Environmental & Architectural
Reviewed by David Seamon
A major aim of EAP is to inform readers of work that sees the world in new ways and transcribes that understanding into design, planning, and policy. One such effort is the work of Austrian naturalist and hydrologist Viktor Schauberger (1885-1958), who developed a radical new vision of nature, energy, and technology.
In Living Water, described as the first book-length discussion of Schauberger's work in English, Swedish conservationist Olof Alexandersson overviews the hydrologist's life and gives a preliminary sense of how revolutionary Schauberger's innovative theories and ingenious machinery designs might be.
SHAUBERGER'S WATER STUDIES
Shauberger grew up in a Bavarian family whose livelihood for generations had been "the husbandry of the forests and their wildlife" (p. 18). His father was a master woodsman and forest warden, and this became the young boy's career aim. Perhaps most important for Schauberger, his father and forebears deeply loved nature and gave it continuous attention. "They relied," he wrote, "upon what they saw with their own eyes and what they felt intuitively" (p. 19).
Though his father wanted his son to attend university, the young man had a practical bent and went instead to forestry school, graduating to become a state forest warden. He eventually came to oversee a remote Bavarian district where the forest was largely pristine. Here, he became fascinated with water as it moved in the streams and springs under his jurisdiction. He set himself to discover water's "laws and characteristics and the connection between its temperature and its motion" (ibid.).
One of the first unusual ideas that he sought to clarify was the belief, based both on direct observation and what he had learned from traditional wisdom handed down in his family, that water responded to shade and coolness. As a boy, he had learned of this idea from his father and uncles, who had shown him how a stream could carry the greatest loads of timber on cold, clear nights. These relatives also claimed that water, directed through irrigation canals at night, yielded "a significantly greater harvest than that of the neighboring meadows and fields" (p. 19).
As he carried out his warden duties, Schauberger studied water's response to cold and shade. He noticed, for example, how the richest, most beautiful forest vegetation regularly grew by the fresh-water springs. He noticed how water weeds could point upstream and that the more strongly they did, the closer the temperature of the water to four degrees centigrade‑-the point of water's maximum density.
He also observed how untouched streams formed winding curves surrounded on both sides by shaded banks of trees and understory. Even in the most violent flooding these streams never overflowed or destroyed their banks. "The water," he conjectured, "wants to flow in this way and builds up these shaded banks to protect itself from direct sunlight" (p. 20).
He also listened to the accounts of the farmers and hunters living in his forest district. His thinking was particularly affected by one story that involved a remote mountain spring which, for generations, had been covered with a stone hut. One day hunters tore the small building down, thinking that exposing the spring to sun and light would produce more water. Instead, the spring dried up. The stone hut was rebuilt and, shortly, the spring began to flow again.
One of Shauberger's greatest puzzlements was the movement of fish in the forest streams. He noticed, for example, how trout and salmon, during spawning, swam upstream toward the cold spring sources of the flow. He wondered how trout could jump waterfalls with seemingly little effort. He also observed how trout could lie motionless for long periods in the strongest current but then, if suddenly frightened, dart against the flow "instead of allowing themselves to be carried downstream..., which would seem to be more natural" (p. 21).
He could find no scientific explanation for such behavior but did recognize that the water of the spring-fed streams was colder upstream than farther down. To test whether there might be a relationship between temperature and the trouts' behavior, he devised various experiments‑-for example, he had his workmen pour heated water upstream from a length of rapids along which a large trout liked to lie. Shortly, the trout became greatly agitated:
From observations and experiments like these, Schauberger came to wonder if fish did not exploit some hitherto unknown source of energy in water. He also came to believe that this energy was related to low temperature and natural flow. These conclusions moved his professional efforts toward two concerns that would shape the rest of his life: First, a search for a new theory of motion; second, an effort to change the practices and technologies of Western resource management, especially the treatment of water, soil, and forests.
TWO KINDS OF MOTION
Shauberg's studies convinced him that "water in its natural state shows us how it wishes to flow, and we should follow its wishes" (p. 35). In time, this interest in the movement of water directed his research and design efforts toward broader questions about motion. "What," he asked, "is motion? Are there different types of motion? Might there exist a form of motion as yet unknown to science?" (p. 23)
Through research sponsored, first, by the Austrian government and, later, by corporate enterprise, Schauberger developed a radical theory that argued for two kinds of motion within nature: one, which breaks down; the other, which builds up and refines:
Schauberger believed that, in nature, these two kinds of energies work in cooperation. He would eventually conclude that water's ability to carry greater loads at maximum density and the salmon's ability to hold its position in the rapid stream relied on the constructive, centrifugal kind of energy, which modern science had not yet identified because its manifestations cannot be accounted for in the classical models of physics.
Unfortunately, so Schauberger claimed, the theoretical errors of modern science also had great practical implications, since a major result is a modern technology based on the destructive, centrifugal movement alone‑-a situation that ultimately raises havoc with the natural environment. For example, he pointed out that most internal combustion engines of the time were only fifty percent efficient; such poor performance, he believed, was because these engines used "the wrong sort of motion" (p.76). He wrote:
PIPES AND PLOWS
As his work with water proceeded, Shauberger became more and more interested in understanding nature's constructive form of movement, which he came to call cycloid spiral motion. From the 1930s onward, he sought to translate his growing understanding into practical designs and procedures, developing new machines and resource practices that appear to have potential to revolutionize farming, horticulture, forestry, and water management.
One early design, patented in 1934, was a new kind of pipe that would allow water to move in a spiral motion and thereby maintain its freshness and vitality. The interior walls of this "double spiral pipe" had curving edges of copper that would guide the water into a vortex motion. In experiments, Schauberger demonstrated that this pipe improved the quality of the water moving through it and reduced surface resistance thus taking less energy to move the water.
In 1935, after heavy flooding of the Rhine River (which had been dredged, straightened, and walled), Schauberger drew on his new pipe design to suggest a way to increase the carrying capacity of the river and thereby lower its level as much as six meters.
Though rejected by government authorities as unfeasible, Schauberger's plan was to build in the river a series of regular curved flutes that would propel the water into a spiral "scooping action in the middle of the river rather than near the banks" and thereby deepen the middle of the channel and allow the water to move more freely.
Much later, in the 1950s, Schauberger would draw on the spiral idea yet again, seeking to develop a plow that would imitate "the burrowing action of the mole." He believed that conventional plow designs led to a centripetal motion that damaged the soil, whereas a spiral blade would "work the soil with almost no resistance, rendering it free from the pressure and friction and subsequent heating that accompany use of the normal plow" (p.105).
A NEW WAY TO CARE FOR WATER
Beyond designs like these that he believed would harness a new form of natural energy, Schauberger also developed new ways to care for the natural environment. Because of his early experiences with forests, his main concern was a resource management that would imitate the natural relationship among water, soil, and trees. "First understand Nature," he wrote, "then copy it" (p. 34).
Practically, his approach to caring for nature centered on water and included the following elements:
PROBLEMS AND POSSIBILITIES
Alexandersson's book on Schauberger has its share of problems and leaves the reader with many unanswered questions. Unfortunately, the book is entirely supportive of the hydrologist's work, and there is no critical effort to point out weaknesses, confusions, or failures. For example, Schauberger's personal history as presented by Alexandersson suggests that the scientist was flawed in many ways: he was highly secretive, mistrustful, and seemed to begin many more research projects than he ever finished. There is also Alexandersson's sensationalist and unproven (at least from the information provided in the book) claim that Schauberger's work and life were eventually destroyed by a group of Texan businessmen who feared the negative affect that Schauberger's research and inventions would have on conventional resource procurement and management.
In spite of the book's many weaknesses, it is a useful introduction to a body of work that is highly original and intriguing, particularly in regard to the kinds of environmental problems we face today.
For environmental phenomenology, Schauberger's work appears to have considerable significance, both methodologically and practically. Perhaps most obvious is his implicitly phenomenological way of working: patiently studying water in motion and trying to see, in a kindly, respectful way, what happens. Particularly striking is how many of his insights agree with the conclusions of the one other major phenomenological study of water--hydrologist Theodor Schwenk's Sensitive Chaos (London, 1965), especially the two mens' emphasis on the importance of vortex movement for water and other fluids.
Schuaberger's work is also instructive for environmental phenomenology because of his efforts to transcribe his understandings into practice, through the belief that "the task of technology is not to correct nature, but to imitate it" (p. 34). One is reminded of philosopher Martin Heidegger, who argued that, through a new way of understanding and being, people might develop a different attitude toward technology by which it would keep its place as a helpful tool rather than dominate life.
Heidegger insisted, however, that this new style of technology would not come through conventional scientific or technological practices. Rather, the central need was to see the natural and human worlds in new ways that would respect the integrity of the thing being looked at. In this way might arise new ways of theory and praxis that would facilitate a technology for dwelling, belonging, and place.
One could well argue that Schauberger's work is one such possibility for such radically new theory and praxis. Though he was ignored and even ostracized in his lifetime, perhaps his work will yet serve as an example of knowledge and practice arising from a thoughtful and empathetic seeing and understanding.