Da Vinci and the Art of Water

Katy Yan

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
"The body of the earth is of the nature of a fish...because it draws water as its breath instead of air," said the Italian painter, scientist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci.

Block that flow of life with a massive concrete dam, or clog it with a thick solution of toxic chemical and organic pollution, and the earth grows sick. This is not just poetic metaphor, but reality for communities living along the Mekong, the Amazon, the Omo River, and so many others.

Da Vinci went beyond poetics as well and compared the human body's vascular system – its veins and arteries of blood – with the flow of rivers and their tributaries, often using one system to understand the workings of the other. While greatly removed from the cultures and realities of the communities with whom International Rivers works, da Vinci nevertheless understood the importance of healthy watersheds. (If you spent as much time as he did observing and drawing rivers and flowing water as he did, you'd be an expert, too.)

Da Vinci often compared human veins to river system; here, it's the Arno River.
Da Vinci often compared human veins to river system; here, it's the Arno River.
These profound connections were demonstrated to me recently by physicist and systems-theorist Fritjof Capra during a three-day seminar on the intersection of art, science, design and sustainability at the Center for Ecoliteracy. But they were not the only connections that were made. In a room with over 50 educators, artists, and scientists dedicated to finding creative solutions for educating the future stewards of the earth, there was plenty to talk about. While at first, I struggled and stretched my brain to make the connection between, on the one hand, science and art classrooms, and on the other, the communities working to fight for their right to water and a basic livelihood, a several things people said jumped out at me and lighted my way. Here are a few from my own (much humbler but equally scribbled on) notebook, as well as the lessons I drew from it all:

"Beyond the age of information is the age of choices." Charles Eames, American designer. 

"We have painted ourselves into a corner, but we can paint our solution out of it." Zenobia Barlow, director of Center for Ecoliteracy.

"[The earth]'s blood [is] the veins of the waters." Leonardo da Vinci.

A watershed is "memory, relationships, sustenance, preservation, decision-making, community, path, pollution, life's blood, new life..." The young international artists and poets of River of Words.

Lesson #1: Schooling for Sustainability

How do schools and sustainability fit in? Classrooms create culture. They are where new knowledge is built, connections are made. Do we want to teach the future stewards of the earth to leave waste, destruction and ignorance in their path, or do we want them to be genuinely engaged in their local and global communities, to see, understand, and act within the larger social and ecological systems in which they live?

"La Asamblea de Los Dioses de Agua" (The Meeting of the Water Gods), La Paz, Bolivia
Teatro Trono
Lesson #2: Art and Activism Bring Change

How do local communities confronting large dams relate to this? The seminar taught how art and nature were and are connected for many indigenous peoples. But art and culture (music, dance, song, theater, words) are infused in the river movements of today – there is no separation. The Save the Mary River movement used songs of resistance in their successful fight to stop Traveston Dam. Otros Mundos in Mexico uses comics for a range of their campaigns. The well-known fight against water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia, had its fair share of street theater. And there is so much more (hopefully, we'll capture some of these traditional artistic expressions of solidarity and resistance at the Rivers for Life 3 meeting in Mexico). People often overlook the power of the visual, the aural, and the body's movement to stir up, well, a movement. As we learn in multiple ways, so to multiple forms of expression do we respond.

Lesson #3: Science for the People

Da Vinci was an engineer. He designed canals and had grand schemes to divert the Arno River. But above all, he believed that science should be done in the service of the people. According to Capra, da Vinci opposed anyone who saw nature as just a collection of mechanical parts and materials. Our current engineers should take a lesson.

What do you think? Where do you see art, science, design, and sustainability intersecting in the river movement?

More information: 

To read more on the intersection of art, science, design and sustainability, see the Center for Ecoliteracy's blog and comments from the seminar participants. Many thanks to the Center for an amazing seminar!

Learn more about River of Words. Robert Hass, president of ROW's board of directors (and honorary International Rivers board member), states, "Learning about our watersheds gets to the essence of how we have to understand our homegrounds. That is critical if we're ever to have a hope of managing them effectively." And Pamela Michael, director of ROW, notes, " I think we can't have the hope of understanding other places and other people until we have a profound and intimate understanding of our own places and cultures." More food (or water?) for thought.