The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River

What follows is a precis of part of my paper: The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, a story about collaboration presented at the 2018 Liquidscapes conference, Dartington, England.

This place is part of myself...
My relation to this place is part of myself...
If this place is destroyed, something in me is destroyed...
My relation to this place is such that if the place is changed, I am changed.
Arne Naess
(Drengson, 2008: 87-88)[1]

It was in 2011 during a visit to my sister in The Netherlands, that I discovered the writing of the deep ecologist and ecophilosopher, Arne Naess. As an Afrikaner female, I had no idea where I truly belonged. I realised that even though my ancestors had lived in Africa for over 300 years, I felt neither African, nor European. My body seemed to remember the Netherlands on a cellular level but my heart longed for Africa where I was born.

The opening quotation consists of excerpts of Arne Naess’s thinking about place. He concludes that because of our relation to a place, the destruction of an environment is a threat to our inner selves. Naess encourages us to go deep into ourselves, our local places and nature, so we can trace the roots of ecological crises in our own contexts; he says this would assist in understanding global environmental contexts.

I decided to experiment with Naess’s suggestion and started to make a list of places I felt I already had some relation to. One of these places is a small farm in the Breede River Valley, where my maternal grandmother farmed with export grapes in the 1950s. My grandmother named the farm ‘Raaswater’, after the raging sound of the Hartebees River that coursed through the property. The Hartebees River is one of the many tributaries originating in the surrounding mountain ranges. These rivers culminate in the Breede River that meanders gently through the centre of the valley.

The river on Raaswater formed a large part of my mother’s childhood memories. Her memories became mythological stories which taught us her understanding of life. The continuous sound of its rushing waters was a reassuring presence which formed the backdrop of every moment lived on the farm.  

Raaswater became an idyllic place in my imagination. I yearned for being part of the peaceful symbiotic existence between the natural environment and humans, as suggested in my mother’s stories. By the time my mother was married, Raaswater had been sold and so we never had the opportunity to know it.

A quick internet search revealed that it was currently run as a guest farm. I called the owners, explained that it was my mother’s childhood home and requested permission to visit. And so a week later my mother and I set out with boundless expectations to go and re-live her childhood memories in this extraordinary place.  

The approach to Raaswater was ominous. After we passed a highway petrol station we drove between a densely populated suburb and dry desolate koppies adjacent to the ‘Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden’. My mother became disoriented and we missed the turn off to the farm. Eventually we found our way, crossed a bridge and turned into the electric gates.

As one would expect, we found the old thatched-roofed farm house and its garden much changed. We walked down to the river to spend time with a part of the farm which we presumed would have remained much the same.

The approach to the river was through a fence and past an organic recycling dump in a field covered in fine grasses and very little else. It seemed like a landscape that had been ploughed too many times and only a limited variety of introduced plant species remained in the soil. I could not see any recognisable indigenous vegetation.  As we pushed through some thick alien tree species, the river came into view.

What greeted us was a silent river. Dry river stones and a few puddles of polluted water lay muted in a sulphur stench. A thick black telephone cable looped high across the river and continued over the barbed wire fence demarking the boundary of the property. In one of the still ponds floated the remnants of a child’s game: a plastic Barbie doll missing its arms and legs and a similarly dismembered baby doll. My mother had become as voiceless as the river and was slowly tracing its banks. I deeply regretted bringing her on this journey.

The visit to the farm threw my mother into a depression that was palpable for weeks. My guilt over her state of grief was amplified by a realisation that my ancestors were unknowingly complicit in the destruction of the indigenous features of the landscape.  How do I connect with a place that is bereft of any indigenous life; a place that is now completely manipulated and changed by humans? How will I ever know what the landscape’s true nature is?

After this visit I spent a long time interacting with the people of the Breede River Valley. I spoke with farmers, botanists and a local ecologist who helped me to understand what Raaswater would’ve looked like in its indigenous state. The river would have been flanked by a now endangered vegetation type namely Breede Alluvium Fynbos. A feature which forms part of this vegetation community is a seasonal wetland, which controls the groundwater of the ecosystem; in summer the soil dries out to a certain extent, whilst in winter the ground surface is covered by water.

My challenge was to find ways to connect to a place where the main factor was loss. The pliable ochre-yellow clay of the river bed is effectively the only living native aspect of the landscape that remains, and is central to my mother’s childhood memories about the place.  I collected some clay and took it to the studio to see what it would reveal to me.

After much time of relating to the clay (watching it crack as it dries, rolling it over surfaces to create liquid landscapes, filming it as its wetness dried) I realised that with the help of water and gravity, the clay made waterfall-like surfaces which seemed to elicit a visual soundscape. I had in mind the manifesto of the Gutai Group of Japan[2], where it is suggested that we do not dominate matter but shake hands with it so it would reveal its characteristics.

It happened to be a full moon lunar eclipse on the night I went to the studio to set up the largest panels I could fit into the room. I covered the panels in a thin layer of clay and spoke a silent prayer that it would create a visual sound, a scape of waterfall-like shapes perhaps.  As the eclipse was unfolding I rhythmically and in a meditative state dragged a brush loaded with water across the surfaces to give fluidity to the mud. I went home late that night leaving the dripping panels to finish themselves.

The next morning I came to the studio and I found that the waterfall effect didn’t happen as expected. Initially I was disappointed. It seemed that the clay had moved upwards in capillaries defying gravity. As I contemplated the surface and let my controlling ego out of the room, a new picture began to emerge. I saw a wetland with reeds.  I saw Breede Alluvium Fynbos that would have grown on the banks of the river. And finally, I saw that these reed-like shapes resembled an electronic soundscape.

I was astonished. The clay did not behave in the way I thought it would. By relinquishing some control and giving it the space to show itself to me I felt I understood viscerally that the clay had a memory; that it is inextricably part of the ecosystem which formed it and that like described in Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter (2010)[3], this clay is intelligent and alive.

This experience, has changed the way I relate to myself, to human beings and to other-than-human beings ever since. Relating to the living clay connected three generations of Afrikaner women and it allowed me to enter into communion with the plants, people and earth of the Breede River Valley. I started to feel an intense sense of belonging in the world. I listened, asked questions and found my place – not really a physical one but a non-physical place of relationship, which somehow anchors me.

[1] Drengson, A. and Devall, B. 2008. The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess. Berkeley: Counterpoint.
[2] Guggenheim. 2013. Gutai Splendid Playground. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 22 October 2014].
[3] Bennet, J. 2010. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Duke University Press