- Reading for the Watery World
During the time of my reading Lowell Duckert’s For All Waters: Finding Ourselves in the Early Modern Wetscape in September 2017, two massive hurricanes struck the United States with what newscasters and scientists alike were calling “unprecedented” force. In my home state of Texas, the most striking images of Hurricane Harvey were Houston highways that had become rivers and boat rescues of residents whose houses were up to the roofs in water. Fast on its heels, Hurricane Irma hit Florida, and fear from the destruction of Harvey sent many coastal Floridians to leave their homes for overcrowded and undersupplied shelters or out onto the freeways, where gas, food, and hotels were in short supply. The Caribbean, also struck by Irma, was then hit by Maria, which caused massive destruction in its wake, leaving islands without electricity, food, or water. Meanwhile on the other side of the United States, fires continued to rage in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, such that only the cooler weather of winter and the accompanying rains or snow put the blazes out.
I begin this review with this description because such extreme weather illustrates the very timeliness of For All Waters. While Duckert’s monograph is a well-researched historical investigation into the workings of water in the early modern period, it does not [End Page 413] let the reader forget contemporary ecological watery crises. Each chapter begins with a tale of flood or drought or of the significant destruction of wetlands, and indeed the book itself could be categorized as a late descendant of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Drawing on a vast knowledge of theoretical studies, Duckert’s writing is presentism at its best, for not only does he constantly make us aware of our current situation as we discover the watery past through his skilled writing, but in the end the book shows us that our attitudes toward the environment are rooted in the past.
From the very beginning of this book, I had an inkling that the act of reading For All Waters would deeply affect me and the way that I view the world, and that impression turned out to be true. Opening with Colleen Ludwig’s art installation Shiver, in which viewers are invited to participate in the water works of the sculpture, Duckert illustrates how the human body is made up of water, emphasizing the permeability of bodies—both human and nonhuman—with the land/water-scapes of the blue planet that we call home. For as much as we like to think of ourselves as separate and unconnected, we are indeed inextricably bound to and within the “more-than-human-world” (xv). Espousing Stacy Alaimo’s notions of “trans-corporeal landscapes” as a foundational concept, Duckert submerges us into slippery, liquid architectures that will shape the book. Duckert adroitly navigates readers through a vast array of theoretical concepts and the multivalent textual voyages that he has laid before us.
A great deal of the joy in reading Duckert’s book comes from his own delight in language, evinced by his poetic voice, his frequent archaeological etymologies, and his interest in the underlying and sometimes contradictory language of the early modern narratives. Each chapter is organized around various early modern relationships with particular watery states, commencing with Sir Walter Raleigh’s encounter with the massive unpredictable Amazon, the riverscape that dominates the narrative of his voyage to Guiana and his quest to find El Dorado. Duckert argues that Raleigh’s failure to discover the promised land of gold is in essence replaced by the ecological hydrography of the labyrinthine river and its mysteries. Hinting at the transcorporeal permeability between the beleaguered courtier/poet/privateer/explorer and his riverine subject, Duckert’s chapter name “Becoming Wa/l/ter” illustrates how we are to see the connection between Raleigh and his subject. While Raleigh’s aim in essence is one of colonial subjugation and imperial enrichment, he becomes enamored with the very water that stymies his objectives...