Waters of the World – Stories in the History of Climate Science

Writer and historian Sarah Dry shares some of her thinking and the process for her new book, Waters of the World, a history of climate science through the individuals who unravelled the mysteries of seas, glaciers, and atmosphere.


approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes 


Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole is published today in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA later this month.

I often work best when I have multiple projects on-going. It sometimes happens that one of the projects ends up being finished and the other does not. That is the case with Waters of the World, which became an idea, and then a finished work thanks to a book that remains unfinished. That book is a novel about the physicist John Tyndall. Tyndall was a celebrated, controversial, and ultimately tragic figure of mid-19th century Britain with whom I have been fascinated for a long time. Like love, fascination is hard to parse, but I can try. It has something to do with the way in which Tyndall gives voice — in his copious letters, diaries and published writings — to an internal struggle between his commitment to materialism and the intense feelings that ‘mere’ molecules arouse in him. Tyndall is always living the paradox between believing that the world can be understood on purely physical terms, as the interactions of moving bits of matter, and the mysterious fact of consciousness, which he feels must arise from those molecules but which produces emotions which seem independent of and qualitatively different than them.

To put this in a more general way, what interests me about Tyndall is how clearly his experience of life is both a function of his scientific perspective and an influence on it. In classic Victorian fashion, Tyndall saw himself as an engine, overflowing with energy and subject to abrupt breakdowns caused by over-exertion. His descriptions of his daily activities, full of socializing, work and exercise and a detailed description of his intake of food and drink, are tiring just to read. As sensitive as he was to his own energetic fluxes, he was just as attuned to the flux of energy in the natural world. And the medium in which he most readily witnessed energy moving through nature was water in all its myriad forms. This insight into the transformation of water, via heat, in the atmosphere, oceans and glaciers of the planet, provides the direct inspiration for my book on the pre-history of climate science.

History of climate science - John Tyndall
John Tyndall. Photograph by Lock & Whitfield. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Tyndall’s perception of what he called the continuity of nature seems to have been automatic — he couldn’t help seeing the transformation of one form of energy into another. And he was seemingly just as reflexively driven to share that insight with others. The communicative spirit that animated him and made him such a passionate and successful speaker and popularizer of scientific concepts was, in this sense, a further manifestation of his obsession with connections and transformations.

So it is Tyndall to whom I owe the inspiration for this book. His book, The Forms of Water in Clouds & Rivers, Ice & Glaciers, is a model of the way a writer can use one topic to unite a variety of themes or subtopics, and a model of science communication. As I write in my introduction, I was not interested in reproducing Tyndall’s popular work on physics for a general audience. In Waters of the World, “water traces not the flow of energy but the flow of human activity and thought.” I’ve substituted people and their ideas for the different forms of water in which Tyndall was interested. My big story is not the story of water, per se, but of changing understandings of the dynamic aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, ocean and ice sheets which eventually combined in the post-war period to generate a concept and a science of the global climate.

The Forms of Water... published by John Tyndall in 1872
The Forms of Water… published by John Tyndall in 1872

A multidisciplinary science

I’ve tried to avoid making this history too focused on the present and to convey instead something of the strange and alien quality of the past. At the same time, I have tried to knit these individuals together in a larger fabric of history that can illuminate our present moment. The question I’ve wanted to ask is: how have individual lives mattered in the history of our understanding of global climate? It seems to me that we expect too much (and sometimes too little) of our science and our scientists. We want them to give us certainty and accurate predictions when that may not be reasonable. We want them to be dispassionate in their findings but absolutely committed to their work. We want them to specialize in their subdisciplines, mastering a specific set of techniques, but we want them to produce knowledge (or data) which we can all use. My hope is that by better understanding the situatedness — in both time and place — of the work done by individual scientists, we can better understand the basis of our knowledge today.

This will not weaken the status of science in society but strengthen it by clarifying what kinds of knowledge it can produce and therefore what kinds of answers it can — and cannot — provide.

I began this book with the sense that we have lost an awareness of the multi-disciplinary nature of contemporary climate science. Instead, climate science is often represented as if it were a singular discipline dominated by computer modelling. I wanted to know more about what goes on and into climate science today. As an historian, my natural inclination was to go back into the past to explore ways of knowing with histories that extend before the important watershed of World War II. I wanted to better understand the relationship between observation and theorizing in the past when it came to what can loosely be called the Earth sciences. And I wanted to try to link those longer histories with more recent, post-war episodes to show the continuities as well as the changes that have occurred. Though I mention these figures, I deliberately chose not to re-tell the story of the discovery of global warming as a series of milestone discoveries (often largely unremarked upon by contemporaries) by men such as Joseph Fourier, John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius and George Callendar, culminating in the work of men like Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle, Wallace Broecker and James Hansen.

What would another history look like, I wondered, one in which the drive for insight into the dynamics of the Earth’s atmosphere, ice and oceans came first and only later became joined with the more specific but existentially vital question of the impact on the Earth’s climate of rising CO2 emissions as a result of human activity? For that is, in fact, what happened. The history of the discovery of global warming is only a small part of a larger and longer history of our understanding of the planet using the changing tools of what can only broadly and carefully be referred to as physics.

A biographical history of climate science

As challenging as it is to write a rip-roaring read about the history of the physical sciences, writing a novel turned out to be harder still. Taking a biographical approach to the history of climate science has allowed me to practice some of the techniques of fiction within the bounds of history. I have not fabricated anything. What I have done is tried to convey something of the inner world of each of the people I have written about, and to capture what made them tick in the textured way we expect from novels.

There are plenty of pitfalls to doing history via biography. The charge of over-simplification, of hero-worship and of neglecting the role of broad social or political factors (such as the Cold War) which may limit or even dwarf the potential for individuals to be agents of their own destiny — all these can be fairly leveled at this sort of history. It is important to always remember the restrictions on individual action, and of our ability to understand history through this lens. Nevertheless, there is a very good reason to try to write history this way. It is almost always more engaging to read about individuals with whom we can identify than institutions or ideas that remain abstract. If biography would seem to reduce the scope for some kinds of historical analysis, it increases the potential for including other forms of nuance. These include a sensitivity to ambiguity or self-contradiction and to change over time — the novelist’s tools. It’s also important, I think, to find a way to understand the past in which human agency remains central. We can appreciate the changing scales of the institutions and practices of science and still seek to understand how it is that individual humans act within these scales.

My answer to how to square the circle of good history and good reading was to choose six important individuals whose lives would enable me to explore how the personal and the scientific were linked. I tried my best to find people who did work that was considered important at the time, even (and perhaps especially) if it has been neglected or forgotten since then. I also looked for people who I could bring to life — who had left rich and interesting enough traces that I could explore their private as well as their public lives. Finally, I wanted to create a coherent overall narrative arc that would make sense of more than 150 years of science and add up to more than six mini-biographies. This was the biggest challenge and the thing I worried the most about.

We often have better evidence for what scientists felt in the 19th than in the 20th centuries. Despite the large amounts of archival material that some 20th-century scientists have left, their published and even their private correspondence do not often portray or convey their emotional lives as richly as the letters and diaries and even the public writings of men like Tyndall and Piazzi Smyth. Joanne Simpson, the sole woman in my group, made a point of preserving some extremely personal journals in the archive she carefully prepared for deposit at the Schlesinger Library. These give great insight into a passionate love affair that was obviously of great personal significance to her. That it was with a colleague who shared with her the experience of flying through clouds in order to study them tells us something about the kind of life she led. This kind of documentation is, in my experience, a rarity in 20th-century physical sciences. And Simpson’s archive itself, despite the evident care with which she prepared it, is far from complete. It contains almost no correspondence, for example, and few pictures from her early married life as a result of tumultuous moves.

History of climate science - Joanne Simpson examining images of clouds
Joanne Simpson examining images of clouds that she filmed during long flights between islands in the tropical Pacific. Source: The Schlesinger Library / NASA Earth Observatory

In other cases, I had very little with which to reconstruct the inner life of an individual but did the best I could. Gilbert Walker, whose statistical researches on meteorology would seem to be as far from the physical world as possible — reducing weather and climate to a realm of pure number — had a tantalizing episode of ‘breakdown’ in his past, requiring recuperation in Switzerland. It was frustrating not to find more in the record than a few euphemistic references to this episode. But I felt that was enough to suggest the tension that accompanied this sort of work and to imply the toll it could take on a person.

The history of climate science has become very important today. If we are to make good decisions as a society about how to act on imperfect knowledge in the face of dramatic climate change, we need to have as good an understanding as possible of the nature of the knowledge we do have. The history of our understanding of the planet is important both because it shows the length of our investigations into the planet and the extent to which they are reliable or robust. Personal knowledge is, ultimately, the foundation of all the knowledge we have. The great assemblages of technology and people that generate so much climate science today can all too readily obscure the fact that individuals — and individual judgments — ultimately provide the foundation of our knowledge. History of science is important because it can reveal how we came to value the predictive power of a certain kind of physics as much as we do today. Our attraction to climate models that promise to foretell the future has a history that it is important to understand as we address the challenges of climate change. If by writing about individuals I manage to entice more readers to become familiar with the history of this knowledge and the ways in which it is both robust and limited, I think I will have done Tyndall — a man who joyfully embraced complexity even as he searched for order — proud.

Waters of the World, by Sarah Dry: a history of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere
Waters of the World, by Sarah Dry – published by Scribe UK.

Find out more 

Sarah’s book, Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole, is published in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA. It is described by science writer Philip Ball as “not only timely but also one of the most beautifully written books on science that I have seen in a long time.”

In her previous post for ClimateCultures, as part of our series on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, Sarah discusses Charles Piazzi Smyth — who also features in Waters of the World. Piazzi Smyth travelled the world studying the heavens and the earthly atmosphere that so often blocked his view. An obsessive who spent long hours perfecting his observing technique with the telescope, the spectroscope and the camera, he took 144 photographs of clouds from the window of his Yorkshire home and printed a handmade book, Cloud Forms that Have Been To the Glory of their creator and the wonderment of learned men

Rising Tide: A Weekend with Extinction Rebellion

Mandala XR Photograph by Linda GordonArtist Linda Gordon was invited to lead a land art workshop using natural materials at Extinction Rebellion’s Rising Tide Festival in North Devon. She describes an experience of co-operation and natural harmony: “In other words, a sane community.”


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


The Rebel Rising, Rising Tide weekend — organised and hosted by Extinction Rebellion Southwest, at Tapeley Park, North Devon — was characterised by fun and relaxation, underpinned by some important and serious talks: some covering aspects of the gathering climate and ecological crisis we are facing; others giving guidance on how best to bring about change, and on the role of XR.
 
There was some great music throughout, both live and recorded — and a huge range of relaxing activities: family yoga, meditation, massage… And a number of craft workshops and nature-related activities, for example, forest school bushcraft, permaculture and nature and forest therapy.

A range of authoritative speakers were on hand to give expert talks, including Jozette Kimba of Stop Ecocide — an organisation committed to getting the law changed, and making large-scale destruction of our natural environment a crime. MEP Molly Scott Cato spoke about the Green Party and Green economics, and how this aimed to address social and economic inequalities around the world. Other talks and workshops covered practical information and strategies that the audience could, if they wished, put into action: for instance, ‘How to speak with the Media and present yourself as a spokesperson’.

A gathering place

I hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect, never having attended an XR event before, but as the weekend drew nearer, it slowly dawned on me that there was going to be A LOT of people, and A LOT would be going on.

I stepped out of the car high up in the grassy field of Tapeley Park and gazed out over the wide expanse of gentle green Devon fields, bordered with trees, and down to the quiet Torridge Estuary below. Soft blue sky, wisps of white cloud, warm breeze, sunshine.
 

Exploring and preparing for the workshop, pacing and fretting: ‘Where do I find more contrasting and varied materials? Shall I take people for a walk? How many will turn up? five or 55? What age groups? And does anybody really want to hear my memorised notes on ‘how trees support our lives’? Meanwhile, my friend and helper, Jann went off to a talk on fossil fuels and came back looking worried and concerned.

Of course, I knew perfectly well at the back of my mind that everything relating to the workshop would work out brilliantly, once I relinquished control — and of course, it did. Participants dived into making a beautiful mandala artwork and nobody needed to hear from the likes of me how to connect with the Earth!

Rising Tide - making the mandala. Photograph by Linda Gordon
Making the mandala
Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2019

Throughout the rest of the day, and all Sunday, people stopped by to take photos, or to add to the work with leaves, grasses, cones and flowers. The intention was to use the mandala as a gathering place for starting off the procession at the closing ceremony the next evening.

I relaxed in the peaceful atmosphere of congenial company, the spacious surroundings of Tapeley Park, and the mild, tranquil weather. At the Mandala art site faint scents of barbequed vegetables reached my nostrils. A few yards away, at the pop-up Green Library, a group of children sprawled on the grass under its awning, playing a board game. A few adults were relaxing in chairs, reading magazines, whilst another couple played at a small Subbuteo table.

A rising tide

On Sunday I took in a couple of talks. I listened to ‘Social Justice and the Green Movement’ by Dr Ed Atkins, from the University of Bristol, who spoke of the Green New Deal, with its aim of justice and fairness for all — that is, a complete restructuring and reform of our economic system, and urgent action to address the climate crisis we are all facing.

He gave some examples of appalling social and environmental abuses in other parts of the world, particularly relating to our society’s massive demand for sand in order to build our towns and cities — leading to very lucrative and often criminal sand extraction enterprises in faraway countries.

Closer to home, in the light of what we all know — that our economy is driven by the richest sector of society — he spoke of the need to keep social discussion going: to protect the vulnerable, to respect workers’ rights and the right to work. I very much liked that on inviting questions at the end of his talk, he was also able to give people helpful tips on their individual local or family concerns.

I must have been in a geological mood that day, for the second talk I chose was titled ‘Resource Exploitation and General Climate Q&A’ by Professor Jon Blundy, from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. He talked of the role of earth scientists in addressing and resolving current climate and environmental problems.

Professor Blundy, an expert in the processes of magma beneath the earth’s crust, began by explaining the creation of minerals in the magma, then went on to discuss the unfettered extraction of copper, iron, coal and rare earths by unscrupulous mining companies in various countries. He gave examples of the environmental damage and human suffering caused by such activities.

He also explained the vital importance of copper as a conductor in electrical systems and how it has the potential for massively reducing carbon emissions. Unfortunately, when it comes to extracting materials of great value for whatever reason, an increase in scale can cause devastation to local populations around the mining areas and add to the already known global effects of climate change.

I must admit, I was previously fairly ignorant of much of what I heard from these two speakers, and the distressing implications of it all, but now I am glad that I am more aware of it.

Stop Ecocide Photograph by Linda Gordon
Stop Ecocide
Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2019

Their observations and information struck me of great importance to life as we know it, drawing our attention to social and environmental suffering and injustices around the world; in encouraging others to take action on some of these issues (for instance, speaking at XR events), and in pointing the way towards possible solutions to some of the problems. And certainly we are going to need to make radical changes in our economic structures and industrial practices if we are going to avert what looks like rapidly approaching disaster for many species, including our own.

However, I doubt that science alone, although a wonderful tool, will necessarily resolve all our social and ecological ills. It all depends upon how the science is used. My current personal view is that time is indeed running out. Unless we humans can wake up fast to the realisation that life is all one, and we are all interdependent — then things don’t look too good.

A sane community

Later, I had a good look around the area, at the many stalls and signs of earlier activity. I wandered among the people quietly relaxing on the grass in the Sunday afternoon sunshine. And I spent some time in the huge marquee enjoying music and singing by the Southwest based female trio, Boudicca’s Child.

Back at the Mandala, where my workshop had been held, and which by now had accumulated further additions of flowers and woodland materials, I met with the four people who would be leading the Closing Ceremony. They represented the elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Instead of gathering everyone together around the mandala as originally planned, they decided to prepare themselves around it, with a quiet ‘smudging’ ritual. Smudging is a method of purifying and cleansing one’s energy with smouldering sage smoke, practised by some North American Indian tribes and also by some other cultures. I believe sage smoke has been found by science to have beneficial effects on our stress levels. It certainly has a very pleasant scent!

Rising tide - gathering with the oak. Photograph by Linda Gordon
Gathering with the oak
Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2019

Shortly before 5pm people from all over the Park gathered together in the high open field, ready to walk in procession to an area of woodland — to an ancient oak tree, reputed to be 1,000 years old, where the ceremony was to be held.

Perhaps the most moving part of the festival for me, was walking with several hundred others through the trees, slowly and in silence (apart from a single repeating drumbeat) — with the late afternoon sunlight dancing off the leafy canopy and shining through the soft colours of the XR flags.

Rising Tide of XR flags. Photograph: Linda Gordon
Rising Tide of XR flags
Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2019

An uninvited thought flitted through my mind: ‘All this is what we stand to lose’.

Then followed the solemn moment, around the ancient oak, when we all pledged to love and care for the Earth to the very best of our ability.

A slow quiet walk back to the place where we had started, and then I was back again to the mandala, to begin the process of clearing everything away. It was necessary to leave the site as we had found it, as Tapeley Park would be open to the general public the following morning. I returned the woodland material to the woods, and someone took the bunch of flowers she had contributed, and went to place them under the ancient oak tree.

People were beginning to leave now, to catch trains and buses or drive long distances home. But many stayed on to enjoy a Great Feast and music, which brought the Rising Tide Festival to a close.

Being tired and a little overwhelmed with new thoughts and experiences, I didn’t stay for this. However, I did take a large bag of tin cans home to recycle!
 
This was a successful and very well organised event, run on mutual goodwill, with volunteers working on everything from cooking, manning the carpark and the forest of tents, running the information post and the sound system, organising the clearing up and dismantling stuff at the end, the laying on of buses to meet trains from Barnstaple station, to the massive amount of background organisation that must have been needed beforehand.
 
I felt a comfortable and mutually supportive balance between the many relaxing, earth-related activities and the serious nature of the talks and educational workshops. Both are important, I think, in strengthening the XR movement in its purpose as a protest movement committed to compelling governments to act effectively on climate and ecological turmoil. Indeed, one of the workshops offered was on staying calm, centred and connected with oneself and others, at XR Actions.

Mandala XR Photograph by Linda Gordon
Mandala XR
Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2019

I can’t speak for others, but it seemed to me the atmosphere throughout the weekend was one of co-operation and trust, and a natural harmony with the immediate surroundings — in other words, a sane community. I was pleased to be one of this large number of people, drawn together largely by sadness at the state of our world, and a willingness to put things right and act in whatever non-violent way required.


Find out more

The Rising Tide Festival was held from 6th to 8th September at Tapeley Park, North Devon, and was organised and hosted by Extinction Rebellion Southwest. For a list of the workshops and talks, see XR Festivals: Devon, England. You can also find information on the local XR group at xrfrome.org

Stop Ecocide is run by Ecological Defence Integrity (EDI), a small UK non-profit founded by the late Polly Higgins with a team of international criminal lawyers, diplomats and evidence experts working to advance a law of ecocide at the International Criminal Court.  

With Far-heard Whisper, O’er the Sea

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: 6 minutes  


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.

Tidal observatory

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.

Newlyn Tidal Observatory, next to the lighthouse
Newlyn Tidal Observatory, next to the lighthouse
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

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.

The Newlyn Tidal Observatory Datum
The Newlyn Tidal Observatory Datum 
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

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.

Sea level recording at Newlyn Tidal Observatory
Sea level recording at Newlyn Tidal Observatory
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

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.

'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea'
‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Installation at Newlyn Art Gallery 2019
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

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.

Ten Years - part of 'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea' Artist: Rebecca Chesney
Ten Years – part of ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

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.

Four Years - part of 'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea'
Four Years – part of ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

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.

Ordnance Survey plaque at Newlyn Tidal ObservatoryYou can discover more about the Newlyn Tidal Observatory’s history at its designation page on the Historic England site and on the Penwith Local History Group site, and about its role in measuring sea level as part of the National Tide Gauge Network. Rebecca also mentioned the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level, which was established in 1933 for the collection, publication, analysis and interpretation of sea level data from the global network of tide gauges.

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.

Coastline Project — Sailing Under Wolf Island’s Baleful Gaze

Coastline Project: The Alcuin’s route round Mull 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: 10 minutes  


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.

Map showing the Coastline Project route of The Alcuin round Mull
Coastline Project: The Alcuin’s route round Mull
Source: OpenSeaMap www.openseamap.org

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.

Sail Britain’s director, Oliver Beardon, leading the Coastline Project trip
Sail Britain’s director, Oliver Beardon
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

We’re the new crew
With our how-do-you-dos
Our uncertainties
And our good-to-meet-yous.
We’ve thrown ourselves together
Voluntarily
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,
The wracks:
Bladder, spiral, channel
And more.
And the spongy stuff
Consistency of cooked spinach
But fluorescent green
Or occasionally
Beach-bleached white,
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.

Ubiquitous blue plastic rope embedded in the soil
Ubiquitous blue plastic rope
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

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.

Dead crabs on Ulva
Dead crabs on Ulva
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

On invisibility

Wolf Island sits and watches us
With a baleful gaze
That says
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
Perhaps
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.

Puffin on the island of Lunga
Puffin island
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

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,
What disappearance
What soon-never-to-be-seen-again
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.

Watching the dew on the grass
Watching the grass
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

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.

Leaving Ulva, with dolphins
Leaving Ulva, with dolphins
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

But strapped like a tumour
To the aft rail
Crammed into
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
Yet sobered
With the realization
Of what our
Presence in the world
Is doing to the world.

— from Return to Oban

Alcuin
Alcuin
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

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 Show from 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:

“Attending to the world’s extraordinary surprise”

Filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky’s Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis — a book urging the cultivation of human virtues in a time of crisis and the rejection of lazy thinking.


approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes  


This pocket-sized book arrived randomly, appealing to my curiosity with ominous images of two skulls on its cover — with a glowing blurb from Margaret Atwood, speaking of “truth-filled meditations about grace in the face of mortality”. Learning to Die has set my mind on fire, and its moral questioning and truth-telling project will rumble deeply on within me.

Learning to Die. Book cover by William Miller (human skull, engraving, 1818
Learning to Die. Book cover by William Miller (human skull, engraving, 1818 in ‘Engravings of the Skeleton of the Human Body’ by John Gordon).

The mind of the wild

In three short sections, 100 pages in total, Canadian poet-philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky take us on a voyage beyond ancestral time, through the story of our planet and the biosphere. It makes use of recent science – for example, the life of the oriental hornet, vespa orientalis, which has a photosynthetic organ: the bright yellow band on its abdomen is the only organism known to man with this – and deep philosophy that skewers any cosiness or lazy thinking we might be deluding ourselves with.

The first section, Robert Bringhurst’s The mind of the wild, is spaciously captivating, inviting us to “let ourselves become enlarged” through ideas and rational truth both forming as poems within the mind. This is unified polymath-eism at its most sparkling, and writing that touches readers deeply because it is spartan in style and speaks to the heart: “The wild, you could say, is a big, self-integrating system whose edges are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere.”

Bringhurst makes some crucial points in the conclusion of this section. “Civil disobedience remains an important political and sociological tactic” – this as popular movements such as Extinction Rebellion are gaining great momentum here in the UK and now around the world, and we are all speaking truth to the corrupt political power that has emerged from our very human-systemic thinking. It is thinking that is not at all eco-systemic, or even engaging with the eco.

Learning to die

In section two, A ship from Delos, Jan Zwicky urges the cultivation of human virtues – awareness, humility, courage, justice, amongst others — to gain the moral virtue needed to face the breakdown that is underway, and that we have caused:

To be aware that death is imminent is not to wallow in despair; it is precisely not that. To be aware is to acknowledge what is the case … Pain must be used to turn the soul toward the real, to reform both action and attention: to love what, in this case, remains.

Zwicky — who suggests that “we attend also to the world’s extraordinary surprise: its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together” — challenges us for simply preaching to the converted, and advises that the solution will be found within simplicity, cultivated through these values – be they Socratic, Buddhist, faith-based, or deep ecology focussed:

Thinking like an ecosystem – forms of life are also forms of meaning. When they are lost, meaning is also lost. We actively desire the health of the ecological community to which we belong. We want to do what it takes to be at home.

The final chapter, Afterword: Optimism and Pessimism, is a long and detailed take-down of American academic Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now (2018), in which the esteemed psychologist — who I’ve seen delight crowds across the UK with his finely honed public lectures on living in less violent times — puts forward a new humanistic and technologically-focused salve for thriving rather than survival or extinction. I hope we see Bringhurst and Zwicky debate with Pinker someplace soon!

Learning to die is a book of urgent brevity. I’d love to be buried with this back-pocket volume so that its inherent wisdom and my vegetable body may merge and decompose together, giving back to the ecosystem something of the planet that we have nourished from it. 


Find out more 

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky is published by University of Regina Press, Canada (2018).