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Artwork credit: Adrija Ghosh

The Beach House: Watery Transits and Muddy Logics

Susan Mathews

“A beach house,” he said, “doesn’t even have to be on the beach. Though the best ones are. We all like to congregate,” he went on, “at boundary conditions.” “Really?” said Arthur. “Where land meets water. Where earth meets air. Where body meets mind. Where space meets time. We like to be on one side, and look at the other.”

Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

This quote so aptly fits some of my takeaways from Season 2 of our podcast, The Subverse (2022), where we went on a watery treasure hunt. I was fortunate to really learn and unlearn a great deal about water from some very wise people this year.

In my blog introducing our water theme earlier this year, I wrote about water being “… a border, a passage, an edge, and we can never fully capture or control it. It is porous and permeable, but also opaque, unknowable and the most concealed of secrets.” This blog stems from that thought process, a fluid continuum to other realms.

Life at Water’s Edge: Passage Intervals and Membrane Logics

Exploring water has given me ample pause to think about boundaries and how we draw them, including amongst elements. One thing that has made itself apparent to me is that we tend to prefer the solid over the liquid, dry over wet, and rigid over the fluid. We are uncomfortable with the inherent moisture all around us and in us.

In Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane writes, “To enter water is, of course, to cross a border. You pass the lake’s edge, the sea’s shore, the river’s brink- and in so doing you arrive at a different realm, in which you are differently minded because differently bodied.”

To clarify, I don’t see this border or edge as a geometric line on a map, it is water as edgy, life as contingent. 

As Astrida Neimannis writes in Bodies of Water, 2017, “the surface of the water and the water’s edge are both membranes of differentiation, with their own kind of membrane logic and this membrane is not a divisive barrier, but an interval of passage: solid enough to differentiate, but permeable enough to facilitate exchange.” The edge of water is not a line, but a zone of gradation of moisture from less wet to wetter and ultimately submersion.

It is also often in these boundary conditions or edges that life thrives, in ecotones such as the intertidal, where meetings of life-forms are forged, where biological niches are occupied, where creatures congregate, and mutual buffers and protections are in place. “Water’s transits are neither necessarily benevolent, nor are they necessarily dangerous. They are rather material maps of our multivalent forms of marginality and belonging.” And in these passages and transits, we also gather our waters and share them, a constant interchange and exchange.

This watery connective tissue or membrane logic permeates all our relationships, human and otherwise and revitalises our sense of kinship, belonging and care. Alexis Pauline Gumbs (Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, 2020), one of our podcast guests, through inter-species ancestral listening, exemplifies this by teasing out lessons to learn from her Black feminist ancestors and from marine mammals.

Douglas Adams knew a thing or two about marine mammals too. In Mostly Harmless he writes, “man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for precisely the same reasons.”  With the impending destruction of earth by inter-galactic infrastructure, the dolphins disappeared, and their communications with humans were misinterpreted as play and frolic, while the last message they tried to send was actually, “So long and thanks for the fish.” Dolphins – 2, Man – 0.

Inside Out and Upside Down

Since I wrote the last blog, a lot of what I knew or thought I knew about water has been interrogated. Binaries have been challenged, and maps have been turned upside down and inside out.

In our last episode of Season 2, I spoke with Dilip da Cunha, an architect and planner who asks fundamental questions about the separation of land from water.

He questions the cartographer’s eye and shows us how maps were used as colonial tools to divide land from water. For example, a river is drawn as flowing between two lines; flood is water crossing this constructed line. Rivers in this imagination originate from a source and follow a course. In this articulation of place, a wetness which is everywhere, is now somewhere, contained in place and rain becomes a visitor, turned ephemeral. This in turn dictates how we build our settlements, embrace dry cities and flush water down the toilet. These dry settlements in turn marginalise communities and peoples who live on the edges, in mangroves, on riverbanks, and in coastal areas, increasingly spaces of high toxicity and pollution. Their ways of life are denigrated and forgotten, and they face displacement and dispossession.

Muddy Logics With a Hint of Brine

It is thus so important that we come to terms with the wetness all around us and in us, to live between the clouds and the aquifer, as Dilip da Cunha terms it. And embrace a rain literacy or, as I call it, murky or muddy logics.

There are no neat, clear separations. If we enter a beach house, we carry sand and moisture from the beach or the outdoors into the house and our lips taste of brine. If we come in from rain, our boots are muddy, carrying miniature scale universes via wet soles. And we are carrier-bags ourselves, with water sloshing inside us. 

When it rains, water does not march obediently in a straight line to the river, it “holds where it falls in interstices, pores, fields, depressions, terraces, fissures, and wells until it exceeds their holding capacity only to be held again and yet again, moving in emergent, non linear, field-like, and often mysterious ways.” (Dilip da Cunha, The Invention of Rivers, Alexander’s Eye and Ganga’s Descent, 2019, p. 210). And yet we constantly erase this liquid ground, defer to stony surfaces and treat all the world as a drain.

I can’t help but think of one of my favourite characters in Douglas Adam’s So long and thanks for the fish. Rob McKenna, a truck driver, is constantly dragged under by rain clouds. Little does he know that he is a Rain God. As quoted in the book, “All he knew was that his working days were miserable and he had a succession of lousy holidays. All the clouds knew was that they loved him and wanted to be near him, and to water him.”

Can we embrace our inner rain gods and let the clouds love us, be near us, water us and replenish us?

For me, this journey into water feels like a new beginning. I am still learning how to swim so there is still some way to go for me before I complete that “rite of passage” as per Roger Deakins. And while I followed some dimensions of water in this podcast series, there are still libraries of clouds and ice to pore through and research. Not to mention other crossings, the beach house as a wormhole to other elements, to air, earth, and fire – all elements looking at the other and embracing them within.