John Archer explores water in all its forms: as weather, as an essential life-giving element, as the inspiration for custom, story and art. The Wisdom of Water is a collection of odd facts, associated environmental implications, and personal musings. At a time when we are all thinking a lot about water and how to conserve more of it, its publication is timely.
Unfortunately, the personal musings take over. And some of them are downright wacky. A chapter on snow is subtitled “Hieroglyphs from Heaven”. According to Archer, snow is “the ultimate expression of water’s creative imaginings”. As such, the individuality of each snowflake represents the “endless creativity of the Divine Mind”.
Wait! There’s more. Ponds are nature’s mirrors; the patterns on the surface of shells are water’s writings; clouds are the abode of the gods; a river is a divinity in liquid form. This emphasis on spirituality and Archer’s regular dismissal of science grows tedious after a while.
Archer is at his best when he writes like an anthropologist, relating cultural traditions and beliefs from Tibet to The Kimberley to Ancient Greece, Persia, Israel, even the Incas. While the stories and cultures tend to blur, they are universal enough to show that Archer is onto something.
The Wisdom of Water is filled with facts, lore, superstition, and anecdotes, as well as delightful stories. However, Archer’s tendency to wax poetic about the spiritual qualities of water divests the book of some of its power. Indeed, it would have been much wiser to let the facts and stories speak for themselves.
The Wisdom of Water, John Archer, Allen and Unwin.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2008.