Along the eastern shore of Britain the line between sea and land has been sketched many times and any particular stroke we might consider now as definitive tells us more about our place in time than about the place’s place in space. Up and down the coast are fields re-claimed from the brine, drained, each one a little victory in a guerrilla campaign against the tide, fought for and barricaded in, fortified with bank and stone work. The war, of course, was actually lost millennia ago when climate change had worked its assault on the northern ice and a distant frozen fortification was undermined - releasing a tsunami across Doggerland, our Palaeolithic Atlantis, the fabled land bridge across which the first hominids had walked here. Since then the German Ocean, the North Sea, has provided our moat – a stretch of water separating the British archipelago from the continent to which it belongs.
At the Essex shoreline by Ashingdon, a man named Canute made his landfall and later, on another beach he would demonstrate the futility of the commands that men make against the tide – but elsewhere and elsewhen engineers have been put to work, going into the debateable lands: marshes, saltings and fens disputing the shared commoning rights of earth and water in favour of settler claims for sole and undisturbed use.
Yet disturbation comes from time to time, the empire of the oceans may neglect its outlying territories for decades or centuries, but when the wind is right and the Moon aligned its legions may take back in moments that which was removed from its realm over lifetimes. The great storm surge of 1736, the high tide and winds of 1791, the severe gales of 1881, the 1897 hurricane, the watersnoodramp of 1953 – only the most recent incursions and inundations remain in the collective memory of man.
Each time man’s response has been the same – re-build the dykes, make the walls higher, drive more reinforcements into the earth. But shows of strength are often shows of folly – defeat disguised as victory. In the River Blackwater millennia ago, when the tide receded from the mud on the southern bank and the causeway to Northey Island was revealed, the folly of man was also unveiled. The tale is related in the Battle of Maldon (1), Old English verse telling a story of defeat by Norsemen after the over-reaching pride of the vanquished. Near the close of the poetic fragment that remains, Byrthwold a retainer of the fallen leader Brythnoth offers this counsel to his comrades:
‘Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant
our spirits must be greater, though our strength grows less.’
On that same island exactly one thousand years later to the year, a new negotiation with the sea began – aiming at accord, at truce making. The island’s titular owners, the National Trust, took down the wall, broke the bank letting earth and water re-enter discourse over the interior. The strategy was known as “managed realignment”, or more poetically (and preferably I believe) as “managed retreat” – the giving of ground. These lands of debate, marginal to farming are sanctuaries to avian migrants, local waders, mudskippers, to the halophyte vegetation: matrices of seablites, suaeda, glasswort, kali. They also form a softer edge, a thumb smudge of the pencilled line, rich ecotypes: yes, and they also take the shock of high water, disperse it, and ameliorate its impact.
‘Our maps must be the kind sketched in the dust with a stick, washed away by the next rain’ (2)
During the last ice-age, the pressure of a glacial mass on Scottish rock tipped our Alban head seawards, with a resultant kicking up of the island’s feet, lifting the south higher in the air. Now the south is falling, while Scotland rises again. After the ice – the isostatic rebound, pushing the austral soils towards water. And the sea also rises; a changing climate, global weirding, jetstream meanderings, new ice melt in the frozen lands, thermal expansion of the ocean – their tidemarks etch a warning on an out of date Plimsoll Line.
And so along the eastern shore, lines are being redrawn again, and we might respond with earth-movers and engineering or we might instead try to work with nature, we could restore the buffers and thereby give ourselves more time to complete the heavier lifting required to remove the weight of industrialism from our backs. More time to quiet the fossil-fuelled chimneys, to capture carbon in the topsoil and sequester it in the trees, to re-inhabit our life-places, to make a world within the limits of the Earth.
The great challenge of the coming years will be navigating the course of “energy descent”, the precipitous ride down from the dizzy heights of the petroleum interval. We need to step aside from the excesses - as a people, as a nation, as a region, as a community, as individuals – before we are pushed back, knocked over, deluged all at once with coming troubles. In the volume Anticipatory History (3) the authors remark of realignment that ‘the terminology might stink… but the possibilities of life without barricades is revolutionary’. I believe we should make a managed retreat.
1. Anon. Battle of Maldon modern verse translation by Douglas B. Killings.
2. Paul Kingsnorth & Dougald Hine Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto (Lancashire: Bracket Press, 2009)
3. DeSilvey, C., Naylor, S. & Sackett, C. Anticipatory History (Axminster: Uniform Books, 2011)