Fieldwork in Lyonesse: salvage ethnography before the anthropocene floods

Jonathan Woolley
April 13, 2017
© Jonathan Woolley

Then rose the King and moved his host by night
And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse—
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.

— Idylls of the King, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. 1885.

I. Losing Ground and Lost Lands

I had night terrors regularly as a young child. I can’t remember many  details, only fragments. Giant dogs walking slowly on their hind legs.  Bright orange cephalopodic monsters walking down a suburban road.  Morlocks from George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960), staring at  me from the dark. I would half-wake, unable to move or escape what I saw  — the end of sleep would not release me from my nightmares. Over time,  they stopped. My nightmares became less intense, and they stopped  paralysing me. Waking up became an effective escape.

But that changed in mid August 2015. In the midst of my fieldwork,  while I was living and working at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, at the heart of  the Mid-Yare National Nature Reserve (NNR) I started getting night  terrors again. Life on a nature reserve is just as you’d expect — hard  work at times, but always beautiful. Even on the cold, grey days, when  the water was dull and the birds were roosting quietly in the hedges,  there was still something spellbinding about the Fen — a gentle, healing  quiet; a rhythmic hush that rose up from where the wind touched the  reeds. The chaotic abundance of the vegetation gave you the feeling of  being cradled; swaddled away from smog, and noise, and electricity; made  safe from the wider world by a railway track and miles of river and  ditches. On sunny days, butterflies and dragonflies flitted across the  paths like jewelled sprites. Ducks and geese jostled joyfully with one  another on the open water. Bitterns and otters stalked the quieter  reaches. Not the sort of place to give you nightmares.

But paradise is, as we all know by now, all too often and easily  lost. North Western Europe is dotted with stories of “lost lands” —  marvellous cities, counties and kingdoms, all drowned beneath greedy  waves. Wales has Cantre’r Gwaelod — ‘the Lowland Hundred’ — a fertile  tract of land reclaimed from Cardigan Bay in ancient times, only to be  lost again when the drunken Prince Seithenyn opened the sluice gates in  the great dyke of Sarn Badrig at high tide. Not to be outdone, Cornwall  has two such sunken counties. Lethowsow, a land conflated with the  Lyonesse of Arthurian Romance, is said to have lain between Lands End  and the Isles of Scilly. The Scilly Isles themselves were once a single  island landmass — known as Ennor — whose central lowland was inundated,  amazingly, in 500 AD. The ruins of walls and farmsteads are still  visible, under the azure waters.

Across the channel, Brittany has the tale of the city of Ys, the  finest in Western Europe and the last redoubt of the Celtic gods. It lay  off the coast of Finistère before Dahut, the evil daughter of the king,  Gradlon, stole the key to the city’s floodgates and ushered in the high  tide. Similar motifs emerge in all these tales: wondrous, fertile  lands, populated and prosperous, protected from the wrath of the tides  by a complex system of dykes and sluices. And yet, all these defenses  are, in the end, overcome by the flawed judgement of morally dubious,  dipsomaniac leaders, who unlock the gates and let the waters in. Human  artifice, overcome by human error.

While the Atlantic coast is dotted with legends of drowned kingdoms,  in the East of England such things are matters of recorded history. Long  ago, when ice covered much of the Northern Hemisphere and glaciers  reached as far south as Oxford, the North Sea was dry — a vast, flat  plain called ‘Doggerland’. Dominated by a vast river system, where the  Thames, the Seine and the Yare, on whose banks I was living, would have  flowed eastwards to join the mighty Rhine, before it would have poured  into the lowered oceans near Brest in France. Doggerland would have been  covered by open steppe — a rich grassland home to vast herds of wild  horses, mammoth, woolly rhinos, and Irish elk. Our ancestors would have  hunted there in summer, before retreating south during the bitter  winters. These ancient summerlands would have been a wonder to behold —  historian Ronald Hutton paints a vivid picture; of broad, spectacular  skies, lush herbage that would have been fragrant when crushed  underfoot, filled with glowworms that would have left ribbons of light  coruscating across the grassland after dark.[i]  But with the melting of the glaciers, this happy country of green  knolls and wide, open vistas was swallowed up by the encroaching waters —  a process that still goes on to this day. From Holderness to  Happisburgh, villages and fields in the low-lying, geologically soft,  eastern flank of Britain have been progressively claimed by the waters  of the North Sea. But this is not a unidirectional process. Many of  these places were once wetland or estuarine habitats; reclaimed from the  waters in Medieval times or after. Rather, there has been a long  process of back and forth, between man and sea, as sea levels rise and  fall, the tides breathing in and out over generations.

II. Mythopraxis

The Broads are a fine example of this. In Roman times, the lower  flood plains of all of Broadland’s rivers were underwater — a network of  wide inlets and mud flats. Acle — now about nine miles away from the  coastline — was once the site of an important Roman seaport, where boats  from the period have been found in the mud. The Isle of Flegg was once  an actual island. But as sea levels fell in the Medieval period, the  newly revealed land was colonised, and progressively expanded through  drainage — transformed into grazing marsh, reed beds and fen. The water  became fresh, the fields became fertile, and the people grew rich — all  protected by a network of drainage ditches, dykes, and pumps — first  powered by the wind, then by diesel, and finally — as they are today —  by electricity.

© Jonathan Woolley

However, this landscape has remained vulnerable to the power of the  North Sea. Winter storms have been known to breach the sand dunes and  other defences on the coast, sending surges of water far inland across  the flat countryside, as happened in the great floods of 1953. And now,  with climate change becoming an increasing threat, the prospect of more  frequent storms brought by a warmer world is sowing fear amongst  residents in the Thurne Valley and the Halvergate marshes. There are  demands from some quarters that a tidal barrier be put across the river  Yare to protect the communities inland: a gate, to hold back the high  tide. In 2008, the Telegraph reported  plans by Natural England to surrender some 16,000 acres (25 square  miles) of land to the waters — including five freshwater lakes,  thousands of acres of farmland, and six villages — Eccles, Sea Palling,  Waxham, Horsey, Hickling and Potter Heigham. Mutinous local people still  view this proposal as an abject betrayal, suspicious of distant figures  in authority.

This narrative gains new poignancy in light of the devastating floods  that hit the North of England this winter. Storms Desmond and Eva swept  in one of the wettest Decembers in a century,  flooding 16,000 homes as the Irwell, the Ouse, the Ribble, the Foss and  many other rivers burst their banks, washing away farms, bridges and  roads. Opprobrium was heaped on the head of Sir Philip Dilley, the chair  of the Environment Agency, who remained on holiday in Barbados as much of Cumbria, Lancashire, and Yorkshire suffered. In time, Dilley’s head rolled.  Although there are obvious questions to ask about the rightness of his  behaviour, it is interesting to observe that — in times of crisis — the  tendency amongst the English is to blame those in positions of immediate authority,  rather than reflect on wider, systemic problems – such as subsidising  the deforestation and drainage of grouse moors, or indeed, climate  change.

Relating such brutally real situations to ancient tales might seem  fanciful. But the distinction between fact and myth is not so clear as  all that. Along the coastlines of Australia, many indigenous societies –  including the Yidinj, the Narrangga, the Tiwi, and the Jaralde — have  traditions describing the flooding of areas now underwater, containing  details consistent with the shape of the original coastline.[ii]  Although there is widespread skepticism in the Western world towards  oral lore when it concerns events long since past, there is some  ethnographic evidence that — where disasters, particularly floods are  concerned — oral myths can be remarkably accurate, even after thousands  of years.

As Marshall Sahlins tells us, at moments of critical historical  conjuncture, cosmology and pragmatism – myth and choice – intersect in  what he calls “mythopraxis”.[iii]  The powerful, old stories of drowned lands are a particular imprimatur;  they carry with them powerful tropes that inform the ways people think  and learn today. In terms of flooding, the British think in terms of an  onrushing wave of downfall and apocalypse; a narrative of disaster and  catastrophe that looms large in how we think about and respond to  changes in our world. Technology should protect us, but moral failure is  what dooms us. The British tend to expect the end to come, as it did to  Ys and Cantre’r Gwaelod, swiftly and unexpectedly, through the  scurrilous misdeeds of those in positions of responsibility. Such flaws  result, perhaps inevitably, in sudden catastrophic loss, from which  there can be no recovery. But what I discovered in the Broads, is that  the physical loss of the land is a thing that creeps, as much as it  floods; and that rather than blame those with the keys to the  floodgates, disaster actually arises from broader, structural issues.

III. Microcosm — Dahut be Damned

I am standing on a great promontory, looking out from upon high  across a sparkling sea. Between the view and myself lies a low bank of  green turf, from which a short, salt-stunted tree is growing. The tepid  breeze is picking up, as the though the land is trying to blow out the  setting sun, as it passes below the horizon. The whole sky is awash with  pink and tangerine, as the fading light floods away. I’m with a couple  of friends; we’re all dressed in white and about to start a ritual of  some kind. We’re summoning something.

© Jonathan Woolley

We stand in a loose circle, chanting as the stars blink above us. I  can’t remember what words we say, but all of a sudden a figure appears  in our midst. Dangling as if from a hangman’s noose, she floats in mid  air, her limbs hanging all at jaunty angles. Her sheet grey hair streams  out from her gaunt, skeletal face, her ribs are visible through the  tears in a drab shift that hangs over her frame like fog about a sinking  ship. She flails her long fingers, scraping foully through the air, and  launches towards me. My friends and I try to hold her back through  force of will, but to no avail. As she swoops down on me, I fall  backwards, fearfully seeking an escape. I flinch, and I’m in my bedroom,  in the Volunteer Cottage at Strumpshaw Fen. But she has followed me. I  feel her rank weight on my chest, holding my body totally still. My eyes  are open, and I stare at her screaming face. I try to banish her, to  dream into being a blast of light that will push her off me, but I don’t  have the strength. I’m paralysed. She sinks into my chest, and rests  there — I try to force her out, but she won’t go.

It’s then when I wake up fully. It’s about 5am, and dawn is just  creeping through the curtains. I get out of bed, and I cough twice. I  realise that I’ve come down with a cold.

.        .        .

We’re on the reserve, inspecting some ditches. A whole group of  volunteers and RSPB employees are scanning the layer of Water Soldier — a  rare plant, with thick glossy leaves — for little orbs that shine and  pulse in the sunlight. We’re looking for nurseries; webs spun by the  endangered Fen Raft Spider to house its tiny babies for the first few  days of their lives.

The narrow ditches hum with life. Fish scoot under the water as  whirlygig beetles dance across the surface tension. A haze of flies  fills the air as the rushes swat them this way and that with the wind. A  cow gazes at us from across a thousand shades of green. But these  precious veins of biodiversity are just as threatened as the spiders;  the wardens tell us how, in the Mid Yare valley, rising sea levels are  gradually pushing saline water up the river systems on spring tides;  flowing into formerly freshwater dykes and lakes, killing fish and  plants and driving away other wildlife. No great storm surge here: the  sea literally infiltrates the land. Long before the Broads are a full  estuary again, the precious freshwater habitats for which the area is  known will have become brackish, flushing away much of what makes them  special. This slow seeping decline is as much part of the renewed  precarity of the Broads as catastrophic flooding. So while the general  public thinks of sea level rise as an on-rushing wall of water, to be  held back with walls and defences that unscrupulous officials neglect,  the reality that falls within the gaze of the RSPB’s wardens — before  the water overcomes the land, subtler flows cause the life of the place  to slowly ebb away.

.        .        .

I’m sitting in a car with a farmer. She’s an entrepreneur and a  straight-talker, and she’s impressed me all morning with her drive, her  passion for family farming, her realism, and her reasonable view of  things. We start to talk about global warming.

I ask her if she, or her family have noticed changes in the weather  locally. She is equivocal — sure, the weather has varied, but it has  always varied. ‘See, I’m just not so sure about it.’ She sighs, hands  deft at the wheel, eyes ahead. ‘People have been saying the world’s  going to end for centuries, and it never has.’ It is hubris for humans  to claim that we have such power, that we can change our environment.  Instead, she says, we must respect the power of our environment to  change us.

Later on our journey together, she confesses her scepticism extends  to other narratives of precarity. After speaking for a while about  distrust, rural decline and enclosure, she mused: ‘But is everything  really falling apart, or is it just something to complain about?’

As I stare at the fields out the window, I’m struck by this  genre-savvy perspective, and how it reflects the attitudes of other  rural people with whom I have spoken. According to this line of  thinking, climate change is but one in a long line of elite discourses —  sanctioned by learned folk in faraway dreaming spires — pronouncing the  morally-loaded end of all things, against the reassuring regularities  of the everyday, the practical, the business of growing. While the  science may well say that climate change is very real, and the foremost  peril of our age, common sense identifies far less abstract faults.  First and foremost, it is us — our flawed human nature, or that of  people in power — who are to blame for any disasters that might arise.  Our love of complaining, and the dubious desires of individual people,  are built into a counter-discourse to the data and rhetoric marshalled  by the IPCC, scientists and environmentalists the world over. Systemic  solutions to systemic problems become, in this reading, a way of  diverting attention and effort away from specific solutions to specific  problems. The assumption being, of course, that the specific is more  real than the systemic. Such big pictures are abstract, and therefore  removed from the ‘real’ world. But the specific can be as riven with  abstractions, theories, myths and nightmares as the systemic; and the  systemic can be as rooted in matters of fact as any particular, concrete  thing. As Richard Irvine points out, our experiences of geological  processes — that take place over deep timescales in which lands are made  and drowned— occur through phenomenal engagements with specific places  and people.[iv]  Therefore, the misdemeanours of the supposedly Great and Good command  roles of geological significance; as much, or even more of a part of  people’s unfolding understanding of changes in the landscape, as  scientific theory and evidence.

The farmer believed that, because climate science is founded on  theory, it could therefore be a myth. But the very fact that climate  science has been so vigorously dismissed for so long — as a trope, as  pseudo-religious hokum, as “just a theory” — is precisely what makes it  profoundly un-mythical. If we follow the structuralist approach taken by  Levi-Strauss when dealing with myths, they are part of our conceptual  furniture: the lenses through which we see the world, rather than  post-hoc explanations we are able to derive after the world has been so  seen.[v]  Myths are not theories, carefully developed and worked up as plausible  explanations about the world. They illuminate fundamental patterns in  how we think. They are not theories per se, but delineate what  theorizing is humanly possible. Climate change, as a systematic problem  that needs systematic solutions, is a concept that has been subjected to  intense scrutiny, and come out weathered but intact. It may rhyme with  the genre of mythic apocalypse, but that should not make us complacent. A  tiger may look like a painting of a tiger, but that does not mean we  should treat a real tiger like a painting.

III. Macrocosm – Salvaging something from the flood

Another night, another nightmare — this one only dimly remembered. I  know I was fleeing through the woods, running away from some  barely-glimpsed malice, hot on my heels with a dark shape and glowing  red eyes. I fling myself between the branches, falling, stamping,  flailing into empty space.

Who was chasing me, and why, I cannot remember.

I eventually realise I’m back in my body, but my body cannot move.  I’m trapped there. In my room, I can sense the creature that was chasing  me there, looming in the dark like a hungry shadow. He launches himself  at me, but I’m ready: I imagine a great stream of light radiating out  from my body. It catches his hairy, umbral body, and lifts him up, up,  holding him up against the ceiling, as I concentrate as hard as I can on  keeping that stream flowing. After a few seconds, the creature gives  way and passes through the solid plaster, the roof, and up, out and far  away. I relax, and sigh, and the paralysis is gone. Apart from a few,  lingering wisps of anxiety, the room feels cleansed, bright, even though  it’s in the early hours of the morning, and there’s no light to be seen  anywhere.

Many days later, I’m standing on the edge of Cantley Marsh, about two  hours walk south of Strumpshaw Fen with the Site Manager of the entire  Mid Yare Valley (NNR). The Marsh — a lobe of carefully drained wet  grassland, lying in a wide meander of the Yare — possesses a lonely,  timeless air despite being heavily managed, Trudging across the fields  of thick, fragrant grass, watching herds of cattle roaming freely as  wading birds call to one another under wide skies, I couldn’t help but  feel that Cantley and other grazing marshes like it — salvaged from the  seas — are but a tiny fragment of the summer country of Doggerland,  rescued from under the grim waves. Geologists tell us that we have  entered a new epoch of geological time, defined by the impact of human  beings on the planet — the Anthropocene.[vi]  Now, within the Anthropocene, that same power of man to shape the  geology of the world is threatening to drown this fragment of the  summerlands again.

Having checked the Management Plan for the NNR, I couldn’t find any  explicit references to this existential threat the reserve faces over  the long term. As we stand next to Cantley, I ask the Site Manager: ‘What does the RSPB plan to do in response to the rising seas and saline incursions?’  As he looked out across the fields he stood to lose, he squinted into  the distance. Saline incursions could be managed by good drainage  practice, he explained, but in the long term the entire Mid Yare Valley  could be submerged. The RSPB was already investing in other wetland  sites further inland — like Lakenheath Fen — that were intended as  refuges for the sorts of animals and plants that currently lived in the  Broads. But as for his own personal investment of time and energy in a  place that would, one day disappear, he seemed unperturbed. “You just do what you can, you know…”  

When I went to the Broads, I had a vague idea of doing salvage  ethnography: trying to document something of life in the Broads in a  time of great change. What I didn’t realise then is that the business of  salvage was already going on. The entire Broads is, in a sense, a  landscape that has been salvaged — pulled from the rising waters that  marked the dawn of the Holocene, the end of Europe’s first summer and  the drowning of Doggerland.[vii]  To complement any efforts of salvage ethnography I might attempt, the  Broads themselves are an exercise in “salvage geography” — an attempt to  carve out a place in the world, and keep it there even when the tides  of history move against it. This work is, in the Broads at least, the  work of a great many people: farmers, landowners, conservationists,  builders, and reedcutters. The myth of dramatic inundation caused by a  distant elite holds a great deal of influence; it seems everyone I spoke  to was in constant dialogue with an “other” who did not appreciate the  nuanced burdens of their daily work. Local people looked upon the Broads  Authority as just such a distant and unwelcome external force. What I  discovered what that the members of the Broads Authority with whom I  spoke deployed the very same myth; viewing their work as being  constantly challenged by more powerful, but abstract agencies – be that  the vagaries of the global economy, or of shifts in national politics  calling for austerity. In each case, the more dominant, but more  abstract other was viewed — rightly or wrongly — as an obstacle to  holding back the tide.

Myths have power. They are not ephemeral — they shape our behaviour,  our experience, and our physical circumstances. They can be visions to  buoy us to grand acts of salvage, or nightmares that paralyse us,  leaving us hagridden, incapable of effective movement. The solution to a  nightmare scenario, perhaps, is to fight fire with fire. When a  something frightens you so gravely, perhaps the best option is not to  look to your body and try, vainly, to force it into movement, but rather  to use your imagination, fight off the phantasms that haunt you, and  dream a better dream.


[I] Ronald Hutton, Pagan Britain. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[Ii] N. Reid, P. Nunn, And M. Sharpe, ‘indigenous Australian Stories And Sea-level Change’ In Indigenous Languages And The Value To The Community: Proceedings Of The 18th Foundation For Endangered Languages Conference (Okinawa, Japan), Ed. By Patrick Heinrich And Nicholas Ostler, (2014).

[Iii]Marshall Sahlins, Islands Of History (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1985)

[Iv]Richard Irvine, ‘deep Time: An Anthropological Problem’, Social Anthropology, Vol. 22, No. 2, (2014), Pp. 157-172.

[V]Claude Lévi-strauss, ‘the Structural Study Of Myth’, The Journal Of American Folklore, Vol. 68, No. 270, Myth: A Symposium, (1955), Pp. 428-444.

[Vi]C.  N. Waters, J. Zalasiewicz, C. Summerhayes, A. D. Barnosky, C. Poirier,  A. Gałuszka, A. Cearreta, M. Edgeworth, E. C. Ellis, M. Ellis, C.  Jeandel, R. Leinfelder, J. R. Mcneill, D. Deb. Richter, W. Steffen, J.  Syvitski, D. Vidas, M. Wagreich, M. Williams, A. Zhisheng, J. Grinevald,  E. Odada, N. Oreskes, And A. P. Wolfe, ‘the Anthropocene Is  Functionally And Stratigraphically Distinct From The Holocene’, Science, Vol. 351, No. 6269,  (2016), P. 137.

[Vii]The  Holocene Is The Geological Epoch That Preceded The Anthropocene. It  Began With The End Of The Last Glaciation, And Was Characterised By A  Relatively Warm, Stable Global Climate.

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Jonathan Woolley