Monday, February 11, 2013

Water - the Sea Roads

"Invert the mental map you have of Britain, Ireland, and Western Europe. Turn it inside out. Blank out the land interiors of these countries - consider them featureless, as you might previously have considered the sea. Instead, populate the western and northern waters with paths and tracks:  a travel system that joins port to port, island to island, headland to headland, river mouth to river mouth. The sea has become the land, in that it is now the usual medium of transit: not barrier but corrridor." (p. 93)
Britain as a whole has had a long history of seafaring. Daphne du Maurier decribes in Vanishing Cornwall how Phoenician ships would trade with the earlier inhabitants of Cornwall for tin. The earlier Irish story of Deirdre described how she and her lover fled over the sea to Scotland to escape her unwanted husband, the King Connor Mac Nessa. An Irish monk, St. Brendan, legendarily sailed from Ireland to America on his leather boat. The early Celtic saints frequently sailed on boats to remote islands and founded monasteries. The Vikings invaded Ireland, Scotland, and northern England by boat, and Viking kings ruled England. Even the Norman king, William the Conqueror, was a descendant of the Vikings and invaded using longboats.

In the Water section, Macfarlane sails around the Scottish Hebrides with a seafaring poet named Ian Stephen. Ian, who thinks of and describes himself as a poet, also sails the sea roads in order to support himself and because he genuinely loves doing so. As well as being a good poet (I prefered the excepts of Ian's poems to those of Edward Thomas) he also seems to be a fascinating man. He knows a wide variety of people, is an excellent sailor, and is as knowledgable about the history of the sea roads as he is of sailing on them.

I found this section of the book disappointing as I was more interested in Ian Stephen and his life and writings than I was in Macfarlane's experiences on the boat and on an island. The narrative stalled and became dull when Ian was gone from it. I wished that Macfarlane, who is not a sailor, had focused more on his companion.

To me, the best part of the Water section was when Macfarlane suggested that we look at an atlas in reverse and concentrate only on the parts of the world that are connected by water. As a result, the Hebrides, for example, become no longer remote islands cut off from the rest of the world, but way stations in a busy sea travel hub. Reversing the map shifts the perspective to one that is less land-centric.


Saturday, February 9, 2013


In chapter 13, Macafarlane and David Quentin follow the Ridgeway, a track over the chalk downs of Neolithic origin, using cross-country skis. They ski past two great Neolithic sacred sites, Silbury Hill (a giant mound) and Avebury, a giant stone circle that rivals Stonehenge. Macfarlane describes some vivid scenery - black horses against the white snow, a white horse that looks grey against its snowy white background. At the end of the trip, he and David Quentin meet a huge black cat with gold eyes that they are convinced is a panther as they are heading back to the Ridgeway. Since they are in a van and not on skis, they survive to tell the story.

What I found fascinating about the snow chapter is that although Macfarlane is walking over an extremely ancient landscape and he sees animals - hares, horses, buzzards- that have existed in that area for centuries. He also sees hawthorns, ancient bushes that have been used for hedges for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Their red berries not only nourish birds but are supposed to guard witchcraft and evil. Macfarlane does not fully concentrate on this timeless landscape, but instead muses on the career of British painter Eric Ravilious.

Ravilious, who died in WWII, spent much time walking the Downs, which he depicted in his watercolors and woodcuts. He was fascinated by paths, which appear in many of his paintings. I had never heard of him, and searched online to find images of his art. I find his woodcuts to be charming depictions of country scenes- snow, birds on wires - but his paintings to be disquieting due to his choice of color and depiction of light. Macfarlane describes the Down light as a flat light like the light of the polar regions (p.297). Ravilious, who was fascinated by the poles and the extreme north, loved the light and tried to show it in his art. I find the flattening effect to be a little eerie.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Silt Part 2 - Fighting the sea

On October 29th, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the tri-state area. I was lucky enough to be unaffected as I live on a hill in a central portion of Queens but I had two family members who lost power for a week. I also had co-workers who live in some of the most hard-hit areas of Brooklyn and Queens. Rereading Macfarlane's "Silt" chapter after Sandy was a sobering experience as I wondered what such a walk in parts of Queens or New Jersey would involve.

In the aftermath of Sandy, I've listened to radio interviews with Dutch engineers who have advocated sea gates and houses on stilts. I've read proposals about sea walls.  In the past week, Governor Cuomo has suggested a buyout of homes in areas likely to flooded again in the future. Once the state buys the land, the homes will be demolished and the land left empty. To quote Governor Cuomo, "there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns...She may only visit once every few years...but she owns the parcel and when she comes to visit, she visits."

However, people who live in flooded and devastated areas such as Freeport, Breezy Point or the Rockaways are reluctant to say goodbye to their communities and shore-based lifestyles. Mr. Cuomo accepts that man cannot ultimately defeat nature, which is why, for example, parts of the English coast are crumbling away without the UK spending billions on sea walls or sea gates (although London is protected by the Thames Barrier). Inhabitants of New York and New Jersey seem more willing to fight nature with man-made barriers, artificially-created natural shorelines, and architectural changes such as in the Netherlands. In the end, residents of NYC will have to decide how much money they wish to spend to protect and maintain their current lifestyles and residences.

Silt Part 1 - land and time under the sea

Warning: The Broomway is unmarked and very hazardous to pedestrians.
Warning: Do not approach or touch any object as it may explode and kill you.
The "Silt" chapter of the book contains some of Macfarlane's most hypnotic writing. It is also the chapter that made me realize that I am not innately the adventurous type of person. Unlike Macfarlane, I'm just not going to walk over unmarked mud paths at low time while running the risk of accidentally being sucked into the undertow and drowned(since he did the walk on a Sunday, he didn't have to worry about being accidentally shot by the Ministry of Defense). But I admire him for doing so.
The Broomway is called the deadliest path in Britain. It gets its name from 400 brooms which were used to mark the path to Foulness. When the tide comes in twice a day, other markers are swept away. Until compasses were affordable, people who walked the Broomway carried thread with them. As they passed a broom, they tied the end of the thread to the broom and continued walking. If they felt they had missed the next broom, they could follow the thread back to the previous broom.
Macfarlane walked the Broomway with his friend David Quentin, a book dealer turned tax lawyer who prefers to walk barefoot. In the end the mud was bad enough that Macfarlane also walked barefoot to save his sneakers. He left them at their starting point and was able to refind them when they doubled back to the beginning of their path.
As Macfarlane walked, he recollected that the land under the Broomway had once been called Doggerland, the home of Megolithic hunter-gatherers. This in turn made him recall the fact that the sea coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk in England are being eroded. Entire towns are being swallowed up by the sea, and houses that were once inland are now being abandoned because they are too close to the shore.
Although Macfarlane remembers many historical and geographical facts as he walks, he is also sucked in by the queer atmosphere of the The Broomland. Not entirely land, not entirely water, it exists in a liminal state. To Macfarlane:
"These borders do not correspond to national boundaries, and papers and documents are unrequired at them.Their traverse is generally unbiddable, and no reliable map exists of their routes and outlines. They exist even in unfamiliar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, treeline or snowline, or enter rain, storm, or mist, or pass from boulder clay onto sand, or chalk onto greenstone. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographies, leaving known placed outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within countries." (p. 78)
Space, distance, and direction become distorted because of the light over the sands, the movement of the tides, and the constant erosion of the land. A simple walk over the sea shore is a trek that could easily end in disaster where Macfarlane joins the dead of a drowned country.