Tessel van der Putte
A River Runs Through Us
Reflections on the feminine in water protection and how this relates to wild and free-flowing rivers
Water, in all its forms, is life. It sustains us, nourishes us, and transforms us. And if water is life, then rivers - with their free-flowing currents and persuasive presence - are the blood of the earth. Their currents meander like veins and arteries over the land, nourishing life and enabling growth everywhere they go. I would argue that they’re also living entities, with their own agency and power, deserving of our respect and protection. Poetically speaking, protecting wild rivers and allowing them to flow freely, is about recognizing and allowing our own, human "wild" nature space too.
Speaking from anthropocentric perspective, the freedom for rivers to exist and flow freely is not only about preserving the delicate balance of ecosystems, but also about social justice, and well-being. The exploitation of water and restrictions to free-flowing rivers has an impact on the lives of countless animal heartbeats that are dependent on it, but it can also have a huge impact on communities living with, and from, the ecosystem of the river. And this concerns in particular (Indigenous) women and girls... Which connects the fate of water and women together in a confluence of synchronicities.
In my paintings, I like to explore the symbolism of water and femininity, which, the more I read, the more I find has roots in many cultures and traditions around the world. I believe that water is associated with femininity because of its life-giving properties and its ability to nourish and sustain. Water is also seen as a symbol of purification and renewal; cyclical qualities that are associated with the feminine or “menstruating” body.
In many Indigenous cultures around the world, water is considered a sacred and animate entity that has its own spirit and agency... while having a special bond with the women and girls who live in close connection to it. As the beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass has taught me, the Anishinaabe people of North America view water as a living being with its own consciousness and spirit. They believe that women have a special connection to water and are responsible for protecting it for future generations.
The interconnectedness of water and femininity is reflected in many mythologies and creation stories as well, where water - like the womb of a mother - tends to be the source of all life. Some traditions associate the divine feminine with the water element specifically, representing the power of intuition, emotion, and creativity. A beautiful example of such divine femininity is Ganga, the personification of the river Ganges, who is worshipped in Hinduism as the Goddess of purification and forgiveness.
Rivers that flow freely
When two years ago, I was living next to the beautiful turquoise river the Rhône in Geneva, I developed a particular curiosity for “freely flowing rivers”. I would swim in the river's water every day and feel how the currents would re-energize me. The water's movement and colors would always remind me of the wild power within all of us. A power and way of being that, especially within women, has long been silenced and remoulded to fit the box of Western, patriarchic society.
Like the ebb and flow of the tides, the movement of rivers is not meant to be contained or controlled. It is the way it is, naturally in balance. Yet it’s very rare to find a wild river in Europe, and most bodies of water are shaped, restricted and used for human convenience. So inevitably, I started wondering to what extent I could find similarities in the way our Western societies perceive or limit the female body. Not the least because of taboos around menstruation (yes, the freedom to “flow” is no coincidental use of language here) and hormonal cycles, which are not often enough discussed in education about our health when growing up.
What I started seeing all around me, was that rather than freely being their unrestricted, most powerful, and loud selves, women would still often feel restricted (or restrict themselves) at the convenience of their surroundings, far more often than their male counterparts. To be like "freely flowing water or a wild river so to say, requires a lot of trust. Trust to let go, trust in the einvironment respecting and valuing the space one takes up... It requires connection, and awareness of the overall system the river is part of, which benefits from the river water. In other words: women, like rivers, are shaped by the resistance they meet in their environment and the power of their own currents. As the river's environment is also part of the river, this resistance also needs to be reckoned with "within oneself".
Hydro-feminist scholar Astrida Neimanis notes that there is a symbolic connection between the bodies of women and water bodies too, both of which are often seen as passive resources to be exploited. She emphasizes the importance of recognizing rivers as "actors" in their own right, capable of affecting and transforming the world around them. To view them as mere resources is to deny their inherent value and the vital role they play in our physical and emotional well-being. So recognizing the emotional and spiritual connection between the two runs deep. And I believe that acknowledging this connection can help us develop a more empathetic relationship with the natural world around us.
"Many Indigenous peoples around the world, and throughout the centuries, have long recognized the power and agency of rivers and other natural entities, often viewing them as living beings with their own rights and responsibilities."
An earlier example from New Zealand testifies to this. The Whanganui River was one of the world's first natural entities to be granted legal personhood under the Rights of Nature framework (in 2017), when the New Zealand government passed a law recognizing the river as a legal person with its own rights and interests, including the right to exist, flow, and regenerate. The legislation enshrined: “Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au” (I am the River, and the River is me). This landmark decision was the result of decades of advocacy by the Maori people, the river's traditional custodians, who view the river as a living entity and a critical part of their cultural heritage.
Traditional knowledge systems
Many Indigenous peoples around the world, and throughout the centuries, have long recognized this power and agency of rivers and other natural entities, often viewing them as living beings with their own rights and responsibilities. Yet while thinking like this, the right to exist, freely flow and regenerate seems very reasonable, many Western societies struggle with this notion. Why?
Something insightful the Indigenous scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer describes, is that Indigenous communities see themselves as part of a "web of life," where all beings, including water and rivers, are considered animate and integral to the health and well-being of the community. So perhaps the answer to this question is about disconnection; the notion that we're not individual islands, but that we're also the sea that connects us. Boundaries and separation are artificial, social constructs that do not really exist.
"Like the women leaders at Standing Rock, the River Keepers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Women of Vjosa demonstrate the significant role that women play in environmental protection and activism."
And here’s where the feminine gets back into the picture of water protection. In a research I conducted some years back, for a book on the sustainable development goals, I read how women and girls tend to be at the frontlines of water-related emergencies and disasters. It's commonly accepted that they're often disproportionally affected by climate change-related impacts on water, such as sea-level rise, flooding and tropical storms, too. This means their active involvement and leadership in how to go about such challenges - and perhaps even more so for Indigenous women - is vital.
For example, in 2016 there was an article in The New York Times that discussed the vital role that Indigenous women played in the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The writer highlighted the leadership of women like LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who founded the Sacred Stone Camp, and Faith Spotted Eagle, who served as a key spokesperson for the resistance movement. She wrote how through their activism, many Indigenous women emerged as key leaders in the fight for water protection and environmental justice.
Closer to where I live, in Europe, I found more powerful examples of the women water defenders. When the Kruščica River in Bosnia and Herzegovina was threatened by the construction of a dam, a group of women came together to protect it. Forming a peaceful blockade that prevented construction vehicles from entering the site for 503 days, the women became known as the "River Keepers," and were successful in stopping the dam's construction. The water of the Kruščica River was to remain “free-flowing”.
Another example is the women who protected the Vjosa River in Albania, which recently became the first Wild River national park of Europe. The "Women of Vjosa" was formed in 2016 to protect the river from hydropower projects that would have severely impacted the local ecosystem and the communities that rely on the river for their livelihoods. They organized peaceful protests, gathered signatures for petitions, and engaged in dialogue with government officials to prevent the damming of the river.
Like the women leaders at Standing Rock, the River Keepers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Women of Vjosa demonstrate the significant role that women play in environmental protection and activism. Their collective efforts and determination highlight the power of community-led initiatives and peaceful resistance as well – which I’m very inclined to define as feminine ways of going about conflict.
"In an allegorical sense, a free-flowing river reminds us of our own “flow”, especially as women. It's an invitation to be unrestrictedly, freely, and authentically ourselves and to honor our inner nature. "
To conclude, protecting our free-flowing rivers is crucial to the health of our environment (and so also to ourselves), but it's also political. It's a feminist issue. Movements like the ones mentioned above are rooted in a deep respect for the power and agency of water.. and the impact its exploitation has on communities. Yet it's also a symbolic question. In an allegorical sense, a free-flowing river reminds us of our own “flow”, especially as women. It reflects back to us that being unrestrictedly, freely, and authentically ourselves is an act of honoring our inner nature. Perhaps allowing nature and bodies of water to exist the way they are, giving them space, and recognizing their agency, is about allowing and respecting our own "watery bodies" too.
I strongly believe that by recognizing the symbolic and emotional connections between women and water bodies, as well as the rights of nature, we can develop a more empathetic relationship with the natural world around us. From the amniotic fluid in our mother's womb to the water we bathe in, and drink each day, to the many rites of passage in which water is our sacred companion when stepping into a new chapter of our lives… Water is part of us from our first to our last breath on Earth. For there's a wild river that runs through everyone one of us.
1. Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.
2. Neimanis, A. (2017). Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. Bloomsbury Publishing. 3. Van der Putte, T. (2021). Climate Change and Small Islands. In Fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals. Taylor & Francis Group, Routledge. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9781003144274-25/climate-change-small-islands-tessel-van-der-putte
4. Turkewitz, J. (2016, November 1). Native American Women Are Making History With the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/02/us/native-american-women-are-making-history-with-the-dakota-access-pipeline-protests.html
5. World Wildlife Fund. (2021, August 18). The Balkan Women Who Kept Their River Free-Flowing. Retrieved from https://updates.panda.org/the-balkan-women-who-kept-their-river-free-flowing.
6. Save the Blue Heart of Europe. (n.d.). The Women of Vjosa. Retrieved from https://balkanrivers.net/en/campaigns/women-vjosa.