The surprising complications of tide-watching

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Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ “Tide: The Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth” has a title that sounds hyperbolic, but is endearing in its combination of a certain rhetorical restraint (noted by the Guardian reviewer linked to above), simple awe and a willingness to get into quotidian detail. I went into the book thinking that the tide basically boiled down to the influence of the moon – there is a lot more to it than that.

Early on, Aldersey-Williams decides he needs to observe an entire tidal cycle. This sounds something very straightforward – just sitting by the sea for a day! – but not so:

It is an odd idea, I admit, simply to sit and watch the water for twelve or thirteen unbroken hours. You might find similes coming to mind to do with watching paint dry or grass grow. But I will shut these unhelpful analogies out of my mind. I do not know what I might see, but I will at least try to note down anything I do. I do not know what I might see, and that will be the best of it. The first requirement was to select a site where I could do this. Every part of the British coast is subject to substantial tidal movement. I live in Norfolk, a county that bulges obscenely out into the North Sea (in old satirical cartoons that depict Britain as a person, Norfolk is always the rump). The coast is correspondingly distended, and so I was spoiled for choice. I considered Blakeney Quay. I’d seen the tide running in there so fast round the bend in the river – I reckoned its speed as about three metres per second, based on counting as pieces of seaweed hurried by – that it sent thick wooden mooring posts into frenzied vibrations. But the place was too overrun with tourists, and I could see that I would be constantly interrupted by curious busybodies. Instead, I selected a site a mile or two away where I knew I would be undisturbed

Aldersey-Williams has even more criteria:

The scene would be nothing like the domesticated sublime of the beach at Lyme Regis that Jane Austen describes in Persuasion, ‘where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the tide’. My prospect would be more like that in George Crabbe’s epic poem of East Anglian life, The Borough. I would ‘view the lazy tide / In its hot slimy channel slowly glide’. I would make myself into what Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend called one of ‘those amphibious human-creatures who appear to have some mysterious power of extracting a subsistence out of tidal water by looking at it’. Reading passages such as these, I saw that writers use the tide as a kind of hypnotist’s watch. It is something to induce a state of reverie or, more dangerously, a trance. I would have to be careful not to fall into daydreaming if I was going to make more incisive observations of the unceasing rise and fall of the seas. Next, I had to choose a suitable time of year and time of day to make my study. The tides are in constant action, washing the world’s shores, but they vary according to astronomical factors that are subject in turn to their own complex temporal rhythms. I did not want to freeze or fry out on the marshes, but more important than that, I would need my thirteen hours to fall during daylight in order to make my observations. Wherever you are, a full tidal cycle, from high water back to high water (or low to low), takes nearly this length of time. This constraint limited me to the months from March to September when the days were long enough. I also wanted to observe a fairly typical tide, not a huge one that would flush me out of my vantage point when high water approached, nor one so meagre that I would miss the things I should normally expect to see

….

Any thirteen-hour time slot guaranteed that I would see one high water, one low
water, one full flood tide and one ebb. But where in the cycle did I want to start my work? This was more a matter of aesthetic preference and narrative design. To begin with the tide in full spate, either flooding or ebbing, seemed to me melodramatic. An obscure logic told me that low water would be a natural beginning: a bath or a bucket starts empty, after all, and its story is to be filled. This version would give the greatest sense of a flooding. I could watch the flood tide fill the creeks, but I would then have to see them empty again as the cycle came around, and something about this displeased me. Or, I could start at high water. But this was not right either: even though I would then end on a high, it seemed wrong to begin by witnessing the departure of the substance of my tale. I feared that the immediate ebb might be the end of my own story. In the event, I found my choice still more restricted. The tide table showed few days when the tidal range would be sufficient for my needs, the day long enough, the weather likely to be bearable, and the place quiet enough – a weekday during school term rather than a weekend – that I would not be disturbed. In the end, I chose a day when the sun would be rising just as the ebb was gathering pace. I would begin my observations about an hour after high water. The mood should be one of calm and expectation. My morning would see the tide recede and the muddy shore revealed. High water would come late in the day, and provide a well-timed climax. By starting an hour or so after high water, I would then stay on through the subsequent high water long enough to see the ebb begin again. This, I felt, would show more truthfully that the tidal cycle does not in any way peak or culminate at high water, as we might be tempted to think, but that it goes on in an eternal cycle in which no momentary state has any more claim to special status than another

Aldersey-Williams prepares himself for longeurs:

Though I intended to be diligent in my observations, I imagined there might be long stretches when little was happening, and so I armed myself also with a copy of The Oxford Book of the Sea. It held excerpts of many works I would need to familiarize myself with, from Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us to Matthew Arnold’s allegorical poem ‘Dover Beach’. These poems and prose pieces would remind me of the main to which my insignificant creek, thanks to the tide, was eternally connected and intermingled.

I don’t want to spoil the account of his actual tide watch, which is well worth reading, but can reveal he does find not much time for reading:

I had thought that there would be longueurs in my day. But it is clear now that I will be kept very busy. I find it necessary to carefully plan my activity between each hourly tide reading, because I know I’ll only have the chance to do certain things – like delving in the mud for worms, or observing how the wind whips up waves – at certain states of the tide. Suddenly, my schedule starts to look like a school timetable. I have the whole curriculum covered: plotting water level graphs (mathematics); observing mud life and marsh plants (biology); recording water flow (physics); canoeing (PE); contemplating the cosmic order of things (religious studies?). I will be so busy for the day that English will have to be cancelled; The Oxford Book of the Sea lies unregarded, its pages turning crisp in the dry breeze.

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“Nature and culture have been replaced by landscape and literature”: Mark Cocker on the “New Nature Writing”, New Statesman, June 2015

I have previously cited this essay by Mark Cocker on the “New Nature Writing” as exemplified by Robert Macfarlane and Helen McDonald. Have been re-reading it and find, as often happens, the temptation to repost it in full very strong… but here are some selected highlights:

TThe recent expansion of “new nature writing” is among the most significant developments in British publishing this century. If you missed its inception or have not the inclination to read the scores of books appearing under its banner, you could do worse to catch up than to read a single chapter in Michael McCarthy’s new book, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy. It is the one entitled “The Great Thinning” and it powerfully and succinctly summarises the unfolding national story.

The phrase refers to the inexorable diminution of wildlife on these islands since the Second World War, primarily at the hands of farmers armed with an array of industrially produced chemicals. “The country I was born into,” McCarthy writes, “possessed something wonderful it absolutely possesses no longer: natural abundance . . . Blessed, unregarded abundance has been destroyed.” His most powerful and strangely poignant example of this is something that only people over 50 would have seen: the blizzard of nocturnal insects that would eventually obliterate the vision of any driver on a long car journey during a summer’s evening. I remember it, just.

Over the decades, during his time as a journalist, McCarthy sensed the public’s abil­ity to hear this story in its piecemeal form and ignore it almost entirely. Even now, he points out, the scale of what has happened on these islands eludes many people.

It is this gap between our recent natural history and the present public taste for such books that makes the upsurge of the “new nature” genre so fascinating – but also so perplexing. What role are these works playing and what do they say about the British relationship with non-human life?

Cocker considers the extravagantly praised (but not by me) H for Hawk:

The book’s profound impact is not in any doubt but a legitimate question to pose about H Is for Hawk is its status as a nature book. The motif of a raptor as a symbol of grief and of the author’s struggle with depression is indisputably powerful. Macdonald’s evocation of her bird’s savage habits also provides the book’s aura of raw otherness but it is ultimately not a wild bird. Yet there are wild goshawks in Britain and these barely appear in the text. You would understand why if you have ever tried to look for this extraordinary bird. Wild goshawks are among Britain’s most elusive and unpredictable large predators. I go looking routinely and count a sighting on one in ten visits a pretty good return. Goshawk watching is a frustrating business but the birds’ self-willed indifference to our intentions is surely almost a defining characteristic of nature.

It is not our project. It keeps its own hours. One powerful psychological effect of contact with nature is that it measures what we are not and the specific appeal of books on the subject is that they simultaneously remind us of our relationship with the rest of life but deflate our burdening sense of centrality within it. We become part, not all.

The key passage of this essay charts a subtle but important shift :

Mabey’s entire project could be summarised as a movement along a single axis between culture – land practice or literature, science, the visual arts, sculpture, whatever – and nature. It is metaphorically and actually rooted in a soil of real, living things. Almost every one of the books involves movement between those two poles. In Macfarlane’s work and in so many of the new books, nature and culture have been replaced by landscape and literature. It may seem a relatively small shift in emphasis but one cannot help pondering its significance.

He also considers William Atkins’ The Moor:

The Moor attempts to explore the cultural purpose and meaning of some of the most forsaken, yet most contested, semi-natural places in Britain. They are the gritstone uplands, dominated by heather, mosses and lichens but also now by sheep and by red grouse. This intermittent column of high ground serves as England’s vertebrae from Cornwall to Cumbria. Yet a striking anomaly about The Moor, which looks more significant in view of the recent widening gulf between north and south, is its billing as a book about British uplands, when Atkins barely crosses the English border. Yet Scotland holds twice as much grouse moorland – two million acres – as England and Wales combined.

In truth, the author is most comfortable tackling the historical and inherited psychological roles of such landscapes as described in the literary works of W H Auden, the Brontës, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath or Henry Williamson. There are, for instance, far more titles in the bibliography concerning the sexual politics of Hughes and Plath than there are about the environmental politics of red grouse and hen harriers.

Does that matter? It does if you consider that most moorland exists today to deliver a cash crop of grouse to a super-rich elite who think little of paying between £3,000 and £12,000 per person for a day’s shooting. Just as significant is that you and I, through our taxes, help to subsidise those little luxuries. As a consequence of management that aims to create the maximum possible grouse bag and therefore raise the most money, grouse moor owners have almost extinguished the predatory hen harrier from England and substantially reduced its potential numbers in Scotland.

The shift from writing about nature to writing “about” landscape, literature and human culture – our own “projects”- involves itself a kind of loss. Cocker ends with an Emerson quote that reminds me of Yeats’ “rag-and-bone shop of the heart” :

Does this mean that all nature books have to be filled with the grief and pain of loss? Of course not. But they have to navigate – as McCarthy endeavours to do – between joy and anxiety. Nature writers must ponder and engage with these troubling realities. Otherwise, we are just fiddling while the agrochemicals burn.

The real danger is that nature writing becomes a literature of consolation that distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside, or – just as bad – that it becomes a space for us to talk to ourselves about ourselves, with nature relegated to the background as an attractive green wash. The project of re-enchantment might restore to us a canon of lost writings about the eeriness and mystery of our landscape. Yet, as Emerson warned in his essay “Nature”, what worth is there in words that have no real soil at their roots?

The cawing of the crow resounds among the woods | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for October 12th, 1841

On this day one hundred and seventy six years ago, this is what Nathanial Hawthorne wrote in his diary….

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October 12th.–The cawing of the crow resounds among the woods. A sentinel is aware of your approach a great way off, and gives the alarm to his comrades loudly and eagerly,–Caw, caw, caw! Immediately the whole conclave replies, and you behold them rising above the trees, flapping darkly, and winging their way to deeper solitudes. Sometimes, however, they remain till you come near enough to discern their sable gravity of aspect, each occupying a separate bough, or perhaps the blasted tip-top of a pine. As you approach, one after another, with loud cawing, flaps his wings and throws himself upon the air.

There is hardly a more striking feature in the landscape nowadays than the red patches of blueberry and whortleberry bushes, as seen on a sloping hill-side, like islands among the grass, with trees growing in them; or crowning the summit of a bare, brown hill with their…

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October in the Cairngorms – from Nan Shepherd, “The Heart of the Mountain”

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Among drifts of these purple glowing birches, an occasional rowan looks dead; its naked boughs are a smooth white-grey, almost ghastly as the winter light runs over them. The rowan’s moment is in October, when even the warmth of its clustering berries is surpassed by the blood-red brilliance of its leaves. This is the ‘blessed quicken wood’, that has power against the spirits of evil. It grows here and there among birches and firs, as a rule singly, and sometimes higher than either, a solitary bush by the rivulet in a ravine.

October is the coloured month here, far more brilliant than June, blazing more sharply than August. From the gold of the birches and bracken on the low slopes, the colour spurts upwards through all the creeping and inconspicuous growths that live among the heather roots—mosses that are lush green, or oak-brown, or scarlet, and the berried plants, blaeberry, cranberry, crowberry and the rest. Blaeberry leaves are a flaming crimson, and they are loveliest of all in the Rothiemurchus Forest, where the fir trees were felled in the 1914 War, and round and out of each stump blaeberry grows in upright sprigs: so that in October a multitude of pointed flames seem to burn upwards all over the moor.

For some spectacular Highland photos, including the Cairngorms in October, see Mark Hamblin’s website

Dylan Thomas, Poem in October, read by Dylan Thomas

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
Summery
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sunlight
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and the sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singing birds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

“it is very difficult not to anthropomorphise puffins” – Peter Reason on Puffins

I have been posting some thoughts inspired by Peter Reason’s book In Search of Grace. I am trying not to let this blog turn into nothing but a series of extracts from the book! However I do feel that this nice little passage on puffins near the Shiant Islands Shiant Isles (owned by the family of another author I have featured here, Adam Nicolson) worth quoting – and a near illustration of the near impossibility of avoiding anthropomorphism:

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Soon Coral was surrounded by puffins, with the distinctive markings around their eyes and their wonderful colored beaks. The air was full of puffins too, so full it reminded me more of a cloud of mosquitos than a flock of birds. Those afloat seemed to be juveniles, pufflets (puffins live up to forty years but do not mate for the first five years), while those airborne were clearly adults, tirelessly flying out to the fishing grounds and returning with sand eels hanging from their beaks to feed their chicks. These adults were so intent on their business that they often seemed not to see Coral, passing within fet of the mast and only diverting at the last moment.

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It is very difficult not to anthropomorphise puffins. They do remind one of neatly turned out, rather insecure, self-important people. As I took Coral slowly across the pool towards the anchorage, steering through the floating flocks, the pufflets swam energetically ahead, looking anxiously from side to side as if to say. “I am not really bothered by this great white creature.” But when Coral drew too close for comfort, their heads bobbed this way then that even more urgently, while they made up their minds whether to dive or take off. Diving is the more elegant choice: a neat flip takes them the beneath the surface, leaving concentric rings of ripples. In contrast, taking off is usually a bit of a mess: their wings don’t seem to get much initial lift, so they splash frantically along the surface, wings and feet flapping away, often to crash inelegantly back into the water.

Here is the yacht Coral moored on the Shiants:

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Peter Reason on being a pilgrim and being a tourist

I recently re-blogged a section from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace. I’ve been reading it over the weekend and am sorely tempted to simply copy out sections. I hope to write a fuller, more considered review in due course but also hope to blog responses to particular themes. Reason’s “ecological pilgrimage” touches on a huge range of topics related to nature connection, silence, conservation, pilgrimage, and time and whole range of topics close to my heart.

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It is an engaging read which is helpfully upfront about the messy human reality of pilgrimage – very far from a continuous series of flow experiences, epiphanies of so on. His pilgrimage is ecological rather than explicitly religious and draws on a wide range of traditions, including secular/scientific ones – but with a great deal of respect for the religious underpinnings of pilgrimage.

He is also unsentimental – observing for instance that as the “Sixth Great Extinction” began pretty much once homo sapiens showed up, blaming the depradations humans have wrought on the planet on “Western” or “modern” man is a mistake.

Anyway, there is a huge amount to get to grips with and I hope to feature some highlights and thoughts here over the next while. For the moment, one theme which is relatively minor but highly significant is the distinction between the pilgrim and the tourist. I have blogged on this before – or rather on the distinction often made between being a “tourist” and a “traveller” – my own preference being for honest tourist rather than pretentious traveller.

For Reason, these reflections are most acute on Inishmore, largest of the Aran Islands. Aware of the tension inherent in bringing economic benefit to an isolated community (although as he writes, given the preponderence of day trippers the main beneficiaries are the ferry companies), he also notes his own preference for solitude in sites like Dun Aengus. Yet, is he so different from the mass of tourists? As he reflects afterwards:

I sailed north with a heavy heart, disappointed with my visit. Inishmore is a remarkable place. First for its lessons in geology: it is one thing to read about how erosion creates limestone pavements, quite another to actually walk over them. Second, for its lessons in history: while this is not my part of the world, I know is has been deeply influenced and impoverished both by its own conflicts and those imported from England. For me, however, these qualities were overwhelmed by the visitor culture, not so much by the curiosity of the people who visit, but by the infrastructure that is required to cater from them and to profit from them. The tourist business requires that large numbers of visitors move through the sites fairly quickly and are returned to the tourist hub where they can spend their money.

It is all too easy to make a crude distinction between tourist and pilgrim. We are all both. The line is a subtle one that I found myself continually crossing and recrossing, never entirely sure which side I was on. Indeed, nature writer Paul Evans refers to people like me who go in search of wild places as ‘wilderness tourist.’ Religious pilgrims who go to sacred places in search of a holy realm will often take time out for sightseeing; and tourists visiting the same place may find themselves affected more profoundly than they had bargained for. The tourist may see a haughty arrogance in the pilgrim’s claim to a higher purpose, and the pilgrims may look down on the superficiality they see in the tourists.

Reason goes on to write as to why he finds the distinction still worth making; I don’t want this to turn into simply posting extracts from his writing so I would urge those who wish to know more to seek out the book For me, sites like the Louvre and the British Museum do acquire the status of pilgrim sites, and when somewhere is described as “touristy” it is usually because there is something worthwhile there. Of course, the experience of visiting it may be wrapped up in a lot of tiresome tat and overcrowding, but it was ever thus …