mayors and residents along the way for a drinkable Meuse. She wrote a book about it with Maarten van der Schaaf and NPO made a documentary about her work.
Matthijs Schouten is an ecologist and philosopher and works for Staatsbosbeheer, Wageningen University & Research and the University of Cork in Ireland, among others. The Buddhist Broadcasting Corporation made a documentary about Schouten that also features his work for the Embassy of Water. His new book ‘The other and the self; our relationship with nature and landscape’ was released recently.