At the beginning of this year, I and a team of collaborators installed a temporary project at Towson University called “Collected Watershed.” This artwork is an interactive, living water map of the Towson area’s watershed, which is located in suburban Baltimore and flows into the Chesapeake Bay. I created this project in collaboration with dozens of Towson faculty, students, and staff, all of whom were instrumental in bringing “Collected Watershed” to life. These collaborators helped with everything from testing water samples and collecting water from hard-to-find streams throughout the watershed, to cleaning labels off of recycled glass jars. In the end, we collected over 1,000 gallons of water and poured it into 8,500 glass jars that branch across the floor of Towson’s Center for the Arts Gallery, creating a large-scale map of the actual streams, runs, and creeks that flow through the land. The map allowed visitors to walk through the watershed like giants over the land, finding their backyard streams and seeing how one stream flowed into the next, connecting rainwater to the Chesapeake Bay.
As I write, the 8,500 jars of stream and bay water of “Collected Watershed” sit inside a darkened gallery with locked doors. Like many institutions and organizations, the entire Towson University closed its doors last week in order to help halt the spread of coronavirus. While I am disappointed that this project is not being visited now, it makes me consider the persistence and inescapable movement of water. Our human communities may be paused and temporarily isolated as we figure out how best to protect each other from illness, but our watersheds continue to move, receive rain, swell, and flow. So I’m wondering: What might we learn, in these moments of human stillness, from the inexorable movements of water? And how can we challenge ourselves to keep engaging in nature’s processes even as we feel our own processes to have come to a halt?
We’ve had big rainfalls over the past few days in central Pennsylvania, and the creeks are “in spate”—a wonderful British term that’s synonymous with “full to the brim.” This is a sure sign that spring is marching forwards: more and more bird calls filling the mornings, greening grass, and the first delicate color of bud haze on the trees. For those of us who are on a kind of “pause” right now, it’s helpful to remember that nature is rolling out all around us, and that there are wonderful details and changes to attend to in the soil, in the trees, and in the sunlight. These changes give us an opportunity to participate in a sense of the ongoing rolling out of the seasons, even as our activities and engagements are stilled.
As I traveled back and forth to Towson over the past months to install “Collected Watershed,” I often thought about how I live in a Pennsylvania valley near the upstream end of the Susquehanna River watershed, while the Towson project sits on the downstream end of that same watershed. I enjoyed this sense of being connected to Towson by an arterial network of waterways—not just the typical connection of traffic-filled roadways between places. Now that I am, like so many people right now, existing in this unexpected moment of isolation, not straying from my own home landscape and separated from my usual communities and routines, I am thinking again and anew about how we are connected by water. Even though I am here in the Upper Georges Valley and you are in your place, watersheds continue to quite literally connect us.
But also we are like stone and trees along the stream banks and along the river shores. Though we are still, the earth’s waters continue to flow past us, continuing with the motion of flowing down to the sea as we remain stationary. We are now more like the rocks that the water passes. In our quieted neighborhoods, under our empty city streets, near the vacant parking lots of malls —the waters continue to move and to connect across the landscape. And the watershed continues to bring the rain down to the sea.