Charlie Connelly wakes up “ridiculously early”, listens to the shipping forecast on the radio, then goes for a swim in the English Channel, stone’s throw away from his home in Dover. It becomes a daily ritual in summers – a season when people swim – until his dips slowly evolve into something more: he falls in love with the Channel and decides to continue to swim.
“As autumn arrived with its fogs and rains I found myself not wanting to give up the Channel for the winter. I wanted to keep going, to keep swimming, even on cold, dark mornings when the combination of a many-togged duvet and central heating made heading out into the sea clad in just a pair of shorts seem like the most ridiculous thing in the world.”
Charlie Connelly “The Channel” 2020
The English Channel is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates Southern England from northern France and links to the southern part of the North Sea by the Strait of Dover at its northeastern end. It is the busiest shipping area in the world. It is also relatively young.
Apart from swimming author starts to untangle the yarns that English Channel hides. “Wherever you look, whichever sea is laid out in front of you, there are centuries’ worth of them,” he writes, “tales of heroism, disaster, romance, discovery, mystery and ghosts; and the English Channel .. is supplied with more of them per square yard than any sea you’d care to mention.”
Charlie Connelly’s captivating book “The Channel: The Remarkable Men and Women Who Made It the Most Fascinating Waterway in the World” is overflowing with stories about extraordinary personalities – the Channel people, and most of them are women. Like Martha Gunn, who used to “stand in the sea, day in, day out .. for around seventy years.” Wonder why? You’ll have to read the book.
Charlie Connelly writes about pirates, swimmers, flyers, daredevils, refugees and dreamers with precision and care. He even finds a lonely grave, long forgotten, and puts flowers on it. Connelly is a marvellous storyteller with such a good sense of humour, that I believe you will find yourself laughing out loud while alone with the book as I did more than once.
Author goes into the sea in almost every place he visits on his journey exploring the history of the Channel. Even on a stormy November morning in Brighton, where it’s quite a task to stay in the water or to even stay upright, “the Channel had played with me for a bit and then thrown me out, back to where I belonged.”
He calls it his Channel winter. Cold water becomes a strange new world, addictive too, “my skin sang, my heart pumped, I could feel every nerve in my body”. Author writes about “a fizzing reminder” on his skin, a cold aura that doesn’t leave his body even when dressed and back at home. He also promises to be more careful, when one of his fingertips goes numb for a few months. Charlie Connelly is honest: “I’d like to pretend that I glide serenely into the water, smiling beatifically, but in reality I often find myself shouting swearwords I didn’t even know I knew.” But it doesn’t stop him. He is in love.
“I also prefer breaststroke because it’s practically the only one I can do. I am a swimmer in the same way that someone who can pick out the first few notes of ‘Happy Birthday’ is a pianist, but in the Channel that doesn’t matter. I’m not swimming to go anywhere, I’m not trying to meet any physical goal and I’m certainly not competing with anyone. I love the Channel, love living by the Channel and love being in the Channel, and that’s it.”
Charlie Connelly “The Channel” 2020
Charlie Connelly also has a podcast “Coastal Stories”. Its first season is filled with mysterious sea serpents, swimmers, foghorns and lighthouse keepers; there’s also a famous message in a bottle and a lifeboat rescue with a happy ending. Second season is coming soon! Sea Library has one of Charlie’s previous books too. It’s called “Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast” and is equally good.
In his brilliant book “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” Robert Macfarlane travels deep down. “We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet.” Going low is a counter-intuitive action, author agrees, “running against the grain of sense and the gradient of spirit.” Underlands are dark and claustrophobic, hard to reach and dangerous. It is a challenge to return back safe, to see butterflies and sun again.
Robert Macfarlane worked on the book for almost a decade. Language flows, uplifts, stories frighten to the bone.
Author leads a reader into the tunnel labyrinths under the streets of Paris, takes to a laboratory of dark matter particles half a mile under the North Sea. He explores wonderlands (or w-underlands?) under forest, under rock and blue glaciers of Greenland. He even suggests to dive into the underland of language. “Words are worldmakers and language is one of the great geological forces of the Anthropocene.”
In Italy author searches for a starless river, which has remained almost unmapped to this day. A river that flows under the ground before it empties out into the Adriatic Sea.
“Starless rivers run through the classical culture, and they are the rivers of the dead. The Lethe, the Styx, the Phlegethon, the Cocytus and the Aecheron flow from the upper world into the underland – and all five converge in a welter of water at the dark heart of Hades.”
Robert Macfarlane “Underland”
The reason that classical literature run with underground rivers, author explains, is geological: “so much of the landscape in which that literature was lived and written is karstic in nature.” Karst is a topography formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves. “Karst is vastly rich in underlands,” Macfarlane writes, “and it is also a terrain where water refuses to obey its usual courses of action.” Rivers disappear and reappear, lakes vanish, sinkholes “pock karst landscapes like gaping mouths”.
“Below the surface – if karst can be said to have surface – aquifers fill and empty over centuries, there are labyrinths through which water circulates over millennia, there are caverns big as stadia, and there are buried rivers with cataracts, rapids and slow pools.”
Robert Macfarlane “Underland”
One such starless river is Timavo, sometimes also called as River of the Night. It starts as river Reka on the border of Slovenia and Croatia, flows in loops above the ground, until at the village of Škocjan it disappears in a canyon. Reka-Timavo runs beneath the ground for around twenty-two miles or thirty-five kilometres. Although systematic exploration of the river’s hidden part continues for more than two centuries, and for last thirty years with an advanced diving equipment, only around 15 percent of the underground flow has been mapped.
Robert Macfarlane travels to il Carso in Italy and descends under it (through something like a shower cubicle in an old hut) to see the starless river flowing inky in the dark. Deep down and far away from blue sky he finds himself surrounded by an otherworldly landscape of black dunes.
“We are terranauts and we have dropped through the roof of this chamber onto another planet – dropped into an underland desert of fine-grained black-gold sand. I shake my head in wonder and fear. Sergio stands quietly beside me. He has seen this place do this to people before.”
A bit further away there’s the river itself. With strange white beings swimming in it and a sound like no other.
“The sound of the starless river is like none I have ever heard. It has volume. Its volume has hollowness. Each sound has its echo, and each echo its interior.”
Robert Macfarlane “Underland”
Chapter ends with author going for a swim at dusk close to Duino Castle near Trieste where the Timavo reaches its final stage and flows out into the Adriatic Sea.
“Lucian and I wade out and launch ourselves in. Salt in the mouth, the sea soft and warm to the touch. I turn shore-parallel and stroke north towards a rocky headland. The moon is a silver tunnel mouth.
Then I am startled to feel, writhing around my legs, the cold currents of another kind of water. It is the blye fingers of the starless river, born as a snow on the Snežnik, plunging underground to crash through its dark chambers and black rapids, and then at last surging out here to surface under the moon.”
Robert Macfarlane “Underland”
“Underland” is “a story of journeys into darkness, and of descents made in search for knowledge.” Robert Macfarlane suggests the paradoxical “that darkness might be a medium of vision, and that descent may be a movement towards revelations.”
Macfarlane’s masterpiece guides you how to see in the dark and how to dive into the chambers of deep time. It is crucial to adjust our eyes to a time that flows in epochs not hours or days. When we manage to do that, “the world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountain’s ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”
Author quotes immunologist Jonas Salk, asking what Anthropocene, an age when Earth is shaped by human action, asks of us: “Are we good ancestors?”
My life began in August like many of Tove Jansson’s books do. “One afternoon at the end of August, Moominpappa was walking about in his garden…” Ripe as an apple I was born on 26th of August 36 years ago. In a family of artists, architects and actors. Just like Tove (who spent her summers on a small island in the Baltic Sea) I grew up in a bohemian household.
A dreamy and fun childhood under blue clouds of cigarette smokes. Grownups danced, laughed, talked. I watched and listened. Books encircled my mattress like towers. Stories bloomed like flowers. I loved to read and write when I was little. But I have never spent so much time with books as I do now. Who knew I would become a librarian?
Sea Library washed ashore of my imagination a few summers ago and crawled into reality like most wondrous beast. Growing steadily and unpredictably. I love it immensely.
Two years have passed from the moment I opened the doors to strangers and made my book collection public. I’ve now decided to take another step and turn this website into a kind of a cabinet of wonders with gems found in sea books.
I cycled to the nearby river today. Threw my clothes on my sneakers and swam in a cold blue-grey water. It’s a warm summer day, despite the rain. Reeds danced in the wind as if cheering me up. World is a beautiful place when you are floating on water or reading a book.
Sea Library has sailed into August with a list of watery books coming out in the next few months: eels and seals, islands and coasts, maps and spells and a little bit of the Baltic Sea. Wonderful writers, beautiful books. Upcoming at the Sea Library: read more!
“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…
Seaside house is a dream for so many and it is a one of a kind setting for a story to unfold. From eerie damp houses to windblown cliffs, it is not an ordinary place to live.
In a collaboration project Sea Library vs Art, photographer, DJ, talented artist and my sister Katrina Gelze has drawn first three from books by Iris Murdoch, Annie Proulx and Juliet Blaxland. More to come!
Create your own UNREAL ESTATE collection of coastal houses in literature, and note there are only 50 copies of each signed, numbered and framed drawing and some have already found their new homes in UK, Ireland and Latvia. See them here: katrinagelze.bigcartel.com
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?
In the third of a series of essays on seaside houses from literature, Anna Iltnere, founder of the Sea Library on Latvia’s Baltic shore, takes us to The Easternmost House Juliet Blaxland’s book of the same name. Next week, we will also publish a companion interview to this essay with Juliet herself.
“On a stormy night, sleeping at the Easternmost House is like sleeping in a boat.” – Juliet Blaxland, The Easternmost House, 2019
You can also buy a limited edition print of a drawing by Katrīna Ģelze. There are three seaside houses from literature now on her shop: Shruff End from Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, Quoyle’s Point from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and The Easternmost House from Juliet Blaxland’s book with the same name: katrinagelze.bigcartel.com
“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.
The year 2020 marks 75 years since Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson wrote her first story about the Moomins, The Moomins and the Great Flood, which takes place in the middle of a natural disaster. To celebrate the anniversary, Moomin Characters Ltd together with its partners is launching a one-year campaign to save the Baltic Sea from blue-green algae.
Sadly to admit, but the Baltic Sea has become one of the most polluted seas in the world. It needs urgent, concrete action on multiple levels and time is running out. The goal is to collect one million euros for John Nurminen Foundation’s work to save the Baltic Sea and its cultural heritage for future generations.
For every 10 euros donated 40 kg of toxic blue-green algae will be removed from the Baltic Sea. To take part in the campaign you can make a direct donation, buy a campaign product from Moomin shop, learn more about the sea, the challenges it faces and solutions needed to help improve the situation, as well as influence others to take action. Don’t pee in the sea! It is one of the things you can start with. (If you pee like seven times, you help to grow four kilograms of toxic algae.)
“Sea is an integral element in Tove Jansson’s life. She spent her summers on a small island in the Baltic Sea. As a symbol of freedom and adventure, sea is also an organic part of Moomin stories.”
Roleff Kråkström, managing director of Moomin Characters
Tove Jansson lived by the Baltic Sea – both in her hometown Helsinki as well as in Pellinge archipelago which served as her summer home. “Sea is an integral element in Tove Jansson’s life. She spent her summers on a small island in the Baltic Sea. As a symbol of freedom and adventure, sea is also an organic part of Moomin stories,” says Roleff Kråkström, managing director of Moomin Characters, over the phone from Helsinki when I call him from the other side of the same sea, from the Sea Library.
In the summer of 2018, when blue-green algae volumes shocked the people living by the Baltic Sea in an unprecedented way, Roleff Kråkström had an epiphany of using Moomins as an inspiration to save the sea. His experience of the algae bloom was first hand.
“I’m married to Tove’s niece Sophia and we spend our summers on the same island where Tove once lived. We do not have running water there, and all the collected rainwater goes to our tomatoes. So we have to wash in the sea, but it wasn’t nice at all when the sea bloomed with toxic algae.”
The most significant environmental problem affecting the Baltic Sea is eutrophication. It is caused by the excessive phosphorus and nitrogen loads that end up in the sea mostly via urban wastewaters and rainwater from forests and fields, and to some extent from traffic. Eutrophication is also one of the main threats to the biodiversity of the Baltic Sea. What’s more, climate change further accelerates eutrophication in the Baltic Sea.
John Nurminen Foundation is a private Finnish Foundation founded in 1992, whose mission is to save the Baltic Sea and its heritage for future generations. As a result of the foundation’s projects, the eutrophying phosphorus load to the Baltic Sea has been reduced by thousands of tonnes, significantly reducing the amount of blue-green algae in the sea.
Foundation’s measures to protect the Baltic Sea have been extremely successful. Thanks to their efforts and co-operation across the Baltic Sea, the annual eutrophying phosphorus load of the Gulf of Finland has been reduced by as much as 75 percent. This is a world record in marine protection. But it still isn’t enough, and #OURSEA campaign seeks to secure the future of the Baltic Sea.
Moomin books encapsulate a unique philosophy, one that keeps us returning to them again and again. I ask Roleff Kråkström if he has a motto in his pocket for hope and inspiration, borrowed from any of Moomin characters. He quotes Too-Ticky, a friend of the Moomin family, craftsperson and practical philosopher. She is seen as very knowledgeable, practical, and wise, and is a good problem solver.
“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured. I think, her words give a lot of hope, because although you can’t control everything and you don’t know, what’s going to happen next, you can feel calm just because of that, and you do not have to panic,” says Roleff.
The first book about the Moomins, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was published in 1945. In the introduction of 1991, Tove tells that she wrote this story during the war when amidst the chaos and grief she felt an urge to write a fairytale. “Anyhow, here was my first happy ending!”
What did the sea mean for Tove Jansson? “I think people in Latvia will find it very easy to relate, how women after the war, especially if you belonged to a sexual minority, felt living in a very hostile society with a very certain omnipresent political agenda and pressure from the Soviet Union, so the sea always meant an opportunity,” says Roleff Kråkström.
“The archipelago for Tove’s generation, for artists and friends, also meant a very hands-on experience of freedom. Apartments were very small and you had to share them with several generations, while in the archipelago you could go wherever you wanted to go. You could live in a tent on a small island or even outdoors and didn’t have to spend all the time with your parents or siblings. More than anything the sea was a symbol for freedom.”
Mmmarch is around the corner! Here are six books to love in the first month of a wondrous season of birds, flowers, green things, but also a bit of snow, ice and our own footprints, and sea! Glowing, wild, always beautiful. Take a look!