Diving into the fathoms to find life’s fluency.

By Donovan Hohn

Mechanic’s Rock, Low Water (detail), by Henry P. Bosse, 1889. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Where does a story begin? The fiction is that they do, and end, rather than that the stuff of a story is just a cup of water scooped from the sea and poured back into it.
Rebecca Solnit


In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.
—Rachel Carson

In 1849, after hearing Ralph Waldo Emerson deliver the lecture “Mind and Manners in the Nineteenth Century,” Herman Melville, in one of his bouts of enthusiasm, scribbled a letter to a friend. “I love all men who dive,” he declared. The first time I read that declaration, I pictured Ralph Waldo at the end of a diving board wearing a swimsuit—a full-body swimsuit, perhaps, of the sort that might have been fashionable at the time—and maybe an oilskin swimmer’s cap, a pair of goggles made of, I don’t know, isinglass. This is pure fancy, of course. The high dive had not been invented in 1849. Nor had Americans yet learned to chlorinate water or domesticate the swimming pool. Water in 1849 was for ablutions and baptisms; for drinking; for irrigating fields and powering mills; for harvesting in its various phases—vapor, liquid, ice; for traveling over in boats. Keep reading Melville’s letter and it becomes clear that he’s picturing a different sort of diver. He’s imagining Emerson as a kind of philosophical whale, sounding the depths.

At the time he wrote that letter, wagon trains were leaving Missouri, heading west. A year later, in 1850, when Melville began work on Moby Dick, he included in its opening chapter a meditation on the metaphysics of water with some dubious advice for the pioneers: “Let the most absentminded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region.” Perhaps thinking of Emerson, he adds: “Should you ever be athirst in the Great American Desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as everyone knows meditation and water are wedded for ever.”


And if your company does not include a metaphysical professor? If you found yourself without water, out there in the Great American Desert in 1849? Or in the parched precincts of Cape Town in 2018? What then?

Accounts come down to us, among them a vivid report filed in 1906 by an adventuresome scientist named W.J. McGee, who investigates the thirsty case of a wayward prospector named Pablo Valencia. Valencia had barely survived for “nearly seven days” without water in the summer heat of the Arizona Territory, snacking on scorpions and drinking his own urine. Having examined the patient’s symptoms, McGee divides the physiology of thirst into three stages. There is “the stage of normal dryness,” familiar to all of us. Then comes “the stage of functional derangement.” The tongue clings to the teeth. The eustachian tubes burn. The skin tightens painfully over the skull like the head of a drum. The brain and spine ache. The voice cracks. The mind begins to go: “unreasoned revulsions arise against persons and things, while water and wetness are subconsciously exalted as the end of all excellence.” Finally comes “the stage of structural degeneration,” which is as bad as it sounds, characterized by McGee as “a progressive mummification of the initially living body.”

Life as we know it can survive without sunlight and oxygen: witness the creatures that populate the sulfurous vicinity of submarine hydrothermal vents. Life as we know it cannot live without water, and where there is water, there is almost always life. “I discovered living creatures in rain, which had stood but a few days in a new tub,” Antonie van Leeuwenhoek observed in 1675 after peering through his invention, a new and better microscope. A grown man like Pablo Valencia can last three weeks without food; without water, at most several days. For good reason, in its search for extraterrestrial life, NASA has defined the “habitable zone” as “the distance from a star where one can have liquid water on the surface of a planet.” We earthlings are at no risk of exiting our sun’s habitable zone anytime soon, but the reports arriving from McGee’s successors—of rising waters in Miami and Bangladesh, of poisoned waters in Fiji and Flint, of dwindling reservoirs and depleted aquifers—are troubling enough to make one wonder if the entire planet has already entered a stage of derangement. Clean water in this coming century, credible oracles predict, will become more valuable than oil, an accelerant to conflagration as well as conflagration’s antidote. The aging waterworks of America, meanwhile, seem well on their way toward McGee’s stage of structural degeneration.

This is a thirsty issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, an exaltation of water and wetness. The writers gathered in these pages walk the banks of rivers, from the Danube to the Yangtze to the Nile. They embark. They put on waders and conduct sampling expeditions. They dowse. They sound. They visit aqueducts and public baths and bottling plants. They dive—sometimes without leaving their desks. Like the cub river pilot Samuel Clemens, they read ripples, fathom depths, chart currents, decipher water’s secrets. They seek to acquire fluency in fluency. “I am haunted by waters,” Norman Maclean wrote from the banks of the Blackfoot River. “I am haunted by waters,” Olivia Laing repeats, in affirmation, from the banks of the River Ouse.


Growing up in San Francisco’s semisuburban outskirts during the drought years of the 1970s, I learned early on to treat water not only as an elemental source—of life and cleanliness, meditation and metaphor—but as that drier abstraction, a natural resource. The California of my childhood was the one Joan Didion wrote about the year I turned five, the coastal terminus of the American West, a region whose borders were drawn by drought. “The West begins where the average annual rainfall drops below twenty inches,” Bernard De Voto wrote, a definition Didion endorses, and to which she attributes her own “reverence for water”—for water and in her case for the waterworks with which Westerners had made deserts bring forth orange groves and swimming pools. Where Didion saw order wrung from nature’s chaos, adopted Westerner Edward Abbey saw order’s illusion, evidence of hubris and folly. Didion would extol a dam that Abbey would blow up. Water invites such contradictions. It purifies and corrupts, sustains life and destroys it. Water rusts and rots, and it preserves. “Kinds of water drown us. Kinds of water do not,” Anne Carson writes, distilling the conundrum to a riddle.

Our family dutifully obeyed the exhortations issued by local officials: Let the lawn yellow, the station wagon gather dust. Turn the faucet off while brushing your teeth. These austere rituals required a suspension of disbelief and a faith in the wisdom of bureaucrats, for the world as we experienced it appeared in no danger of running short of water. If you left the faucet on, the water ran until you shut the faucet off, and when wildfires broke out in the golden hills, as they did almost every summer, the fire trucks never failed to answer the alarm, and with rare exception, the hydrants summoned forth from beneath the sidewalk a gusher commensurate to the flames.

My parents were both churchgoers, and when I first encountered the opening chapters of the Bible, I recognized the description there of an earthly realm stretched between waters above and waters below. Our house occupied a foggy altitude, and its windows often opened onto heavens of mist—evaporate from the Pacific that would condense in the cooling air, rolling in and out like a tide. When the fog washed onto the mountains of California’s coastal range, it turned their upper slopes into a littoral zone, their peaks into islands, our cul-de-sac of stucco row houses—painted the pastels of a coral reef—into a foggy Atlantis.

To gaze upon a drop of water is to behold the nature of all the waters of the universe.

—Huangbo Xiyun, 850

Collecting in the branches of the redwoods and eucalyptus trees, the fog watered the ferny understory of the temperate forests. On those rare occasions when a downpour broke the dry spell, the slopes would liquefy. The evening news would feature footage of highways and bungalows buried under mud. A culvert beside our neighbor’s house channeled rivulets of runoff to the curbside gutter, where it swelled into a little river, my own diminutive Mississippi on whose muddy waters I would perform experiments in hydrology, building dams of pebbles and dirt, studying currents, setting leaves adrift—efforts at water management that were as futile as those of the Army Corps of Engineers during the Great Flood of 1927, as futile in the long run as most human efforts to control water and contain it. The curbside rivulet always found its way to the sewer grate by the lamppost, where it would disappear into a mysterious darkness out of which there rose an odor of swamp. Anyone requiring a lesson in the hazards of flood control need only read John McPhee’s account of his travels around the Louisiana Delta or Jesmyn Ward’s novel set in the mayhem of Hurricane Katrina, or revisit the footage aired last autumn when the waters above and below conspired to inundate Houston and San Juan. Water is the universal solvent, of schemes as well as substances.

In motion, it seems alive, motivated by a kind purpose as it seeks its level, its surface sinuous, muscular, as if animated by serpents or spirits, which helps explain all those fantastic monsters and mermaids and river gods that have populated the waters of the human mind. All matter is in motion, physicists and Heraclitus tell us, but the motion of water, unlike that of atoms or stone, readily accommodates our powers of perception, the timescale of a human life. The motion of water is luminous and momentary. No wonder so many writers throughout the centuries, while walking beside a river or a Venetian canal, have, like Joseph Brodsky, glimpsed through their own reflections a metaphor for time. Leonardo da Vinci, in his notebooks, made plans for a treatise on water in which he would “describe all the shapes that water assumes, from its greatest to its smallest wave.” I understand the impulse.


Lapsed though I am, I’m still stirred by the poetics of the flood in Genesis 6—how the fountains of the deep burst forth and the windows of heaven open. Judaism, Christianity, Islam—they may all be “desert religions,” sure, but they are also, like most faiths people have observed all over the world and throughout the recorded centuries, religions of water. The Bible is a soggy book. Witness how many miracles and divine interventions occur on water, or at its edge. In 2 Kings a leper named Naaman takes a curative dip in the spa of the Jordan River. John the Baptist spends his days there, busy as the attendant of a profitable car wash. Jonah, that reluctant aquanaut, quiets the Mediterranean. Moses bloodies the Nile, parts the Red Sea, and in his downtime meets his future wife at a watering hole. Jesus saunters around, barefoot as a water skeeter, on the surface of Galilee. For good reason, many religious pilgrimages terminate in sources and springs. The Quran is likewise soggy, promising faithful believers an afterlife with “gardens graced with flowing streams” and “rivers of water forever pure.” Every living thing in the Quran is made of water. “To a desert culture,” writes historian Garry Wills, “water is not only needed for life. It is life. It is the material thing nearest to God.” In a desert, all waters are holy.

Then again, people sanctify water in rainy latitudes too. In Vietnamese, the word for water is also the word for homeland. And in polar ones. Several summers ago, I found myself taking a walk under the midnight sun along the shores of the Northwest Passage accompanied by an Inuit kid named Puglik. In the mining town of Cambridge Bay, where we’d met, many working adults sleep through the sunlit night. Their children, some of them, play by night and sleep by day. I was staying with an archaeologist who’d spent the summer field season, now nearly over, excavating a Thule house pit on the town’s outskirts. As the Arctic permafrost thaws, such sites, preserved for centuries, are at risk of melting away, and my archaeologist friend thought I might like to see one while I had the chance. On our way out of town, we ran into Puglik kicking at the bark chips under the monkey bars of a public playground. He was underdressed in what looked like hand-me-downs: a hooded sweatshirt with sleeves long enough to warm his fingertips and a pair of white sneakers so big I could have worn them. Bored, he asked to join us.

The road was muddy. The Arctic in summer’s thaw is a muddy place, muddier and muddier as the planet warms. For underdressed pilgrims on a hike, however, the weather was still plenty cold. A wind refrigerated by sea ice was giving us all the shivers, and Puglik kept wiping his nose with his sleeve, carrying on about his favorite video games and pointing out local landmarks. In a graveyard atop a hill, wooden crosses had begun to topple and tilt. His ancestors were all buried there, at least the ones he knew about, Puglik said, but now the entire hill was thawing, the graveyard slowly sliding toward the sea.

Krishna and the Gopis Take Shelter from the Rain (detail), India, 1760. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. John Wiley and Cynthia Hazen Polsky Gifts, and Rogers Fund, 1991.

To windward flowed a glassy stream in which you could see a weir, a funnel of rocks with which locals corralled fish for easy harvesting, as people had been doing since the ice sheets retreated. The stream was popular with migrating waterfowl as well as fish. Geese that had wintered in Biloxi nested here on the tundra. We know that migrating birds follow spring. They’re chasing sunlight, of course, but they’re also chasing wetlands; they, too, make pilgrimages to water. We came to a bend in the road that conformed to a bend in the stream, and in the stream’s bend was an eddy that conformed to some invisible bend in the cosmos, deep enough for a swimming hole. “We call this part of the river,” Puglik said, “an ‘Inuit Jacuzzi.’ ”

I’d come to Cambridge Bay in the company of scientists studying its changing ecology and climate, and while traveling through the Northwest Passage aboard an icebreaker, I’d joined a cryologist with the Canadian Ice Service on a survey conducted by helicopter. The cryologist—or “ice pick,” as people in her line of work are colloquially known—had to chart and classify the puzzling ice pack visible below. Although it had thawed and thinned earlier than it had in any previous year on record, there remained a multitude of ice to see and classify. The names for its varieties, I learned, are as numerous and lovely as those for clouds: frazil, pancake, nilas, grease, agglomerated brash. The language of ice describes more than dimensions and shapes. It names subtle gradations in the phase changes water undergoes as it solidifies and expands or liquefies and condenses.

With our terrestrial eyes, we are good at perceiving and classifying water in its solid and vaporous forms. The vernacular for liquid water is meager by comparison. Since the time of the ancient Phoenicians, if not before, navigators and river pilots have learned to read water’s surface well, but it was only over the past century or so that limnologists and oceanographers have begun studying and classifying underwater formations shaped by chemistry and thermodynamics—dense masses drifting through the twilight zone like underwater clouds, or vortices spinning around like underwater storms. We’re still acquiring fluency in fluency.


These days I live in southeast Michigan, which is to say I dwell in a water­shed of paradox. Here we are, at the edge of the Great Lakes, which together contain 84 percent of North America’s and 20 percent of the world’s accessible freshwater. The Great Lakes are puddles of glacial melt. Rainfall and tributaries contribute only 1 percent of their total volume. Much of the rest is “fossil water,” sequestered from the water cycle since the last ice age. Under a recently issued state permit, the Nestlé corporation, a major purveyor of bottled water, can now draw up to four hundred gallons of Michigan groundwater per minute for just two hundred dollars a year. And yet in Flint, people now regard their faucets with warranted suspicion, and in Detroit, whose water treatment plant would have spared the people of Flint from mass poisoning, the water company has been turning the spigots off, letting their delinquent customers go thirsty or purchase bottled water from Nestlé.

Two years ago, during the federal emergency in Flint, I spent some time in the city following a team of civil engineers conducting an investigation. I watched as contractors excavated a residential street, extracting a service line from under the asphalt. The line—a few dozen yards of copper pipe—was evidence at a crime scene, and the scientists labeled it with forensic care. Looking at it coiled on a sun-dappled lawn, dirt still clinging to the copper, I experienced a feeling that I later recognized as disenchantment. What I couldn’t get over was how small the pipe’s diameter was: three-quarters of an inch. This was it? The source of the everyday magic?

For most of my life, running water had been one of those technologies, like the telephone or electric light, that I took for granted. Where the water came from and where it went when it gurgled down the drain were both mysteries that I’d only rarely wondered about. Living in the age of indoor plumbing is a bit like living beside a stream whose headwaters and mouth are distant rumors. The waterworks of wealthy nations, or at least those of certain zip codes, are a kind of man-made River Lethe. In imperial Rome the aqueduct was a public monument as well as an engineering feat. Buried underground, our own aqueducts invite forgetting. In New York City the subterranean water tunnels constitute, writes David Grann, “a city under the city,” one that few New Yorkers know about, let alone ever see.

Moses Striking Water from the Rock, by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1645. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Moses Striking Water from the Rock, by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1645. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy the Getty’s Open Content Program.

We forget the value and scarcity of potable water. Most of the planet’s 332 million cubic miles of water is salty. “Only 2 percent is fresh,” Rose George reports in her 2008 study of human-waste management, The Big Necessity, “and two-thirds of that is unavailable for human use, locked in snow, ice, and permafrost.” We forget how much of it we waste—we Americans especially. While about a billion people get by on five liters of water a day, Americans use more than twice that in a single toilet flush. We forget the people—some 30 percent of the global population—who do not have easy access to safe drinking water. We forget what life was like prior to the advent of chlorination.

For reminders, we can read the diary that Carolina Maria de Jesus kept in 1958, documenting the daily life of a São Paulo favela whose inhabitants lined up every morning at a public spigot and fished from a polluted lagoon. We can visit Victorian London and witness cholera spread from a single contaminated pump, or make a pilgrimage to the sacred grotto of Lourdes, where in 1894 Émile Zola watched the Catholic faithful immerse themselves in “a frightful consommé of all ailments, a field of cultivation for every kind of poisonous germ, a quintessence of the most dreaded contagious disease.”

During one of my trips to Flint, I went to have a look at the city’s notorious river. The downtown promenade was buried deep in snow. A single pedestrian had gone promenading anyway, leaving behind a trail of boot prints that led from the salted sidewalks of Saginaw Street down a flight of concrete stairs to the concrete quay at the river’s edge. I followed them. A hundred yards upstream, the Flint frothed and boiled through an open lock, but by the time it reached me, its surface had settled to a low simmer. To the naked eye, it didn’t look so bad. I wasn’t tempted to kneel down and fill up a canteen—the water was opaque and khaki green, like rancid olive oil—but dead fish weren’t floating on its surface. If I’d dropped a match, it wouldn’t have caught fire, as the Cuyahoga and the Chicago used to. The air above it didn’t stink. Having once gone boating on the Des Plaines River, outflow of Chicago’s Sanitary and Ship Canal, and having visited the Hudson after a rainstorm had overwhelmed Manhattan’s storm drains, I’d seen and smelled worse. Upstream from me, a pair of Canada geese on a snowy bank appeared to be enjoying their waterfront view. If I hadn’t known better, I’d never have guessed that I was looking at the wellsprings of disaster.

This is yet another source of water’s mystery: its exact makeup is inscrutable to the naked eye and to our other senses. You need a compound microscope or a mass spectrometer to determine whether you’ve filled your drinking glass with the waters of life or a consommé of ailments. What discolored the sampling bottles Flint’s residents had held before the television cameras in 2015 was iron corroded from rusty pipes. Corroded lead, once dissolved, is odorless and invisible.


Whenever I visit a river, I have the urge to follow it. The Flint flows west, and if I’d continued my promenade in that direction, I’d have reached, fifty miles downstream, the confluence with the Shiawassee, which flows northeast into the Saginaw, which empties into Saginaw Bay, which opens onto Lake Huron, which is itself, in truth, an immense caesura in a slow-moving stream whose headwaters lie at the western end of Lake Superior and whose terminus is the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, which opens onto the North Atlantic. The journey of a river from source to mouth resembles our own journey from birth to death, an analogy oft remarked, and yet the beginnings and endings of rivers are as fictional as those we impose on stories. There are headwaters to headwaters and no river ever really ends.

I have over several years followed the water through the outskirts of Chicago, over Niagara Falls, down the Mississippi. I’ve traveled Lake Erie by sailboat, the Saint Lawrence by canoe, chasing a ghost geography, a relic map, hidden behind the pixelated roads and interstates charted by my Global Positioning System. Since moving to Michigan, trying to understand the place, I’ve studied its recorded history, which does have a beginning, in the accounts written in the seventeenth century by the French. Flipping in chronological order through their hand-drawn maps, you can watch the familiar geography emerge as if out of the water. At first, water is all there is, a meandering of riverbanks and coastlines in the midst of a vast blankness. Even the place names are watery. Michigan is transliterated Algonquian for “Big Water,” and all around the Great Lakes are towns and streets named for rapids and portages. The early history of the American Midwest was written from the vantage of a canoe. “Rivers must have been the guides which conducted the footsteps of the first travelers,” wrote Henry David Thoreau after voyaging with his brother on the Concord and the Merrimack. “They are the constant lure, when they flow by our doors, to distant enterprise and adventure; and, by a natural impulse, the dwellers on their banks will at length accompany their currents to the lowlands of the globe, or explore at their invitation the interior of continents.”

These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession.

—Claude Monet, 1908

In the twenty-first century, it’s not easy to follow the water. Beyond downtown riverfront promenades, one enters a semiferal, semi-industrial no-man’s-land, an inside-out version of America hidden from the view from a sidewalk or a driver’s seat. Along the Lower Mississippi, between the levees and the water’s edge, the river’s flood stages have kept development at bay, preserving an accidental wetland wilderness, a landscape of incongruities accessible only by boat. Haul out beside the outflows of petrochemical refineries, climb over the batture and through the willows, watching for fire ant mounds and poison ivy, and you can emerge onto the shores of a nameless pond, the remnant of an oxbow meander where alligators are sunning in the shallows and a hundred roseate spoonbills and pelicans, startled by your startlement, burst loudly into flight.


Below the water’s surface lie more lost worlds. Water remembers what we might otherwise forget, in part because what we wish to forget, we jettison. We pretend that to throw something into the East River or the ocean is to make it disappear, when really its disappearance is an illusion, a vanishing act. The Great Lakes, I’ve learned, are especially good at remembering. In the cold, fresh, oxygen-depleted refrigerator of their depths, wrecks and other sunken relics last longer than they would in the ocean, where salt corrodes metal, and wood becomes food for teredo worms. In Thunder Bay, at the northwestern edge of Lake Huron, there is a kind of underwater museum—the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, it’s called. Visit the sanctuary’s website, and you can go diving without leaving your desk. Shipwrecks appear on a map. Click on one, and the name of some doomed vessel pops up, alongside spooky photographs of its phantasmal remains.

Here is the steel freighter Norman, which during the Gilded Age ferried ore to the Globe Iron Works in Cleveland, Ohio, and now sits in two hundred feet of water, where it has grown popular with zebra mussels. Here is the Montana, which caught fire in 1914. Here is the delightfully named Typo, a three-masted schooner erased from the lake surface by a fast-moving steamer in 1899. Four sailors drowned. The Typo is still carrying a load of coal it will never deliver, and a ship’s bell still hangs in the belfry. If you were willing to piss off the archaeological custodians in charge of Thunder Bay and risk tangling your flippers in the ancient riggings, you could swim down to the decks of the Typo and give the bell a ring. Had any of these vessels made it to safe harbor, they would likely be long gone.

There’s a bumper sticker popular in these parts that shows a map of the five Great Lakes beside the caption unsalted, shark-free. The first time I saw it, it occurred to me that an opportunity had presented itself. Suffering from a phobia of sharks, I’d never gone scuba diving, though I’d wanted to. And so, not long ago, after completing the requisite training, I found myself perched on the rail of a fishing boat, tugging a pair of flippers on over a pair of neoprene booties.

The fishing boat was anchored off Poverty Island, one of several in a chain of uninhabited islands at the northern end of Lake Michigan that obstruct the entrance to Green Bay. Also aboard the fishing boat was a shipwreck hunter and a team of commercial divers he’d hired. The shipwreck hunter had spent three decades and upwards of a million dollars searching for a wooden French brigantine last seen in 1679. He was convinced he was on the verge of finding it. The trail of clues he’d assembled in the historical archives seemed to him unassailable, and he’d brought me along to document his triumph. Not all men who dive are philosophers, I now know. Some of them are retirees squandering their life fortunes on misbegotten hunts for missing ships.

The Floating Feather (detail), by Melchior de Hondecoeter, c. 1680. Rijksmuseum.

In emails, the shipwreck hunter had referred to our outing as an expedition and had dressed accordingly, which is to say nautically, in a navy blue windbreaker and a navy ball cap embroidered with golden laurels. On the windbreaker, stitched over his heart, was a date, 1679, and the name of the ship, Le Griffon, for which he had spent most of his adulthood searching. A little icon of the ship sailed above his ball cap’s bill, encircled by the words Imagine, Explore, Discover. He’d meant to bring matching Le Griffon T-shirts for everyone aboard the fishing boat to make the expedition feel more expeditionary, but he’d forgotten them back at his condo. This trivial oversight seemed to fill him with outsize regret.

Connected to the surface by a braid of hoses known, poetically, as “the umbilical,” the commercial divers had gone overboard one by one, wearing “hard hats,” modern-day versions of the diving helmets worn by the aquanauts you might encounter in an illustrated edition of Jules Verne, or seated on a plastic treasure chest at the bottom of a decorative aquarium. Walking around in weighted boots, scanning the lake bed with handheld magnetometers, the commercial divers hadn’t found much aside from driftwood. The Great Lakes are good at remembering; they’re also good at obliterating. Nevertheless, the shipwreck hunter had agreed to send me down, and the time had come.

Perched on the rail of the fishing boat, tugging on my flippers, wearing a rented seven-millimeter wet suit, I was beset by second thoughts. At scuba school the instructor had elaborated in memorable detail the assorted gruesome ways that scuba diving can abbreviate a life, the most memorable of which to my mind was this: ascend too quickly without exhaling, and your lungs will pop like balloons. At bottom, sixty feet down, it would be a comparatively warm thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. Sometimes, at the bottom of the Great Lakes, liquid water descends below the freezing point without freezing, on account of the pressure. Into their suits, the commercial divers had pumped, through one of the hoses braided into the umbilical, heated water. The shipwreck hunter had told me that my exposed face might feel as if it had been “stung by bees,” but a seven-millimeter suit would be warm enough, he’d assured me.

In my head, to calm myself, I recited the opening lines of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”:

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.

You may think this an embellishment, that perched on the rail of a fishing boat, squeezing your nostrils shut, preparing to tumble backward overboard, you’d have better things to think about than a poem, but I promise you I’d committed those lines to memory—because I wanted to write about the experience someday, yes, but also because I wanted more than the bright white nylon anchor line to guide me down into Lake Michigan’s cerulean immensity, and because I wanted to remember why it was I was doing this. I was doing this because I’d imagined that descending the water column would be like time travel, like flippering into the past, as if fathoms were centuries.


This essay introduces Lapham’s Quarterly Summer 2018 issue, Water. Lewis H. Lapham will return in the next issue.

Click here for an audio version of this essay read by Donovan Hohn.

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