Part of the RCC Perspectives issue “Beyond Doom and Gloom: An Exploration through Letters,” this is a fictional letter addressed to RCC fellow Elin Kelsey.
I remember the time I stood in the mudflats along the North Sea coast near Husum, in Germany. It was low tide and I had to keep shifting my weight to stop myself from sinking into the velvety sands. I was standing on a moment. As a place, it was nowhere, neither sea nor land—soon it would disappear beneath the waves, the surface scoured and sucked and formed anew by the departing tide for the visitors who came after. But on that moment, it was mappable. It existed. I was standing on a spot between the rotations of the Earth and the orbit of the moon that pulls the waters to and fro in its wake.
The crawl and pull of the tides reminds me that time moves in circular patterns. The water comes and goes and comes and goes in an endless rhythm. These coasts are amongst the most fragile in Europe: they have been eroding for centuries, and human life has retreated behind ever higher dikes. You asked me for narratives of hope to counter the dominant ones of doom and gloom that characterize our age of global warming and habitat loss. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and it’s a hard thing to do. The years of past terrible floods are remembered around the coast—1206, 1262, 1634, 1703, 1953—and fabulous and terrible stories are told, of houses floating into the sea with people clinging onto their pitched roofs, of receding tides casting off the bloated corpses of cattle, of church bells ringing out a warning from their watery graves beneath the sea. Now, the predicted rise in sea levels will put an even larger swathe under water. Storm floods are increasing in frequency. Where is there hope in this landscape?
It is much easier to see decline.
W. G. Sebald explored patterns in nature and in human civilizations in this very place in his book The Rings of Saturn. In his eyes, they are permanently doomed to decline and self-destruct:
As I sat there in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth’s slow turning into the dark. The huntsmen are up in America, wrote Thomas Browne in the Garden of Cyrus and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. The shadow of the night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so, he continues, we might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if leveled by the scythe of Saturn—an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness.
There is not much hope in Sebald, more an exploration of the perversity of the human spirit. Sebald echoes the poet Charles Algernon Swinburne, whose poem “By the North Sea” captures the ephemeral nature of human endeavour:
Like ashes the low cliffs crumble,
The banks drop down into dust,
The heights of the hills are made humble,
As a reed’s is the strength of their trust;
As a city’s that armies environ,
The strength of their stay is of sand:
But the grasp of the sea is as iron,
Laid hard on the land.
Both Swinburne and Sebald in their works draw on the imagery of Dunwich, which serves as a vanitas motif for this landscape and its troubles. Dunwich was a thriving port in the early Middle Ages, until catastrophic storm surges destroyed most of it with great loss of life.
Most of Dunwich now lies on the sea floor. Divers can make out the last of its stones and timbers in the murk of the North Sea, but it has almost completely disappeared, and the tides are erasing the last traces of it on land. Below the stones of Dunwich are even fainter remains of Roman dikes and harbor arms. Below that, possibly, Anglo-Saxon burial sites, maybe even ship burials, like the glorious one at Sutton Hoo. And somewhere below all that is the Mesolithic landscape of Doggerland.
I am thinking again about my feet sinking into the sand off the coast of Husum, and imagining that if I had been around seven thousand years ago, this would have been dry land. Robert MacFarlane, a contemporary writer who, like Sebald and Swinburne before him, is interested in the eastern coast of England, wrote of the landscape as it must have been 12,000 years ago:
Doggerland, then exposed, would have been harsh tundra. But as global temperatures rose, melting ice sent freshwater rivers spinning through the tundra, irrigating and fertilizing it, such that it developed into a habitable, even hospitable, terrain. We know that there were trout in the rivers of Doggerland, wild boar and deer in its oak and ash woods, and that stinging nettles grew amongst its grasses.
MacFarlane paints a picture of a clement Doggerland, a pre-human Eden. He does not refute the melancholy of Sebald or the morbidity of Swinburne, but opens out the perspective on the landscape to draw in its pre-human and geological past. His image of Doggerland pushes me to look forward into the future—a much longer way into the future, far beyond the vanitas motif of Dunwich and its meditation on the bleak prospects for human settlements on these coasts. Dunwich represents a past we know, at least partially; buildings we can recognize, lives we can imagine. Doggerland and the humans and non-humans who lived in it are beyond. And the same goes for the future—the near future, of managed retreat from the shorelines, eroding land, crumbling buildings and tidal floods, this is what we can imagine easily, and it is a gloomy prospect. But beyond that, far beyond the reach of our experiences today, is something different, something much harder to make out—perhaps Doggerland will arise out of the water once more. Perhaps our ancestors will understand better than we do how to live within the constraints of our planet.
Is this hope, Elin? I’m not sure. I just note that the geological past is beginning to be written into our present-day stories of the Anthropocene. It requires a stretch of thinking on our part, but if we can begin to see the fleeting nature of human life on earth, and the dynamism of the landscape over time, then the watery ruins of Dunwich become diminished in significance. We are a small part of a far bigger history. Humans are, after all, standing in a very short moment on the shifting sands of time. The story neither began with us, nor will it end without us.
- Macfarlane, Robert. “Silt.” Granta 119 (2012): 41–60.
- Sebald, W. G. The Rings of Saturn. New York: New Directions, 1998.
- Swinburne, Charles Algernon. “By the North Sea.” In Studies in Song. London: Chatto & Windus, 1880.
Ritson, Katie. In “Beyond Doom and Gloom: An Exploration through Letters,” edited by Elin Kelsey. RCC Perspectives, no. 6 (2014). View it here.