Aquifers (or, Hydrolithic Elemental Choreographies)

From the Series: An Anthropogenic Table of Elements

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Shaped by the legacy of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century geological thinking, popular ideas of the underground replicate two primary figures: the mine and the cave. The mine, on the one hand, draws our senses to the physical challenges of extracting materials such as oil and gold from below the surface. It reminds us of massive global endeavors launched on the basis of environmental degradation and exploited labor to extract minerals and turn them into commodities so that people can decorate their bodies, build microchips, commit to monogamous relations, pass on the spirits of the ancestors, and generate vast profits. The cave, on the other hand, makes us marvel at the possibility of hollowed-out open space, usually beneath our reach, opening a form of geological proprioception. The cave allows us to expand our spatial imaginary (Pérez 2015). As anthropologists have shown, mines have been known to eat people and caves are often sites for starting our journey to the afterlife. Together, they inspire visions of stratigraphic layers sprinkled with valuables, vertical dwellings that augment our sense of the inhabitable at a time when the planetary imagination reveals the world as a damaged place (Melo Zurita, Munro, and Houston 2018).

Figure 1. Mining in Potosí, Bolivia, an engraving from Theodoor de Bry in Historia Americae sive Novi Orbis, 1596.

And yet, there is another type of subterranean figure, one that while partially sharing some elements with the cave and the mine also exceeds them. Hydrologists call it an aquifer, but I tend to think with hydrogeologists in Costa Rica who described it to me as a saturated sponge, a dynamic architecture sucking and seeping, swelling and shrinking, absorbing and oozing (Ballestero 2018). As soon as my conversations with hydrogeologists from one of the state agencies dealing with underground water in Costa Rica moved past initial formalities, they repeatedly told me the same thing. Any time I asked questions about what aquifers were, they reminded me that, “To understand aquifers you need to understand movement, subterranean water is nothing but movement.”

In Costa Rica, aquifers have recently moved from being a concern of a closed circle of government officials and drilling companies to a major preoccupation in environmental, agricultural, and real estate circles. Increasing conflicts around water access, the proliferation of accidents that taint the source of water of more than 85 percent of the country’s population, and the threat of privatization to sell water to the global north have turned aquifers into controversial formations. What until the end of the millennium politicians left quietly underground, today they pull up as critical for the future of the nation. Subterranean water has risen to prominence as a geopolitical token, an object of national security projects, and an irresistible riddle in planetary science.

Despite that renewed prominence, aquifers remain somewhat mysterious. They seem unremarkable until we stop to think about their form, and we realize that we need to think water and stone together, inseparable, but also in constant movement. Aquifers are the movement that the encounter of water with rock makes possible; they are the seepage that their push and pull effects. Privileging movement, the difficult and never frictionless encounter between water and stone confounds our capacity to distinguish between figure and ground (Ballestero 2019).

Most people in Costa Rica do not think of underground water as movement. They rather speak of aquifers as underground water veins. One precursor of the idea of a water vein is located in colonial times when Europeans combined Christian beliefs with mining endeavors (Scott 2008). Matching the language of mineral mining with a particular appreciation of the body as a theological substrate resulted in the widespread idea that gold and silver are to be found in veins under the surface. From there, it was not hard to imagine subterranean water similarly. In contemporary Costa Rica, public sector scientists explain that their work consists of changing that notion. They want to efface the idea that an aquifer is a contained entity, like a vein or a pipe. They want to show the public its radically different form, as nothing more than a saturated substrate in movement. Their purpose is to call attention to how that particular form makes aquifers fragile, susceptible to pollution, and indocile to restoration and cleanup efforts after they have been tainted.

Figure 2. The interconnectedness of subterranean water as imagined by Anathasius Kircher in Mundus Subterraneus (1665).

Attuning ourselves to this sense of what aquifers are changes the way we encounter elements. Rather than taking rock and water as distinct elements, aquifers push us to keep them together and to ask how doing so redefines what we consider as elemental. What if rather than imagining substances, we considered elemental choreographies? What if we described these choreographies as fields where subjects and substances are not willful or distinct, but constantly pushed and pulled in different directions. I am thinking here with feminist STS scholars who propose attending to the “dynamic coordination of the technical, scientific, kinship, gender, emotional, legal, political, and financial aspects” necessary to bring entities into sociomaterial presence (Thompson 2005, 8).

But this choreography is not an orderly articulation between existing entities. It is seepage, outflow, ooze. It is a kind of movement where differentiating between figure and ground, water and stone, science and law, finance and emotion, is difficult. Perhaps the implication of this is that rather than thinking about the subsurface as the elemental ground for elemental substances, we can think of hydrolithic choreographies, the force-filled, and ongoing, push and pull of matter and beings. Thinking about this elemental pull redirects our ethnographic eyes to the forces that draw politics and bodies into the subsurface, into the midst of hydrolithic choreographies that we are all performing, most of the time without our willful approval. The question that emerges is how to reconfigure the elemental, moving away from our implicit comfort with thingness and closer to the intermittence of process, to a material-semiotic history that has always been jumpy and unpredictable.


Ballestero, Andrea. 2018. “Spongiform.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, June 27.

———. 2019. “The Underground as Infrastructure? Water, Figure/Ground Reversals, and Dissolution in Sardinal.” In Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropoocene, edited by Kregg Hetherington, 17–44. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Melo Zurita, Maria de Lourdes, Paul George Munro, and Donna Houston. 2018. “Un‐Earthing the Subterranean Anthropocene.” Area 50, no. 3: 298–305.

Pérez, María Alejandra. 2015. “Exploring the Vertical: Science and Sociality in the Field among Cavers in Venezuela.” Social and Cultural Geography 16, no. 2: 226–47.

Scott, Heidi V. 2008. “Colonialism, Landscape and the Subterranean.” Geography Compass 2, no. 6: 1853–69.

Thompson, Charis. 2005. Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.