Trouble with water – extreme floods and droughts — is one of the first obvious signs of climate change, and today we are witnessing these events more often. At the same time, our built environment — urban sprawl, industrial agricultural and the engineered way we manage water — is making things worse, not better. As our control systems fail, we are forced to reckon afresh with an eternal truth: water always wins.
Told as a detective story, Erica Gies’ upcoming book follows water experts as they search for clues to water’s past, using close observation, historical research, ancient animal and human practices, and cutting-edge science. Their epiphanies are changing our understanding of what water wants and why our efforts to control it are failing.
Most modern humans have forgotten that water’s true nature is to flex with the rhythms of the earth, expanding and retreating in an eternal dance upon the land. These slow phases are where the magic happens to soften floods, save water for droughts, and keep natural systems healthy. Yet many human attempts to control water speed it up and move it off the land. The key to greater resilience, say the water detectives, is a kind of un-engineering that allows water to stall on the land – what Erica is calling a “Slow Water” ethic.
Slow Water finds commonality with Slow Food, a movement that draws people’s attention to where their food comes from and how its production affects people and the environment. Slow Water is also in the spirit of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. The 20th century forester-turned-conservationist called for us to treat soils, waters, plants and animals with respect and to strengthen our relationship with them. It’s care and need entwined: for nature to hold us up, we must also support it.
With this ethos, the water detectives are relearning how to live with water, to collaborate with it rather than try to control it. The book will take readers on a journey through time and around the world, introducing them to the wonder of water and to people who are innovating Slow Water approaches to help us adapt to climate change and to begin to heal our water bodies.
Erica is represented by The Martell Agency in New York, and the book will be published by the University of Chicago Press.