A Conversational Essay on Tides by Linda Cracknell and Owain Jones

A Tidal Conversation

By Linda Cracknell[1] and Owain Jones[2]

This developed out of the Arts and humanities Research Council Landscape and Environment Programme funded network, ‘Values of Environmental Writing’. We are grateful for the opportunity to take part in this series of events run by  Dr Hayden Lorimer – link to webpage; Dr Rhian Williams – link to webpage; Dr Alex Benchimol – link to webpage


OJ. We live within complex temporal ecologies – all sorts of rhythms, tempos and durations which combine to make up the temporal topography of life, and which flow through bodies, landscapes, materials etc. (In water, some types of wood will last for centuries, other types will rot to nothing in years).

Much of this temporality is in scales and forms we cannot easily sense or know (e.g. the pulse of the ice ages, sun cycles, and the ‘clocks’ in our cells), but things like the turning seasons, day and night, the flow of water catchments (in flood) and sea tides are manifestations of the temporalities of planetary life which can be very powerfully obvious in the more or less here and now. All, to some extent at least, are expressions of the ceaseless and varying pas de trios of sun, moon and earth. These are the great planet-derived rhythms of life – the seasons, the lunar month, day and night, the tides which overlay each other to create amazing moiré patterns which affect nature, economy and culture.

LC. I’m interested by how writers respond to these flows and rhythms. When I was editing the non-fiction anthology A Wilder Vein[3], many contributors referred to the humbling effect of their encounters with wild nature in Britain and Ireland. Sometimes it was the scale of mountain and moorland or its beauty that suggested their place in the world. But powerful rhythms in nature also induced it — seasons, day and night, and of course, tides.

In ‘Ardnamurchan Almanac’, Gerry Loose moves through the seasons towards intimacy with the oak woodlands of Sunart, his close observations like reading the ‘book of the woodland’. But when he steps out onto his well-known paths at night, he stumbles over every pebble, loses a sense of scale and stops trusting his senses. Alison Grant, caught in a blizzard on ‘The Hill’ her family have farmed for generations, finds the familiar landmarks of fences, wind farm, high moor, dissolve and disappear, ‘And the world shrinks’. In ‘The Light and the Line’ Jane Alexander writes about the elusiveness of the precise point where land, sky and sea interact. ‘Air, earth, water: they bump up against each other, and they form the line. Except, there is no such thing as a line.’ As she says of the process of creating a painting, ‘the landscape holds the cards’.

OJ. There is much interest in practices of landscape at the moment and these include bodily immersion in, and movement through the landscape in terms of weather, light etc.

LC. Such explorations of the notion of ‘wild’ or ‘wilderness’ suggest that it is not only a function of place, but of time or occasion. The elements bite back and make us feel less certain of our feet on the earth; we are toppled into a different way of looking or feeling; and perhaps writers respond with renewed creativity, even perhaps seeking out this alienation. I liken it to what Scottish poet Alastair Reid says of the effect of travelling to foreign places in ‘Notes on Being a Foreigner’[4]: ‘It is all rather like waking up and not knowing who or where one is. If, instead of simple recognition, one can go through a proper realisation, then ordinary things take on an edge, one keeps discovering oneself miraculously alive. So the strangeness of a place propels one into life’.

OJ. Tides (the focus here) rhythmically scramble two of the most fundamental divisions of physical space on earth – between salt water and land, and between salt and fresh water. Margins where mixing and exchange occur are often fertile. These disorientatingly liminal spaces are attracting much literary and artistic attention at the moment. For example Philip Gross’ collection of poems about the Severn Estuary, The Water Table (winner of the T. S Eliot Prize 2010).

LC. I love this verb ‘scramble’ for the way tides influence our sense of the world. Tides are reliable, rhythmic; and yet the effect of them can confuse us and induce uncertainty. I think of this effect rather like that in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where changes and rearrangements become possible and strange powers are at work.

In describing her efforts to‘re-wild’ her west coast croft and her own lifestyle, Mandy Haggith wrote in ‘Wild Life on Braighlinne’ (also in A Wilder Vein) of the river pouring out into the sea. But: ‘Sometimes it flows in the other direction, inland. It all depends on the tide. I hope I never cease to enjoy the wonder of living by a river that can flow upstream as well as down.’ Though an observable phenomenon, this sounds to me like magic.

The metaphor is powerful. However confused we become, there is always the opportunity for a new start when the tide turns. In the short story The Horizon Pool, I wrote about a teenage boy whose life seems suspended after a car accident in which his friend dies. The boy is distanced from the world, friendless, futureless; simply surviving his new, tame and muted life. But when he takes a swim in a tidal lido, and encounters a seal, the pool becomes a place of possibility; the crack open of the bivalve’s shell. Wildness has entered a place of human construction. And the next tide might lift them both out into a wild sea.

My radio play The Three Knots was set on the shores of Loch Sunart at Strontian, in the 1840’s during the potato famine and ‘The Disruption’ which saw congregations all over Scotland abandoning the established Church of Scotland in an uprising over landowners’ control. I was entranced by a historical detail. The first solution the community there found to their homeless worship was to gather on land offered up at low tide – land which the Laird could not own.

Their enormous gatherings, wind-lashed and sodden as they would have been, mocked the assumed power of the Laird, and celebrated the generosity of the moon’s work and natural rhythms. While the Laird scattered salt on the path to the abandoned church to keep it looking trodden, the congregation found their final solution by taking to the sea in a floating church. Intuition and reason; sea and land.The lovely song we punctuated the scenes of the play with seemed to echo these strange ‘scramblings’:

The men in yon forest they are asking me

How many wild strawberries grow in the salt-sea

And I answer them back with a tear in my eye

How many ships sail in the forest?.

(from ‘The False Bride’)

floating church

OJ. The tidal margins of the mobile oceans, and flows of brackish water (mixture of salt and fresh water) in estuaries and river mouths, and the immediate hinterlands of these areas, have been, and remain, rich in ‘tidal ecologies’ which are entanglements of both the natural and cultural.

Intertidal areas take on extraordinary properties. They seem beyond ownership and are places of contemplations, meetings and sites where the human can see its limits (Gormley sculptures at Corby). Moments of high and low tides are often used in literature as key moments of psychotemporality, such as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where the entire telling of the dark tale, on a yacht at anchor on the Thames estuary, is told between the turn of two tides.

Turn of the tide – slack water


LC. These liminal margins that you speak of are places for the imagination to dwell. In the ‘gap’ between high tide and low tide amidst frayed plastic rope, upended chairs sunk in mud, single boots, there can be riddles, chances, errors, twilight, the mobile mouths and valves of shellfish gaping and then shuttering tight. And if this gives us places that are beyond ownership, it also give us magical places where the absurd can happen – where one can fall in love with an ass (or perhaps a seal), or slip through veils between worlds. As Tim Dee said at one of our ‘Values of Environmental Writing’ sessions – it’s mistake making, at the border of things, where creativity happens.

Walking across the sands from Beal to Holy Island in Northumberland with dusk and the tide rushing in at the end of 70 mile Saint Cuthbert’s Way, I experienced a sense of intense ‘gappiness’. An owl watched us cross the margins of land and sea and of day and night on the original pilgrims’ route that cuts the corner of the tarmac causeway. It’s neither quite land, nor quite sea, can be a place of in or out-tide, of seals grounded or swimming, of stalking birds that can wade or fly or float. A place for shellfish that are half-fish, half-flesh; half-stone, half-living-thing.

Such places provoke and unsettle and thus can make powerful settings and forces within fiction. In David Constantine’s short story The Wishing Well[5], a woman goes to a place on the Welsh coast which she knew as a child, taking with her a man with whom she’s beginning an intimacy. Changes in the coastline and the height of the tide have long since removed a forest and a chapel, pushing the rebuild of the latter onto a retreating shore. But she finds changes to the place even within her living memory. There is subtle interplay of place, time and emotion at work here. The current walk ‘on the flat infinity of wet sand’ is strangely layered with the past one. The uncovering and closing over of secrets and intimacy, and the extreme of tide which makes the sea so distant ‘you could almost believe it had withdrawn for good’, finally leads the grown woman into a state of childlike fear of, and vulnerability to, the approaching tide – a tide that can come in ‘faster than a man can run’.


OJ. We (partner and I) try to buy art (when we can afford it). And almost without being aware of how it links to my tidal interests, we bought a bronze resin relief by the Welsh sculptor Perryn Butler, which depicts droving cattle through the sea at low tide from the South Beach at Tenby Pembrokeshire to the Caldey Island farm of the Cistercian monks. (A preparatory sketch is below). Low and high tides do configure journeys and movements and thus our relationship to the temporal landscape. (More so in the past than now perhaps.). All the tidal ferries which were for centuries the way to cross the tidal Severn Estuary are now replaced by railway tunnels and huge road bridges.

cows crossing

LC. Another place comes to mind, and another journey. At the straits of Kylerhea, just south of the Kyle of Lochalsh, the rocky shores of mainland Scotland and the Isle of Skye reach towards each other, compressing the sea to gallop furiously between them at the extremes of tides. In the slack between these extremes, drovers used to swim their cattle across, tied nose to tail, near the beginning of their long journey to the markets of Central Scotland. This short but perilous journey epitomised the skill and resilience of the drovers and their need to harmonise with natural systems. A few years ago when I walked this drove route in reverse, from Perthshire to Skye, I reached this crossing in a storm, and found that after thirteen days on foot, weathered and alone in the mountain landscape, the crossing place, with its history and respect for natural time, had accumulated a mythic significance.

Before we began this conversation, I was only dimly aware of the place of tides in my writing and literary interests. I notice them now, washing in as metaphors and forces for change with mythic weight. With our labyrinthine coasts compressing and releasing tidal waters and in turn shaped by them, our island sensibility must be stronger than we realise, embracing liminality, strangenesses covered and uncovered, the rhythm of advance and retreat. Perhaps we sense these pulses, their chime with our own nature, even without knowing?

OJ. Because I grew up on a farm on the shores of the Severn Estuary I have always had a fascination for tides and the odd world of the intertidal zone which switches from land to sea, form one space to other space. The UK has some of the highest tides in the world. Writing, art and research which explores this amazing evidence of the living relational planet will help us be alive to the aliveness of the world

LC. The inter-tidal zone is richly creative. It enlivens imaginations; secreting the extraordinary in the ordinary rhythm of ebb and flow; swash and backwash. This is where transformation is possible, where nothing stays the same, where there are junctions of opportunity to gain wisdom. Might there be places and literatures here to help us overcome a fear of change?

[1] Writer: www.lindacracknell.com. New book  Doubling Back. Ten Paths Trodden in Memory (2014)   http://www.freightbooks.co.uk/doubling-back-by-linda-cracknell.html

[2] Professor of Environmental Humanties; University of Bath Spa

[3] A Wilder Vein, Linda Cracknell (Ed.), Two Ravens Press, 2009

[4] Whereabouts, Alastair Reid, White Pine Press, 1990

[5] The Shieling, David Constantine, Comma Press, 2009

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