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The blue of water

Blue is a paradoxical colour signifying the earth’s elements. It tricks the mind by hiding both in the sea and the sky, reminding us of two opposite worlds. In paper production, water is an integral part of the pulping process. Wood for pulping is extracted from the inner section of tree bark; the section in which water is carried through the trunk to nourish the leaves. Paper mills are often based near rivers or some form of water supply, as the demand for excessive amounts of water were required throughout the process. Water is imperative in its eventual use in the breaking down of paper to make the pulp. ‘When water is added to paper, the hydrogen bonds holding the cellulose fibres begin to break down. This is because water molecules consist of oxygen and hydrogen atoms, which form hydrogen bonds with cellulose fibres, thus weakening their own hydrogen bonds in the process.’ (

This dependence on water relates pulp to ourselves. Water being incremental to both the paper process and life on earth and ourselves. Without it neither would exist. The planet has depended on it since the start, when ‘water was already there, an accomplice in the birth of the planet; and it participated in all of the stages-in its infancy; its youth, and its maturity. It experienced its first glimmerings at the heart of the chaotic darkness, it experienced its gaping furnaces and crushing firmaments, and it participated, much later, in the terrible spasms that exploded in the silence of the astral night.’ (p13 Water, Hans Silvester) continues, ‘this primordial substance, colourless, and odorless, remains enigmatic.’

The blue of the sky is a trick that light plays on us, in a similar vein (veins also not being a real blue) to the blue of mountains in the distance. Water is clear, however reflects the false blue sky, which affects its colour. Not only affecting the surface colour but within it, down to 200 metres, the blue becomes richer. Light, and its tricks, paint the deep sea deep blue, as ‘sunlight penetrating the sea diminishes in intensity; it decomposes. The “skin” of the sea acts like a blue-green filter: red wavelengths are rapidly absorbed and transformed into heat, while blue-green light progresses toward the ocean deep and is reflected at about 100-200 metres in clear water. Thus, when the sea’s surface is warmer, it may, at a moderate depth, seem blue to a diver.’ (p27 of Water, Hans Silvester)

As with paper and its processes, water and the earth are also deeply connected. Water’s ability to carry itself anywhere, means it can spread and affect most earthly materials, grounds and surfaces; ‘it is the fundamental agent in the complex physical-climactic exchanges with the molecules of the living.’(p33) The behaviour of it has been uncovered piece by piece throughout history, and in the late 16th century it was Leonardo da Vinci that encouraged several realisations about the true behaviour of how it moves between elements.

Leonardo da Vinci, Studies in Flow.

Water eats away and breaks down the paper as it has been doing to the surface of the earth ever since the two came into being. ‘Water fashions the landscape and chisels into it even the smallest details. Its work - erosion, transportation, sedimentation - never ends; the entire planet is changed by its presence. From the moment the earth’s crust solidified, water has never stopped wearing it away. All of water’s forms and singular properties are devoted to the task of landscape sculptor: hammering and gnawing rains and running water erode, carry, and deposit incessantly; ice disintegrates, smoothes and evacuates; waves gnaw; dews dissolve; vapours corrode.. Scars created by water are the outlines of large-scale erosion.’ (p 79) Moving further into our modern world, it was the site of settlements, to water crops came canals, reservoirs and pumping systems. River related trades and clothing industries were all dependent on life giving water. To build civilisations and cities came further technological developments with water. ‘The history of humanity has been determined in large part by the quest for and the conquest of water. Great civilisations were born from water and near water; their grandeur and power depended on controlling it; and their decline was the result of its mismanagement. The maps of rivers and human settlements are entwined.

‘Water is often given feminine attributes and associated with the image of a woman. Its life-force and sensuality symbolize the accomplishments of fertility. It is milky and lunar, owing to the correspondence of ocean tides and the cycles of the moon with that of the rhythms of the menstrual cycle… It seems that a cultural constant is to associate water with young and pretty women. Each culture has its water nymphs, ambiguous water sprites, naiads who preside over fountains or rivers, sirens who subjugate reason and lead men to their ruin, nereids and oceanids who live in places at the bottom of the seas, or swamp sorceresses who haunt the rural imagination and entrust the protection of their treasure to serpents.’ (p135)

Remove everything that water has led us to rely on; the clothes, machinery, and cities, and all that is left is our human body, equally and entirely dependent on water. Unlike our bodies though, who rely on water on a daily basis, once paper is created, contact with water once again becomes fatal. This cycle will continue for paper: water the life giver and life taker, but until what point? What is the end for paper. It might find its way into a book, living on a bookshelf for hundreds of years, free from the peril of its new enemy. It might find its way into a pulp cycle; re-integrated among virgin wood chippings, but after one encounter with the giant industrial pulper its fibres will have separated across thousands, if not millions of different new sheets of paper. These fibres entwine with such strength, but their bond is only a fickle one when water returns to refashion. Weaker, it might become loo roll, an egg container, a cardboard box, or it might go to landfill, where it could take up to 15 slow years to decompose. The lack of air in these landfills will mean that it won't be able to decompose properly, and sends methane out into the air. Not an appropriate death for this vital material. This is where paper leaves the endless water cycle. It is not eternal. It has a shelf life, although it can be reproduced several times this is limited.


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