“Stories about the sea are different,” writes Canadian author Laura Trethewey in her debut book “The Imperiled Ocean: Human Stories from a Changing Sea”, where she has collected seven vivid ones.
Book starts in Hollywood with a legendary underwater cinematographer Pete Romano and ends in Fraser River in Canada with a story about a sturgeon, a prehistoric fish, now almost extinct. “The Imperiled Ocean” holds gripping stories about a young gay refugee in the Mediterranean Sea and about behind-the-scene horrors on cruise ships. Laura Trethewey reports on water-dwelling communities and on plastic garbage madness in the ocean streams. It’s a book you won’t be able to put down before reading from cover to cover and traveling with Laura from coast to coast.
The Sea Library wanted to know more about author’s relationship with the sea and if she has a hope in the middle of climate crisis. In the interview Laura Trethewey reveals that she is working on a new book right now – about the ongoing race to map the world’s seafloor by 2030. She also reminds us that this month is a #plasticfreejuly.
What led you to write your first book? How did you choose what stories to tell?
The Imperiled Ocean is the culmination of years of writing and research about what people are doing on the ocean. I grew up in Toronto, Canada, which is not by any ocean, but my family used to spend summers on the East Coast of North America. At an early age, I was steeped in fishing trips, whale watching and tide-pooling. I also started to fall in love with stories about the sea, like Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
When I started writing myself, I realized that the immersive and literary sea stories that I fell in love with when I was a kid were in short supply. I set out to bring those stories back to the page and encourage people to fall in love with the ocean the way I did, through great storytelling.
What is your most vivid memory of meeting with Pete Romano, the underwater cinematographer?
I wanted to kick off The Imperiled Ocean with one of the most mainstream ways we encounter the ocean today: blockbuster Hollywood movies. I did that by focusing on Pete Romano, who has spent the last forty years filming underwater scenes for films like Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, Inception, The Life Aquatic and many others. He was also the head cinematographer for Jaws 3-D.
Romano works in this very niche world of underwater film in and around Southern California. I travelled there to see his office in person, which is actually more like a factory filled with all types of film gear used to capture underwater stories. Even more impressive were the film tanks where Romano shoots films regularly. These above-ground pools are situated on unremarkable concrete backlots around Los Angeles but they absolutely transform into magical places on screen.
You describe the underwater world as darker regions of imagination, and also that water allows us creative licence to imagine our most irrational fears. Why are the depths of the ocean so evocative?
I watched many of the movies Pete Romano filmed and across all I found a few things held true about how we see the ocean. The ocean is a place of transformation for good or for bad. It is very rarely neutral. This says a lot about the human relationship with the ocean. We love the ocean, but we’re also afraid of it because we can’t control it. Because of that, the ocean will always be a very evocative place for humanity.
You learned to sail in your childhood and had a dream of sailing around the world, but when the dream was stripped off any romantic notions, you lost your interest. What took away that romantic part and why it lead to change your mind?
Writing about two sailors preparing to sail across the Pacific demystified going to sea for me. I saw the entire process broken down into each grueling step. I learned that, yes, I too could go sail across the ocean, if I really wanted to. That gave me a certain kind of confidence borne from knowledge. But in the end writing the story cured me of that wanderlust. I realized that I was more drawn to the romance of the sea, rather than the reality. This is probably true for many people like me, who are more familiar with the shoreline than the open ocean.
Mediterranean sea is described by the press as a mass migrant graveyard. One of the saddest stories in your book is about “boat people” who try to reach safer grounds over the sea. What was your revelation, when working on this chapter?
In 2016, I had a chance to visit a refugee house in southern Germany during a time when tens of thousands of people were crossing into Europe by boat. At this refugee house, I met a few boys who had made the trip. They were really just boys, some as young as 12 or 13, and yet they seemed much older to me than I was at that age. There was a feeling of lost innocence about them. One teenager I focused on was Mohammed, who is gay and originally from Ghana where violence against the LGBTQ+ community is widespread. He told me his story of seeing another boat flounder during his crossing from Libya to Italy and that he watched a hundred people drown. Speaking to Mohammed, someone who was deeply traumatized by his first encounter with the ocean, I remember feeling incredibly lucky and privileged that I had grown up with such happy experiences with the sea.
There are people who live happily on boats and form water-dwelling communities. You spent some time with one such community in the Dogpatch, in a habror of a seaside town on the coast of Vancouver Island. You write that living on water draws in a specific kind of people “eccentric, creative, hardy types, such as inventors, artists, engineers, and fishers,” who live outside the mainstream. Why do you think it is so?
I’ve always been intrigued by people who live on boats. The shoreline is one of the last places, in the developed world at least, that sits outside the rules of land. Historically, people who lived on boats were poor and worked at the waterfront. But in comparison to the life they could afford on land, the water offered a lot of freedom, beauty and access to nature.
In recent years, as the environmental movement has grown, I’ve noticed that the waterfront is becoming cleaner but also more gentrified. People pay a lot of money to live by the water today and that is pushing out the poorer boat-dwellers who lived on the water before the environmental movement reclaimed the ocean. I see access to this space becoming more and more contested.
An important story to tell about the ocean is how much trash we have thrown into it. You write about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and about people who are working to save the oceans from “the giant uncontrolled plastic experiment we’ve unleashed”. The chapter is filled with tides of pessimism and optimism. Is there any hope?
I spent a week collecting plastic on what seemed like pristine beaches off Canada’s West Coast. What I discovered was that when I looked closer, these beaches were covered in plastic. It was not just plastic bottles that were easy to remove. The plastic was small, often invisible and mixed into the ecosystem where it was becoming part of the environment. I realized that we can’t take all that plastic back now. It’s out there and we have to reckon with what we’ve done to the ocean. However, we are not lost if we can still change. In recent years, there’s been an incredible push to eliminate single-use plastics in the form of local bag bans and wider government legislation. Coronavirus has set this movement back, but I continue to be hopeful, especially during #plasticfreejuly right now, that we can cut down excessive plastic waste for a cleaner ocean.
Life at a cruise ship may seem like a luxurious holiday to some, but a hectic job and claustrophobic depression to others. You tell a story of a man lost overboard a cruise ship and reveal how lawless is the sea. Is ocean the last untamed frontier, a place for unpunished crimes?
We often hear about the environmental impact of cruise ships, but writing about a young chef who died on a cruise ship highlighted the labor issues at sea for me. Most passengers and staff don’t realize before boarding a cruise ship that the vessel is flagged to a country like Panama or the Bahamas. When something criminal happens out on international water, it is up to these countries to investigate, except they have looser regulations and less resources to do so. Cruises are sold as cheap vacations to Western industrialized countries, as well as the growing middle class in the China. However, these trips have real human consequences for the staff and passengers as well as their families back home.
Why did you choose to finish your book with a chapter on sturgeon, an ancient and endangered fish?
I always knew that this chapter would end The Imperiled Ocean. It covers a week I spent on board a research boat with a biologist, Erin Stoddard, who was trying to understand why the white sturgeon is disappearing from the oceans and rivers of the Pacific Northwest. This fish has been around since the time of the dinosaurs. Biologists compare the sturgeon to the wooly mammoth or the saber tooth tiger, except this fish is not yet extinct and we can still save it. Erin Stoddard’s quest to understand the sturgeon, before it disappeared, felt hopeful for me and a good way to end the book. If we can still learn from the ocean and its creatures, then we are not lost.
Tell me about the second book you are working on right now.
Right now, I’m in writing a new book about the ongoing race to map the world’s seafloor by 2030. The ocean covers over 70% of the planet and represents 99% of earth’s living space by volume, but only 19% of the seafloor is mapped with modern instruments and accurate detail. My recent story for The Guardian reflects a lot of my early thinking on my next book and why I’m so fascinated by this quest to know the final frontier on earth.
What is your favorite sea book?
I don’t know if I have a favorite sea book. That’s a cop-out, I know. Instead I’d like to highlight an influential book that I read early on in my obsession with sailing, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. It’s a well-reported and insightful non-fiction book that centers on one of the competitors in the 1969 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race – a non-stop solo unassisted sail around the world – who never made it back to land. One of the main themes of the story is the reality of the sea colliding with one’s dreams. This inspired a lot of the thinking and writing in The Imperiled Ocean.
What does the sea mean for you?
The sea is a wonderfully dynamic place. It has meant different things at different points in my life. I guess that’s why I keep coming back to the ocean. It’s a place you can spend your whole life discovering and never fully understand.
“Cass has been in thrall to the wonder and beauty of the sea for as long as he can remember and since he has looked with an artist’s eye – to enhance, edit and interpret – he has been struck by the conundrum of the horizon.”
Guy Peploe, Managing Director at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh
Edinburgh born contemporary artist David Cass creates artworks from found and recycled materials. He paints the sea on tiny matchboxes and large vintage advertisements for motor oil. Right now David Cass is working on two new projects, in both of which anyone from anywhere can participate: Where Once the Waters will form a large-scale artwork set to be exhibited at the 2022 Venice Art Biennale, while The Sea from Here will take the form of both a physical and virtual exhibition next year.
Sea Library contacted David to know more about his relationship with the sea and how to participate in the mentioned projects. His catalogue-book Rising Horizon, published last year, is available to borrow in the Sea Library.
What does the sea mean to you?
This is a question with many answers, which I suppose depend on which day you ask me. I love the image of the sea; but I’ve never lived at the coast and I rarely paint sea from life. So, maybe my seascapes would be better described as abstract paintings. Each has come from imagination, created in central Edinburgh or London. Often, I use a painted horizon-line to represent a scale: gradually ascending to reflect our escalating global average temperature or the rising of sea levels. Other times, I approach the process of patiently layering waves onto wood or metal as something grounding; some meditative relief during anxious periods.
Why are you mesmerized by a horizon line?
I read recently in photographer David Loftus’ memoir Diary of a Lone Twin part of a line by Rossiter W. Raymond: “…a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.” This speaks to me, though of course the context of the words is very different. Our collective imagination and infinite combined creativity can be put to use to meet all the issues of the day – to reach far beyond that horizon – should we choose. And there are many issues to be tackled.
I feel such despondency at times, at how little true progress has been made in solving the various causes of climate change. Money must be invested in research, in carbon reduction, in a rapid movement toward sustainable business practices. Otherwise, our horizon will – quite literally – rise. Warming seas around the world will erode coastlines and flood low-lying locations.
So, a horizon is a mark to aim for; but it can also become a threat.
Sometimes when I’m near water I can switch off and appreciate the beauty of it all, and in much of my painting I hope to convey this feeling. But at other times, I can’t help but fear the ocean’s power, and regret the damage we’ve done.
You’ve explored the Great Floods in history – including that which assailed Florence in 1966. What can we learn?
In a magazine article published during the aftermath of Florence’s Great Flood (1966), a line read “Nature will cooperate with man, if man learns to cooperate with Nature.” This statement in its original context referenced the mismanaging of dams in the valley upstream of Florence – a complicated and political hot-topic (it’s been suggested that river management in this region of Italy is still flawed). But the same sentence is relevant today.
Historically, Florence has suffered a major flood once a century. As documented in the press “the situation has actually got worse than in 1966” according to Raffaello Nardi, who heads up a special commission responsible for safeguarding the Arno river basin. This potential risk prompts concern, in part, because of the importance of Florence: what it means to the world of art and culture.
The irreplaceable items, objects, artefacts and architectural features its galleries, museums, churches and even its basements contain. Not to mention the intangible: the belief that Florence is a mecca of the art world. Cimabue’s Crucifix lost over 70 percent of its paint in 1966. Donatello’s Penitent Mary Magdalene was stained with thick brown oil. Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise lost half of their golden panels. Twenty-seven thousand square feet of frescoes in Florence’s central churches and museums were almost completely destroyed.
In 2018, the Louvre museum in Paris was on high alert, after the previous year rooms housing Arts of Islam and From the Mediterranean Orient to Roman Times were flooded, and a set of works by Nicolas Poussin and Jean-François de Troy damaged. The Louvre wasn’t the only Parisian cultural institution to take on water that year: the National Library of France suffered damages to its collection too; and the Musée Girodet, 80 miles south of Paris, suffered a “cultural catastrophe”.
We know now that so-called “hundred year” weather events are becoming so common that the metric is useless as a baseline for an extreme event. So, in tandem with reducing our environmental impact we must also safeguard.
How do you choose on what surfaces to paint the seascapes on?
I tend to look for ordinary, everyday items. Objects we can all relate to. Of course, the item must have a flat plane to paint upon, but it also has to be something that’s clearly lived a life already.
Robert Macfarlane speaks of something he calls Trace Fossils: “the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind…”
The objects I gather to paint upon are Trace Fossils too, then – etched with evidence of life and time. I paint on wooden doors, scored and scratched; on drawers and table-tops, discoloured and worn by daily use. I paint on ancient letters and postcards, written and sent and received and kept.
So, I suppose my completed paintings become a collaboration across time, carrying the marks of many hands. So much has come before. So much exists out there. So much will outlive us. Nothing in life can truly be considered blank, my artwork aims to reflect this.
In a few cases, I’ve aimed to combine my climate concerns with my desire to use found substrates. For my Rising Horizon project, I sourced surfaces made from waste plastics or metals – including vintage advertisements for motor oil, a key cause of global-warming.
Can you tell me more about your new projects The Sea from Here and Where Once the Waters and how everyone can participate?
I really want for my artwork to be inclusive. I want to offer entry points – to let others be involved – especially in projects concerning climate change. Working together is important.
I currently have two projects that anyone can be involved in: the first is called The Sea from Here, the second is Where Once the Waters. The two are connected, in that they both aim to offer us personalised pieces of information relating to our changing seas, but the outcome of each will be different.
I can’t give too much away about Where Once the Waters other than that you can take part by submitting your data here. I’ll use the data you enter to calculate the level of sea-rise (at your closest coast) since your birth. The “readings” will form a large-scale artwork set to be exhibited at the 2022 Venice Art Biennale.
I can, however, say a little bit more about The Sea from Here, which will take the form of both a physical and virtual exhibition next year. Send me a photo (or, up to three) of your local sea here and I’ll present them as part of the exhibition. I’ll select a few of the photos (there’s been almost 200 photos submitted so far) and pair them with data specific to the seas in question.
Once you’ve submitted your photo(s) by following the steps on the webpage, please do also consider sharing your photo on Instagram using the hashtag #theseafromhere so we can get as many involved as possible.
What sea-books or artworks have inspired you?
So many artists and authors come to mind. You introduced me to David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge which I’ve just devoured. “If timelessness exists anywhere on Earth”, Gange writes, “it is not in sight of the sea.”
But if I had to pick one sea-book it’d be Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise. Maybe I’m biased, because I worked on the covers of the hardback version of this book, or maybe it makes perfect sense (maybe this is why the publisher picked me to work on the project). Escapism is sometimes necessary, and I’ve returned to this soaring epic in the last months of lockdown as some adventure-driven relief from the anxiety of the current situation.
This is a deeply affecting and beautifully-written tale about a family – a woman, a man and a child – apparently lost to one another, who must journey through an unstable world, across oceans and across centuries, to find a place they can call home.
And if I had to pick one artist it’d be William Kentridge, who creates artworks with and upon a vast range of objects. In my view the most exceptional of his artworks is the mural Triumphs & Laments, located along the banks of the Tiber in Rome, illustrating scenes of the current migrant crisis but also of Rome’s classical history. In this mural, Kentridge has created something temporal, drawn by erasure (by jet-washing upon a pollution blackened wall), forming a mammoth picture that will, in time, fade back into the wall…
As a companion piece to the third of our essays by Anna Iltnere about literary seaside houses – The Easternmost House – we present an interview with Juliet Blaxland.
What I miss most is the visual emptiness of living right on the edge of the cliff, so that from our windows, from our bed, the view was of the sea, the horizon, and often some ‘big’ weather, far beyond what we normally experience in more sheltered places or inland.
The book is a love letter to a house that no longer exists. Was it easy or hard to write it?
“I sank to my knees to look more closely, to try to see with the levelling perception of an insect’s height, peering with new admiration at this miniature world about my feet,” writes British author Julian Hoffman about his encounter with a rare and threatened brown-banded carder bee. This quote is a fine example of the beautiful heart at the centre of Hoffman’s latest book, Irreplaceable: TheFight to Save Our Wild Places, which was published last year. This March his book was released in the United States, and the UK paperback saw daylight shortly afterwards.
From the tiny to the vast, from marshland to meadow, and from Kent to Glasgow to America to India, irreplaceable habitats are disappearing alongside the wildlife that calls them home. Julian Hoffman captures the haunting beauty of these landscapes and reveals the human communities which form around these special places in their defence. It is a book of hope, not despair, and something very valuable to read right now. “So rare and threatened,” Julian writes about the same bee, “it gathered pollen with no concern for its scarcity, dressing itself in gold as if for an evening out. With no idea of just how close the end of its line might be, it circled the flowers as it always has, with an unchanging faithfulness…”
With the beautiful paperback in my hands – there’s a hornbill, a butterfly, a sea horse, a lynx and a murmuration of starlings on its cover – I wrote Julian these questions from a riverside village in Jūrmala, Latvia, to his home village by the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece.
Do you remember a moment, when you decided that your explorations of threatened landscapes had to come together in the form of a book? What motivated you to write this love letter to the vital connections between humans and nature?
Yes, that moment occurred when I saw the first of what was to become many threatened places over the course of several years. And it was a moment that I couldn’t have divined or foretold; it simply was. I was staying in London for a week researching an entirely different book that I’d been planning on writing at the time when I was contacted by a woman called Gill Moore through a message on Twitter. Gill asked me whether I’d be interested in seeing a place imperilled by a proposal supported by London’s mayor at the time, Boris Johnson, to build Europe’s largest airport over it. And that place was the Hoo Peninsula in Kent.
That day I was introduced to a vast and remarkably atmospheric landscape on the rim of the Thames Estuary, where marshland, ancient villages and a stunning abundance of birdlife entwine in a world of earth and water only thirty or so miles from central London. And Gill, along with two other residents of the peninsula, opened me to the visceral reality of loss and what it means. Loss in the natural world, as it is for so many people, had largely been statistical for me, composed of the haunting numerical declines of wildlife, not only in the UK but right across the planet. And yet there, where avocets, redshanks and marsh harriers moved through the air in precisely the same spot where aircraft would ascend and descend, those losses became suddenly vivid, relatable and real. Because almost everything that thrived on the peninsula, including three entire villages and their ancient churches, would have been condemned to destruction by the airport. And that day, after just a few hours in the company of Gill and her friends in this astonishing but threatened place, I knew that I needed to write Irreplaceable.
Place is at the core of Irreplaceable. To define what a place is, you quote artist Alan Gussow; he says that a catalyst to convey any physical location into a place is “the process of experiencing deeply” and that a place is “a piece of a whole environment that has been claimed by feelings”. Why are our own feelings so important?
Firstly, place is such a difficult word to define, as it can mean so much to so many different people, but I think Gussow gets at the essence of its integrity in these lines. Importantly, he distinguishes place from space, which is how developers and politicians so often describe lands they see as being ripe for development. As empty spaces; spaces waiting to be filled.
Some years ago, I monitored birds on a limestone plateau near my home in Greece, compiling the data for an environmental study, as this entire plateau was threatened by a plan to effectively industrialise a pastoral mountain landscape with wind turbines. I spent months being dazzled by the range and quality of light up there, by the woodlarks, rock thrushes, skylarks, kestrels and short-toed eagles that called it home. I spent months being entranced by its rare profusion of wildflowers and butterflies, all bursting from this rolling country of sinkholes and stones and grasslands that swayed and rippled in the hot summer winds. And one day, the director of the wind energy company came to see how my work was progressing. He was an incredibly nice guy and was clearly concerned about how best to mitigate against and minimise threats to birds by the specific placement of turbines. We got on very well and spent a morning walking the karst country together, and at one point he stopped and proudly told me how other wind energy companies in Greece were clear-cutting forests in order to raise turbines there, but that his company never would. He then took his arm and swept it across this immense country of light and wildlife, a place I’d fallen in love with while working there, and said: “At least here there’s nothing, just a bunch of rocks.”
For him that landscape was space, while for me it was place. An incredibly rare and significant place, too. And because of the deep-seated feelings that I had for this plateau, having had the opportunity to experience it deeply because of the demands and details of my work, I felt profoundly protective of it. As studies have shown, it’s often a potent combination of feelings and morals that are effective at making change possible rather than just facts and statistics on their own. And to have feelings for the natural world, we fundamentally need contact with it, something which is itself imperilled as we’re continually losing places of importance from our surroundings.
You can’t replace an ancient woodland by planting new trees – this is just one of many examples that wild places are irreplaceable, which is the main premise of your book. Why is it crucially important to understand this?
In the spring of 2019, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. Like so many others, I watched the flames and pouring smoke with horror. Although I’ve never been to the cathedral, I recognise it as an irreplaceable cultural monument of considerable historic, architectural and spiritual richness, like the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan that the Taliban blew up in 2001. These iconic treasures are the product of our history and roots and the paths we’ve taken, and they can’t be replaced without losing much of their essential meaning. But then the same is true of the planet’s irreplaceable natural sites, whether the towering old-growth redwoods of California, the stunning coral reefs of Indonesia or complex ancient woodland dotted around the UK. They are the product of their own unrepeatable histories and roots, and in the case of ancient woodland, of their interwoven relationships with human communities and livelihoods that have evolved alongside ecological processes over long periods of time. For me, there is direct equivalency between these positions, in that we inhabit an extraordinary world replete with natural wonders that are as deserving of our respect and care and protection as Notre Dame Cathedral and other irreplaceable cultural sites.
On a more pragmatic level, we’ve seen a surge in development plans towards biodiversity offsetting in recent years, which essentially comes down to the creation or augmentation of new habitat in exchange for the destruction of old. The writer and theorist Walter Benjamin examined a similar issue in relation to art in an essay of his called ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. We all know that a copy of Van Gogh’s sunflowers or stars on a living room wall doesn’t carry the same weight and meaning as the original. In Benjamin’s phrase, it doesn’t have the same ‘aura’. And the same is true of ancient woodland. These woods, at least four hundred years old and often far, far older, are the result of unrepeatable processes, conditions, histories, livelihoods, soil types, interacting organisms, wildlife and climate. Simply put, in the words of the great environmental scholar Oliver Rackham, “to recreate an ancient wood is beyond human knowledge.” And yet there are currently 108 ancient woodlands under threat in one way or another from the HS2 railway project in Britain alone.
Some would argue that these woods can be replaced by planting new woods, and one former British environment minister, Owen Patterson, even put a number on their replacement value, suggesting that ancient woodland could be bulldozed as long as 100 trees were planted elsewhere for every one that was destroyed. Which completely misses the ecological point of veteran trees and woods. While saplings may well become important dwelling grounds for wild species and meaning over the course of their lives, 650 beetle species alone are found almost entirely in ancient woodland or on old trees in Britain. Turning to Rackham again, “A single 400-year-old-oak… [is] a whole ecosystem of such creatures for which ten thousand 200-year-old-oaks are no use at all.” Let along what he might have said about saplings. What is clear, though, is that our ancient trees and woodlands are utterly irreplaceable.
Before I started to read, I prepared myself for a sad and maybe even angering book. But it turned out to be extremely inspiring, because of the people whose stories you tell: the ones who work to save small gardens and huge prairies to keep an eye on birds, beetles, and other animals. Your book reveals the power of an individual passion that becomes infectious in a good way and also the phenomenon of a communal place, where selflessness starts to thrive. Sadly, some of the wonderful people you meet have already passed away. What did you learn from your most memorable encounters?
To be honest, I wasn’t sure myself when I began whether this would be a largely sad, angering or miserable book, but along the way I couldn’t help but be inspired by the people I was meeting. They gave the book its cadence of hope. And these were ordinary people, or that’s how they would repeatedly describe themselves to me. Ordinary folk doing extraordinary things is how I’ve come to think of them. And during the years I was writing it I realised, along with the dynamics of political and economic power that leaves so many voices silenced or unheard in this world, that stories about positive and radical change go largely unnoticed by the mainstream media. And yet some of the most powerful, potent, cathartic and transformative actions are taking place close by us all the time. Between individuals, within communities, across borders. It will be happening on your street, in your neighbourhood, in your county and country. We’re surrounded by the capacity for change, and my time with varied communities around the world revealed to me that it so often begins with just single voices, gaining power and influence through union with others. I see the image of a starling murmuration as the perfect metaphor for this potential cohesion, because at the heart of those great, swirling, transfiguring masses are just single birds. Individual birds that become something else through connection.
What I remember most about my encounters with people is generosity. The kind of heartfulness that transforms realities through kinship and connection. How it’s possible to enlarge our idea of home so that includes the wider community; so that it includes the more-than-human world in its embrace. Not only did I learn from them that the love of wildlife and place can be profoundly protective in character, but that it is also foundational in building communities and societies that are grounded in wellbeing, which in the midst of a terrible pandemic, triggered by the destruction of the natural world and its wild inhabitants, seems a vital shift to make if we wish to flourish into the future.
Wild places and entire species can be gone forever because of new airports, car parks, buildings, roads, and dams. But you write “however depleted the planet might appear, what remains always matters”. Your Greek friend Dimitris reminds us how crucial it is to start appreciating the common species, while they are still common. Can you elaborate on the necessity to notice little things, common things, good things, while the task to save a planet seems too huge to even comprehend?
In an ecological sense, of course, everything begins with the little things, the common things. Microorganisms in the soil and insect species in their great multitude and breadth underpin the health of whole ecosystems. We utterly depend on this abundance, this commonness, but as a number of recent studies have shown, insects are in dramatic decline in many parts of the world, including essential pollinator species we rely on for food crops. This diminishing of common things threatens our own health and wellbeing at a fundamental level.
Beyond that, though, Dimitris was acknowledging that all too often we take the common things for granted. They’re simply there, a part of our shared landscape, until they’re not. By which time it’s often too late to do much about it. Which was very much the case with house sparrows in London, for example. One day, it seemed, they were everywhere, and then the next they were nearly gone. But by recognizing the beauty, wonder, significance and necessity of the common species, we stand a chance of being more attuned to any changes in their presence. And this connection with the common opens a space for joy to exist in our lives, too. To take pleasure and enjoyment in the flash of blue on a magpie’s wings; to experience happiness in that great spill of spring suns that is the common dandelion.
And I suppose this brings me round to the beautiful if haunting line by Gerard Manley Hopkins from his poem Binsey Poplars. Having seen a beloved row of trees cut to the ground in 1879 on his regular walk beside the Thames, he wrote “After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.” At its most basic and crucial level, what remains always matters because future generations, those ‘after-comers’ of ours, will only know the extraordinary natural wealth, beauty and wonder that we still have with us if we protect it today.
You underline the importance of words we use to talk about nature to recreate understanding that we are a part of it and not alone in it. Words and narratives are power. Where do you suggest to start in the way we speak about everything around us?
Language is one crucial way we have of navigating the world and embedding ourselves in it. And yet for some of our most special and irreplaceable places, in both an ecological and cultural sense, our language is often deaf to their resonance. Protective designations like Site of Special Scientific Interest, Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest, Special Protection Area. These terms hardly call us to attention, and because of that it’s all the easier to dismiss places and make them more readily erasable, because to many people they don’t sound like much of anything at all. So, I think we need to reconfigure our terminologies, but on a more local and personal level, I’d say a good place to start is to learn a few of the names of your common neighbours, whether it’s great tit, red admiral, slow worm or blue bell. Names are a tool, and like so many tools we use as humans, they have at times been put to horrific use, to subjugate and own things, but as Jackie Morris’ and Robert Macfarlane’s beautiful book The Lost Words has shown in such an inspiring manner, words are also windows. They can open us to a view of the world that is wondrous and reciprocal. And from words emerge stories, which are the engines of connection. Learning something about our common wild neighbours can be the beginning of a long, respectful, caring and confirming relationship.
Loss is ever-present in your book, but you manage not to let despair enter the pages. You mention photographer and film-maker Chris Jordan, who photographs dead albatrosses because of trash in their tummies, and you quote his idea that grief is love. Do we need to learn to grieve to be able to save?
In a way, yes. Because grief is founded on love. As Jordan says, “Grief is a felt experience of love for something that we’re losing, or something that we’ve lost.” And by allowing ourselves to grieve and mourn the loss of so much in the natural world that is disappearing, from nightingales and water voles to coral reefs and tropical jungle, we allow our love for it to strengthen its resolve. Because love is a powerfully protective instinct, force and feeling. It propels us into action. Think of how parents will do anything in their capacity to save a child whose life is threatened in some way. Sometimes it takes loss, or the immediate possibility of loss, to know just how deeply we love. So, while I understand despair, and feel it to some degree most days, it’s also a paralysing emotion that is difficult to act on. Grief, however, with love as its foundation, gives us a chance of moving on to action, radical hope and defending against further losses.
Many pages in Irreplaceable are dedicated to kids. You write about the “extinction of experience” and also about their special openness to wonder and awe. What was your childhood like? Did you have the freedom to roam?
Yes, absolutely. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s in Canada, where my brother and I had a remarkable freedom to roam. We explored the nooks and crannies of nature in suburban southern Ontario like they were whole kingdoms of wonder, possibility and playfulness. There we met garter snakes and frog spawn and butterflies. We floated stick canoes down rivulets that were raging rivers to us. We rode our bikes or toboggans down what seemed back then an unbelievably steep hill we knew as Devil’s Ditch. We lived those hours in sunshine and rain and snow. And we drained every last drop of a day out there in these small pockets of meadow, wood or field because we didn’t know anything different. Parents at that time, still loving and caring parents that would do anything for their kids, allowed us to make choices about where we went and for how long on the condition that we abided by certain rules and made sure they knew roughly where we were going. But for many children today that’s no longer the case, as structured play time and being driven to school have come at the expense of those freer, less regulated joys of self-discovery. At times, naturally, our freedom led to mishaps and trouble for us, but what we gained from our experience, what we came back home with at the end of a day in terms of contact and connection with nature, was foundational for me. It was a freedom that was irreplaceable.
You mention Henry Beston and Rachel Carson, two important writers for the Sea Library as well. Why is this the right time to read Beston and Carson?
Curiously, Rachel Carson said that Henry Beston was the only writer to influence her, so there’s a nice pairing about these two vital voices. Though they worked in different ways, and were occupied by quite different themes, I see them as kindred spirits, in that they sought through a poetry of place to illuminate our relationships with the natural world and the inherent value of all we share this planet with. As well as being a distinguished marine biologist, Carson raised the alarm in Silent Spring about the untold damage caused by our indiscriminate use of pesticides, and hers is a voice we could learn from right now in the other, but related, context of a pandemic, while Beston’s beautiful paragraph in The Outermost House, written in 1929, about needing a wiser concept of animals, is more urgently needed today than ever.
If you had to choose, what is an irreplaceable book for you?
It’s so hard to choose from the many I consider to be irreplaceable on a personal level, but right now, as I’m struggling to read longer works in the midst of the pandemic, I’ll go with a small gem, and that’s Winter Count by Barry Lopez. Although Lopez is best known as a non-fiction writer, this is a slim volume of stunning short stories. The lines are stripped back and buoyant; the themes of human and wildness perennial; the atmosphere enlarging and evocative. It’s a book that brings a clarity to mind right now.
In the chapter on tallgrass prairie in America, you describe two tokens on your desk: an antique bison bone and a thatch of bison hair. Have you collected other special tokens or talismans from your travels?
The talismans that I have a particular attachment to are the ones secured by a deeper meaning. I pick up the odd stone or shell here and there, and I have bird nests that have blown down in storms or feathers unstitched on the wind, but those bison tokens signified the possibility of the animal’s wider return after being nearly annihilated from North American grasslands in the 19th century. I also have a whole desiccated stag beetle, with its astonishing antlers still intact. Not only is the dried creature simply stunning but it was found by my father on one of our walks here in Greece when my parents were visiting one year, so it carries fond memories of family for me. I have coins dug from the soil when we’ve been planting vegetables that have Arabic script on them, from a time when this village belonged not only to another age but to an entirely different empire. And I have a beautiful spice box that I wrote about in my first book, The Small Heart of Things, as it was given to me by a wonderful young man named Rashid in Istanbul. In the form of memories, the spice box held the difficult stories of his migration from his native Afghanistan, but now it acts as a reminder of our friendship, too.
What does home mean to you? And have you found one? You mention that it is possible to be at home in more than one place…
I have found one, yes. My wife and I moved to a village in the mountains of northern Greece beside the Prespa Lakes nearly twenty years ago, and the place has very much come to be home for us both. But I also believe that home is about the connections we make with the world around us, and what I learned from the many people and communities I spent time with while writing Irreplaceable is that it’s possible to bring other places into the circumference of our care – so that they essentially come to feel like home, too. To bring the living world within range of the heart.
As a companion piece to the second of our essays by Anna Iltnere about literary seaside houses – Quoyle’s Point from The Shipping News – we present an interview with Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel.
Like most people I am attracted to shorelines, whether lake, river or ocean. All of these locales have been severely damaged by humankind over the millennia—wetlands drained, rivers dammed, ocean-shores faced with armored rock walls, estuaries polluted. My interest in today’s warming oceans is based on concern as the waters move toward acidity, as coral reefs die, as kelp and eelgrass decline. I watch with trepidation as fish stocks dwindle and the shells of tiny pteropods dissolve. I walk regularly on the shore, picking up plastic as I go and feeling grief at the damages inflicted on these habitats.
What is your relationship with water and with the sea? What does the sea mean for you?
“As I climb onto the car to lie down on the bonnet, the sky begins to melt. Meteors. Candle wax drips. The stars fall at the same speed as the gannets who plunge into the sea of Ailsa Craig. It is, and there are no other words for it, truly beautiful.”
British writer and journalist Matt Gaw tucks his family in bed and goes outside when sun starts to set to witness moon rising, stars falling and snow glowing blue. His new book Under the Stars: A Journey into Light is published today. Artificial light is almost everywhere today, it has polluted the pure blackness of night and our chance to even see the stars. Matt Gaw sets out on a journey to find and experience a night so dark you can’t orient yourself in space (and time!) at all. He also revisits something completely opposite, buzzing London at night with lights, clubs, empty streets and drunk loudness, and explores ideas of darkness as fertile soil for crime, terror, our own fears and ghosts.
In Bury St Edmunds, where he lives, Matt is stopped by a police car when he comes out of the undergrowth and heads to the nearby 24/7 supermarket to buy milk. He looks too suspicious, wandering the woods like that late at night. To look at stars, to know how to be guided by them, is a forgotten art of reconnecting with nature and with ourselves. Dark skies are too precious to loose. Besides, night animals need for the night to be dark. “For bats, like deer and other nocturnal animals, entering an area of artificial light is similar to us staring into the sun.”
Matt Gaw’s new book Under the Stars: A Journey into Light follows his debut The Pull of the River: A Journey into the Wild and Watery Heart of Britain (2018). Now the moon and stars are the ones that pull Matt outside and will definitely do the same with reader. Beautifully written, thoroughly underlined (in my case), inspiring and wise book that teaches to see in the dark.
Were you scared to go out in the dark? Has that changed now?
I think there was definitely a sense of trepidation to begin with! I suppose the night, culturally at least, is painted as a place of fear and trembling, somewhere you shouldn’t roam. When I could, I went out before sunset, so my body could adapt as the dark slowly began to rise. I love the experience of twilight when the air seems to thicken and the eyes start to rely more on rods than cones.
In fact, the change of the senses is probably the biggest source of fear. The retinal cones are largely based around the centre of the retina, while the rods are around the edges, which means focusing is harder as it gets darker and peripheral vision is much more sensitive. That, combined with a greater reliance on hearing, can result in the occasional skipped heartbeat if you notice something on the edge of vision. I remember feeling more creeped out when I was in forests (Dartmoor and Galloway) and there was a lot of movement in the trees. Your brain adds all kinds of unwanted colour!
I wouldn’t say I’m scared of the dark now. I’ve learnt to manage some of my responses. When I was in Dartmoor Forest I really wanted to hurry, but I consciously slowed down and stopped, I guess I didn’t want to ‘run from something’. I think I mention in the book how it’s a bit like jumping or falling into cold water, the instinct is to thrash and swim but really you should just float and get used to the feeling.
What happens to our body and mind when we can’t see a thing?
I think that being in total darkness was the most uncomfortable experience I had, although I like to think I would cope better with it now. When I saw deer in an earlier walk I’d felt a real closeness to them, as if the lowering light removed a barrier, or reduced the distance between me and these wild animals. But in the total darkness of a cloudy Galloway Forest, it felt as if I had been consumed by the dark. It was a bit of a cogito moment and I ended up just questioning myself and everything. If I had been expecting it, had been more prepared (the story of my life), I think it could be a really wonderful thing, an opportunity for peace and reflection about how rare such pure darkness is.
What struck you the most about the light pollution?
I was aware of light pollution as an issue before the book in terms of how it impacts on migrating birds, and I think lots of people have seen heartbreaking footage of newly hatched turtles heading towards brightly-lit land than the moon-scalded sea. But I definitely didn’t realise how much of an issue it is for all species, how it is causing ecological chaos for species unable to adapt at the speed of light. I guess too that I just hadn’t noticed how much artificial lighting there is. My baseline for night, my expectations of what it is and what it should be, had been warped by growing up in a modern, bright world. After walking in London I started seeing lights everywhere and even in places of relative darkness I kept thinking about how the landscape was probably terrifyingly bright for many nocturnal creatures.
Why we need to look more at the moon and stars?
For me seeing the moon and the stars and the way their light changes the landscape is simply beautiful. There is a magic to it, a mystery that evokes the stories and myths that have been passed on for millennia. We have watched the skies for as long as we have been here and in some ways the moon gave humans the first taste of eternal life. The old calendars, cut into eagle’s wing bones, chipped into stone, chart a moon that is always moving, changing shape, disappearing and then returning. Even now, understanding the moon’s movements and the seasonal wheeling of the stars bring us closer to the rhythms of the non-human world.
I think seeing the stars has probably never been so important. They locate us within the universe, show us where we live and allow us to grasp (even if it is just for a second) the sheer scale of life. There is something amazing about looking at a star, or tracing a constellation, and realising that the light hitting the back of your eye is the same age as the Romans (or in some cases even older).
Which books inspired you when writing Under the Stars?
Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines (particularly the essay on pathology – I thought about her microscope when I was gazing at Andromeda through a telescope), Horatio Clare’s Light in the Dark, Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice and Jean Mcneil’s Night Orders (I love the form of this book, a kind of poetry notebook).
What’s the sea at night like?
It is, of course, wonderful! At Covehithe, not far from my home in Suffolk, I experienced the full moon pulling itself out of the sea. The North Sea is always a strange fudge of colours – sometimes sludgy brown, other times pigeon grey – but the moonlight transformed it, creating a ribbon of gold light that followed me along the beach. The change in temperature at night also means sound waves behave differently so the suck and hiss of the sea over the shingle bounced off the cliffs in unusual ways. It felt like being utterly surrounded by the sea’s moon-powered waves. Then, on one calm night on the Isle of Coll the sea was blissfully calm and was almost bioluminescent with the light from the Milky Way.
I think the sea and night are well suited. They are full of subtleties and beauty, always changing. And I guess, at times, both can be a bit frightening.
I received the following in emails sent to me from Australia and Hawaii. The British artist Tom de Freston and writer Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who live in Oxford, are a talented couple who have been together for over a decade. They were married two years ago in Goa, but spent their honeymoon in the Seychelles. By the time this interview appears online, they will be back in Oxford, having also been in New York. They always have their plate full with beautiful projects – books, and journeys. And sometimes, as in this case, they are not physically together while they happen.
The London-born Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a poet, playwright and novelist. Her debut book for children Girl With Ink & Stars (2016), published when she was 26, brought her international fame. This September her first young adult novel, The Deathless Girls, appeared, and in February 2020 her first adult novel (and sixth book) The Mercies is due to be published in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Kiran’s books are filled with myths, magic, islands and sea. “I’m fairly convinced I’m a selkie,” she admits in our interview, going on to describe the terrible storm that preceded the Vardø witch trial in Norway in 1621 – and inspired to write The Mercies.
In October the London-born artist Tom de Freston’s upcoming nonfiction book Wreck: The Art of Being Lost at Sea is – to appear in autumn 2021 – was announced. Tom’s practice involves the construction of multimedia worlds – combining paintings, film and performance into immersive visceral narratives – and this book is an exploration of the painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by the French artist Theodore Géricault and how it impacted his life, The story is also a personal one. “For over a decade, it became a leitmotif in my work as an artist,” Tom reveals in the interview. “But when my father died, the engagement developed into something more all-consuming and troubling: I became obsessed.”
Kiran and Tom collaborated more than once before, blending their imagination and skills to create unique universes. Even now they are working on a joint book, which is still secret but will feature a lighthouse and a Greenland shark. I interviewed them together, although each was on a different continent when I received their answers.
As a companion piece to the first of our essays by Anna Iltnere about literary seaside houses – Shruff End from The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch – we present an interview with Miles Leeson, lead editor of the Iris Murdoch Review:
“Having lived all my life near to the sea I’m in the same mind as Murdoch; the importance of the sea to mental health and wellbeing, and to freeing the creative part of the mind. Iris Murdoch always wishes in her letters to friends that she could have a cottage by the sea and one wonders why she didn’t as she could have afforded one.”
Miles Leeson, director of the Iris Murdoch Research Centre at the University of Chichester
Interview by Anna Iltnere:
What was Iris Murdoch’s relationship with water and with the sea? What the sea meant for her?
“This book is
about such places – places drawn by longing and memory, places just beyond our
reach, places that aren’t really there at all – and it’s about what happens
when you set sail in search for them,” writes Philip Marsden in the first
chapter of his new book The Summer Isles:
A Voyage of the Imagination, published this autumn. In the book the author
sets sail along the West coasts of Ireland and Scotland, island-hopping in the
Atlantic Ocean and in the seas of our imagination. He sails single-handedly for
the first time in his life in a wooden boat Tsambika.
is an award-winning English travel writer and novelist, living in Cornwall with
his family, where they have planted four thousand oak trees. He has written ten
books, including Rising Ground: A Search
for the Spirit of Place (2014), The
Levelling Sea: The Story of a Cornish Haven in the Age of Sail (2002) and
novel The Main Cages (2002) which is
set in Cornwall in the mid 1930s.
“Of all environments, it is the sea that has the greatest ability to transform – as the crumbler of coastlines or the great driver of the world’s climate, as much as the conduit for our own restless hopes,” you can read in The Summer Isles. “The sea enables and it destroys. It is a constant reminder that we are powerless beside the forces of nature – and that what we feel as firm beneath our feet is not solid. If terrestrial journeys are simple trials of the body, then a sea journey is a passage of the soul.”
The Summer Isles
is a book about islands, real and imagined. Why do we need islands, and those we
will never really reach?
I’m not sure we
need islands as such, but we do seem to need somewhere physical to try and fix
our loftier notions, our wild hopes and aspirations, our imaginative flights. There
are traditions everywhere of projecting such things on the land around us – yearning
for distant mountains, attaching stories of gods and heroes to prominent hills,
siting elaborate myths in lakes and caves. But of all topographic features it
is islands that have always drawn the greatest number of stories and ideas.
Somewhere discrete, self-contained, lying off the mainland, somewhere visible
but chimeric, or somewhere believed in or rumoured to exist just over the
horizon is the perfect embodiment of our ideals.
Manguel’s Dictionary of Imagined Places
is a compendium of 1200 places gathered from various canons – from Atlantis to the
Fortunate Isles, from Hogwarts to Middle Earth. Far and away the most common
form of the imagined place is islands. When it comes to islands, we are at our
most credulous – made-up islands have seeped back into our perceptions of the
real world. For centuries Europeans were convinced about Atlantic islands like Antillia or Hy-Brasil.
Their names crop up on late medieval charts and portolans of the Atlantic, even
into the nineteenth century. Countless ships went off in search of them. But
they never existed.
As for reaching them or not, it is in the nature of myth-rich places that they should remain just out of reach. Much as we would like to unite the physical and the metaphysical they remain forever separate. What happens when we get to longed-for places? We wander about a bit, we set expectation against reality, we feel disappointment – then we go off and look for somewhere else. Oscar Wilde wrote: ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.’
The voyage along the West Coast of Ireland
and Scotland was your first experience as a single-handed sailor. Why did you
choose to sail alone and how was it?
I’ve written a
number of travel books – about land-based journeys in the Middle East, the
Caucasus and Ethiopia. I believe strongly in the narrative power of the
travelogue. On those journeys, I learnt the advantage of travelling alone, the
joys of following your own nose, letting stories take you where they will, and
the rewards of anonymity. Alone, you become more responsive to the pull of the
world, less wilful. You are more open to impressions alone, more receptive. You
are also more likely to meet people, and they’re more likely to open up –
possibly because they feel a little bit sorry for you.
The Summer Isles is essentially a travel book and, in the cosy study-warmth of its conception, I naturally adopted the lone-traveller method. What I hadn’t factored in was that single-handed sailing is a little different from jumping on and off a bus or walking from village to village. If I had, then I probably wouldn’t have done it like that, but the result would have been much less interesting. I’m an experienced day-sailor, and had done a fair amount of cruising on other people’s boats. But being on your own, and choosing as my first outing the west coast of Ireland was challenging, to say the least. Exposed to the Atlantic, with long stretches lacking decent harbours, it was a crash-course in single-handed sailing. The boat was well set up – with halyards leading back to the cockpit. But there were constraints, particularly when things went wrong. Good seamanship is about anticipating hazards, preparing for what-ifs. I did plenty of that but there were countless times when another pair of hands would have made things a whole lot easier. But on the other hand, the whole experience was extraordinary. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
a strong character in your book. You often write ‘we’. Tell me about your
relationship with the beautiful wooden boat.
I hadn’t really
noticed that ‘we’ until it was pointed out. I don’t hold much truck with
animating what is essentially some pieces of dead wood fixed together into a
vessel. That said, a boat does hold many of the attributes of, say, a horse –
the way it moves in a stormy sea, the demands it makes on you in tethering it
properly, in caring for it, and the immense strength and power that it offers. And
there were times at sea, when Tsambika
rode some vast swell or dipped her gunwale to the wind, when she appeared to be
alive, making choices, responding. Conrad thought the regard that mariners have
for their boats is ‘profoundly different from the love that men feel for every
other work of their hands’.
Throughout The Summer Isles you have mixed feelings about being at sea. Fear
and excitement to leave the coast, longing for land and ‘normality’ and for the
adventure of the open sea. Why do you love sailing despite the dangers of the
The danger of course is part of the appeal, not out of some perverse death-wish but because any sort of elemental challenge sharpens the senses, as well as the creative faculties. I think back to that time along the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland as some of the most intensely-felt months in my life. But I know too that they were accompanied by a constant low-level anxiety, punctuated by moments of outright fear. Such sustained exposure to the forces of the natural world is good for the soul. The rewards of sailing for me are not so much the sailing itself, the seafaring, as the sights it allows you, the places you manage to reach, the evenings spent in small anchorages with just the seabirds and seal-sounds, or the encounters with people that you’d never have met if you hadn’t arrived alone in a small wooden boat.
Which books did you have with you on Tsambika? How did they shape your
I had pilot
books, books of navigation, manuals of engine maintenance, almanacs filled with
tide tables and tidal graphs and these were pored over as much as anything in
my onboard library. But for contemplative pleasure I carried in the shelves (with
their removable brass-tipped bars to stop the books spilling out) any number of
old favourites, as well as books of local history and lore picked up en route. Staples
were Irish heroes like Yeats and Heaney, Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien, and a few
maritime classics like those of Jonathan Raban and Herman Melville. I had
various translations of the early Irish voyage tales, the immrama and echtrai, of
Bran and Brendan – and the Táin Bó
Cúailnge and Jeffrey Gantz’s Early
Irish Myths and Sagas and JG Campbell’s The
Gaelic Otherworld. Also a good store of fat novels.
Something in the
nature of the voyage, the constant need for vigilance meant that full immersion
in books was not always possible. So there was a fair amount of ‘snacking’ –
grabbing a few pages here and there before I had to fix something or tend to the
sails or anchor, or simply to stick my head out of the hatch and have a good
look around. I have to say that one of the great joys of the journey was
sitting down below with the lamps lit and the weather raging outside, reading.
That was where much of the non-sailing parts of the book found their shape.
Stories about the islanders are partly
stories about the past. What, in your opinion, will happen to the life on Irish
and Scottish islands in future?
One of the themes
that arose from the journey was the way that the past is contained in these rocky
western coastlines, the way we project our nostalgic notions upon them, looking
for traces of something that elsewhere has been snuffed out by the winds of
progress. I became intrigued by that newly-emerged branch of psychology,
‘nostalgia studies’ in which nostalgia is examined under clinical conditions
for its physiological effects. Rather than something reactionary and escapist,
the tendency towards nostalgic thinking has been identified by many
psychologists as an essential part of our mental processing.
The reality of life on those islands of course is very different – a harsh and marginal existence. A recurring image I had from the boat was of roofless gables on the skyline of abandoned islands. Over the last couple of centuries, the populations have fallen steadily. In many cases – the Blasket, the Inishkeas, Inishark and St Kilda – they reached a tipping point and the remaining people left en masse. As for the future, life is bound to remain difficult and hard-won. Even with communications being what they are, the sense of isolation on the periphery has become magnified in recent decades. The continuing appeal of such coasts – the success in Ireland of the Wild Atlantic Way or in Scotland of the North Coast 500 – shows that there is a future in the tourist economy – fickle though the tourist dollar is. There’s the on-going debate about fish-farming – the terrible damage they do to the marine environment versus the local jobs they support. Farming in marginal areas is also threatened by industrial farming elsewhere. It is not easy to see a course through all these hazards. What is needed is a serious valuing of such communities, their traditions and the delicate ecology in which they exist.
“Greetings from Almaty!” she writes in her e-mail a few days ago. If British writer Caroline Eden is not at home in Edinburgh, she is most probably traveling the roads of Eastern Europe or Central Asia, and her explorations in different cultures have a special kind of prism – food. Caroline Eden uses local food traditions to “tell stories of cities and seas and places and people”. In our interview she compares recipes to “photographs, sketches, snapshots, etchings, vignettes”. Her book, Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light, published last year, is a sensory exploration of the Black Sea region and its post-Soviet countries. Since publication, it has won three awards and was shortlisted for four, and was chosen for the best book of the year round-ups by New York Times, Financial Times, BBC and The Independent. Black Sea follows the success of her debut book Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus, co-written with Eleanor Ford in 2016. I wanted to find out about her thoughts on a sense of place, cosmopolitanism and the role of food in her writing.
What is your understanding of “place”? What creates place?
When people – correspondents, journalists and travel writers in particular – speak of “a sense of place” what they tend to mean is…
My interview with British writer Stephen Rutt. His debut book The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds is available in the Sea Library.
Photo above: Guillemots on the Farnes. Photo by Stephen Rutt.
“I stopped going outside. I stopped answering my phone. I resented speaking, resented breathing fumes and dust instead of air – a fuel rekindling the asthma in my lungs.” Twenty-two-year-old Stephen Rutt feels beaten up by his debilitating anxiety. He decides to leave London and to volunteer at a bird observatory on a far away island in the middle of the sea. Stephen Rutt spends seven months at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory in Orkney. That’s where his first book is born: The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds, published this Spring.
In The Seafarers author travels to many islands and different places of the United Kingdom in search for nine types of seabird, that breed there: Storm petrels, skuas, auks, eiders, terns, gulls, Manx shearwaters, gannets and fulmars. One of ten chapters is dedicated to vagrants, disoriented and lost birds. Stephen Rutt cannot help identifying with them, at least for a moment, and learning a lot too. “I’ll never abandon that hope or my faith in the wondrous, sense-defying, thrilling capacity that birds have of being lost and making that seem… OK.” Stephen Rutt cannot swim and he dreams of being able to fly like a bird. But being grounded and out there is what sets him free.
The Seafarers become a wonderful journey that kindles all senses. Birds are flapping out of the pages. As a true birder, as Stephen Rutt is, he doesn’t rely on his eyes and ears alone. He asks for a chance to sniff the Manx shearwater’s neck when on Skomer island, and he writes that it smells “faintly like damp stale fabric”. He touches birds he rings. Chapter about a night spent among Storm petrels is most poetic. “To have grown up and mostly lived in parts of the country affected by light pollution, I struggle to comprehend the infinity of a true night sky.” He wanders around with a red torch light on Skomer island, path is covered with toads.
The Seafarers starts with London and ends with returning to a new home, where Stephen Rutt’s second book takes shape. In the autumn of 2018 Rutt and his partner moved to a house near the Solway Firth in Dumfries, Scotland. As they settled into their new home thousands of pink-footed geese were arriving on the Firth from the Arctic Circle to make it their winter home. The arrival of huge flocks of geese in the United Kingdom is one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of winter; a vast natural phenomenon to capture the imagination. From his new home in the north to further afield in wide open spaces of the south, Stephen traces the lives and habits of five of the most common species of goose in England. Wintering: A Season with Geese will be published this September. Stephen Rutt’s journey among birds continues.
When did you fall in love with seabirds? What inspired you to write a love letter to them, your first book?
I am obsessed with birds and have been ever since I was fourteen. Growing up with this obsession – and being a shy, solitary sort of kid – meant when I wasn’t birding, I was flicking through the field guides, dreaming of birds. It started there: inland, indoors, dreaming of distant islands and coastlines. I remember when I saw my first skuas, auks and gannets, on a freezing autumn day in Norfolk. It was the field guide come to life, wondrously. Birds have a charisma that images can’t convey. To me, in that moment, nothing could have been better. Experiences like that tend to stick with you.
The inspiration for the book came from my time spent at the bird observatory in North Ronaldsay, Orkney. Before then I had lived in Stirling and London, both places that aren’t blessed with a coastline and where seabirds are only transient lost things. I hadn’t seen a seabird for a long time before Orkney. My relationship with them changed there. I was no longer just watching but monitoring: counting them, ringing them, willing them on in their breeding efforts against the cats and the cold, stormy spring. I was no longer just watching, but I felt I had become their midwife, champion and cheerleader. The book was born with those seabirds.
Your journey takes you to many islands in Britain. You love islands, you write. You even imagine being stranded on one. What an island means to you?
It’s hard to
generalise about islands. They are all so different and unique, and while
writing The Seafarers I felt it was important to visit as many different
archipelagos as was feasible (juggling job, money, time,
cat, partner). The Pembrokeshire Islands are completely different to those off
the coast of Northumberland. You can see Shetland from Orkney and yet they are
possibility to me. Not just ornithological – Britain’s wilder islands are all
amazing for birding – but personal as well. I write this as someone who is not
an islander, but my time on them has made me focus on the important things in
life: the bare matter of existence and a life more closely in tune with the ebb
and flow of nature, which isn’t necessarily a simpler or easier life. Some
people might call this spiritual – I wouldn’t but then I’ve never really
understood what that word means. I appreciate this is the perspective of a
non-islander, of someone who only spent seven months living on one before
circumstances dragged me back. If they hadn’t, I think I might never have left.
To be stranded would be an expensive inconvenience. But being stranded feels
like it does the way the U.K. grinds to a halt when it snows: a necessary
reminder that we can’t completely shut ourselves away from the power of nature.
Book starts with anxiety attacks in London. You ran away from the city and volunteered at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory. How did your mind and body change during the seven months on Orkney’s most northerly island?
I got fit again – I can be pretty sedentary when given a desk. Instead I was walking or cycling every day (whatever the weather), fixing drystone dykes, painting walls, fixing bird traps, baking and bar work, as well as scrambling across rocky shorelines to find nests, ringing migrating birds, counting thousands of terns. My asthma improved for being active in the cleaner air again as well. But my mind changed the most. I was twenty-two but I felt beaten up by the world. Retreating to North Ronaldsay, I did a lot of growing up. I felt connected to the world again. I found a place that suited me, my introversion and my shyness. I touch on this in the book but just because it was this way for me, doesn’t mean it will be this way to all people.
What would you highlight as your most unforgettable encounter with a seabird during your journey among them?
The most thrilling seabirds are the most interesting. This means the most elusive, which are the ones in the most evocative surroundings. They are usually nocturnal as well. The night sky is amazing and it wasn’t until North Ronaldsay that I ever properly saw it: the milky way, the shooting stars, aurora borealis, a moon bright enough to walk without a torch. There is a humbling hugeness to a clear night sky when we don’t diminish it with our light. Or if it’s cloudy, the absolute blanket of darkness is special as well. Two nocturnal encounters particularly stand out in my mind. One, on Skomer Island, when I was sat by a standing stone, surrounded by toads, listening to the weird yodeling of Manx shearwaters and occasionally glimpsing them in flight or shuffling awkwardly down the path on legs designed for swimming, not walking. The other was at Mousa Broch, a 2,000 year old drystone building, built for a not-fully-understood purpose, on an uninhabited island off the coast of Mainland Shetland. The walls of the broch hum with the sound and scent of the storm petrels that nest within the gaps. The history of the broch can feel remote, but for me that distance vanished there.
You write “we need, more than ever, another Rachel Carson and a new Silent Spring for the Anthropocene, for the sea, for the birds that are filling their stomachs with plastics”. What does it mean to be a nature writer in times when nature is collapsing in front of our eyes?
I feel a responsibility to the species and places that I am representing. I feel we have an obligation to be accurate about the state of nature as we understand it, both scientifically and politically. This isn’t a modern opinion: in a country diary for the Guardian in 1968 William Condry wrote that to not write like this would be “grossly falsifying the picture”. I don’t want to do that. Bound up with this is being accurate about the threats that nature faces: exaggerating this and being unnecessarily pessimistic doesn’t help anything.
I also feel that beside this we shouldn’t forget the joy and beauty that nature gives us. Endless bad news doesn’t help anyone. Pessimism never converted anyone. Making people care and making people aware – that’s the thing.
What voices have shaped you as a writer? And what advice would you give to anyone who is writing her first book?
Mark Cocker’s Crow Country was my introduction to nature writing. I bought and read it as a 16 year old being pulled in different directions by my interest in birds and books. Reading it I realised you could write beautiful sentences about an absolute obsession with birds. I wanted to do that. But Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is the work of nature writing that I keep returning to above all others. Written in 1940s Wisconsin, his style and subject seems simple but it works alchemically on me. The book burns with a passion for the outdoors and an ecological awareness that was well ahead of its time. It is the one book above all others that makes me want to go outside, which is the ultimate accolade for any work of nature writing, I think. I find this question hard, actually. I read a lot – nature writing and not – and I also listen to a lot of music, watch sports, reality TV and serious TV. Things sink in. Influence doesn’t have to be conscious or come in the right medium to be important. I think this is a good thing.
for writing a first book: don’t over think it. It’s hard enough without over
thinking it, particularly with adjusting to the required length, and sustaining
a narrative over that length. So think of it as a marathon: have a rough plan,
pace yourself and just keep going. There will be crises of confidence (I had
plenty of those) but you will survive them. You may feel like an imposter, a
pseud or an idiot – I did all of these – but keep going. And when you’re done,
your editor will become your best friend.