Jul 17 2018

Virtuous Waters: Mineral Springs, Bathing, and Infrastructure in Mexico

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Renewed engagement with the virtues of waters can promote more sustainable hydro-social relationships.

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by Casey Walsh, Virtuous Waters: Mineral Springs, Bathing, and Infrastructure in Mexico, University of California Press, 2018, 226 pp.

In Virtuous Waters, anthropologist Casey Walsh explores the social and cultural history of bathing and hot springs in Mexico. The book traces everyday water cultures surrounding these springs from AD 1500 to the twenty-first century. Originally used for steam baths by the indigenous peoples of Mexico, spring waters came to support a variety of therapeutic, religious, leisurely and sexual activities over the centuries, with uses and practices shifting according to scientific and moral understandings of medicine, public health and social order. Adopting a political ecology perspective, Walsh’s ethnographic narrative is attentive to questions of power and access in day-to-day interactions with spring waters. Stories about exclusion and dispossession due to race, class and gender figure prominently throughout the book, including in a chapter that chronicles attempts at water commodification for commercial bottling and spa tourism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book’s political ecology lens further allows the author to raise fundamental questions about the ontology of water. Adding to the work of scholars like Jamie Linton and Jeremy Schmidt, Walsh offers a detailed account of the homogeneity vs. heterogeneity of water and water cultures in Mexico. Water is commonly conceptualized today as a “single, uniform, inert element that can be managed by a unified infrastructure” (p. 6). Walsh argues that this modern view of water has never fully eradicated traditional understandings of multiple waters, each with its own mineral composition and virtuous effects on the human body. As Walsh’s archival work reveals, the characteristics and benefits of specific waters have long drawn the attention of scientific researchers along with practitioners of “hydropathy,” and continue to be revered by the visitors of bath houses and religious sites.

For Walsh, a renewed engagement with the heterogeneity of waters can facilitate more sustainable uses of the element moving forward. Immersion in hot springs offers the opportunity to engage with waters and with fellow bathers, thereby strengthening environmental awareness and community ties. As the book’s concluding chapter makes clear, the danger remains that the virtues of waters will be exploited for exclusionary profit-seeking activities. At the same time, these virtues hold out the prospect for more sustainable relationships between humans and waters in the future.



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