Thursday, October 3, 2013

Watermark: the Meaning of Water...

Xiaolangdi Dam, China

Water has been on my mind a lot lately.
When I was five, I saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. It changed the way I look at water; I recall being fascinated by the sheer magnitude and power of it. How it created my world and covered so much of it. When I was thirty-five, I toured Africa for the first time. It changed the way I look at water. How without it I would not be alive. I spent over twenty-five years teaching about it at university and researching it and protecting it as a scientist and an environmental consultant. The mark that water has left on me has been great.
Water is all around us. It’s in the air we breathe. It covers 70 percent of the Earth. We are made of mostly water. Here, in North America where water is generally plentiful, many of us tend to take it for granted. Not renowned Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. In fact, he’s made it part of his life’s work.
Edward Burtynsky
Last night a friend took me to the Toronto International Film Festival to watch a feature documentary on water by Burtynsky and multiple-award winning filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier. It was called Watermark. It changed the way I look at water.
Shot in 5K ultra high-definition video, Watermark soars with truly breathtaking aerial perspectives, wide expanses and spectacular light. From its powerful opening scene of jetting spillway water from the Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River, China, to the turbulent waters of the pristine rugged Stikine River valley of northern BC in the fall, Watermark features water in all its humble glory: as a powerful terraforming element, and “magnificent force of nature that we all too often take for granted—until it’s gone.”
rice terraces, China
Burtynsky brought his eye for pattern, texture and light into this visually stunning movie that spans ten countries and twenty stories. Scenes flow from massive floating abalone farms off China’s Fujian coast to the construction site of the biggest arch dam in the world—the Xiluodu, six times the size of the Hoover. Images and scenes weave an evocative story. There is the barren desert delta where the Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean … The Panna Meena Stepwell of Rajasthan, India … The polluting leather tanneries of Dhaka … The U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach … the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, where thirty million people gather for a sacred bath in the Ganges … Scientists drill ice cores two kilometers deep into the Greenland Ice Sheet … a lone water guardian walks the rice terraces of the Western Yunnan Province in China.
Exploring pattern, filigree, light and relief, Watermark juxtaposes contrasting imagery—to tell an epic story. Take for instance, the two scenes in China, one of Xiluodu, the largest arch dam in the world, and the other China’s traditional rice patties in the Western Yunnan Province of China. They represent a new and an ancient perspective of the same phenomenon: how to divert and use water.
Thjorsa River, Iceland
“Water has a unique capacity to express scale and detail simultaneously,” says filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal. “It can be a meandering, pastoral brook and the trickle from the edge of an ice sheet, or it can be a monumental force, like Niagara Falls and the Pacific Ocean.” Watermark is a visual essay that takes the aerial grandness of a powerful scene and roots it in the intimacy of the particular. This is a Burtynsky moniker: to show personal detail in the midst of epic grandness; to tease out story from the chaos.
Many of the shots were taken from unique angles and often from above, demonstrating context and providing a global link that all of humanity can understand and resonate with. The documentary is more contemplation and presentation, less rhetoric or polemic. Yet, lingering in the shoals and quiet pools is a message. 

There’s a reason why Burtynsky tells this story (both as movie and book). He’s Canadian. “In Canada we are never far from places where one can see how the land looks without our presence. Around the globe, this has become a rare perspective,” says Burtynsky.
Stepwell, India
In his article in the October 2013 issue of The Walrus, Burtynsky explains why he started taking pictures of the earth’s water, culminating in his book Burtynsky—Water and the film Watermark: “The world’s population was 2.8 billion when I was born. Not quite six decades later, 7.2 billion humans inhabit the planet. This fact runs through almost all my photographs, but it became especially relevant when I started to think about taking pictures of the earth’s water.”
“My photographs reflect the impact of humanity, not its absence. They are pictures of our footprint, and the diminishment of nature that results. They are distressed landscapes: images of land, and now of water, that we have altered, or diverted, or transformed, or used in this unprecedented period of population growth, agricultural expansion, and industrialization. Documenting the point of impact between humankind and its evolving environment has turned out to be a life’s work.”
“Canada borders the Great Lakes, which contain 21 percent of the world’s fresh surface water,” writes Burtynsky. “The other one to three million lakes in this country (depending on your definition of “lake”) hold even more.” He contends that, “[Canada is] not an oil country. We are a water country. The implications and the responsibilities are enormous…We are custodians of over one-fifth of a resource that is utilitarian in the broadest and most necessary sense: water enables everything to live. Without it, there is wasteland—end of story.”
Watermark is a visual essay on this planet’s most valuable and mysterious component. It is a quiet exhortation to rethink our perspectives on an element that is both “common” and prized; an element that, if it were not here, would mark the violent end of all life.
My upcoming book on water entitled Water Is… (due in Summer 2015 with Pixl Press) brings my over twenty-years experience as an aquatic ecologist to explore what water means to each of us. Here's an excerpt:
I’m a limnologist. I study and help manage water in our environment; its flow, distribution, storage and properties. I look at how water changes the landscape, carving out huge valleys, forming deltas at river mouths, and polishing pebbles smooth on a lakeshore. I investigate the effects of its contamination by toxins, organic pollutants and disrespect. In its solid form, water has scraped out huge swaths of land and formed some of our largest lakes, dropping moraine till in places and melt water from ice blocks elsewhere. In its gaseous form, water controls climate and weather. 
Water is the most common substance on Earth. Chemically, water is simply two atoms of hydrogen joined to one of oxygen. Simple. Not so simple.For something so “simply” made, water is pretty complex. Its unique properties make water possibly the most important element of our existence and in ways most of us can’t possibly imagine. Without water no life form could exist. Water is a universal solvent. It transports all kinds of things from the sediment of the Nile River to the oxygenated blood cells in your arteries. Water stores energy and heat. It responds to and changes the properties of all manner of things. 
One of humanity’s greatest crimes is that we don’t treat water respectfully and with gratitude. It’s free, after all. It’s everywhere, isn’t it? “Water is the ultimate commons”, says author Barbara Kingsolver. That lack of respect and gratitude engenders subtle abuse. And that abuse spills into self-abuse. All life is made up of from 50 to 95 percent water with humans averaging 65 percent.We are water. What we do to water we do to ourselves… 
So, what is water, really? And what does it mean to you and your loved ones?
Some see water as a commodity like everything else that can make them rich; they will claim it as their own to sell—yet it cannot be “owned” or kept. Ultimately, water will do its job to energize you and give you life then quietly take its leave; it will move mountains particle by particle with a subtle hand; it will paint the world with beauty then return to its fold and rejoice; it will travel through the universe and transform worlds; it will transcend time and space to share and teach. 
Water is…

Look for Water Is… by Nina Munteanu, Pixl Press in Summer 2015 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and a quality book store near you. For updates on the book and the subject of water, visit Nina's website The Meaning of Water.


Viviann said...

When there is a lack of water, we suddenly pay attention to its importance. Years ago when I lived in Estonia, the water was turned off from time to time in my neighborhood. A water truck would come and we would have to walk down four or five flights with two buckets and climb back up those flights of stairs being careful not to spill any water. There was just enough for cooking and basic washing.
I had an immediate wake up call and realized how dependent on water I was. I suddenly felt very grateful for the plentiful water we had available to us in BC where I grew up and realized circumstances I other countries are not always the same.
I agree that we need to treat water respectfully and not pollute it. There are other more responsible ways to deal with our waste.

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks, Viviann, for sharing your story and thoughts.

Water promises to become one of the most important global issues of the 21st Century...

Margaret said...

The movie "Watermark" is currently playing at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, 2110 Burrard St. Vancouver, B.C. at 2:00, 4:15, 7:00and 9:20 pm
I'll try and get to the Wednesday afternoon 2:00 pm showing.
Looking forward to a great Canadaian documentary. :-)

Nina Munteanu said...

My good friend and writing colleague Jo-Anne McLean responded with this note:

Stunning photos. We really do abuse our water. With so much of it all around us, we tend to take it for granted. The Enbridge Northern Gateway project is a prime example. Anyone who’s been in the waters around Kitimat shakes their heads at the thought of huge tankers in those treacherous, narrow waterways. It’s insane, but it’ll happen. There’s just too much money to be had. The sooner we find an alternative energy source to oil, the better.

Read Jo-Anne's trilogy "The Gift", an urban fantasy set in the scenic West Coast of British Columbia.