a bottle of place

Editor Dan posted a piece today about water and, essentially, the cult of bottled water. The subject was covered nicely by a very good Fastcompany article.

The article delves into the history of bottled water, stating that the phenomenon is hardly new:

We are actually in the midst of a second love affair with bottled water. In the United States, many of the earliest, still-familiar brands of springwater–Poland Spring, Saratoga Springs, Deer Park, Arrowhead–were originally associated with resort and spa complexes. The water itself, pure at a time when cities struggled to provide safe water, was the source of the enterprise.

In the late 1800s, Poland Spring was already a renowned brand of healthful drinking water that you could get home-delivered in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago. It was also a sprawling summer resort complex, with thousands of guests and three Victorian hotels, some of which had bathtubs with spigots that allowed guests to bathe in Poland Spring water. The resort burned in 1976, but at the crest of a hill in Poland Spring, Maine, you can still visit a marble-and-granite temple built in 1906 to house the original spring.

This makes a lot of sense. The turn of the 19th-to-20th century was a heyday for the sanatorium movement. Resorts and health spas were sprouting up all over the country. Frequently, they were situated in locales where some natural feature, usually the water, was purported to have restorative, medicinal properties. Some emerged as a result of the fight against tuberculosis. Others, like the infamous Battle Creek Sanatorium, were founded to promote rest, healthy living, and temperance. In Battle Creek’s case, the ulterior motive was to promote the cereals produced by religious zealot quacks and sadists, the Kellogg brothers.

But it wasn’t just an American phenomenon. Europeans, and presumably cultures the world over, had been revitalizing themselves with healing waters for centuries. The waters of Baden Baden, Germany were even known to the Romans. Coming from a Polish background, I am quite acquainted with the concept of healing waters and resort spas. My family come from an agricultural background. Naturally, understanding water chemistry is fundamental to understanding its effects on crops. However, as with any type of non-industrialized agriculture, there is also a fair amount of folklore, superstition, and junk science involved. I believe that, as a result, my mother is a firm believer in such “water[s] of life”, be they secular or religious in provenance.

Belief in bottled water does require a leap of faith. It is crystal clear, after all. We must somewhat blindly accept, then, that there are quantitative differences between clear Evian, clear tap water, and clear Propel Fitness Water. To help us, ad copy on the labels may give us graphs and charts or pseudo-scientific buzzwords. It all wreaks of late-night infomercials, though. It reminds me of an Onion article entitled “Revolutionary New Insoles Combine Five Forms of Pseudoscience”. The end result of such faith is that the sources of the water, natural and human-made, become sacred places. After all, liquid water is the key to life as we know it and the Earth is its reservoir. Regular water can be gotten anywhere but the sources of mystical water are the temples of life.

Closer to my current Pacific Northwest home, there is the central Washington town of Soap Lake. It is named for a body of water that possesses an extra-ordinary amount of some sort of fish-like oil, minerals, and exquisite mud. This, according to native locals as well as Native Americans, endows the lake’s waters with healing powers. Even the Chamber of Commerce is on the take. A large sign at a parking lot near the visitor’s center says the lake

…contains 17 minerals and an Ichthyol-like oil. The only comparable water in the world is Baden in Baden, Germany.

Cowboys and settlers learned of the health-like qualities of the bouyant water from the Indians, who, for ages past, sent their ailing to bathe in the great spirits “Smokiam” or “Healing waters.”

This was a favorite campsite for Chief Joseph & his people. White men named it Soap Lake because of the soapy feel of the water and the “Suds” that formed along the shore.

This is indeed a God-given body of water for the ills of mankind.

I remain dubious of the water’s restorative powers. IT’S JUST KINDA OILY WATER, PEOPLE! On the other hand, I whole-heartedly agree that Soap Lake’s mud is truly exquisite. I have a fond affection for mud. It is one of the finest substances on Earth. Soap Lake mud’s wonderful texture may just very well be a result of the lake’s unique hydrogeology; with that I can agree. Whether or not it possesses any powers is irrelevant to me; it just feels nice. On my sole visit, I enjoyed wading in the lake and feeling the mud between my toes. Meanwhile in the distance, an older man was sitting in it with only his chest and head poking out. Was he just cooling off and relaxing? Or was he hoping that the healing waters would restore his manly vigor as they washed gently over his tired genitals?

Perhaps that is what is driving our desire for The Water. Optimistically, we are like Fox Mulder: we want to believe. More pessimistically, though, we need to justify the expense. Yes, we’d rather pay for water than drink free tap water because, look, it has ludicrous amounts of vitamins and minerals! We are quite willing to pull the wool over our own eyes.

What we see in Soap Lake, then, is an unfolding, embellished narrative. It is simultaneously plausible yet epic. There is no other water on Earth like it! Agreed; there is also no other water exactly like the agricultural run-off enhanced Mississippi River either. The basic legendary narrative of Soap Lake is similar to that of Poland Springs, Baden Baden, or any of the numerous other places where mundane water is somehow miraculously different due to some hydrological nuance. That singular detail makes the story compelling. We can’t entirely explain the why so we ascribe mystical properties to it. Finally, we extend this narrative onto the place that is its source.

Some feel compelled to make pilgrimage to these great temples. This helps explain the sanatorium movement. It also helps explain Lourdes. But these days, that is not what the super-majority of bottled water consumers desire. Most just want the proverbial t-shirt. After all, why flock to some boring place out in the middle of nowhere in these modern days of freight-shipping and FedEx when you can just buy the active ingredient at the grocery store or, better yet, have it delivered to your home? One can always take the 360 degree virtual tour on the web. (One can even buy holy waters at discounted prices!) The nice thing about bottled water, at least, is that it is an actual, physical artifact of the source. The image of place that the label and adverts hawk comes with a genuine, carefully-harvested piece of that place.

Or does it? According to the Fastcompany article:

Our desire for Poland Spring has outgrown the springs at Poland Spring’s two Maine plants; the company runs a fleet of 80 silver tanker trucks that continuously crisscross the state of Maine, delivering water from other springs to keep its bottling plants humming.

This underscores the sham-potential of place. We are buying the idea that this is Super Awesome Bottled Water X directly from its mystical source. It is the Disneyfication of water. Brilliantly, it operates on this basic building block of life itself. An absolute slam dunk, as they say, for marketing. Moreover, it scales nicely. Not only do we have natural spring water these days, but we also have “fitness water”, vitamin water, super-oxygenated water, and ozonated water.

Snake oil and flim-flam is alive and well. I once had a skin condition for which my mom took me to see a homeopathic-like person. She sold us some Enhanced Colloidal Silver Liquid that claimed to contain the optimal ppm (parts per million) of pure elemental silver. It looked and tasted a lot like tap water. Being a night owl, my mom went shopping several months later at her local large chain grocery store where she saw this woman, who claimed to buy only organic straight from farmers, doing her grocery shopping as well.

I must admit that I myself have indulged in a little bit of flim-flammery myself. It is, however, non-profit and personal flim-flammery, so that makes it acceptable. Due in part to my undergraduate background in the natural and earth sciences, I have cultivated my innate draw to rivers, seas, and other bodies of water. From about 1994 to 1999, I had made an effort to bring back with me a bottle of water and sediment from the various places to/through which I traveled. My acumen spans Maine’s Atlantic ocean to San Francisco’s Pacific, a bit of Lake Superior to the Gulf of Mexico just south of New Orleans. When others have asked what I wanted as a gift from their travels –well, as a result I have a nice flask of water from a French river.

Aside from amassing eclectic bottles and sediments, as well as waters of interestingly and vastly differing clarity/turbidity, I suppose that I possess a somewhat unique collection of place-based souvenirs. But these don’t really mean anything outside their natural context. The uniformly placid water in these bottles does not convey the mid-continental immensity of the Mississippi, for example, or the cold waves pounding the rocky Maine coast or the freighter-swallowing aloofness of Lake Superior. Moreover, the waters and their sediments are often not even representative of the areas they come from. In the end, their only worth lies in aggregate: they represent (a small fraction of) the places I have been, nothing more.

These natural trinkets are a bit troublesome, too. I have not been able ship them by air from my native Chicago since that would probably not be a smart idea. On the other hand, surface shipping might result in mass breakage. But the most annoying thing about it –something I had not thought of when I began the collection– is that, being unpurified and unfiltered, the bottles contain organic matter mixed in with the fluids and sediments. Organic matter decomposes. Periodically, I have to “burp” or vent the bottles to relieve pressure build-up.

I once vented Great Salt Lake. In it’s normal location, where I collected it, the lake contains lots of dead, organic matter. The entire house, both floors of it, stunk for the better part of an hour before it finally aired out. I’m considering pouring the Great Salt Lake, maybe even the entire collection, down the toilet. After all, I am perfectly capable of generating saline water of disagreeable odor myself, on demand.

Perhaps I’ll even start my own sanatorium. I’ve somewhat secretly harboured this desire for a number of years now; I’m positively enamored both with frightening-looking, fin-de-siecle machinery and the outlandish purposes for which it was built. It’s the charming combination of Rube Goldberg and steampunk that tickles me. Unlike the sadist Kelloggs, however, my sanatorium will be devoted to healthy indulgence, tantalizing fetish, and “moral pollution”. For those into that sort of thing, there will be peeing! For others, different fluids of life! As for nutritional fluids, I will stock more representative examples: beer from Baden Baden, wine from France, and vodka from Poland.

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