Artist Rebecca Chesney describes her explorations creating With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea for exhibition in Newlyn this year — taking inspiration from the town’s tidal observatory and its unique role in revealing the UK’s rising sea levels.
approximate Reading Time: 6minutes
At the end of 2018 I was invited to make new work for inclusion in an exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall. As my work looks at our relationship with the landscape and is usually connected to specific places, I organised a trip to Newlyn in January this year to help me understand the place better, and to explore its location, learn its history and meet people working and living in the town.
One of the first things to pique my interest was hearing that Newlyn has a tidal observatory. A plain little building standing next to the lighthouse on the south pier, it looks more like a fishing shed than how I imagine a tidal observatory might look. Not usually open to the public, it was the director of the gallery, James Green, who organised permission for us to visit and gain access to the building. It felt really special to go inside this modest old outhouse with an enormous significance.
The observatory was built in 1915, along with two other observatories (at Dunbar and Felixstowe) to establish a national height system to provide vertical reference levels related to a measure of mean sea level. In 1921 the Ordnance Survey decided that there should be only one national datum and selected Newlyn as the most suitable of the three. Hourly recordings of sea level were used to determine an average that could be related to the head of a brass bolt set in the floor of the Newlyn observatory and this brass bolt is the benchmark from which all heights in mainland Great Britain are measured.
Although old equipment remains in the observatory it is now fully automated, with data collected every second via Global Navigation Satellite System technology.
Following my visit I met with local historians Richard Cockram and Ron Hogg. My work and ideas have always benefited from discussion with others: those who share a common interest, or have a passion for a subject I am exploring too. Looking at the same theme from different angles can produce some exciting conversations. They told me more about the history of the building, its importance and how they helped to get the observatory declared a grade two-listed building by Historic England at the end of 2018.
It was only when they mentioned never gaining access to the Observatory themselves that I realised how special my visit was and how lucky I am to have been inside (they have since organised an open day at the Observatory and been inside, so I don’t feel too bad now).
Although the Observatory was built to establish a datum for height across the country, it is the sea level records that have become so valuable for the study of climate change.
Drawing out a vast truth
Providing the longest and most accurate tidal information in the UK, the Observatory has continued to record sea level data for over 100 years. And with these records showing that mean sea level at Newlyn has been increasing, I decided to use this information to make new work for the exhibition. Rising sea level is an environmental, social, economic and political issue: it is about land loss and displacement and will impact us all. And although it is a complex, multi-layered issue I think it is important to keep reminding people that climate change is happening.
While looking into the subject I noticed that sea-level data is typically shown in a short graph, a spiky image rising over half a page (or computer screen). But I wondered if it would have a bigger impact if I lengthened how the information is displayed. I wanted visitors to the exhibition to see time in front of them and to understand that every millimetre makes a difference. Trying different methods and materials and stripping back any labelling I decided that a pencil line on graph paper was a subtle yet visually effective way to show the information. Comprised of 102 individual record cards, the finished drawing is 8.75m in length. Each of the specially made record cards represents a year and the pencil line across it shows the mean sea level recorded at Newlyn for that year. Viewed all together the line undulates and slowly rises across the gallery wall. Minimal in its execution, the drawing holds a vast truth: sea level is rising.
The title of the drawing, With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea, is a line taken from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Written in 1797, I think the theme of the poem is still relevant today.
In May 2019 I was invited to speak at an event in the gallery alongside Richard Cockram, the local historian I had met earlier in the year. Richard gave an illustrated talk revealing his interest in the Observatory, outlined the history and also spoke of how his research contributed to a book published by the Newlyn Archive in 2018, The Newlyn Tidal Observatory.
I followed by detailing how my trip in January inspired me to make the work and where I got the data for the drawing (individual station data is available online via the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level). I also related the drawing to my other works in the exhibition: Forewarning, a three-screen video and sound installation considering land erosion on South Walney Island off the coast of Cumbria (filmed in 2018); and Far, three large hand screen prints showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes (2017). All these works represent the themes I continue to explore and am keen to learn more about into the future.
Find out more
Invisible Narratives at Newlyn Art Gallery also included the work of artists Lubaina Himid and Magda Stawarska-Beavan and ran from 23rd March until 15th June.
The Newlyn Tidal Observatory, compiled by Richard Cockram, Linda Holmes, Ron Hogg and Frank Iddiols (2018, edited by Pam Lomax) is published by the Newlyn Archive. ISBN 978-0-9567528-4-0
You can find Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in full at Poetry Foundation. ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’ is taken from Part III.
Rebecca’s work Far — showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes — was featured in her previous ClimateCultures post, Near / Far, in February 2018. And you can find out more about Rebecca’s other work that formed part of the Invisible Narratives exhibition, Forewarning, at her website.
Writer and photographer Mike Hembury spent a week on an Inner Hebridean sailing trip as part of Sail Britain’s multidisciplinary Coastline Project. He recalls this small group’s ecological encounters and shares poems and photographs they inspired in him.
approximate Reading Time: 10minutes
The West Coast of Scotland offers some of the most spectacular seascapes to be found anywhere in the British Isles. So I was particularly excited to be given the chance to join in with Sail Britain’s Coastline Project for a week in May. Part oceanographic research project, part artist’s residency, part hands-on experience for budding and seasoned sailors alike, the Coastline Project provides a unique way of coming to grips with some of the ecological issues facing Britain’s marine environment, in a manner that is interdisciplinary, unconventional and infused with an all-pervasive love of the sea.
Our focus for the week was to be plastic pollution, and our itinerary was to be counter-clockwise around Mull, taking in the Inner Hebrides islands of Coll, Lunga, Ulva and Staffa along the way, together with a host of hidden and sometimes nigh-on inaccessible anchorages.
My own personal focus on our little expedition was threefold: I had set myself the task of producing a poetic and photographic record of the journey, and was keen to receive some up-to-date and first-hand information on the current ecological plight of Britain’s Atlantic shores. On top of that, for some time now I had been looking out for an opportunity to improve my sailing skills in tidal waters, and the West Coast of Scotland was high on my list.
I joined up with the Alcuin — a Westerly Oceanranger 38 — on May 18th in the bustling port town of Oban, where I was greeted by our skipper, and Sail Britain’s director, Oliver Beardon, an easy-going and affable chap in his mid-thirties, who would probably not look out of place on a late 19th-century British polar expedition.
We’re the new crew
With our how-do-you-dos
And our good-to-meet-yous.
We’ve thrown ourselves together
Here in Oban.
— from Oban
After introductions to the rest of the crew — a postgraduate researcher in fluid dynamics from Cambridge, a married couple with a passion for sailing and the environment, and the wandering CEO of a bespoke mapmaking company — we left immediately for our first anchorage, on the western side of the Island of Kerrera, just out of sight of Oban harbour.
Rituals and realisation
Name me the weed
On the shores of Kerrera,
Bladder, spiral, channel
And the spongy stuff
Consistency of cooked spinach
But fluorescent green
As yet unnamed.
But I will get there.
— from Kerrera
Next morning we rendezvoused with Janie and Russ, two local plastic pollution activists. They guided us to a beach on Kerrera’s northern headland, and we began what would become a daily ritual: beach-cleaning. We combed the high-water line, extracting netting, stretches of rope and pieces of plastic packaging out from among the wracks slowly drying in the weak northern sun.
Further up the shore, tufts of blue plastic seemed to grow among the grass, remnants of seemingly ubiquitous plastic rope that had become embedded in the soil. After an hour or so, we gathered together to view and sift through our findings — buckets and buckets of detritus, in many different shapes and forms. Our guide Janie was heartened. Apparently this was a ‘good’ haul. Good, as in relatively small. By contrast, those of us who are new to the game were flabbergasted by the amount of non-biodegradable and totally unnecessary waste that we had just dug out of a seemingly pristine shoreline.
It’s a story that was repeated throughout our week with the Coastline Project: stunningly beautiful islands, inlets and lochs, all far away from the nearest human habitation, but not one of them unaffected by the careless wastefulness of the Anthropocene. The wild shorelines of Western Scotland are saturated in plastic, suffocating in a stream of waste that can only be cured by turning it off at the source.
A lot of the debris that we found could easily be traced to the local fishing industry, and more specifically, to fish farms. Such finds included thirty-foot pieces of bright blue tubing, and grey flotation containers as large as a fridge. But it was something else — a much smaller find — that started to bring fish farming into the focus of my attention during the course of the trip.
Perhaps subliminally at first, I had started to notice that there are unusual numbers of dead crabs on Scottish beaches. Having grown up on the Jurassic Coast in Southern England, I know that it’s common enough to find a dead crab or two, belly-up on the beach. But this wasn’t one or two. By the time we had arrived at the windswept and wonderful island of Ulva — the Wolf Island — the evidence was starting to pile up. Something seemed to be seriously wrong here.
Wolf Island sits and watches us
With a baleful gaze
You will be next.
You are on the path now
And that path is loss.
— from On Ulva
I had no explanation at the time, but I took pictures of what I found, pictures that prompted me, back on dry land, to do a little research into possible causes of crab fatalities.
One cause often cited is lack of oxygen in the water, due for example to algal blooms or sudden changes in temperature.
Other possible causes are the toxic effects of fish farming. Salmon farms, it seems, use chemicals such as teflubenzuron to combat the infestations of sea lice that literally eat the tightly-packed fish alive. Sea lice are crustaceans. The chemicals used to kill them do not differentiate between the various types of crustacean that live in the ocean, and are equally toxic to lobsters, shrimps and crabs.
The beach at Ulva, with the striking numbers of dead crabs, was the site of two now-defunct fish farms, with two more active farms still in operation nearby. More than enough evidence, in my mind, for poisoning to be a plausible cause of death.
Of course, I am not a marine biologist, so ultimately I can do little more than speculate on issues of crustacean fatalities and fish farm toxicity.
Yet this is precisely where multidisciplinary projects such as Sail Britain are turning into an invaluable resource for marine ecology. Although our crew was sadly not equipped to deal with my belated findings, I did pass the information on to Oliver, who promised to incorporate fish farming more closely into his ecological itinerary. And my hope is that a member of some future crew, or interested marine biologist, will feel inclined to pick up where my own photographic and poetic efforts fall short.
Even so, my own limited research into the subject has shown me that the fish farming industry is not only highly unsustainable, but also massively toxic to the marine environment within which it operates.
Our ship tilts and yaws
Ours is a spiralling
Downward path and
We are in the maelstrom now.
Perhaps With a supreme effort
We can strain our sinews
Focus all the will we have
To break free, but
Is a pretty weak force now
In the greater scheme of things.
— from The Corrie Breàchain
Our week of sailing around Mull was, coincidentally, the week in which over 8 million farmed salmon were killed by algal blooms in Norway. This followed a similar incident in Loch Fyne earlier in the year, in which ‘hundreds of tonnes’ of dead fish had to be removed from farms.
The waste from fish farms coats the seabed with a poisonous sludge that extinguishes all life below it — one of the reasons perhaps why the Scottish government is now considering the approval of deep-sea ‘superfarms’, in the hope that the combination of depth and currents will help dilute the waste before it hits the bottom.
On the other hand, one might be forgiven for assuming a more cynical motive: Out of sight, out of mind, anyone?
Salmon farms are also vectors for disease, and are having a hugely negative impact on wild salmon populations. And of course there is another, even more problematic aspect to keeping thousands, or even millions of fish together in a confined space, and that is that they need to be fed. And what they need to be fed on, largely, is fishmeal. That is to say, in order for beautifully packaged, and tastefully marketed Scottish salmon to arrive on the average fish eater’s plate, huge numbers of ‘lesser’ species — i.e. those not fit for human consumption — need to be industrially hoovered out of the sea. It has been estimated that nearly one-fifth of global sea fish catch is currently being used to produce fishmeal and oil for fish farms. One species particularly affected in the waters around Britain is the sandeel — tiny slivers of silver that also happen to be the favourite food of all manner of seabirds.
Which brings me to Lunga, part of a small chain of islands known as the Treshnish Isles. We cast anchor before Lunga with one particular purpose in mind: to catch a close-up view of the puffins that breed in underground burrows in the soft soil of the cliff tops. Puffins have no natural predators on the island but, nevertheless, their numbers are plummeting. On the Shetland Islands, for example, 33,000 puffins were recorded in the spring of 2000. By 2018, those numbers had dropped to 570. And while environmental factors may be playing a role in the plight of the puffins, the decimation of their primary food source has to be high on the list of possible causes.
What can I say? Lunga, like so much of our trip, was a poignant reminder of the fragile beauty of the sea’s web of life. Our daily rituals of beach-cleaning, sailing, and witnessing the incredible natural heritage of the Inner Hebrides, had become familiarly, depressingly, marvellously, gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring in equal parts.
Where are we
In all of this,
And what is it exactly,
Are we witnessing?
— from Lunga
Coastline project: our haul of pollution
To be honest, I had no idea what could come out of a trip such as this. As it was, I found the words pouring out of me, the sorrow welling up inside me, my heart and senses expanding as they always do when I’m near the sea. Whilst the others were exploring or pulling yet more rope out of the high-water wrack-line, I found myself staring at the patterns in the weed, or the dew on the grass, and feeling the need to preserve it all in some way, however inadequately.
Leaving Ulva in particular, I remember feeling almost overwhelmed by the unforgivably tragic consequences of what it was that we — humanity — have collectively unleashed.
As if in answer, that was the very moment when we were visited by a pod of inquisitive bottlenose dolphins, spiralling beneath the bow of our ship and leaping out of the water. Absolutely impossible to let depression and seeming futility win in such a moment! It’s certainly easy enough though, in these harrowing times, to let oneself be pulled into a focus on death and destruction. But how much more inspiring to consider the beauty of life, in all its exuberance, unbidden and joyful.
But strapped like a tumour
To the aft rail
The starboard locker
Like some Pandora’s
Puppet on a spring
Our haul of pollution:
Plastic, in every shape and form
Gleaned, beach-cleaned and hand-picked,
Sacks and sacks
Of the stuff.
Items from the everyday
To the unidentifiably arcane.
We’re heading back now
Full of impressions
Drunk on sea and sky
With the realization
Of what our
Presence in the world
Is doing to the world.
— from Return to Oban
In our brief week of exploring the wonders of the Scottish shores with the Coastline Project, we were struck repeatedly by the wild majesty of the scenery, the richness of the wildlife, even in the face of impending extinction, and the urgency of acting now, in order to turn the tide, and save what remains.
It’s not too late. But it will be soon, unless we start taking drastic action now.
For me personally, in addition to writing and participating in this autumn’s European-wide wave of environmental protests, I’m looking forward in particular to seeing my crewmates and skipper again in London in November, when Sail Britain will be organising a symposium and exhibition on the Coastline Project. My own contribution to the exhibition will be the series of photographs and poems that have emerged from that inspiring week in May. I am also hoping to publish both in book form — Sailing With Alcuin — if I can find a publisher brave enough to publish a photopoetic journal by a sailing environmentalist.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my thanks to Oliver Beardon and Sail Britain for their Coastline Project and the opportunity to take part. Ever since I was I child, I have been fascinated and awed by the sea, and thought I knew a thing or two about the state of the ocean. But in the space of a week, I had my love of the ocean renewed, and received fresh motivation to dedicating myself to saving the source of all life on our planet.
Find out more
Update: Mike has now published an online version of the Alcuin photos and poems on his website.
For more on the Coastline Project programme exploring the coasts of the British Isles, visit the Sail Britain website: “While the boat, our team, and the idea forms a common narrative, each stage is be crewed by a different group of people from as varied a background as possible. Along each stage these groups develop as a coherent team, something which sailing is a wonderful catalyst for, to explore the people, identity, history and ecological importance of the places they visit and to develop individual research and responses.” The symposium and exhibition Mike mentioned is the Sail Britain End of Year Showfrom 21st – 24th November, in London.
If you have suggestions for publishers for Mike’s photopoetry book of his expedition, Sailing With Alcuin, do email him at writing[at]mikehembury[dot]org
To follow up on some of the environmental issues Mike discusses, see these recent news stories in The Independent and The Guardian:
Environmental artist Laura Donkers follows her initial post on eco-social art engagement with her experience as Visiting Doctoral Researcher, moving to Aotearoa New Zealand from July to November 2018 to expand her research by exploring Kaupapa Māori approaches.
approximate Reading Time: 6minutes
In her previous post, Laura introduced the form of eco-social art engagement she’s developed in Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, working with communities’ embodied knowledge to help develop climate literacy.
My research journey led me to undertake a period of research in Aotearoa New Zealand. It came about through a chance discussion with a New Zealand artist I had met while at a DRAWinternational artist residency in France. She introduced me to the research practice of Māori artist and scholar Dr Huhana Smith, who in the mid-2000s developed a PhD project at Kuku Beach, Palmerston North, working with her local tribe to reinstate the river, estuary and beach ecosystem according to traditional cultural principles. I was fascinated to read how the community had responded to the project, but also was intrigued to find out what the term Kaupapa Māori — literally ‘a Māori way’ — actually meant. I knew that Māori were the indigenous people of New Zealand, but was not really familiar with their culture of interconnectedness. However, it became apparent from further research that their understanding of their embeddedness in the natural world was similar to something I had recognised in the Uist community, but due to my own incapacities had felt unable to express.
Perhaps a greater knowledge of Kaupapa Māori might give my research the underpinning framework that I felt it was missing? So I expanded my project methodology and combined artistic methods with a modified version of Participatory Action Research that drew from Kaupapa Māori Theory, an academic approach that retrieves space for Māori voices and perspectives, particularly where it affords new perspective into community-led collective thinking and action. My hope is that by including Kaupapa Māori Theory my research can help other communities understand how to address issues of universal concern, such as climate change adaptation, and help restore an understanding of sustainable living.
Understanding Kaupapa Māori
I wanted to learn first-hand how Kaupapa Maori is realised in a community. Through university contacts, I approached Elam School of Art to propose a period of research. I met with the Head of the School and learned that Kaupapa Māori praxis underpins teaching and support of their students within the contemporary art framework. Given that I was a trained artist, I felt this would provide a context to experience Kaukapa Māori in an accessible way, and hoped to learn from practitioners, lecturers, and students how mutual trust, respect, reciprocity and kinship manifest in the art school situation.
Over the course of my five-month residency I came to appreciate that I was expecting much more than was possible from a relatively short period of research. Not least, my minimal understanding of the practice of Kaupapa Māori left me unable to articulate what I had hoped to find. And I had the feeling amongst the people that I spoke to that Kaukapa Māori was not really practised in the school in the way I had understood. However, the uncertainties that arose through my questioning slowly led to helpful suggestions of other outlets where I might find answers, and eventually I found my way to groups and individuals in the wider community who were able to share with me their experiences.
Meeting with weavers
I found the process of searching for points of contact and connection to be difficult and disheartening at times. Initial meetings with academics and practitioners were straightforward to arrange, but they did not seem to go anywhere. I often found the experience more like an interrogation than a discussion and it was hard to pin down whether I was speaking to someone who was interested in my research or just checking my motives. Follow-up discussions never materialised and this left me without the necessary dialogue to explore the subject of Kaupapa Māori in practice. It seemed that the more questions I asked the less clarity I gained, and I wondered how I could achieve the outcome of the research I was seeking. I had arranged to meet a renowned master weaver who was a friend of my supervisor but also, by chance, of a neighbour in Uist. I looked forward to this meeting but had no idea where it would lead.
We met at Auckland’s Memorial Museum where a number of master weavers were gathered in the ‘Te Awe’ Project Room. ‘Te Awe’ is a vast stock take and digitisation exercise being carried out by Auckland Museum to examine 10,000 Māori Taonga — highly prized objects or natural resources. The women had been selected from across the country for their supreme expertise and worked together to agree on specific definitions for the different techniques present in the Korowai (ceremonial cloak) laid before them.
They graciously came to greet me, and despite my ignorance, the gravitas of the occasion was palpable as I observed the reverent manner in which the Korowai were examined, and the quiet discussions amongst the weavers as they approached a consensus. And then it was time for tea, further discussion and an unexpected invitation to attend a marae (a communal and sacred meeting ground of Māori people) at the weekend, which I eagerly accepted.
This extraordinary encounter marked a turning point, and I went on to meet a myriad of people who welcomed me. Through quiet explanation and discussion, I slowly began to understand Kaukapa Māori in practice, and its comparability to practices I was all too familiar with from the years spent living in Uist. The gentle acknowledgement of each other’s rights through principles of mutual respect involving face to face encounter; looking, listening and then speaking; sharing and hosting; caution; and not trampling on the rights, personal prestige and character of each other.
‘What you need will come to you’
However, it was a phrase conveyed to me by an artist-weaver that most sums up my research journey in Aotearoa New Zealand. She recounted her experience of having to learn to overcome frustration as she developed her weaving skills by eventually accepting the premise of her weaving teacher that ‘what you need will come to you’. A simple mantra that perhaps all researchers should hold to — that over time and with a little humility you will find what you are looking for.
From our contemporary perspective, it can be difficult to trust that you will find what you need. Will there be time to allow that process to happen? How will you know this is what you needed? Is this a valid methodology?
An extraordinary opportunity opened up for me just as I was preparing to leave. I followed up a chance introduction at Auckland Council’s climate change workshops and was invited to meet with some of the team at the Kaipatiki Project to discuss potential ways of working together in the future.
As part of my SGSAH AHRC Creative Economies scholarship, I could propose an artist-in-resident placement with a non-academic institution, and the Kaipatiki Project’s regenerative approach to working with community and environment seemed to offer an ideal location. SGSAH accepted my proposal for a three-month artist residency, which would further develop my understanding of Kaupapa Maori Theory, this time at community organisation level.
So, for three months, I am exploring how my creative approach relates to and can contribute towards the organisation’s underpinning objective to help communities live more sustainably, and together we will develop ways to unleash the creativity of the community to identify opportunities to solve local environmental challenges.
I am just beginning this residency and am keeping a diary of my experiences. I’ll be happy to share these in future ClimateCultures posts!
I wish to thank my host Associate Professor Peter Shand, the tutors and students at Elam School of Art and other Professors at Auckland University who helped me on my way, as well as many other artists, weavers, practitioners, and members of community groups who listened, questioned and advised me during my all too brief sojourn in Aotearoa New Zealand. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank my funders Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities for their Visiting Doctoral Researcher Award that made this visit possible.
DRAWinternational caters for fine artists, applied artists, musicians or writers in pursuit of new and dynamic form, in preparation for exhibition, publication or postgraduate qualification.
Dr Huhana Smith is a visual artist, curator and principal investigator in research who engages in major environmental, trans-disciplinary, kaupapa Māori and action-research projects. She is co-principal investigator for research that includes mātauranga Māori methods with sciences to actively address climate change concerns for coastal Māori lands in Horowhenua-Kāpiti. Huhana actively encourages the use of art and design’s visual systems combined in exhibitions, to expand how solutions might integrate complex issues and make solutions more accessible for local communities.
You can find out more about the principles and practice Kaupapa Māori research at the website of Katoa Ltd, a Māori – Indigenous research organisation.
‘Te Awe’ is a vast stock take and digitisation exercise being carried out by Auckland Museum
Kaipatiki Project has, since 1998, been inspiring communities to live sustainably by restoring local bush reserves with community and developing environmental education programmes for all ages.
Mark Goldthorpe reviews Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore: a contemplation of transience, connection and the possibilities of resilience, demonstrating the power of story to highlight opportunities to attend and adapt to a changing world.
approximate Reading Time: 11minutes
A copy of Risinggoes to Nick Drake for his contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
In a book that sets out to investigate a nation’s changing margins, Elizabeth Rush uncovers the local and global realities of coastal change. Hers is a personal and generous exploration of vulnerability and resilience, loss and possibility. A sort of refugee herself — leaving her home and long-term relationship, migrating to America’s east, west and south coasts — Rush encounters those who are facing or have already experienced internal displacement from homes on the front lines of coastal squeeze, rising seas, increasing storms and repeated flooding. Through her insights into the lives of others, we meet those who move and those who stay.
Rising is a book where the human and the more-than-human share centre stage on the edges of land and water. America’s wetlands offer an exemplar of the changes at play now and into the future as our colonial and industrial legacies unroll, complicating further our options for adapting to a changing climate. Rush handles the different scales of change — individual, community, species, ecosystem and landscape — with elegant prose, switching between visits with local people and experts and personal reflections on transience. It’s lucid writing. She describes a visit to Maine’s Sprague River Marsh:
Out here the surface of the water is pure glass, spotted occasionally by the passing of a cloud. Every time I pull my paddle from the sea a tiny wave travels outward and dissolves. Something happens as I nose my little boat closer and closer to the blue-on-blue horizon, where water and sky become indistinguishable. I begin to feel as though I am paddling straight into the heart of a Rothko painting, or a landscape where all traces of memory have been wiped away. The sun strikes the bay, filling my vision like a bell, and the morning’s worry momentarily disappears.
Her prose opens us up to the shocks that global disruption is creating. Disruption that, at first, our human-fixated imaginations refuse to see, only to be revealed finally as felt within. Rush brings us up against the deep transformations underway within even innocent adventures such as her excursion onto the water. This is de-rangement, a sudden out-of-kilter sense of living upon the seemingly still surface of the world, which we now see floats above perilous forces we’ve unleashed.
These days all it takes is a little unusual warmth to make me feel nauseated. I call this new form of climate anxiety endsickness. Like motion sickness or sea sickness, endsickness is its own kind of vertigo — a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways, toward what I imagine as a kind of event horizon. A burble of bile rises from my stomach and a string of observations I have been hearing in these parts adulterates the joy of our afternoon adventure.
Because the Gulf of Maine is warmer than ever before (she invokes this phrase each time she lays out the next fact for us to take in) … the fish are pulling away from shore … the shrimp fishery has closed … phytoplankton are disappearing … green crab populations are exploding … the lobsters are moving into deep waters, keeping the lobstermen away from home for longer: “everyone and everything that lives is changing radically.”
‘Endsickness’ captures, channels, the odd feeling of a new eeriness in the changing world. It’s a feeling that many people have been reporting recently, for example with the early prefiguring of Spring here in the UK in an anomalous February spell of sunshine and warmth. One acquaintance closed a recent email to me: “Enjoy the weekend. I am torn between feeling really joyful because of the beauty of the days, or horrified because February feels like Spring…”
Roots, risk and resilience
Rush structures her book in three parts, the first two — Rampikes, Rhizomes — drawing metaphorically on the characteristics of wetland plants that help shape how their landscape responds to encroaching seas: surrendering to their own vulnerability or else proving resilient against at least the initial stages of change. The final section, Rising, speaks to the opportunities of accepting the rising waters’ challenge, meeting it with a new spirit, an ethos of working more with the natural world than against it — or, at least, acting in knowledge rather than ignorance of nature.
Rampikes — trees that have surrendered to salt waters and died — are “bleached skeletons or splintered trunks … undone by natural forces.” The word’s origins are in ‘raunpick’ or raven-picked, made bare. “Bare indeed,” she says of the dead tupelos she witnesses in Rhode Island — “how exposed and plain, the gesture these trees make alongside our transforming shore.” Tupelos are marsh trees — the word itself Native American: “ito and opilwa, which, when smashed together, mean ‘swamp tree.’ Built into the very name of this plant is a love of periodically soaking in water.” But not if the water is salt and rising.
As with Rhode Island tupelos, so with the oaks and cypresses Rush encounters on the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana:
I walk back down the Island Road, and every two hundred yards or so, I pass a huge cypress tree or oak stripped bare, its leafless branches reaching like electricity in search of a point of contact. The cause of the trees’ demise isn’t in the air, but deep in the ground where the roots wander, where the salt water has started to work its way in. Just south of the Island Road, half the trees have fallen into the widening channel. Those that are still standing are just barely so. Everything, it seems, leans toward the salt water that wasn’t always there.
Rhizomes are vast underground root systems, a “web of connective tissue” that sustains and anchors plants such as cordgrass. When overwhelmed with salt water, the rhizomes retract, loosening the soil so the ground starts to collapse. But the creeping salt is not inevitable death for the cordgrass.
Rhizomes, it can be said, have a mind of their own. They find the line of flight and act … horizontal root growth often starts reaching uphill, away from the element that will not suit. If there is space for the marsh to migrate, it will. From each root a new shoot sprouts — the community, and the home it provides, remade from within.
In Florida, she realises that “what I once thought of as inquiry into vulnerable landscapes … has also become an inquiry into vulnerable human communities.” Such vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the way societies develop along certain paths rather than others. Risk as a concept, she finds, is “a question of proximity … From a distance, risk looks like something that can be managed, through informed decision making or insurance.” But these are rules “written by those whose power, in its various shapes and forms, keeps their bodies safe.” Close up, risk is the existential peril that comes “from living in a community that with each flood is split in half, then split again. From wind; from chemicals blossoming on the water’s surface, then settling mutely into the soil; from the storm’s warm tide and the darkness that follows.”
In California, she witnesses the phenomenon of coastal squeeze in communities whose homes have been relatively affordable only because of their susceptibility to flood; “these people are sandwiched between rising tides on one side and Silicon Valley on the other, and … this position is not so different from the one that most tideland species currently occupy.” Vulnerability and risk seem designed in:
… while Facebook purposefully, painstakingly lifted every single one of its new offices as protection from the first wave of future flooding, it didn’t elevate much of the infrastructure the buildings depend upon. It didn’t elevate the roadways or the storm pipes or the sewer system … Because what they do and who they are is not dependent upon the land where their company rests; if Facebook eventually relocates to higher ground, it will be exactly what it was before — a social networking platform that connects users globally, while disconnecting them from the physical setting where their lives take place.
Passwords for a rising world
It’s connection that Rising is about, ultimately. Not simply the connection between people and place, species and habitat, process and landscape; also, connection between locations, between lives, through migration and communication. Spending time in an Oregon research forest, inland from the coasts and a thousand feet above sea level, she still finds all her thoughts are of the changing coasts she’s witnessed. Captivated by the iridescent feathers of a rufous hummingbird, “I do not see a bird exactly. Instead I see a map of its migratory route, and the many swamps and wooded lowlands that it passes through along the way.” Rising opens with a Simone Weil quote: “Attention is prayer.” And here it’s as if attention-as-prayer is a form of mapping, a tracing of the contours and features that mark the surfacing of processes and connectedness we see as nature and society.
It might seem a stretch to say that here is connected to there, and that the bodies of the small birds do the connecting. However, just as the Neapolitan immigrant brings a bit of Italy to New York City, and just as Colombians from Medellin carry the central highlands to the northern corner of Providence, so the rufous transport some piece of all the places they pass through here…
Language itself is a migration, a connecting. Rush writes so as to reduce distance between humans and the rest of the natural world: through attention to attachment, and thus to care. She speaks of ‘interspecies intimacy’ although, of course, it’s not so much a connection between species as a reconnection of humans to others. Language — culture — as a means of repairing natural links that have been perilously diminished.
Seeing those dead, rampike tupelos for the first time, Rush remembers a ‘scrap of language’ she’d found in an article on Alzheimer’s and held onto, knowing one day it would prove useful: “’Sometimes a key arrives before the lock.’ Which I understood as a reminder to pay attention to my surroundings. That hidden in plain sight I might discover the key I do not yet know I need, but that will help me cross an important threshold somewhere down the line. When I see that stand of tupelos I instinctually lodge their name in my mind, storing it for a future I do not yet understand.”
Names — ‘raven-picked’, ‘swamp trees’ — offer a form of re-enchantment: passwords that “might grant us entry into a previously unimaginable awareness — that the coast, and all the living beings on it, are changing radically.” Just as, in past times, the physical presence of tupelos was once a sign to marsh travellers of “what kind of topography to expect and also where to find relatively high ground.” Words enable a form of adaptive thinking, which Rush sees in the stories that the people she meets create, shape and shift. The stories people tell are a means of “retaining control — if not over the physical world, then over the words they use to make sense of their experience in it. The longer I spend on our disintegrating shoreline, the more this strikes me as an adaptive technique that humans alone might have.”
Rising sketches some of the historical choices that have led to the current experiences of flood, storms and inundation. From pre-European societies who lived in moveable camps set back from the Mississippi, to conquistador marches halted by the river’s floods and the 20th and 21st century destructions of towns, of New Orleans, “it wasn’t until the Mississippi got in the way of the colonial project that its predictably fickle flow was deemed a problem.”
Long regarded as wasteland, coastal wetlands became attractive for development with the 1850 Swamp Act, which gave states the right to sell federal wetlands so people would create productive farmland, or else for short-lived port developments that later became waste dumps, finally built over for cheap housing. But water doesn’t just go away. Dams, locks, levees and floodwalls seek to contain its excessive forces — while, in tandem, other interventions open the way for those forces to reach the most vulnerable, the least powerful. For Isle de Jean Charles, when the oil rigs came to the Louisiana coast, ‘channelisation’ created access routes through the marsh. When the oil companies failed to backfill them, the channels eroded, growing wider and eating further into the land. “‘They didn’t maintain the bayou like they said they would, and now the gulf is at our back door’, I was told in town.”
Absence as form
It’s voices such as these, and stories of individuals, families and communities, that Rising gives essential space to. They weave throughout the book, lending it a rhizomatic character of its own; their nuances allow the narrative to move and strengthen as the facts and histories that Rush elaborates seep in. You sense the conversations continuing once the page is turned: life continuing in all its complexity.
In Maine, Laura demonstrates the conflicted feelings of living with inundation:
“I have to take into account my incredible love for sitting right here. I feel so privileged to be observing these changes so immediately. It is frightening but it also incredibly interesting, awesome really. There is something magical and enlivening about seeing how dynamic life is on the planet … But there are also nights in the winter when the wind will be blowing so hard I fear that my metal roof is going to rip off and be shredded into pieces that pierce through the windows. This fear drives my spiritual work. Where I go with it, on a personal level, is toward making peace with uncertainty. Toward being more fully in the present, and toward living a life where gratitude is near the surface.”
Suzanne recalls life on Staten Island before the storm that finally forced managed retreat, when “residents of nine communities began begging the state government to bulldoze their homes and allow the land to return to tidal marsh … ‘Seeing my childhood home destroyed was an experience,’ she says … ‘Can we learn to see demolition, absence itself, as an architectural form?’ she asks quietly, before hanging up.” And for Nicole “it’s tough to see the neighbourhood I grew up in, that my father grew up in … being demolished. But on the other side, it’s nice knowing that this is to protect everyone else and that it can’t happen again … And maybe the government really will do the right thing and let [it] go back to nature.’”
In Florida, Rush meets a woman wading resignedly through her flooded street. “‘We get flooded with just about every high tide,’ the woman tells me… ‘And if the moon is big it’s worse.’”
Rush is painfully aware of the locked-in systems and lifestyles that fuel the processes driving the planet’s overheating. Even those feeling the rising waters’ full force are trapped into feeding the cycle; people whose own gardens once provided their food now must drive for supplies. The sea took their gardens; fossil-fuelled food miles raise the seas. “I want to ask if they know the consequences of their new way of life — but I cannot think of a way to formulate this question without sounding rude. Instead I ask for another slice of cake.”
As with one species, so with others. Rush discovers that the bodies of young moonbirds are getting smaller because their arctic breeding ice grounds melt earlier, so plants bloom sooner and insects emerge before the fledgelings can eat them. The smaller birds fly south but, with shorter beaks, they cannot dig out the molluscs they migrate for. Instead, they’re forced to eat rhizomes closer to the surface, causing the seagrass beds to slump, “slowly breaking apart beneath the rising tide … I fall asleep with the image floating in my mind: bite by bite … unknowingly untying the web of their survival.”
Rising calls on us to act on better dreams. “I am thinking about justice, and what it might look like if we thought of sea level rise as an opportunity to mend our relationship with the land and with each other.”
Update: In June 2019, Public Books published an Elizabeth Rush interview by Elena Passarello, exploring lived experiences of a changing climate, possibilities for resilience and adaptation, the nature of environmental writing and the process of interviewing those on the frontlines.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe launches a series exploring film and audio that open a space to reflect on change — choosing pieces on how human and non-human animals live, and how processes of time and tide shape our coasts.
approximate Reading Time: 6minutes
The challenge: Are there publicly available video or audio pieces that help us to explore the environmental or climate change issues that most interest us as artists, curators, researchers or activists? They might be documentary, abstract, fictional, natural soundscapes, spoken word, music or anything else which uses the power of film and sound recordings to reveal or create the experience of change, of movement or moment in time, space, place, consciousness, connection, emotion…
In director Alex Lockwood’s beautifully thoughtful and moving film, 73 Cows (which I discovered via Aeonin October 2018), farmers Jay and Katja Wilde share their journey from raising beef cattle to animal-free farming — and the journey of the animals themselves. It’s an insightful encounter with the realities of one couple’s life on the land, living in close relationship with animals. I find it helpful because of its intensely personal focus cuts through some of the more familiar contest between opinions and the wielding of facts and figures in the debate on how we farm and feed ourselves and what ‘animal rights’ mean. It’s not trying to persuade me of anything, other than of our common ability to feel the weight of our own and others’ circumstances, and the tasks of questioning those circumstances and finding our own better way through them.
As the post at Aeon puts it: “Coming to recognise them as individuals with rich inner lives rather than just ‘units of production’, Wilde eventually found the emotional burden of sending his cattle to the abattoir too crushing to bear … Melancholic yet stirring and gently hopeful, this short documentary … deftly traces the complexities of Wilde’s decisionmaking process. In doing so, it reaches far beyond the English countryside, asking viewers to reckon with the moral intricacies of eating animals.”
Whatever your views on the topics before or after watching the film, I imagine you will find something moving in the experience it brings you.
Artist Marcus Vergette has created a series of Time and Tide Bells around the UK, each marking the local high tide. “The rise of the water at high tide moves the clapper to strike the bell. Played by the movement of the waves, the bell creates a varying pattern. As sea level rises the periods of bell strikes become more frequent, and as submerged in the rising water the pitch will vary.”
Five bells have been placed so far, at Appledore (Devon, England), Aberdyfi (Wales), Bosta (Isle of Lewis, Scotland), Trinity Buoy Wharf (London), and Cemaes (Anglesey, Wales). Marcus says of Appledore (where the first bell was installed in May 2009), “this estuary has some of the highest tides in Europe. Here they build ships, fish, trade to the Americas and to Russia. An important and historic port.” Each bell is inscribed with a text chosen by the local community. At Appledore, this is:
In thrall to the moon
rocked by her ebb and flow
I sing of swells beneath the stars
black waves at the storms height
new ships’ rhythmic passage west
seabirds in the dancing wake
all who set sail in sorrow or joy
and all who sleep below
So far, I’ve only visited the Trinity Wharf bell but I hope to experience each one. Trinity Wharf is where lighthouse keepers were trained and navigation buoys were made, so the resonance of its Time and Tide Bell with thoughts of future coastal hazards and adaptations is strong. But I chose the audio clip from Appledore instead because its soundtrack — the bell ringing against the waves — immediately said something to me of a place I’ve not yet been to (though I lived in Devon for a while) but which — like everywhere else — is undergoing change partly as a result of my actions, my existence. And the quiet, contrasting sounds of nature — the waves — and its cultural counterpart — the bell — captures a short moment within a changing relationship.
Time and tide in the more-than-human
Is there a connection between my two selections? Not at first sight maybe, and I certainly didn’t select them with any conscious link in mind. But the same mind chose them … so now I think of the slow-yet-rapid timescales of change on our coasts and of our experience of them, over our lifetimes and in those sudden, dramatic coastal shifts of storm and flood and collapse; and now I think of the ‘bigger picture’ and the longer story behind the Wildes’ story, the currents of change in how humans have understood other animals throughout our history, how each of us chooses to live with the domesticated ones and the wild ones now. And I remember that change is possible, natural, necessary: sometimes it comes one person at a time, sometimes in the movement of the herd. And, as we meet or make these changes, or as we don’t, still the bell chimes. What do we miss when we don’t hear its notes under the noise of everyday life?
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”
– William Shakespeare, Julius Ceasar (1599)
“But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown. Dead fingers stretch themselves to tear it down. I hear those voices that will not be drowned Calling, there is no stone In earth’s thickness to make a home That you can build with and remain alone.”
– Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes (1945, libretto by Montagu Slater).
And, then, after I’d written this post, reading a final BBC piece for the notes below, I discover that “Marcus came up with the Time and Tide idea following the foot-and-mouth outbreaks in 2001. Marcus and his wife Sally lost their stock of Angus cattle and Devon Closewool sheep in the epidemic and they were unable to leave their farm at Highampton because of the restrictions. Marcus’ permanent reminder to the awful events of 2001 is a bell, which hangs beside the village hall in Highampton.”
Find out more
I discovered Alex Lockwood’s award-winning 73 Cows through Aeon (October 2018) and posted it to our Views from Elsewhere page before I realised that my response to this film needed a different space — and then that this space might be useful for others to share their film and audio discoveries. Do check out our Gifts of Sound and Vision page as more offerings appear.
You can discover more of Lockwood’s films at … Lockwood Film. A review at film site Short of the Week says that 73 Cows “captures beautifully a crucible for Jay and Katja, and better than almost any documentary I’ve seen captures the moral weight of its action. Jay is torn by the logistical complexity of the farm’s change, and keenly feels the weight of obligation to his dead father from whom he inherited the farm. Yet, nobly, he is steadfast in his conviction. Agree or disagree with the ethics of animal husbandry, what else but courage do you call it when folks risk everything and defy societal norms to do what they feel is right?”
In an interview ahead of the Raindance Film Festival 2018 (where the film premiered), Alex said “I hope that when people watch 73 Cows that they really relate to Jay and the struggles that a lot of farmers must be secretly facing. Jay managed to completely turn his life around and do what he felt was right despite losing money, turning his back on his tradition and also going against the grain within his local community. So ultimately I see it as a hopeful film. Maybe people will watch it and feel like they can get over their own personal demons in the same way that Jay has gotten over his. That would be nice.” NB: This interview was for The New Current website, but is no longer available.
Sculptor Marcus Vergette discusses his project at Time and Tide Bell as “a permanent installation of bells around the UK rung by the sea at high tide. The Time and Tide Bell has been permanently sited at the high tide mark in five locations.” A new one is planned for Mablethorpe (Lincolnshire, England), with a description at the website of Transition Town Louth (which also has other coastal change related arts, Across the Seas).
In a short piece for the BBC website (3/9/10) for the creation of the Trinity Wharf bell, Marcus says “The Time and Tide Bell creates, celebrates and reinforces connections between our history and our environment … Here at Trinity Buoy Ward in Leamouth, it will serve as a powerful marker of sea level rise at the very heart of our maritime history.”