If you were to ask a fish, “What is water?”, they would likely say, “What the hell are you talking about?”1 They live in it, are enveloped by it, inhale it; it pervades everything in every moment of their life, so ubiquitous, yet invisible. How would a fish know about water? Not from the currents and surges, as these are simply “the way things are”. Perhaps a clue might come from the experience of non-water, the dangerous seam above that confers light and darkness, imposes severe restrictions to movement and threats to breathing, and offers the prospect of being an edible while pursuing edibles. But, more likely, not.
We are fish of another kind, denizens of a sea of air. We all know what air is, but this insight was not easily gained. The undulation and wave of trees, plants and grasses, and the savage violence of hurricanes, tornados and water spouts have been viewed as obvious evidence of the pervasive presence and power of unseen supernatural spirits. We breathe and can create our own local “blowing wind-storm”, which offers further evidence for how wind and storms must be caused by cosmic forces. Human history is densely populated with gods and demonic spirits of the wind, blowing good fortune and wreaking destruction.
The water-seam, viewed from our looking-down vantage point, does not necessarily clue us to air. Water is a disorienting and potentially dangerous “something”, where we lose our sure-footedness, where creatures of dreams and nightmares glide and thrash, and where we will sink to a quick gasping death or, with considerable effort, remain afloat—for a while.2 Water is a “something” that contrasts with our “nothing”. We discovered air as a “something” possessing various components, some deadly, some life-giving, only relatively recently, in the 18th century.3 This discovery, not coincidentally, occurred as the demon-haunted world was beginning to be illuminated by the candlelight of science.4
Another invisible “nothing” is gravity. We, of course, are aware that things have different weight, that some things are heavier than others. Historically, gravity was understood as a quality that inheres in objects. It is also a word used to describe the quality of “seriousness”. It is only recently, relatively speaking, since the 17th century with Newton’s famous apple-falling-from-a-tree, that we understand it as an all-pervading, invisible force acting on everything; not just on our planet, but in the entire cosmos. Obviously, apples falling from trees, or falling objects of any kind, are not “Eureka!” moments for most of us.5 What is signally significant about Newton’s apple is he understood that its fall was not caused by an inherent quality of the apple, but a manifestation of an invisible force between earth and apple.
As I look across our kitchen to our screened porch, “acorn” hummingbirds flutter above the sink (thank you, Mr. Calder6), a 2 foot fabric jellyfish and a stained glass sunflower dangle in front of the sliding glass door, and on the porch, a brass wind spinner twirls, wind chimes sing, and glass “bugs” attached to the screen glow.
Hanging in the window of my upstairs study is a school of tropical fish (thank you, again, Mr. Calder); it is especially delightful to see from the street, suggesting the room is a water-filled aquarium. Two translucent colored glass ornaments and a glass hummingbird are suspended in another window. Our living room also has 3 translucent glass ornaments in a window and another is suspended in Sharon’s study (near a hanging wood goldfinch).
These fragile glass hangings appear to be stopped, mid-fall, in their descent to a shattering end. The thin thread that that suspends them makes visible the tugging force of gravity. The mobiles, spinners, and wind chimes not only defy gravity, they also give visibility and voice to the air.
Ours is a funhouse riot of beloved, wind-blown, gravity-defying delights. They are whimsical reminders to this wheezing bottom feeder of the astonishing funhouse we all inhabit, where our every moment is given life, heft, and in-formed by “invisibles.”
- This fish-water exchange is the beginning of a brilliant commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace. He takes this opening in a much more profound direction than I—take a look: https://fs.blog/2012/04/david-foster-wallace-this-is-water/ .
- See https://decembersongs.com/water/ for a meditation on water.
- See Steven Johnson’s, The Invention of Air, for an engrossing discussion of Joseph Priestly, his role in the “invention” of air, and much else.
- This phrase is taken from the title of Carl Sagan’s seminal book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
- The truth of this story is shrouded in controversy and considerable skepticism. Nevertheless, it nicely illustrates the conceptual shift in understanding gravity.
- The artist whose mobiles revolutionized sculpture.