Thursday, February 7, 2013

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.

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