In this age of incredible cleverness, we are constantly devising more and better and faster ways to distract and entertain ourselves in an apparent collective effort to stay a step ahead of the vague fears that permeate our lives.
As a designer and builder of watershapes, I recognize that many of my clients are seeking buffers against that unsettling reality. They want places of respite from the desperate velocity of modern life, and see water as something that somehow addresses a yearning they have for the simpler things in life. In so many cases, what they crave are places where they can sit quietly in the presence of moving, tuneful water and catch a break, slow down, step off their treadmills and reconnect with the basic, elegant qualities of being human.
As I’ve become more attuned to these desires for peace and quiet among my clients, I’ve noticed that my design sensibilities have changed. It’s quite obvious, for example, that most of these folks aren’t after ego-driven watershapes large enough for kayaking; rather, what they seek are places where they feel free to breathe deeply and step away from the floods of thoughts that occupy their daily lives.
Even if for just a few moments, this is quality of life they’re pursuing, a gift they want to give themselves and their families. Perhaps it’s a feature built in memory of a kind mother, or a trickle of water that can be heard from the patio but can’t be seen until the third bend of a garden path. Whatever it is, I’ve found myself working to create thoughtful watershapes that create sensations homeowners can recall while they’re caught in the confining hubbub of their hectic working lives.
This sort of observation of modern society is far from new, nor is the challenge it poses exclusive to modern times. In fact, if you study the watershapes of peoples as diverse as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, not to mention the more recent works of Islamic and Italian Renaissance artists and the Zen masters of Japan, it is obvious that our predecessors knew how to bring good things about daily life to light through the wise use of water.
In a trip to China last year, for instance, I visited the Summer Palace in Beijing and was amazed at the use of beautiful canals as visual transitions — as well as gracious modes of travel — between the hot, dusty, busy seat of government and the cool oasis of the emperor’s summer retreat.
In pondering that waterway, and in thinking about the Alhambra in Spain, the Villa d’Este in Italy and the Taj Mahal in India (among many other examples of world-class architecture and watershaping), I often think that we in the United States have done less than we should in using water to celebrate human existence.
We have indeed been frantic in the way we’ve done things here — perhaps a bit fearful that by indulging in seeming frivolities and creature comforts, we might miss our targets for productivity and consumption. In working with my clients through the years, however, I’ve concluded that these fears are unfounded, and that by denying the water element’s value in our lives, we’ve set aside valid cultural traditions that could give us a greater sense of peace and dignity as human beings.
In other words, by creating containers that include the water element, we would empower ourselves to sit quietly and step away from the barrages of thoughts that fly through our minds. I believe it would help put the brakes on the growing feelings of aggression, alienation and even hostility that we see in our homes and schools and businesses and government.
Along these lines, using the water element — whether on a grand scale or in minimalist touches — may well be the most ecologically smart thing we can do. People who are calm in mind and aware of the basic joys of being human lead lives of example and care for their surroundings and others. By contrast, people who lead lives of relentless haste have no concern for the chaos they leave behind.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that water has the ability to soothe us. In fact, we’re intimately engaged with it even before we emerge from those magnificent waterfeatures we call wombs. It’s no wonder that we find great comfort in sitting quietly, listening to the sound and rhythms of water: Subconsciously, we remember where we started!
Given the fact that we’re all instinctively drawn to this basic common ground of human experience, why not celebrate it? Why not be happily attuned to the importance of water instead of approaching our use of it with apprehension and fear of scarcity? Why not accept its importance to our lives and figure out ways we can all share in its splendors?
We can be quite purposeful in this pursuit. We know from our art and architectural history how to frame the water element appropriately, so we can be forthright and direct in building watershapes that benefit ourselves and others. And we shouldn’t need to expend too many words to explain what we’re doing, because the effects of well-crafted watershapes speak for themselves.
True, we live in a culture that demands explanations. True, we cannot command those who are caught in the throes of frantic lives to enjoy the relief water can provide. Even so, we can create environments that give them opportunities to shrug off care, even momentarily, and capture glimpses of what they should always have known: that human life is a gift.
As watershapers, we should never forget as we pursue our own busy lives that we create places that help more of us smile, relax a bit and take time to enjoy being human. Seems a noble calling to me.
Dave Garton, owner of Lawnchair Watershapes in Denver, is an expert pond and stream builder, as well as an in-demand business speaker and coach. He is a frequent contributor to WaterShapes.