Hidden Rivers

Hidden Rivers

Urszula Zajączkowska
time 5 minutes

The panicked scream of human beings emerging from the water at the very beginning of terrestrial life must mean something. Why do we cry so desperately at the precise moment of transition from an aquatic environment to a gaseous one; when we take our first breath of air into our empty lungs?

Air, as a diffuse form of matter, is so light and soft it’s enough to simply inhale, to take in, to directly exchange whole molecules with our bloody and wet interior: oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water. That unbearable lightness of air causes a number of land-dwelling lifeforms real problems through a phenomenon, one might call magical, although in fact—excusez le mot—is quite physical. 

But diffusion can be both beautiful music and a fantastic blend of colors. It’s an equalization of concentration, a French Revolution of molecules, spreading these particles equally across its medium, and there’s room there for everyone. It happens without any external input of energy, but from its own vibrations of particles—Brownian Motion—in the thermodynamic streams of the world. Diffusion occurs spontaneously, so it’s difficult to stop. It also happens dangerously fast—the rate with which gasses diffuse in the air is ten thousand times faster than in water. That’s why everything that lives on land shields itself under cover of skin, bark, fat, and scales; hair, fur, and waxes. One shouldn’t overstate diffusion’s effectiveness, because in the case of a body made of hydrated, compressed matter—like a leaf, a hand, a stem, an eye, or a root—it always involves loss, evaporation, and escaping particles, among which water matters the most.


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The fact that a tree’s texture is coarse and dry, the fruit of an orange encased in a spongy shell, and that we ourselves are rather fat and sheathed in skin, and when we pinch it all nothing spurts, nothing drips, even though everything inside is soaked with water—it testifies to how protective we are of our internal fluids. There’s no denying that we, the living, are mostly walking liquid containers. In the case of plants, however, which lack the mobility to search for springs to sip from, water had to establish a complex inner system of transport, according to even more complex morphologies.

Water is the medium that gives plants life, in which other substances are dissolved, depending on where it flows, where it finds itself. If it fills a leaf, then it will probably be infected by the sun, striking it with a burst of photons; disturbing the dyes and saturating the sugar molecules. The sweet and surely warm water flows to every cell that needs glucose, i.e. a cell in a living state. This stream of life-giving substances does not flow passively; it’s controlled; distributed and assigned—plants put the effort in to deliver sugar and further their own growth. These energy streams are channeled in phloem cells, found just beneath the palm of your hand when you place it against the bark of a tree. In young beech or fir trees, they’re less than a fraction of an inch; in a violet, they are half that. Phloem cells are alive, which means that they age. Our veins have similar cells. As it were, they exfoliate inside, though their form and geometry remain unchanged. Phloem dies from old age in trees, or is crushed by the wooden cylinder still growing inside. The branches, roots, and trunk are actually growing all the time, recreating water transport routes, strengthening their construction in order to lift the light-hungry crown and bind it with transparent threads of water from the roots.

But here too, there must once have been a beginning, a primordial stirring of these hidden plant rivers. This moment of water moving towards the delicate, sap-filled leaves as they emerge from buds and, almost immediately, become exposed to dry air with a sweeping explosion, where impatient diffusion is at work—this moment is truly moving and intimate. After all, every new leaf must at some point take its first breath. And it does, one magnificent day in spring.


Translated from the Polish by Marek Kazmierski

This translation was re-edited for context and accuracy on December 1, 2022.

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