I was introduced to one of the wonders of water movement over twenty years ago by accident.
While fulfilling my studies for a Master’s of Science degree, I made an interesting discovery. I’d chosen to study periphyton (attached algal) communities in streams affected by organic pollution and urban runoff in a rural community in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada (where I’m originally from).
My study involved placing glass slides in various locations in my control and experimental stream (from source to mouth) and in various orientations (parallel or facing the current), exposing the slides to colonizing algae. What I didn’t expect to see, time and again, was that the community colonized the slides in a non-random way. Excited by my discovery, I asked my supervisor if we could study this diversion further. He agreed, and so began my foray into fluid mechanics, water movement and its biological manifestations. The result was a paper we published in the scientific journal Hydrobiologia that discussed this curious phenomenon.
I discovered that periphyton, made up mostly of diatoms (Cocconeis and Achnanthes), preferentially colonized the two edges of the slide when oriented parallel to the current, while they colonized evenly across the slide when its flat side faced the current. There are two ways an algal community grows in a new area: (1) by initial colonization and settling and (2) by reproduction and growth. I studied both by collecting slides exposed for differing lengths of time (collecting young and mature communities) in different seasons.
Following data analysis and further research and discussions with experts in fluid mechanics, I concluded that the periphyton of flowing streams thrived in turbulence. I postulated that the drift velocity was reduced on the slide’s edge, where turbulence was greatest, giving drifting algae a greater chance to collide and settle on the slide over the more shear laminar flow along the slide’s central face.
Once settled, the community was more likely to grow with turbulence. Greater turbulence decreases the diffusion gradient of materials around algal cells, with a higher rate of nutrient uptake and respiration. Turbulence provides greater opportunity to an existing colony by increasing “chaotic” flow, potential collision and exchange. Turbulence is a kind of “stable chaos” that enhances vigor, robustness and communication.
Without quite realizing it, I’d discovered one of nature’s most intriguing and fundamental qualities and a tenet in ecology: at the boundary, where two different entities meet—liquid with solid, land with water, forest with field, freshwater with salt water, fast water with slow water—life thrives most vigorously. Ecologists have a name for this zone: they call it an ecotone. At the root of this vitality lies movement: turbulence, spiraling, swirling, vortices, flushing, and, yes, collision and excitation, exchange, learning, adaptation, change, and evolution.
What I hadn’t considered at the time was the subtle connection between increased periphyton growth and production to the water’s own increased vigor in the turbulent zone. Like a good traditional scientist at the time, I had restricted my observations of water to its role as a physical medium without accepting the possibility of water’s own vital characteristics.
“Water is not just concerned with all life processes,” write Wilkens, Jocobi and Schwenk. “It makes life possible.”
Alexander Lauterwasser describes water through the quality of its boundary interactions: “Contrary to the world of solid borders and bodies, in which no ‘something’ tolerates a different ‘something’, the liquid world enables a mutual penetration and overlay of very different motion–impulses. From [liquid’s] weaving patterns and structures, complex and more highly organized forms can evolve, which then take lasting shape by a gradual coagulation, solidifying and crystallizing.”
Water is the driver of change, providing opportunity.
There is an element of cooperation and acceptance associated with opportunity. Cooperation lies at the heart of transforming existing structures, generating new forms, maintaining and moderating process, and bringing rhythm to movement. It brings to mind what happens when ideas or even worldviews are exchanged between two open-minded individuals from different cultures. Movement and change—permanent change—does not happen without some element of cooperation, whether recognized or not. Even antagonism involves cooperation of a sort.
In my writing courses, I focus part of each class on the role of setting and environment in the journey of “our hero”. I teach that the environment is, in fact, a character with agency. Some of my students are at first surprised or puzzled by this bold personification. But all truths are best told in metaphor. To see the world—or water—as a character is to recognize that all is in motion, on a journey of interaction, relationship, and influence: all parts of a whole; a whole comprising parts.
“By renouncing every self-quality, [water] becomes the creative substance for the generation of all forms,” writes Theodor Schwenk. “By renouncing every life of its own, it becomes the primal substance for all life. By renouncing every fixed substance, it becomes the carrier of all substance transformation.”
The ultimate altruist, water is a herald and a mediator. It is a catalyst, championing change.
Lauterwasser, Alexander. 2006. “Water Sound Images: The Creative Music of the Universe.” Macromedia Publishing. 172 pp.
Munteanu, N. & E. J. Maly, 1981. The effect of current on the distribution of diatoms settling on submerged glass slides. Hydrobiologia 78: 273–282.
Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press, Delta, BC. 584 pp.
Schwenk, Theodor. 1996. “Sensitive Chaos.” Rudolf Steiner Press, London. 232 pp.
Wilkens, Andreas, Michael Jacobi, Wolfram Schwenk. 2005. “Understanding Water”. Floris Books, Edinburgh. 107 pp.
This article is an adapted excerpt from “Water Is…” (Pixl Press)
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.