This article is published in the printed Kaltio 4/2020 in Finnish translation. Here is the original piece.
There are some aspects of our fishy beginnings that we will never be able to live. We can contact these beginnings, but only furtively, only on stolen time. To follow these resonances of past waters to the depths of their potentiality, we need superpowers, or borrowed organs.1
If it’s a moonlit night, you can look at the moon’s reflections. Watch how the reflected light of the moon forms intricate patterns on the water, similar to the ones under a bridge or on the bottom of a swimming pool. These patterns are known as ”moon circles” and can be seen when any bright point of light bounces off water.2
Sometimes a whole coastal landscape beyond the horizon is crystal clear, hung in the sky above the sea. Island navigators who peopled the vast Pacific called these signs of things beyond ordinary vision ”speech of the sea”, kapesani lemetau.3
The nun Chiyono studied for years, but was unable to find enlightenment. One night, she was carrying an old pail filled with water. As she was walking along, she was watching the full moon reflected in the pail of water. Suddenly, the bamboo strips that held the pail together broke, and the pail fell apart. The water rushed out; the moon’s reflection disappeared – and Chiyono became enlightened. She wrote this verse: ”This way and that way I tried to keep the pail together, hoping the weak bamboo would never break. Suddenly the bottom fell out. No more water; no more moon in the water – emptiness in my hand.”4
Water is the most versatile of elements. So my father told me the day he took me to the place that didn’t exist. While he was wrong about many things, he was right about this, so I still believe. Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn’t afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you.5
The water is fine. Jump in. Some will refuse, for they see that the water is thick with monsters ready to devour them. What they have in mind is self-preservation.6
What has happened to you?
You have arrived on the sea
Floor and a lady comes out
From the great Kelp Wood
And gives you some scones and a cup
Of tea and asks you
If you come here often.7
Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.8
I cycle down to the lake and I rest the bicycle against one of the birch trees near the kota. The day has been warm and windy, but here, sheltered by the hills and the trees, the water is mostly calm, with only a small strip on the east side of the lake showing some turbulent textures, where the wind is making messy furrows on the surface.
It takes time to assemble the fly-fishing rod, to attach the reel, the line, the leader, and to select the fly from the box, which is always a careful decision. And I am all the time watching. I listen to the stillness. I see movement, small sketches drawn by fish that are shoaling. The ground is sloped and soft beneath my feet.
This is my second visit to this Kainuu lake, and the second time fishing here. I have heard rumours there are trout, and I suspect there are perch and pike. The water is clear, undisturbed, and I look between the water lilies. Dead leaves form an exquisite textured fabric on top of the silt of the lakebed. The canoe is upside down on the bank. I struggle turning it over, and I slide it down, disturbing the glassy calm of the water. I fetch the oars and the fishing rod again, and I climb in.
I paddle out to the middle of the lake. The sun is hot. I watch a three-toed woodpecker flit between the dead and dying trees along the edge of the swampy shore. The wind drops down further. The fishing line sings and whispers with each throw, and the canoe drifts slightly with my arm’s momentum during each cast. I am fishing with trout flies, fishing slowly, then quickly, dry flies on the surface. I watch the water. Time passes. I switch to wet flies, fishing them slow and deep.
Every so often I hear the sound of water gulping, tight into the banks of the lake. I am too far away, so I am unsure what is producing the sound. I think it could be waterfowl, ducks or grebes, or maybe some water voles jumping in for a cooling dip. In my heart though, it is something magical. After the fourth time I hear the sound, I reel in my line, take the oar in hand, and I punt and glide to the north side of the lake, where the water is shallow, and where I last heard the sound.
I finally see the movement up close. I can feel sunburn on my neck, and I glide in the canoe as slowly and carefully as I can manage, until I am around five metres away from the most recent ripples. I tie in one of the biggest flies in the box, and I start fishing where the calm has been ruptured.
I am distracted by a dragonfly, then by a car driving past on the road nearby when the line is plucked from my hand. I try to keep hold of it and I try to raise my right arm without panicking. My eyes follow the curve of the rod and the thin line of the leader as it disappears beneath the surface. The movement is slow and steady, almost lazy, but there is a solid connection to something. Through my wrist, I swim with it.
The shapeshifting figure of the Kelpie, most at home in the lochs of Scotland, has correspondence with the ”Nøkken” in Norway, and the ”Näkki” here in Finland. Other types of water spirits, such as the ”Kappa”, for example, found in Japan, are present in the lore of many cultures around the world. The Kelpie myth centres on a creature that changes between the appearances of humans and horses, and it is capable of disappearing into the form of water itself. Along the coastlines, it lives among the kelp and seaweed, and in freshwater it resides among the reeds and grasses.
In most cases the Kelpie is described as a malevolent being, often introducing itself in equine form, tricking children into riding it, before jumping into the water and drowning them. In Näkki maalle, mina veteen, Marja Härkönen describes how, when the village children express a desire to go swimming on a warm July day, they are warned by their relatives to be wary of the Näkki, who could drag them down beneath the water. The children receive an important piece of advice: ”Nimeään se ei kestä kuulla, sitä se pelästyy ja lähtee pakoon, Vanha-Anna Selitti.”9
Even on the land they are not safe from drowning. When Näkki appears as a horse and persuades the children to climb onto its back, it predictably and mischievously starts to run for the water. It is only when its name is spoken that the Näkki rears up and runs away, leaving the children shaken, but alive, in the shallow water.
Plumb Line10 is a series of photographs by the Kirkenes-based artist Morten Torgersrud. The title of the work refers to an instrument used for finding the depth of water, or for determining the vertical on an upright surface. Operating with basic forces, what the plumb line implicates or produces is direction, always following the centre of gravity of the earth.
The artist is concerned with the ontological aspects of photography, and in Plumb Line, the series of vessels, tubes, containers, radiators, and pipes are presented as structures, figures, and functions. The works recall water, not only through metaphor, but through self-reflexivity of the objects-as-such, through the processes of depiction – as meetings with infrastructures, plant life, hydraulic machinery, engines, electronics, and other materials. Although common processes of photography have changed in recent decades, and now do not involve as many encounters with chemical baths, contemporary processes still involve liquidity through liquid crystal displays, for example, or in the gels or pastes contained within lithium batteries. When photography is shared online, it is assisted by water-cooled computer servers, humming quietly in distant places.
Likewise, stories of water are not only reflections of shared elemental communities in the lore of cultures, but this fluidity is a literal presence too within language and poetry, within the moisture in the voice during their retellings, within the ink on the page, and the liquid of the pixel.
I have always been told to never let go of a fishing rod, and so I hang on. I sit in the canoe and I am pulled slowly back out into the middle of the lake. The progress is steady, quite relaxing, as if I am being drawn in a sleigh by a horse or a reindeer. When the creature finally emerges from the water, I find my breath is cut short. It catches my eye, and then it dives down below. As the fishing line streams out from the reel, the creature suddenly takes a new direction. I react, lose my balance, and I capsize the canoe.
I keep my grip on the rod, and as I enter the lake I realise that I can now breathe comfortably underwater. The creature, and the other beings that now surround it, glow in the darkness, as the topography of the lake descends to an incredible depth, into a never-ending and calm abyss. Eventually the line goes slack and I let go of the fishing rod. I swim back to the surface, but I find now that the lake has frozen. The ice is thick, but I do not feel cold.
I start to follow things, bits of light and such. I move from one end of the lake to the other, seeing and feeling things around me, observing fishes, insects, and bits of vegetation, everything magnified somehow, and in various states of life and death and life again. There is peace. Occasionally the creature that brought me here swims nearby, but my movements are now so slow that I am unable to react. It seems merely to check up on things, and it leaves again when it is satisfied. Years pass me by, decades, long stretches of time. I continue to swim. I swim with others. I become the lake itself. The moon moves above.
In the Oulipian novel The Conversions by Harry Mathews,11 the reader encounters a bewildering journey of riddles and intrigue as the protagonist attempts to decipher a set of images that have been etched into the blade of a prized ceremonial adze in order to claim a (possibly non-existent) fortune.
The final episode of the book involves an encounter with a strange device that is found off the coast of a small volcanic island. Under the water, a large perpetual motion machine, operating through an array of gears and pendulums, quietly functions unseen, serving the single purpose of tracking the phases of the moon. The perpetuity of the moon-clock comes from the unusual power source: a large shoal of herring, who live out their entire lifecycles within a vast net beneath the machine.
Within this netted structure – where the fish have ample room to swim, oxygen to breathe, and food to eat – they live, grow, reproduce, and die, their population stable in relation to their environment. Occasionally, a small vibration from the machine startles the fish, encouraging them to swim in the opposite direction. After their fright has subsided, they are again startled into swimming away in another direction, and so on. The turbulence caused by their swimming is harnessed by the machine, which provides the moon-clock with the energy to function.
In the novel, the conclusion to the riddle is not uncovered. The quest ends in failure, and several questions remain unanswered. What then is the purpose of this elaborate construct? Who, or what made it? What can be learned from it?
Scott Esposito has written about Mathews’ startling creation in the context of the Oulipian project – the empathy that many writers undoubtedly share with ”imprisoned fish, condemned to spend their lives as an unwilling, unwitting part of a tool constructed long ago by an unknown intelligence to an obscure end” and specifically of the Oulipo writer, contending with the limits of language games, of narrative, and perception, through acts of reading and writing that are fundamentally aimed at pushing the framed boundaries of textual possibilities.12
Perhaps that was Matthews’ intention – the moon-clock as a metaphor for the writer’s lot – but this work undoubtedly goes further. From a contemporary vantage point, the machine could relate to late capitalism for example, or to other cultural systems that give rise to fatalistic thinking, even to processes of nature itself, to life in general. My reading is that the presentation of the machine has more in common with the form and function of the koān. It is a watery lesson where asking what the moon-clock represents is to somehow miss the point.
The Koān is the case-study for the student of Zen Buddhism, wherein a Zen master presents problems or conundrums for the Zen student to dispel the illusions of logic and knowledge and to embrace unknowingness on the path to enlightenment.
The earlier example of the nun Chiyono and the moon reflected in the bucket is a koān called No Water, No Moon. It shows how enlightenment happens in an unfragmented, complete, and sudden way. Chiyono’s focus on reflection (and in this instance on the reflection of the moon) was a barrier, even though she had been studying for years. Osho notes how, either before or after this event, Chiyono ”must have looked up – and the real moon was there.”13
Rather than a focus on a reflection – which can take many forms – dispelling the illusionary life is a necessary catalyst. One must also be open, receptive, and willing to accept the accident when it happens. When the bucket breaks, water flows, and the depths of enlightenment can be revealed.