A long time ago (approximately 9,000 to 9,500 years), a vast, low-lying and once-Edenic landmass off the east coast of England, known as Doggerland, connected Britain to mainland Europe. My Weatherfronts project was a long poem called Doggerland Rising, about a tribe forced to leave their homeland as the North Sea rose to swallow the last remaining island, Dogger Island.
Doggerland first came to the world’s attention when, in 1931, a commercial fishing vessel hauled in its nets off the East Anglian coast and discovered a Mesolithic antler harpoon inside. It wasn’t until the 1990s though that archaeologists began viewing marine environments and submerged forests as once inhabited landscapes. Scientific research into these landscapes has intensified since, concentrated at universities including Exeter and Birmingham.
This post is about how I collaborated with palaeo-scientists at one of Weatherfronts’ commissioning partners, Durham University, and how the research I conducted with their help fed into my creative process. It’s a case study with poetic leeway, which I hope might help or inspire others.
Weatherfronts and early ideas – Dogger what?
I’d never heard of Doggerland until I sat next to palaeo-scientist Dr Louise Callard at dinner at the Weatherfronts conference at Free Word in London in May 2016. The conference, the second in the Weatherfronts series, brought climate change writers/artists and scientists together. Louise was super enthusiastic about her summers spent aboard a big ship drilling boreholes into the seabeds off Britain and Ireland – she and her colleagues are working on the BRITICE-CHRONO project to map the last glacial maximum. A young woman’s working life so far removed from my own: I was intrigued to learn more.
As the wine flowed, Louise moved on to ancient people who might have inhabited these seas, and touched on lost lands. She mentioned Doggerland. The word ‘Dogger’ rang a faint bell from the shipping forecast, which holds a special place in the imagination for many of us.
I left dinner, my head filled with images of our ancient ancestors who might have drowned off England’s east coast, or survived submergence by trudging over shallow seas at low tide. In my mind’s eye I saw women, children and bearded men dressed in furs footslogging across a desolate, sea-whipped landscape. This vision resembled a cross between Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and the film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I swapped the next session I’d booked and hotfooted it to Louise and Alison Cook’s workshop, Understanding the Ice.
Writing the proposal – what have I taken on?
My aim was to write a sequence of four to six poems ‘told in the voices of the ancient people of Doggerland as they witness and respond to rapid climate change’. My idea coalesced on the train on the way home. I would set it at the last possible point people could have realistically inhabited Dogger Island – without needing to grow wings or fins or build better boats. This would relate to the current global situation where people are experiencing climate change inter-generationally and even in individual lifetimes.
To fill in the knowledge gaps in my proposal, I did some Googling. The links focused on populist myths and fears – apocalyptic scenarios that would be ripe for Hollywood treatment: ‘Doggerlanders decimated by tsunami’ (a reference to the Storegga slide tsunami which hit Doggerland around 8,000 years ago); ‘Was Doggerland the real Atlantis?’. To write the poem, I was going to require proper help with research.
To win a commission, writers had to include details of support or further information they might require, such as ‘contact with one or more of the speakers at the event’. Spending a weekend surrounded by scientists was a first for me and I was excited. I also wanted to write a poem that would not, perhaps could not, exist without Weatherfronts or the input that scientists might provide. So I said that I wanted to work with the Durham University Geography Department scientists, some of whom I’d met at Weatherfronts.
But would the scientists, who spend their working lives weighing up data, look askance at the idea of collaborating with a poet who, on some level, would be making things up? Instead of assessing the amount of foraminifera in ancient mud, say, or counting grains of ancient pollen, would they baulk at using their hard-won research to make imaginative jumps?
Making the links – the muddle of ancient time
I heard that I’d won one of the commissions on the day the Brexit referendum news broke. It struck me as spooky since this project was about the moment that Britain broke physically from mainland Europe in around 8,500 BP (‘before the present’).
Over the summer I emailed the Durham scientists I’d met at Weatherfronts and did a Skype interview with Professor Harriet Bulkeley. Not much happened while most of them were doing 10-hour shifts onboard ship in the middle of the sea. “I’m heading offshore again,” Louise emailed, “to spend 52 days in front of some glaciers in NE Greenland. We will be ~80º N and therefore will have very limited communication with the world.” Right. I was spending the summer on my narrowboat in a marina in Lichfield, Staffs.
Before she went, Louise emailed some photographs of a small stretch of exposed ancient forest in Druridge Bay, Northumberland, as visual inspiration. “When sea levels began to rise this forest was drowned and buried by sand,” she wrote. “It occurred around 6,000 to 8,000 thousand years ago, before which land was possibly connected to Doggerbank when the sea level was lower. Some fortuitous rough weather has removed the overlying sand to reveal this forest. Apparently you can see footprints in it, but I’m not sure.” The visuals set the poetic cogs whirring, although I couldn’t make out the ancient footprints either.
Durham University also sent me a first paper to provide context: Mark White’s Things to do in Doggerland when you’re dead, which focused on Neanderthals in Britain. The paper was so brilliant that I became fixated for a week or two, not realising that it was set in the Palaeolithic, many tens of thousands years earlier. I got carried away for a brief moment with the idea of writing dramatic monologues in the voice of Neanderthals.
I had fun Googling background information for poems that I wasn’t destined to write: ‘Did Neanderthals have names?’, ‘Did Neanderthals speak and use language?’ It was silly season and my mind threw up numerous Neanderthal-inspired poems and jokes. How many Neanderthals does it take to change a lightbulb? Why did the Neanderthal cross the road? The mistake shows that linking up with scientists and asking those basic contextual questions can be vital. Also, if you’re dabbling in prehistory, check your dates first.
Here’s a fragment in which I imagined Neanderthals experiencing rising sea levels:
We have our own sounds for water, run, higher ground, drowning – but the same sounds as you for fear …
A first poem – bedding down with Mesolithic tribes
Things improved once I knew that I’d be writing about people because this would give the sequence more scope and variety. My poem would be set firmly in the Middle Stone Age period, the Mesolithic.
Our Mesolithic ancestors were surprisingly advanced. Settled in encampments, they had a wide range of skills and led a full, rich life with, in Doggerland’s heyday, a balanced diet of meat, fish, fruit, nuts and seeds. The temperature would also have been slightly warmer than in today’s Britain.
Before I’d conducted any formal interviews with the scientists, I wrote a first complete poem. It arrived, excitingly enough, almost fully formed.
This poem is a lament in the voice of a young woman. The sea having claimed her land and drowned her people, she is grieving for the fact that she won’t be able to have children. At the end, she walks into the sea, embracing the water as having life. She claims as her own the animated, dancing sea, as if all nature springs from her feminine life force. Doggerland – and climate change writing – had started to become a canvas for exploring personal material which I had resisted writing about in other, perhaps more obvious, ways. Here is a fragment from the last verse of an early draft of the poem:
The waves feel cold but they’re soft too like fur. This new world moves, is alive – each tear, each sea drop is alive. Look, see all my babies dance!
This poem did not ultimately fit into the final sequence. But after finishing the Weatherfronts commission, I turned it into a song with lyrics and a melody, and then recorded it in a professional studio. It became my first recorded song.
Face-to-face with scientists – clarity at last
I was lucky to be invited along with one of the other commissioned writers, Sarah Thomas, to form part of a panel event at the Durham Book Festival in October 2016. This was exciting in its own right and, with an early December deadline looming, great for focusing the mind. The extra night’s accommodation granted for research purposes proved invaluable for the making of my poem.
The panel event happened on a Sunday. On the Monday, I spent the whole day on campus doing interviews and getting to know Durham, which I’d not visited before. I talked to Louise and to Dr Dave Roberts, followed by Dr Jim Innes, Dr Mark Brigland and Dr Mark White. I’m indebted to them all.
Since disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 loom large in our own consciousness, we’re inclined to project our current climate woes onto our ancient ancestors. Right away the Durham scientists steered me from such apocalyptic and other populist scenarios: when the Doggerland tsunami hit there was no chance of there being any people left on Dogger Island. Rising sea levels meant that they would have been migrating away for centuries.
They also gave me an insight into essential topics, such as:
- rates and levels of inundation
- changes to the landscape and vegetation
- Mesolithic people’s skills and tools
- Their lifestyle and spiritual views
- Their ability to cope with rapid climate change.
At the start of the day I had a vague picture of Doggerland 9,000 years ago. But as we progressed, I began to pick up the very first inklings of the inter-tidal, estuarine backdrop and the resourceful people who would populate my poem.
Meeting face-to-face also enabled us to build ongoing relationships. And I think crucially, actual contact with scientists on the ground and hearing their passion for their subject fuelled mine. They were not at all fazed by the idea of helping a poet. Mark Brigland told me he read the Saturday poem in the Guardian every week. That was very humbling. I was off the starting blocks and away.
In her next post, Justina will complete the story of her research and the drafting of Doggerland Rising – revealing how her characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.
Find out more
Mark White’s 2006 paper, Things to do in Doggerland when you’re dead, (World Archaeology, 38 4), is available from Durham University Research Online.
You can discover more about the BRITICE-CHRONO research into the ice sheet that once covered most of the British Isles, which Louise Callard and colleagues have been working on, at the project homepage.
Justina read excerpts from her finished poem, Doggerland Rising, at the 2017 Hay Festival and you can listen here:
And her full poem and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.
There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website.
Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking... "When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.