The Weight of the World
If humanity stands to nature as part to whole, then that whole part has acquired the ability to oppose the whole that encompasses it; or, as Marx phrased it, man “confronts the material of nature as one of her own forces… [By] changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature”
- Eric Wolf; Europe and the People Without History
Many years ago a terrible war was fought over a wide stretch of marshy delta ground. The fight was between the worlds of land and water, and its bloody story lasted many centuries. Water had limitless strength which it wielded without warning. The land trembled when the water attacked, its armies of white-capped troops pouring through breached defences to lay waste to the tender landscapes behind.
But land’s great advantage was its permanence. Where water could only strike and retreat, the forces of the land could plan and strategise. They might be beaten back by the fury and weight of the water when an attack came, and many of their number trapped and drowned, but they would study their losses and when the time to fight came again, they would be ready with new tools and new approaches.
The water, lacking a structure around which to marshal its power, could only hurl itself at the land. Meanwhile the denizens of the land, though individually weak, discovered that in concert they were formidable. With this new collective approach to the work they clawed great new chunks away from the wounded water and piled them up like dripping trophies. The water tried to fight back, dealing shattering blows that ground down rocks and pulverised any unfortunate they found. But it could not find a way to breach the walls. Step by muddy step the land advanced and finally halted, steadfast and immobile. An uneasy truce descended on the fields of battle. Both sides buried their dead, and they took to circling each other with respectful fury. Time passed, and the inhabitants of the land settled into their new territories, while all around them the water moved silently, darkly.
As long days stretched into weeks and then years of peace, land became confident that while the water would not be defeated outright, it could be restrained and that was enough. Memories of the war began to fade as generation followed generation. Stories were handed down and songs sung at happy feasts, but memories became myths and soon all real trace of the terrible battles had faded from living memory. In their place a different story took root, a tale of powerful, cunning men and weak, simple water.
The water was indeed weak, men would say as they wiped froth from their moustaches with the backs of their hands. If an occasional careless swimmer was returned limp and cold, or a farm punished for letting its defences degrade, scorn would be heaped on the victim for allowing the water a chance to show its true nature. For the strong and the brave there were fortunes to be made in this new world. Ground could be snatched from the water’s grasp with little effort, they learned, and it was fertile too. A well-built wall could give security. Even a boat, tiny as it was, could protect bodies from the sea’s might.
It did not take long for these new lords, safe and dry, fed well and warmed by stories of their own greatness, to forget that the water had ever held any power at all. Their status assured, they began to squabble amongst themselves. The water could hear as they turned on each other one by one, casting aside alliances as each sought to make themselves the most powerful.
Sensing opportunity in division, the water planted a small greedy fungus which quickly took hold, its mycelium reaching far down to the groundwater which still lay beneath the land. It spread effortlessly through the world of the land, turning its victims’ eyes cold and hardening their hearts. Nobody felt its presence because there was no need for the kindness of strangers in this edenic bliss. They were content, and worried about nothing but themselves.
Meanwhile the cold, calm water bided its time. It coursed up and down the occupied coasts, its weight moving easily. As the land’s tenants bickered and sued and hoarded little heaps of treasure their energy began to warm the water, first gently then more urgently. A new strength began to fill it, and one day, as its fingers caressed the walls of men as they always did, it felt something it had not felt before: weakness. The walls were crumbling, their communal upkeep trampled underfoot in the heady rush of selfishness.
The land felt these probes and tried desperately to warn its inhabitants. But the little lords in their mighty castles did not see, or argued about what the signs meant for them individually. Some blamed others, while others debated even the existence of the danger itself. The water’s no danger, they told each other. It’s weak. I am strong.
Written and photographed as part of Studio III of the Master Photography and Society course, which was led by Rabiaâ Benlahbib and Oliver Chanarin at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and presented as part of the Undisciplining Photography symposium 2021