Discovering the Real Nature of Water

The artist, activist, and teacher Betsy Damon has focused on virtually every aspect of water during the past four decades, from the essence of water drops to whole water systems and their connections to life on earth. Over the years, she has borne witness to the decline in water quality around the world as a result of human activities.

In the book Water Talks, Damon writes about our interdependence with water in every aspect of life, discussing many of the technical, social, and ethical issues we face and our individual and communal responsibility for addressing the immanent crises we are facing. As she states, “Ignoring water’s essential role as the connective tissue of all life on Earth is widespread. Unfortunately, the response to each environmental problem tends to be piecemeal—addressing one threat rather than responding with complex solutions that will address the underlying problems.”

The following is an excerpt from Water Talks.

It can be nearly impossible to even consider being without water. The very act of noticing something that we depend on every minute of every day can be so overwhelming that the off switch of the brain says, “Not now.” To consider water’s vital role in all life and the impact on our lives is another step. We will begin to notice water together. 

Each and every one of us has a water story, for we all live in a watery world. Like every human, I developed while floating in warm water, in the womb. I have a sense of floating in a warm, relaxing, and protected place where I was well-nourished. To this day, my body loves warm baths, hot tubs, and warm springs. My earliest memories are of sitting on the edge of the ocean, where waves gently lapped against the sand.

As I share a few stories of my relationship with water, you may begin to recall and tell your own.

When I was four, toward the end of World War II, my mother, brother, and I joined my father in Turkey, where he worked a nonarmy job during the war. From 1945 to 1948, we lived high in the hills outside Istanbul in a village called Rumeli Hisari. The Bosphorus, a big ribbon of salty, dark blue water that connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, was always in view. One could see the tides rush up toward the Black Sea and back out again to the Mediterranean. As a six-year-old, I swam in that cold, salty water on hot summer days. With nervous excitement, I avoided the barnacles clinging to the rocky shore. I loved that rocky shore, where water-carved stones, seaweed clung to rocks, and bits of shells washed up.

Colorful boats with large sails speckled the waters as they ferried people across from the European side to the Asian side. Perched atop chimneys, large nests built by storks dotted the skyline. The storks were considered good luck, a blessing on the home. Their wide wings swooping through the sky and over the waters became a signal that all was well.

From the hills where we lived, I could see the skyline of Istanbul: glistening domes and tall minarets of mosques. Five times a day, calls for prayer reverberated over the hills and water and everyone from the farmers to wandering vendors lowered themselves to pray. Before entering a mosque, those who were going to pray dipped their fingers in the water. On every fountain and wall were beautifully patterned tiles.

The outdoors was my play space, beneath the pine trees and wisteria arbors, or sitting among the daisies, astors, and thistles in the vast meadow just outside our garden gate. Like many young people, my cherished objects were shells, stones, nuts, feathers, flowers pressed into books. Later in life, my studio was always filled with objects that I recycled into performances and sculptures.

After each day in my one-room schoolhouse, I walked home on a small path that ran through the hills to our yard. There, climbing into a fig tree, I would swing on the supple branches and sing at the top of my lungs. From that high place, I could see the Bosphorus, and would imagine swimming across her and walking to China. In the summers, freshwater shortages left us without water for weeks. We adapted by capturing rainwater in every container, filling bathtubs, pots, and pans. I vividly remember those precious pots of water; we used only what we needed to cook with, and to wash our hands and feet.

We returned to the U.S. in 1948, first to visit my grandmother in Belmont, Massachusetts. Her property contained a natural pond where a duck family returned every year to nest. During one visit, there was a geomancer—someone practicing earth divination— walking around seeking water on her property. He handed me the V-shaped stick, encouraging me to try it out. We walked around, and as we passed over some underground water, the divining rod flew out of my hands! This experience was astonishing; my mouth dropped open as I took in this mysterious energy.

We settled near Washington, D.C. Across the street from our front yard was a stream that would swell and over ow in big rainstorms, and then recede into a trickle. In the spring, tadpoles emerged at the edges of the stream and we’d scoop them up, place them in a small container, and watch as they became frogs, before returning them to their creek. Several years later, we moved to a house built on the edge of a wooded area with a creek running in the woods behind it. “Come on, guys,” I called out to my friends. “Let’s dam the creek to make a small pond!” There, rolling up our pants and tossing off our shoes, we floated a poorly made raft of branches and twigs that rapidly sank under our weight.

Gathering groups to work together was second nature for me, whether it was to build a dam, or to find a way to make swings in the woods. In the summers, we would escape the Washington, D.C. heat by traveling north to my great-grandmother’s home in the coastal town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Vast woods surrounded her farm and gardens. My cousins and I swam in the salt water and roamed the beaches. We canoed in the Eel River estuaries among the cat-o-nine-tails, trying to catch turtles. We counted our time on the river with the tides, which rushed in and out. Being caught in an outbound tide would have dumped us in the ocean. Whether on the beach or in the estuaries, the tides determine the rhythm of the days. I would walk for hours, fascinated by the tidal waters, which cast up treasures and sculpted the sands.

On family trips across the United States, we drank from public water sources all along the way, and swam in water holes and streams. Today, it is unthinkable to drink from a stream or dip into a creek that you do not know. From the age of eighteen, I was privileged to be able to spend time at Squam Lake, a glacial lake at the base of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Every summer, I sat under towering pines listening to the lake and the forest humming with life. The loons’ cries echoed across the waters at dawn and dusk. Diving into its cool, sweet surface refreshed me as nothing else could. I swam with loons, counted the baby ducks, and admired the old blue heron, a sentinel of the wetlands in which he fished. From a canoe, I peered at the leftovers of otters’ dinners, empty shells underwater or on rocks along the shore. Big storms darkened the skies while we rushed off the lake to safety on the shore. Late in summer, mists rose in spirals every morning, shimmering as the sun bounced off the drops. In the chilly dawn, I often forced myself to climb out of my warm bed to photograph these vortices spiraling away as the sun rose higher.

Although this lake has enjoyed the protection of some conservation laws, its water quality has declined with the increase of pollutants from new developments. In particular, fire retardants entered the waters, baby loons are rarely spotted, and fewer birds sing in the early morning. I was astonished to learn that fire retardants are manufactured into everything from clothing, to new furniture to building supplies. The chemicals were entering primarily from the new housing projects where, over time, they washed out into the land and lake. These highly toxic carcinogens are used without consideration for their impact.

A seven-week camping trip across the United States with my children in the summer would turn out to be significant in ways I never imagined. Where were the running rivers that I remembered? We encountered something unfamiliar: dry riverbeds. I knew I had never seen this on my past trips. Where were those cold streams rushing from the mountains into the lush meadows? How did so many rivers suddenly dry up? Where is the water? Those stones in the riverbeds had been washed and shaped by water for thousands of years. They reminded me of dinosaur bones found resting under a hot desert sun. At the time, I had no idea that extensive damming had dried up so many of the rivers. I imagined doing something to remind city people of the rivers that they might have forgotten, to restore their connection to their waters.

On this road trip, we unexpectedly—we were not searching for this—found our way to the first Sun Dance on the Navajo-Hopi Reservation. For four days, we witnessed the power of focused intention and prayer. We sang and drummed under a burning sun when a cloud appeared, spilling rain for five minutes out of the blue sky as the medicine man talked about the suffering of his people. The Sun Dance was a powerful, transformative experience, a specific ritual to strengthen the people and to experience suffering to gain compassion for those who are suffering. There was no separation between the dancers, the sky, the eagle, the drums, and us who chanted with them. Looking back, I realized that my vision to invite people to know about rivers originated in that experience. I cannot exactly explain how, except that it invited me to be immersed in the energies of the earth.

After returning to my loft in New York, I woke up each morning missing the trees, the simplicity of living on the earth, hearing the wind, and waking up to the dawn. This new consciousness showed up in the work that I began.

But first, to back up for a moment: Painting on canvas was my art until 1972. The sources of my new inquiries were my early morning walks with my three-year-old daughter and the feminist art movement; these worked together in not-so-obvious ways to inspire a change. I stepped out of the canvas and into public spaces with performance pieces that progressed from the personal 7000 Year Old Woman (1976) to installations such as Shrine for Everywoman at UN conferences in 1980, ’85, and ’90.

Breathing with Stones was first performed on the streets of SoHo and then in front of the American Museum of Natural History. Breathing with Stones evolved into Meditation with Stones for the Survival of the Planet at the SOHO20 Gallery every month at the full moon. Everyone who attended an event was both healed, and a healer. Participants brought their favorite stones to a full moon performance held monthly in a SoHo gallery.

We set a large blue circular cloth in the center of the room, around which everyone stood. After a gathering of energies, a small portion of the participants were invited to lie down, heads in the center. Those standing placed stones on the bodies of those lying down on the blue circle. When finished, we intoned a vocal sound over those with the stones on their bodies. Interestingly enough, participants never told each other where to place the stones, yet inevitably they placed stones where there was tension or pain.

To complete the event, each person was invited to think about the earth: what they loved about it and what they could do to save it. We ended with an invitation to place a stone in the center of the room, while stating an intention to protect or heal something on earth. This revealed that stones are powerful vehicles for healing imbued with their own energies. The wife of the famous Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji passed by the gallery and asked about the event, astonished to encounter in SoHo something she did regularly in Nigeria.

I traveled with my bags of rocks to universities and performance spaces to create these healing events. One day, the stones seemed tired, so I returned them to the earth. These stone-based performance pieces were the beginning of my exploration of the energy available to everyone, present in every detail of the earth.

In October 1983, I was invited to lead A Meditation With Stones at a conference in Canada for four hundred people. Many participants shed tears as they carried their rock to the center, along with a promise: “I will ensure that the whales, wolves, and bees survive.” While at the conference, I met a group of papermakers who invited me to join them on a road trip to Edmonton, Canada. As we sped down the highway, I asked them, “If you could do anything, and time and money were not obstacles, what would you do?” After answering, they asked me the same question. I answered, “I can’t do it, but . . . I imagine making a paper casting of a dry riverbed.” The car came screeching to a halt at the side of the road, the people in the front seat turned around and said, “You can do that, and we will help you.” At this moment, I resolved to start writing grants to secure the necessary funding. Breathing with Stones for the Survival of the Planet (1983) led me into water.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.. . . Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” 


Thanks to the director of the Framingham Museum, I received a new works grant from the Massachusetts Council of the Arts to create a piece for the Framingham Museum. Now I needed an accessible dry riverbed with nearby housing for up to ten people. Robyn Stein enthusiastically agreed to be the project manager. Right after returning from the UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi, we flew to Denver, rented a car, and drove through Colorado and New Mexico looking at every accessible dry riverbed. The landscape was spectacular, but suitable dry riverbeds with housing nearby were rare. Robyn’s friend Lucy Wallingford recommended Castle Creek, Near Moab, Utah. Indeed, in Castle Valley, Utah, we found the perfect riverbed. Castle Creek was dry and the right size, with abundant stones carved by water.

I rented a large van and picked up the team—Coco Gordon, Robyn Stein, Denise Amses, Regina Corritore, and Helmut Becker—at the airport in Denver. With my hands trembling on the wheel, we set out and drove over the mountain and down into Moab and the 36 miles to Castle Valley. There, a local real estate man gave us a large empty house in which we slept on mats on the floor and cooked with a few pots and pans. Ray Tomasso brought his papermaking equipment from Denver. We got up early to go to the site, where Helmut began to identify the plants that would be good to gather for papermaking. Under Helmut’s guidance, we pounded these plants with rocks to the rhythm of a dance. We broke down the fiber for boiling and converted it to paper. Meanwhile, the pulp had to be reconstituted by Ray. Ceremoniously, everyone lined up to support me through the first pour of the pulp onto the riverbed.

We quickly became a team, as if breathing in unison. I led the way, choosing the colors. Coco mixed the colors and for ten to twelve hours every day, Denise Amses, Regina Corritore, Robyn Stein, and Lucy Wallingford poured and patted liquid paper on every rock, bone, pebble, and bit of detritus in the dry bed. Pat Switzer followed us with her camera. We were framed by tall red mesas and yellow poplar trees.

A Hopi filmmaker, Victor Masayesva, was to join us to capture the process. I had neglected to tell Victor exactly where to find us—only that we were in Castle Valley. But sure enough, he appeared one day. When I asked him how he found us, he cryptically replied, “Finding whites in the land is easy.” It seemed that despite our best efforts to not disturb the land, not move a rock, and to use only biodegradable materials, none of us knew how to tread lightly on the earth.

One day, after hours of crouching over the riverbed, I stood to stretch my back and looked up. The sky was turning deep indigo and the stars of the Milky Way were beginning to appear, forming a pattern that resembled the pattern of the stones in the riverbed below. I thought, “The whole world is patterned by water, yet I know nothing about water.” At this moment, I knew I had to continue along my path in learning more about water.

The next day, an elderly resident of the valley told me that the Indigenous people called the Milky Way “the river of stones.” That made perfect sense and prompted me to make many large drawings of stars and stones. I was surprised to discover that nearby camping sites had signs warning people not to drink the water. Earth First!, an organization active in the area, told us that the ground and surface water was highly contaminated from mining and agriculture. In response to this shocking information, I changed the name of the piece from A Tribute to Rivers to A Memory of Clean Water.

Working so intimately in that valley with the riverbed, the stones, and the air, the mesa awakened something in me, a longing so deep that when people assumed I would go on to cast more riverbeds or other natural environments, I thought, why would I do that? Would that teach me about water?

A Memory of Clean Water became a traveling installation. I would load the 250 feet of riverbed casting in a van and drive it around to show at museums. It sparked interest in water among viewers. It seemed that most people had not thought about where their water came from or went, and had never heard of aquifers or the relationships between mining and polluted waters. “Now what?” I asked myself when I returned home to New York. Although I was expected to continue casting rivers in paper, that would not have answered my questions: How does water create everything in my world? How important is water quality to life? Above all, what were the stars telling me?

The stars told me that the world is patterned by water.

Following through on my decision to know water led me to attend conferences on water. I was looking for any indication that water was more than the three stages in the hydrologic cycle, more than just wastewater to be treated, more than just a resource to be transported around and sold.

Quietly, my dad was following my work. He picked up Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air at a garage sale. This book contains the research work of Theodor Schwenk, anthroposophist, engineer, and pioneering water researcher. Schwenk founded the Institute of Flow Sciences at the Max Planck Institute in Herrischried, Germany. Once I discovered Schwenk’s work, I was on my way to discovering more and more about the real nature of water.

Excerpted with permission from Water Talks by Betsy Damon, published by Steiner Books (2022).

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