Collecting water and putting it on the Web (Part I of III)

This is Part I of an essay about my water collection, specifically the whys and hows of it. Part II describes the process of putting the collection on the Web. Part III is a summary, provides opportunities for future study, and links to the source code.

I collect water

It may sound strange, but I have been collecting water since 1978, and to date I believe I have around 200 bottles containing water from all over the world. Most of the water I’ve collected myself, but much of it has also been collected by friends and relatives.

The collection began the summer after I graduated from high school. One of my best friends, Marlin Miller, decided to take me to Ocean City (Maryland) since I had never seen the ocean. We arrived around 2:30 in the morning, and my first impression was the sound. I didn’t see the ocean. I just heard it, and it was loud. The next day I purchased a partially melted glass bottle for 59¢ and put some water, sand, and air inside. I was going keep some of the ocean so I could experience it anytime I desired. (Actually, I believe my first water is/was from the Pacific Ocean, collected by a girl named Cindy Bleacher. She visited there in the late Spring of ’78, and I asked her to bring some back so I could see it too. She did.) That is how the collection got started.

Cape Cod Bay
Cape Cod Bay
Robins Bay
Robins Bay
Gulf of Mexico
Gulf of Mexico

The impetus behind the collection was reinforced in college — Bethany College (Bethany, WV). As a philosophy major I learned about the history of Western ideas. That included Heraclitus who believed the only constant was change, and water was the essencial element of the universe. These ideas were elaborated upon by other philosophers who thought there was not one essencial element, but four: earth, water, air, and fire. I felt like I was on to something, and whenever I heard of somebody going abroad I asked them bring me back some water. Burton Thurston, a Bethany professor, went to the Middle East on a diplomatic mission. He brought back Nile River water and water from the Red Sea. I could almost see Moses floating in his basket and escaping from the Egyptians.

The collection grew significantly in the Fall of 1982 because I went to Europe. During college many of my friends studied abroad. They didn’t do much studying as much as they did traveling. They were seeing and experiencing all of the things I was learning about through books. Great art. Great architecture. Cities whose histories go back millennia. Foreign languages, cultures, and foods. I wanted to see those things too. I wanted to make real the things I learned about in college. I saved my money from my summer peach picking job. My father cashed in a life insurance policy he had taken out on me when I was three weeks old. Living like a turtle with its house on its back, I did the back-packing thing across Europe for a mere six weeks. Along the way I collected water from the Seine at Notre Dame (Paris), the Thames (London), the Eiger Mountain (near Interlaken, Switzerland) where I almost died, the Agean Sea (Ios, Greece), and many other places. My Mediterranean Sea water from Nice is the prettiest. Because of the all the alge, the water from Venice is/was the most biologically active.

Over the subsequent years the collection has grown at a slower but regular pace. Atlantic Ocean (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina) on a day of playing hooky from work. A pond at Versailles while on my honeymoon. Holy water from the River Ganges (India). Water from Lock Ness. I’m going to grow a monster from DNA contained therein. I used to have some of a glacier from the Canadian Rockies, but it melted. I have water from Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania). It glows in the dark. Amazon River water from Peru. Water from the Missouri River where Lewis & Clarke decided it began. Etc.

Many of these waters I haven’t seen in years. Moves from one home to another have relegated them to cardboard boxes that have never been unpacked. Most assuredly some of the bottles have broken and some of the water has evaporated. Such is the life of a water collection.

Lake Huron
Lake Huron
Trg Bana Jelacica
Trg Bana Jelacica
Jimmy Carter Water
Jimmy Carter Water

Why do I collect water? I’m not quite sure. The whole body of water is the second largest thing I know. The first being the sky. Yet the natural bodies of water around the globe are finite. It would be possible to collect water from everywhere, but very difficult. Maybe I like the challenge. Collecting water is cheap, and every place has it. Water makes a great souvenir, and the collection process helps strengthen my memories. When other people collect water for me it builds between us a special relationship — a bond. That feels good.

What do I do with the water? Nothing. It just sits around my house occupying space. In my office and in the cardboard boxes in the basement. I would like to display it, but over all the bottles aren’t very pretty, and they gather dust easily. I sometimes ponder the idea of re-bottling the water into tiny vials and selling it at very expensive prices, but in the process the air would escape, and the item would lose its value. Other times I imagine pouring the water into a tub and taking a bath it it. How many people could say they bathed in the Nile River, Amazon River, Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, etc. all at the same time.

How water is collected

The actual process of collecting water is almost trivial. Here’s how:

  1. Travel someplace new and different – The world is your oyster.
  2. Identify a body of water – This should be endemic of the locality such as an ocean, sea, lake, pond, river, stream, or even a public fountain. Natural bodies of water a preferable. Processed water is not.
  3. Find a bottle – In earlier years this was difficult, and I usually purchased a bottle of wine with my meal, kept the bottle and cork, and used the combination as my container. Now-a-days it is easier to root round in a trash can for a used water bottle. They’re ubiquitous, and they too are often endemic of the locality.
  4. Collect the water – Just fill the bottle with mostly water but some of what the water is flowing over as well. The air comes along for the ride.
  5. Take a photograph – Hold the bottle at arm’s length and take a picture it. What you are really doing here is two-fold. Documenting the appearance of the bottle but also documenting the authenticity of the place. The picture’s background supports the fact that water really came from where the collector says.
  6. Label the bottle – On a small piece of paper write the name of the body of water, where it came from, who collected it, and when. Anything else is extra.
  7. Save – Keep the water around for posterity, but getting it home is sometimes a challenge. With the advent of 911 it is difficult to get the water through airport security and/or customs. I have recently found myself checking my bags and incurring a handling fee just to bring my water home. Collecting water is not as cheap as it used to be.

Who can collect water for me? Not just anybody. I have to know you. Don’t take it personally, but remember, part of the goal is relationship building. Moreover, getting water from strangers would jeopardize the collection’s authenticity. Is this really the water they say it is? Call it a weird part of the “collection development policy”.

Pacific Ocean
Pacific Ocean
Rock Run
Rock Run
Salton Sea
Salton Sea

Read all the posts in this series:

  1. This post
  2. How the collection is put on the Web
  3. A summary, future directions, and source code

Visit the water collection.

Published by

Eric Lease Morgan

Artist- and Librarian-At-Large