What does water look like?

I’ve chosen the right-hand side of the train for potential glimpses of the Merwede River, Gorinchem is the end station but they seem never to mention it. There are regular announcements for ‘Horkem’ though, which I can’t find on the map, it takes till the platform is in view for the penny to drop.

The plan had been to hire a bike and cycle the stretch of river mapped by Cruquius, but wind, rain and the beginnings of a cold led to a better idea: ferries.


Onboard the first thing I notice is how wide the river is, it’s difficult to see both banks at once and wind whipped waves lend the feel of open waters.  The roughened surface obscures the shallow bed; I see wild water instead of the smooth calculations present in ‘Cruquius world’, his maps implying a knowable, ‘fixable’ environment.


Islands present on his 1730 map are missing, either subsumed to main land or dredged away. Vast industrial complexes give way to silver-headed stands of long grasses, and small copses that scatter away to the horizon: the only way-markers of distance within the thin band (of land) between river and sky.

What does water look like? There are now computer aided algorithms able to ‘model’ turbulence into a knowable mass of swirling lines in real time: Cruquius would have liked that. Before he ‘invented’ a system for bathymetric contours, he employed a typical ‘Russian doll’ approach suggestive of shallows at the perimeter, depth in the middle that has an Op art vibe.The Merwede river map was never about navigation (which is how I think of maps). Whereas contemporary walker’s maps are awash with contours lines, lakes and rivers are now depicted in a placid, plain blue: no isobaths (or ‘Op art’) trouble the surface. Once so plentiful on Dutch maps of the 18th Century – apart from specialist maps – these lovely lines have mostly disappeared.

Map image courtesy of Amsterdam University

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2 Responses to What does water look like?

  1. Nicola Sugden says:

    Hi Karen, I just wanted to say how much I am enjoying your posts. Each one brings an exquisite jewel of discovery of a whole new world I knew nothing about. Wach one has its own beauty. I start from a place of utterly loving maps, so you have me hooked. Perhaps you might in time make something tangible and substantive that I could hold and enjoy …like a book! Who knows. For now I just wanted to say thanks. All the best Nicola

    Liked by 1 person

    • karenrann says:

      Thank you so much Nicola!
      I love the researching and writing. There will be a publication to accompany the exhibition in June and after that who knows? The funding will have run out by then, but I’m already planning further research visits (and what appears in the blog is hugely edited) so maybe there will eventually be enough material for a small book.


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