WATERLOG: CHARTING WATERWAYS, WILD SWIMMING AND THE FIGHT AGAINST POLLUTION

In Waterlog, Deakin chronicles England’s waterways, not as a series of isolated locations, but as a connective system that links the Isles of Scillies to Hampstead Ladies Pool and the Norfolk fens. It was a project that was as much about humanity as nature, charting the effect of the water upon himself, and, of course, vice-versa. In this way, Waterlog is an ecological, conservationist, personal and philosophical work of profound importance today.

There is something intangibly magical about swimming in wild water, in un-chlorinated, freezing pools and rolling tides – perhaps because the experience demands your complete attention. The cold of the Atlantic, even in summer, catches in your throat when the waves reach your chest. It beats the air out of you. All swimmers are levelled by open water. As Deakin himself observed, upon leaving the land ‘you enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.’ 

Waterlog calls on its readers to resist the narrative of fear surrounding wild and untamed natural spaces, and to reclaim them in an act of defiance. Most of us, Deakin writes,

live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’… It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.

Twenty years after its first publication, it is clear today that Waterlog succeeded in capturing the imaginations of thousands of swimmers across the UK. Its publication has, no doubt, been influential in the rise of outdoor swimming clubs and groups. Between 2017 and 2019, the Outdoor Swimming Society reported that it had seen membership soar to more than 70,000, and, for those true devotees of the book, there have been entire blogs (WaterlogReswum), and books (Floating), dedicated to revisiting the swims that Deakin charted in his writing.

Still, despite the resurgence in open-water, and wild, swimming, Britain’s waterways are drowning under the weight of pollution and industrial waste. This is mostly due to the 17,684 licensed emergency sewer overflows that exist across the country. These are sites at which the Environment Agency has allowed water companies to dump untreated sewage into our network of rivers. Supposedly an emergency measure during seasons of high rainfall, the release of sewage into UK waters has become something of a regular occurrence. What is perhaps more worrying, is that the pollution of our waterways has barely reached the broadsheets. Thames Water’s £20.3m fine, back in 2017, for its blatant dumping of 4.2bn liters of sewage in the Thames, should have created a public outcry in defense of our rivers. It was the largest freshwater pollution case in history, and yet it has changed almost nothing.

Waterways were once the arteries of Britain, an island surrounded and defined by its canals and oceans, dependant upon them for trade and transportation, as well as foodstuffs. Now, it seems, we have lost touch with these pieces of ourselves. However, as Deakin noticed, swimming can change our relationship with the water. Sustained public interest in our country’s rivers, lakes and chalk streams has the ability to instigate water reforms and generate investment in these natural spaces.

This shift in the way that we view Britain’s waterways will come, I think, not simply from swimming in them, but also from sharing these experiences with others. I have swum in a handful of the places Deakin navigates in his book, and walked along the banks of a dozen more, no doubt questioning the sanity of anyone who would jump in them. But his immersive descriptions of these familiar, watery places allowed a flood of others – discreet swimming holes and public baths – to rise to the surface of my consciousness. I have no doubt it did the same for others.

It strikes me that perhaps the greatest tribute to Deakin’s ethos and work would be to curate our own water log – a collective gathering of new swims and locations that would extend Deakin’s project, and encourage conservation of swimming sites across Britain. 

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LANNY: THE POWER OF FOLKLORE IN THE MIDST OF A CLIMATE CRISIS

In an era of climate crisis and uncertainty, folkloric themes and characters have slipped back into popular literature, not as a nostalgic salve for social fears, but as a means of re-aligning our relationship with the natural landscape. Nowhere is this more clear than in Max Porter’s Lanny, which emerged onto bookshelves in the midst of this year’s ‘climate spring’ – a season of school strikes and environmental anxiety, as Extinction Rebellion activists occupied Oxford Circus and Greta Thunberg’s speech to EU leaders went viral across our newsfeeds.

Porter’s second novel bears many of the hallmarks of a fable, not least its language and theatrical structure, which demands to be read aloud, throwing up words for the reader to feel and taste, for their texture as much as their meaning. Its setting, too, draws on the timelessness of folklore – a rural commuter village that is, in equal parts, mythical and staunchly contemporary. It is a place of tombolas and bigotry, sprawling woodland and claustrophobic Neighbourhood Watch congregations, and presiding over it all is the novel’s omnipotent narrator, Dead Papa Toothwort, an impish, folkloric spirit of the land.

Toothwort, strangely perhaps, does not feel out of place in the village, or Porter’s writing; he settles himself comfortably in amongst a world of commuter traffic and Wi-Fi passwords, pressing himself in and out of the landscape. Shifting between his ‘various skins’, he shrugs off his ‘diseased larch arms’ in favour of ‘a tarpaulin gloaming coat’, observing, to his amusement, the daily lives of the village’s inhabitants. The character bears a striking resemblance to the Green Man figure, common within European folklore and pagan belief. A mixture of old culture and new religion, the Green Man is a forest deity – part-human, part-shrubbery, a man made of leaves and sapling trees who protects woodlands and hails in the new spring come May.

Porter’s conception of a Green Man-esque character like Toothwort, in today’s climate of environmental anxiety, is particularly interesting considering the history of the figure. Whilst the carved foliage faces we have come to recognise as the Green Man are medieval in origin, the term itself emerged less than a hundred years ago, in 1939. Incidentally, this was the same year that Time Magazine first ran a cover story proposing the idea of a warming world. 

It seems, Professor Carolyn Larrington has argued, that the Green Man of 1939 emerged for a society ‘which was beginning to need him, a world in which people were gradually realising how industrialisation was degrading our planet’. Arguably, the re-emergence of such a character today is brought about by similar realisations. Whilst Porter’s aim may not have been to write an environmental novel, his inclusion of a folkloric character like Toothwort, unconsciously or consciously, draws the reader’s attention towards the landscape. The dense forest that surrounds the village pushes through Porter’s narrative in the way that Toothwort moves and speaks.

Folklore, then, far from being a relic of the past, can act as a voice for preset-day social, political and environmental issues. The environmentalist role of folkloric characters in contemporary literature is to create an emotional connection between the land and its inhabitants through anthropomorphic characters like Toothwort. It is this exact “emotional connection” between landscapes and humans that, psychiatrist and eco-psychologist Walter Christie has argued, allows ‘all behaviour leading to the destruction of this world [to] be experienced as self-destruction’. Part of the problem with modernity, he states, is ‘the illusion of separateness we create in order to utter the words “I am”’. Native American author, Leslie Marmon Silko has summarised this far more articulately than I could ever hope to,

The term landscape, as it has entered into the English language, is misleading. ‘A portion of territory the eye can comprehend in a single view’ does not correctly describe the relationship between the human being and his or her surroundings. This assumes the viewer is somehow outside or separate from the territory he or she surveys. Viewers are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders they stand on. (Silko, 1996, p.27)

Folklore can help to bridge this gap between landscape and humanity, between “I” and “we”. It is a connection to a community larger than human civilization.

Importantly, in the case of Lanny, Toothwort does not morally reprimand the reader for their carelessness towards the land, but rather reminds them of the centuries of human devastation he has witnessed, as the landscape of the village has been,

Cut apart, its top layer disembowelled, stripped and re-plundered, sliced into tinier pieces by wire hedges and law. He [Toothwort] has seen it poisoned by chemicals. He has seen it outlive its surgeons, worshippers and attackers. It holds firm and survives.

Tangible incarnations of the natural world – the sort prevalent in folklore – demand that we take accountability for our actions towards the land. However, they also serve to remind us of the power of nature over our own lives, such as in the Native American story, How the Lakota Sioux Came To Be Brule, in which Unktehi, a water monster, unleashes a great flood on the Indian people, killing them. In the case of Toothwort, his role shifts within the novel, from the omnipotent narrator to a protagonist in the drama of the village. He feels an urge to become involved in the story. As Porter writes,

Every now and then he does it, puts on a show, intervenes, changes the nature of the place… he can’t resist and never could, he can’t resist and never should… he is up to something.

Toothwort’s intervention in the plot of the book, and thus the lives of Lanny and the other villagers, demonstrates (in folkloric terms) the ability of nature to shape the lives of humankind. Folklore’s re-emergence, therefore, is important in our era of climate crisis because it opens up opportunities for the natural landscape to be presented and viewed as an integral part of the human world. As a tool of environmental activism, folklore helps us to highlight this connection between land and inhabitant – to redefine their relationship as one of co-dependency and equality.

The Old Ways: Walking as Remembering? A Physical Connection to Collective Memory

All landscapes contain stories, as yet undiscovered by us, placed there for safekeeping by those who came before. Sometimes they are buried beneath the stones and soil, other times they are clearly visible, like lighthouses, empty plastic bags caught on hedgerows and scrawled letters on bus-shelters. 

Italo Calvino puts this point far more eloquently in his book, Invisible Cities. A space, he says, ‘does not tell its past but it contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets… every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls…’ This has always seemed to me a beautifully poetic way to understand a chaotic world, as an accidental archive of ourselves.

Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways explores how we might traverse the topography of this archive as a means of translating the landscape and gaining, hopefully, a greater understanding of ourselves.

At first it is hard to understand this concept of a self-reflective walk as in any way connected to community. The two seem polar opposites of one another, and yet if you examine pilgrimages, even solitary ones, they are, at heart, a collective pursuit. Taking a route mapped out by the feet of thousands before you is a means of connection in itself.

For me, walking, in the way that Macfarlane explores it, is not a solitary occupation, but rather a connective one. 

I have spent the past two years researching the way that other people interact with the landscape, how significant spaces encourage them to remember, or forget, the events that occurred there. Indeed, my research into collective memory has pushed me to understand landscapes as the connective tissue that links us to something greater than ourselves. Macfarlane states that ‘we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move’. In return, I believe, we pour a little of our own selves back into the landscapes we pass through, and thus a layering begins, of new narratives intermingled with the old. These traces can be something material, clothes fibres, crumbs, hair, a stone moved, a branch trimmed back, or it might be something more intangible, an observation noted down or recounted over kitchen tables and strong tea. Our interactions with places change the way that others view them – this process in itself is cyclical and communal.

During my own research, I spent time in Derry, Northern Ireland, where my mother’s side of the family is from, and still resides. I listened to people tell me stories and I let myself be led through their city. Together we walked down past the city walls, along the length of the Lecky Road, to the Free Derry Wall, where we stopped and talked. Once, the wall marked the end of a terrace row; now it is a single, dislocated facade, ringed with a roaring B-road. 

Waiting there, I stood in the spot where, in January 1972, my granddad listened to a speech about freedom and justice, delivered from the back of a lorry. Behind me, on the far side of the road, were the blocks of flats where later he would hide in a lift-shaft when the first bullets were fired and the crowd scattered. The buildings are gone now, demolished, but their presence seemed palpable from the stories I had heard, flat and grey against the anaemic sky. 

My grandad has since passed away, and I will never be able to comprehend the full extent of what happened in this place, but walking through the landscape brought a sense of closeness to him as a person, and his stories. 

Macfarlane talks in a similar manner about retracing the old routes of his grandfather across the Cairngorms as a sort of ritualistic journey – of ‘commemoration’ and ‘recollection’. My mother’s father was no walker, the city he lived in was, at times, bleak and harsh, its landscape far from rolling hills and green downs, but the sentiment of our return journeys to these landscapes, as grandchildren, feels similar. Walking through Derry was an act of recollection, not of my own memories but of those of a community, a family, I am tied to. As Tim Ingold says, ‘onward movement is itself a return’.

Walking, then, is about community, but it is also about identity in so much that it can be a connection to a collective sense of self. This is perhaps more important than ever in an era of geographically dispersed family networks and urban metropolises. The ‘old ways’ need not be overgrown public highways or remote coastal cut-throughs; their narratives are not always easily decipherable or politically urgent but they exist beneath the skin of the landscape all the same – memories that scatter and calcify themselves in every inch of shrubbery and tarmac. If we pay attention, if we share stories and discovered routes between family and friends, it is easy to recover this repository of community – the link to those who came before us.

Constellations: Bodily Autonomy and the Power of Storytelling in the Fight for Reproductive Justice

In the inside cover of Constellations, Sinéad Gleeson’s self-defined ‘reflections from life’, is a quote that perfectly distills its contents. Gleeson describes her writing as, ‘a map, a tracing of connections and a guide to looking at things from different angles.’ For this reason, the collection, in its entirety, feels less like a memoir and more, a polemical study of womanhood. Whilst its subject matter is, of course, personal – a fragmentary selection of essays that traverse Gleeson’s own body in search of stories: tales of hair, blood, bones, fertility and love – in their dissection of individual experience they are acutely political. 

In the days after I finish reading Constellations, the internet erupts with news that reinforces the political currency of women’s bodies. In Alabama the state senate has passed a near total ban on abortion. Twitter is ablaze. But the slogans and pictures I see shared by my loved ones and friends are familiar. This is a fight I recognise. It is the language of a campaign that first introduced me to Gleeson and her writing last year, as the Republic of Ireland fought to overturn the Eighth Amendment in its constitution, thereby legalizing abortion provision up to twelve weeks. 

I am heartened by the outrage I see online at the news of Alabama. It makes me hopeful, but I cannot help but feel its attention is narrowed by shock. This battle is not just one state, one senate, one vote – it is representative of the distrust and dismissal of women’s bodies that is seeded at the very core of society. The legislation in Alabama, Poland, Malta, Northern Ireland, Ohio, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, (I could go on for days), seeks to control a group historically viewed as ‘unstable’ and ‘hysterical’, and whose bodies have been viewed consistently as ‘an interruption in the city, a symptom of disorder and a problem.’[1]

In the Republic of Ireland the fight to repeal the Eighth Amendment was won through tireless campaigning, long hours of canvassing, conversations with strangers in shopping queues and on buses. It was speeches and marches and stories. Above all stories.

In the long fight for reproductive justice, stories are essential. It was women’s stories that brought Roe vs. Wade before the Supreme Court in 1973, and in 2012, the cruel details of Savita Halappanavar’s death in Galway, from a septic miscarriage, shocked not just Ireland but the world. Her story galvanised those on the fence; empathy for a woman who could have been their daughter, mother, niece or cousin, transformed into anger and the voice of the Repeal movement grew louder. 

Now stories are needed again. Not just of abortion and reproductive healthcare but of the experiences of women’s bodies, loud enough to disrupt the legislation that aims to control them. 

Books like Constellations are important in this fight for bodily autonomy, because they are clear and loud and vocal on topics we have branded taboo. Talking about the female bodily experience will always be a political act. As Gleeson herself acknowledges, 

No matter what or how you write about the female body – from reproduction to sexuality, illness to motherhood – it is politicised. Women are reduced to the physical: to make it easier to disregard them. To decide, rule and legislate for them.

The collective sharing of women’s stories, therefore, is important in this fight because of its vulnerability, its humanity. It shifts these narratives from private rooms, whispers exchanged between friends, to the public sphere. 

There is a moment in Constellations that leaves me breathless, perhaps because I recognise the potency of its message in so many of the women I know.

Women learn early that absorbing pain is a means of martyrdom inching us closer to the bodies of saints, as if discomfort equates to religious ecstasy. That there is meaning in suffering, except that there is not.

When I read Gleeson’s work I am reminded of the dozens of silent kitchen table discussions I have shared with women who, like me, like Gleeson, feel their bodies are misunderstood by medical professionals, dismissed and silenced by laws and legislation.

Hours after I finish reading, the voices online become louder and between the newspaper articles and op-ed pieces I see a thread of stories. They start with the actress Busy Philipps and they gather momentum quickly, a baton passed from woman to woman, #youknowme. By the end of the week there are women everywhere sharing their stories of abortion, not just in America but worldwide – their private experience made public. I am thankful for their bravery, in making their bodies and experiences political. I hope it continues long after news outlets lose interest. After all, this is not an anomaly, not some microcosmic dystopia, it is a part of a bigger story and a larger fight, to which I hope we will all lend our voices.