Water has been my guide in my life’s journey since 1985. The piece of my journey began while casting 250 ft of a dry river bed in hand made paper in a sparsely populated apparently pristine valley in Utah. While speaking with a local resident, I discovered that the surface and ground waters in the area were polluted. Soon after that, at the end of a long day of patting soft paper on rocks, I looked at the evening sky where the stars had started to sparkle. My first impression was that the patterns in the sky looked similar to the patterns of the stones of the river. It hit me like a flash of light – the universes are patterned on water and I knew nothing about water.
I set out to learn about water and after 5 years discovered that those H2O molecules are the most flexible in the Universe and we, human beings, treat those molecules like it doesn’t matter what we do to them. We chop up rivers and water systems with dams and diversions at an alarming rate. We dump most of our waste into water, and we pass water through all kinds of systems daily…currently 85% of all the freshwater in the US goes through some kind of system. What is happening worldwide as we remove water from the earth, using about 22% through factories, 70% for agriculture and 8% domestically. Water is deteriorating and the living system dependent upon water is increasingly stressed. Those molecules are losing their flexibility, their bio dynamics nature that keeps everything going. What is happening to human beings who are losing touch with the sources of their water and those who have lost their source of water? Is our development, our comfort dependent upon this mistreatment of the very source of our lives or are there ways to live with the water systems that respect the whole? Would human beings respect each other more if we collectively choose to share, not own, preserve, not destroy or conversely if we assumed respect for natural systems? Would we be more respectful of each human being’s right to water?
My life as an artist naturally evolved with the decision to learn about water. I decided that I would find ways to create functional works that might inform and inspire my fellow beings to care for water. Caring generally occurs in relationship to people and place with the people in our lives, our environment and community. We can only care for what we understand and few communities know the sources of their water, what is in the water or what is water. Bayer’s Earthworks is one of the few places where visitors can become engaged in eco systems, in reclamation and earth as sculpture. The Earthworks invite visitor to see the world around them and possibly to want to learn more, to participate in the environment as a dynamic living foundation.
In the course of my seeking to understand and communicate about water, I developed a community-based process, Keepers of the Waters, which started as a collaboration between artists, scientists, and citizens at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota in 1991. Thanks to a series of what I call miracles, there was a Keepers of the Waters event in Chengdu with 25 Artists and this led directly to an invitation to design the Living Water Garden, Chengdu, China, 1995-1998.
This process initiated numerous community projects such as CURA, Chengdu Urban Rivers Association, who developed a model eco village; Green SOS, teams of young activists in the summer going to the grass lands of Sichuan, China; the San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer National Park, the largest and only aquifer park in the US; the Da Vinci School Water Works, an art and science program where young people create storm water treatment systems in school yards and this became the Urban Water Works organization. People starting projects and beginning them in their own way have multiplied and Keepers are part of the world wide web of community initiated water projects. As every human is water and needs water, everyone is part of the project and everyone needs to be in our minds as we seek to preserve and restore water systems.
Over time I learned about biological wastewater treatment and in city planning, worked on the Beijing 2008 Olympics and applied my mind to designing numerous integrated water systems using science as the foundation. Still to this day my inspiration lies in the sacred water sites, those places that people who honored the power and the need for living water considered core to their survival. In rural areas some preserve these living water sources through practices that today might seem strange or in the face of massive discharges of pollution ineffective. However, I just visited a number of such places and each is still drinkable because everyone knows not to graze their yak within 1,000 meters of the spring or that a drop of blood spilled into it is death.
Now, in 2007, the Living Water Garden is 10 years old and its influence is extensive, and new living systems design are being created which reflect the increased knowledge of biology and eco-systems. Eco systems are fluid, dynamic ever-changing systems, and what we know in 2007 is much more than 25 years ago, and 25 year from now we will know far more than today. I am involved in an art form, which is not static; its usefulness might be limited to a specific time. Like a tree, which is eventually recycled to rebuild the forest floor if allowed to fall and then rot, to provide the nutrients for the next generation, perhaps that is the highest use for much of what I have done. Certain parks will devolve in to another stage. Some of it, like the sculptures and fountains might remain until the stones crack and crumble, as they will in time.
Ms. Damon is CEO of Keepers of the Waters, on the Board of Directors of the Jane Goodall Institute and on the design team for sustainable water plan for 2008 Olympics, Beijing. She is also the design director of award winning sustainable plan for Wen Yu He River.
Ms. Damon has an MFA from Columbia University. She has received over thirty awards of excellence and merit, fellowships and grants; she has completed over 20 projects worldwide in ecological sustainable design; and she has taught design and best model practices to over sixty universities, citizen groups and government bureaus, including Evergreen, Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Harvard. She has worked for the Beijing Water Bureau designing restoration and remediation systems for rivers and wetlands, and works with community groups and cities to restore and reveal the essence of water.
1-5. The Living Water Garden, located in the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, China, was the first inner city ecological park in the world with water as its theme. The 5.9-acre (2.4 ha) public park is located on the Fu and Nan rivers, an ancient river diversion system designed and constructed in 250 B.C.. This international award winning park is a fully functioning water treatment plant, a giant sculpture in the shape of a fish (symbol of regeneration in Chinese culture), a living environmental education center, a refuge for wildlife and plants, and a wonderful place for people. Since its completion in 1998, it has become the most popular park in the city and is on the national tourist registry.
It was built by The Chengdu Fu & Nan Rivers Comprehensive Revitalization Project, a five-year plan to rebuild Chengdu's infrastructure to support its growing population for the next 200 years. Each day, 200 cubic meters of polluted river water move through the natural treatment system and emerge clean enough to drink. This amount of water is not enough to affect the river water quality as a whole; its purpose is teaching and inspiration, which it does very successfully. Visitors can walk everywhere in the park, delighting in the many birds, butterflies and dragonflies that have taken up residence there and observing the once dead river water become alive again. Because of the visible and understandable treatment system, people can clearly see the water becoming cleaner and cleaner.
Other features of the park include an underground parking garage, environmental education center, and a circular stone amphitheater facing the river for concerts and other activities. There is also an extensive forested areas made up of more than 100 different plant species (some rare) to represent the biodiversity on Mt Emei, a sacred Buddhist mountain located 160 kilometers outside Chengdu. There are also two places where steps replaced the floodwall, giving visitors a way to reach the river.
Betsy Damon designed the Living Water Garden with landscape designer Margie Ruddick, the Chengdu Landscape Bureau and many Chinese artists and designers. It won the 1998 Top Honor Award from the Waterfront Center in Washington, D.C., and an award from the Environmental Design and Research Association. The park was one of the reasons for the UN Habitat Best Model Cities Award that went to Chengdu.