Touching the Silver Serpent
by Megan Lindow
Water is a flow, an evaporation, a seeping, a pervading, a cascading, a saturation. Because it is these things it is harder to hold, it’s harder to own, which is why until very recently it resisted being just another commodity. Water asks us: what do we do when faced with something that flows, something that pours from the sky even as it seeps from the ground? Something that is in the air that exists in quantities so abundant that until very recently it felt eternal? How are we in the face of the source of life itself, clear as crystal, ungraspable, eternally misting, condensing, evaporating, sprinkling, cascading, pouring forth?
Some of the starkest violations of nature are visible in our relationship with water, because of how central and how fundamental water is. There is nothing to me that more succinctly summarises the state of human inequality than water disparity. Some luxuriate in private swimming pools while others have no access to running water at all. And what was once the source of all life, potable water clear and pure, becomes a carrier for death and disease. For the Egyptians, inundation was the shapeshifting body of a god, Hapi, the god of the inundation event, lord of the fish and birds of the marshes; androgynous shape-shifter — a thin-waisted male in the winter and a wide-hipped, heavy-breasted woman in the summer. The seeping, swelling, rising, pervading water — changer of forms, crosser of imaginary lines.
But Herodotus needed to think of the river in terms of lines, so he asked, which is the ‘normal’ Nile? The swollen, vast Nile that stretched from desert to desert in the summer months, or the narrow Nile that flowed between confined banks in the winter?
‘Ganga does not flow as the Ganges does, in a course to the sea. She is rather held in soils, aquifers, glaciers, living things, snowfields, agricultural fields, tanks, terraces, wells, cisterns, even the air. All for a multiplicity of durations that range from minutes and days to centuries and aeons. She soaks, saturates and fills before overflowing her way by a multiplicity of routes… Unlike the River Ganges, her source is not in a point or points, but in clouds. Also unlike the Ganges, her source cannot be drawn in a map, because the routes are too complex, emergent and changing across a vast depth. The only anchor she offers people is the moment of her descent, the coming of the Monsoon.’