Confluence News: writing in place
View this email in your browser
Rains are filling reservoirs in Northern California, and creeks and, more slowly, recovering groundwater levels.  But off of smooth-cruising asphalt and cozy, dry house roofs, rain rushes into pipes and streams, bypassing more absorbent ground. (See Scott Cooper, et al for a comprehensive view of urbanization and hydrology in climates like ours.)

Curbs protect pedestrians from drivers, and when it rains, from sheeting water as they organize formerly complex pathways into straightened zigzags in underground pipes. As long narrow lines running around nearly every block, curbs seem an ideal place to tell stories about water and stream dynamics.  Why not write something along curb tops for people to read as they stroll downhill?
But how? Stream-like, handwriting requires constant improvising - connecting letters, spacing words, managing loops and strokes with different implements, intentions and emotions. Handwriting can be conventional or unique but either way speaks to the historical moment of the writer. As urban water management has straightened curvy channels, so has printing - and keyboarding - regularized word-shapes. A step between would be a font made from handwriting.

A step toward making such a font is to pluck the alphabet out of an historic document. Above is the handwriting of Claude Dukes, Federal Water Master for the Truckee and Carson River systems from 1958 to 1984.

(Thanks to Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno for access to this material.)
In many parts of the world forests are filters for drinking water. Such sources are often obscured by distance, scale and piping, translating complexity into a reliability that becomes marvelously easy at the tap. To probe the nature of drinking water acquisition I've been looking at particular Sierra watersheds from which Bay Area water comes. I've been tracing tributaries to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the main water source for San Francisco and the Peninsula, preparing several images for exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

In my computer file, each line is six pixels wide, about 1/32 inch when printed. With my mouse, I cover a quarter inch of paper space with each four inches of wrist motion. It's a microscopic adjustment, but I recognize that quarter inch of line represents five-hundred feet of stream, teeming with scraping insects, algae-covered cobbles, rotting leaves and pools of fish. Drawing is a grave responsibility.

Database diagrams describe landscape-sized processes we can see in isolation and across scales. Drawing and writing, especially by hand, explore materials themselves as part of  communication. Freely inquiring, I'm working my way toward curb talk - texts a single line deep and a mile long that one can read along urban sidewalks.
A scheme for Reno, about a mile all together. The blue line represents the Truckee River, the casino district is at the upper right, the middle section runs along the Riverwalk.
Previous post

Newsletter archive

For an introduction to the Confluence projects, visit

My website is

Copyright © 2016 Todd Gilens, All rights reserved.

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp