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An Environmental Humanities Deep Map by Dr James L. Smith

Open Note: Defining Spiritual Waterscape

A pilgrim praying on St. Brigid’s Chair, from Philip Dixon Hardy, The Holy Wells of Ireland (Dublin: Hardy and Walker, 1840), public domain, out of copyright []

Hello Reader. Today I would like to talk about some questions arising at the intersection of water and spiritual landscape that I have been pondering. This short post is part of an open notebook collection, where I share snippets of intermediate methodological musings in the spirit of open access. As my work becomes more technically involved, these notes will become more applied in nature.

My goal is to clarify what questions we can, should and could ask of a body of water with a complex socio-natural identity and history, and the connections between social and environmental factors that underpin it where spirituality is concerned. Spiritual waterscape as a methodological framework emerges from a combination of theories, intermingling to ask hybrid questions. Two of the most influential threads are those of spiritual landscape and the hydro-social cycle.

Spiritual landscape presents a vision space and place generated by a relationship between “bodily existence, felt practice and faith in things” (Dewsbury and Cloke, 2009: 696). In order to begin this approach, Dewsbury and Cloke (708-9) consider three modalities: “that the spiritual be considered as existential and of sensation, that it be thought of as performative in that it is practised and brought into being (and thus valorized) as something based on faith (as something that scripts action as an experience of doubt), and that whilst not transcendental it is nonetheless suggestive of immanence”. In short, a spiritual landscape must be felt, practised, re-inscribed, and believed to endure. Such is the power of spiritual place that its meaning can cling to its material traces within the landscape long after active practice has ceased. Lough Derg—like other places of enduring spiritual magnetism—has become powerful through its consistent adherence to these principles on an impressive scale and over many centuries.

When water is added to the mix, more vistas open. The hydro-social cycle interrogates the relationship between water and society as a transactional arrangement. Linton and Budds (2014: 179) characterise the cycle as prompting three crucial questions:

  • First, what is water? This is a primary and complex question, since “[t]he hydrosocial cycle is a process that relates water and society internally, which implies the presence of different waters in different assemblages of social circumstances”.
  • Secondly, “how is water made known?” Answering this question requires “attending to how water is constructed through discursive practices (e.g. a ‘resource’), as well as through alternative ways of knowing (e.g. the Andean ‘hydrocosmological’ cycle), acknowledging that representations of water are politically charged and have political effects”.
  • Finally, “how does water internalise social relations, social power and technology?”

When the two models are combined, they generate a subset of questions.

  • First, if the spiritual is existence and sensation, then what interactions with water enable it, and what do these interactions tell us about the meaning of water?
  • Secondly, how is the spiritual practiced and brought into being through water and how is this also a process of water becoming known?
  • Thirdly, how does the immanence of spirituality within a landscape become a way of knowing water and a discourse of water, and how does this interaction internalise the social relations, social power and technology of both spirituality and water?

The answer to these questions involves abandoning certain tenets. It requires a lessening of the role assigned to purely demographic and social evidence and also purely physical evidence (although these are essential) for non-representational factors: i.e. embodied experiences, affect, emotion, inner life, spiritual ontology. It also involves abandoning not only the contrived boundary between human life and “nature”, already well discussed, but also the distinction between human and non-human, between disciplines, between kinds of evidence, and between descriptors of spiritual place. This post-disciplinary reconfiguration is being addressed in many ways, and is essential to my own research.

Bundling our approach to answering these admittedly challenging questions together into a coherent framework benefits from engagement with the work of anthropologist Veronica Strang, proponent of a methodological framework of “re-imagined community”. As Strang explains, this approach helps the study of water to escape from many of its limitations in the form of anthropocentrism, the dominance of Western knowledge, and the artificial break between the human and the natural that enlightenment philosophy has embedded:

…[B]y providing deeper insights into non-human and material realities, [this approach] offers a non-anthropocentric view of the consistent behaviors generated by their particular properties and characteristics. Through this deeper appreciation of their role, they become visible as non-human actors in the complex systems in which they participate. In this sense, they acquire ‘social’ identities, and, instead of merely providing a ‘natural’ background for a portrait of a human group and its activities, compose a fluid ‘re-imagined community’ in which humans, non-humans, and material processes engage with each other relationally. (Strang 2016: 23)

By re-imagining spiritual waterscapes such as (in my case) Lough Derg as composite sites in which the relationship between human and non-human and social and environmental combine, we can approach a more capacious model. For my research, I have found the playful and capacious disciplinary environment of historical geography a good starting point, although I am admittedly still a historian making a journey.

The sacred waterscape, the religious geography, the emotional geography and the history of place that the lake merges become part of its social identity. Now that we have established a model with a clear set of questions and a manner of integrating them into a holistic social agency, it is necessary to become more adept at asking questions of water.

[Header image: Lough Derg in the Barony of Tyrhugh, in ‘The Province of Ulster Divided into its Counties and ye Counties into their severall Barronies &c. with the Great Roads / By H. Moll Geographer’, 1727, BnF Gallica, Public Domain (]

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