Water provokes my ecological curiosity, and ushers my understanding and use of water as a papermaker beyond what springs easily from the studio's many coiled hoses. Maybe it is where I live, or the vitality of water I encounter as a papermaker, but somewhere along the way I began to wonder about the matter of rain in my life. My contribution to robust and tender conversations regarding the power, importance, and mattering of the stuff of our lives explores water becoming rain, becoming paper, becoming writing.
Does rain belong to the material world, or only the puddles that it leaves in ditches and potholes? Does falling snow join the material world only once it settles on the ground?1
Water is vital to my practice of handmade papermaking—if taken for granted in its givenness. Water is heavy, and in part, its weight is what makes the craft so laborious: Carrying buckets of water, stacking boards of work nested in layers of sodden felt blankets, pumping hydraulic presses that squeeze out the water—all take a toll on the papermaker's body. The floor of a papermaking studio requires mindful squeegeeing of all the splashes and puddles it incurs.
Paper is made possible with water. Plant fibers are cooked down in stainless steel pots filled with water and caustic soda ash. More water is forced into the cooked fiber as the plant matter is beaten into pulp. Beaten pulp is stirred up and suspended in large vats of water so that an even sheet of paper can be pulled through wooden frames. As the water evaporates from pulled sheets of paper left to dry, hydrogen bonds populate the paper and bind the fibers together to make a strong finished sheet. After handmade paper dries, it bears no trace of the importance water plays in the process of its making. Humidity is the bane of archival (and flat) paper. Of course, water only arrives and waits in the vessels that occupy papermaking studios because of rain. Therefore, in what follows, I explore how I became curiously “bound in the memory and mystery of exhilarating, confounding, life-giving rain.”2
Petrichor rises from the summer loam and lingers inside the studio—the scent communicating a shift in the weather. Rainfall feels imminent and ordinary, because I live within what some call the Appalachian Temperate Rainforest, elevated 3,333 feet above sea level—a place saturated by about 50 inches of rainfall each year, with 34 inches more in snowfall. The frequency and intensity of rain in this place has folded into my creative practice and my wonder. Using rainfall in my work as a papermaker invites me to play with the ecological and the geopoetic with reciprocity and place. I lay three boards of wet cotton pulp outside and wait for heavy droplets to plunge and ping across the humid surface. It is quiet between thunderclaps, still dry as bone. It might rain; it might not. The wind picks up speed, calling me to quickly weight the pelon down with gravel. Then, I step through a window opened by theory.
According to Kathleen Stewart, “Ordinary affect is a surging, a rubbing, a connection of some kind that has an impact. It's transpersonal or prepersonal—not about one person's feelings becoming another's but about bodies literally affecting one another and generating intensities: human bodies, discursive bodies, bodies of thought, bodies of water.”3 No matter that I first attuned to rain's ordinary affect by way of handmade papermaking—the connections between bodies of rain, handmade paper bodies, mother bodies, daughter bodies, photographic bodies, discursive bodies, theoretical bodies—like rain itself—leaked, drizzled, rushed along “patchy and material”4 atmospheric movements. Entwining creative practice, prose, and photographs as modes of “speculative and concrete attunement”5 sparked observational and participatory conditions6 that invited me to attend, see, touch, create, and write with ordinary affect. As Tim Ingold proposed, “Rather than thinking of ourselves only as observers, picking our way around the objects lying about on the ground of a ready-formed world, we must imagine ourselves in the first place as participants, each immersed with the whole of our being in the currents of a world-in-formation: in the sunlight we see in, the rain we hear in and the wind we feel in. Participation is not opposed to observation but is a condition for it.”7 The enclosed currents of writing materialized as I participated with rain and the stuff of my life, to be sure. Yet, these currents flow historically and speculatively along geologic time, becoming folded into stories before and beyond my being here, or anywhere. At many times I paused as I crafted this essay, watching rain, walking with rain, wondering with rain, and contemplating how “at any moment, more water rushes through the atmosphere than flows through all the world's rivers combined.”8
Biting October air rushes over my skin, blowing away the morning's “passing shadows and flights of small rain.”9 I sit in a worn kitchen chair pulled over to the threshold of the cottage door, where there is a small swatch of sunlight. My sister brushes soft powder over my eyelids and cheeks. I look past her through the screen door as a thin band of blue begins to unsettle the grayness hovering above. This gray-blue tug-of-war somehow illuminates the glistening red, gold, and green flora humming and drying in the wind. Don't worry, she soothes, it is good luck to have rain on your wedding day. Somehow I already know that we will laugh that evening at how the rain disappeared just as the first guests gathered atop the high ridge. My glances are misunderstood—it is not the weather tugging at my anticipation, but an unexpected ache for my mother. I want her to be here when I slip into my gown. My father picks up her phone when I call, explains she is not feeling well.
Silk, in the rich hue of espresso, falls over my skin. As if by enchantment, the sky beams with an extraordinary blueness, clouds relinquish density in exchange for wisps of ivory: “A good rain washes the particles away, shining the heavens their blue celeste best.10 The grayness and blueness are more than a backdrop on this day. As Ingold conjured: “Colour, then, is not just an adornment, conferring an outer garb to thought, but the very milieu in which thought occurs. Like the weather, or the atmosphere in its meteorological sense, it gets inside us and makes it so that whatever we do, say or write is done with a certain mood or disposition. It is the temperament of our being. We inhale it as we breathe the air, and on the outward breath of exhalation we weave our lines of speech, song and handwriting into the fabric of the world.”11
There is a strawberry patch against the side of our house—a thick wedge of soil, fruit, insects, and rabbit-chewed compost, all “materials in motion.”12 The dryer in our laundry room vents here, diffusing the breeze, the grass, my clothes with a fragrance manufactured to smell like clean linens. I love the feeling of my face warming under the intensity of sunshine. I squeeze my eyes shut—red, then orange, then deeper red washes over my eyelids. I stretch my arms and feel around my lazy body for a berry—snapping it from its leafy cover and stem. I am distracted by sweetness, and my attention twitches as unexpected drops of water pelt my forehead, then ankle, then too many places to track along my body. I hurl myself into a ball and assess for burns. Is this acid rain? I've been worried over a newspaper article reporting the acid rain crisis. My concern, in part, is that smog and chemicals travel with no concern for where the pollution originated: Acid rain can happen anywhere, destroying plants and crops, harming animal and human inhabitants alike—and it bears no different smell or taste. I am nine years old, frightened by rain and the haunting truth that “the atmosphere and its rain are one global system—everything connected to everything else, sometimes in ways we cannot imagine.”13
Brush and fingers move steam across the shower door. Don't let the rain erase my volcano! My eyes are clenched to avoid the sting of soap traveling by way of water—down my face and down the drain. I try not to splash the glass door, or step on the three-year-old hands of my daughter—who is now imaginatively prowling the shower floor as a cat researching the Mariana Trench. The fish down here are good, Mom! When I turn the shower off, she pulls herself up against the weight of my lower body. She pauses, shivers, and speaks—“Your leg is raining.” I look closely at the beads of water trembling on skin, becoming rain.
First a drop or two plunge, then a sprinkling of rain darkens the pavement wrapped around the papermaking studio. My thoughts drift toward how “we misunderstand rain at the most basic level—what it looks like. We imagine that a raindrop falls in the same shape as a drop of water hanging from the faucet, with a pointed top and a fat, rounded bottom. That picture is upside down. In fact, raindrops fall from the clouds in the shape of tiny parachutes, their tops rounded because of air pressure from below.”14 Contemplating misunderstanding the shape of rain and other matters, I rest near the mildewed boards and the wet pulp, and invite whatever coalesces upon the humid surface—leaves, dirt, pollen, “syllables of water”15—to also inhabit my skin, my breath: Water, becoming rain, becoming paper, becoming writing.