Can culture help us respond if the sea keeps rising in the East

This is the text of my talk at the Festival of Transition event What if the Sea Keeps Rising held at the Museum  in June

One of the privileges of working in a museum is that it enables you to take a long view of how humans have responded to climate change. It also helps thinking about how the arts  can help frame future challenges in a positive rather than a dystopian light.

Like many who are trying to grapple with the implications of sea level rise in low lying areas like East Anglia, I look to the Dutch experience of the dyking of the Zuider Zee. Until the beginning of the 20th century the Zuider Zee was a shallow bay separated from the North Sea by the Friesian islands. It was the gateway to Baltic Trade. It was also sensitive to storm surges and any rise in sea level. On 18 November 1421, a seawall at the Zuiderzee dyke broke, which flooded 72 villages and killed about 10,000 people.

To communities living by the Zuider Zee, the sea was both provider of livelihood and bringer of death.

From the beginning of the 20th century although serious efforts were made to enclose the Zuider Zee, its inhabitants were constantly reminded of the fragility their communities. Dykes were unable to prevent the North Sea floods of 1953 and nearly 2000 people were drowned.

These communities however were able to adapt to change. The construction of the Afsliutdijk and Houtribdijk transformed the Zuider Zee into two freshwater lakes, so whilst sea fishing declined its communities developed new techniques fresh water fish farming and tourism.

The Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen is one of my favourite museums. It has reconstructed buildings – like the Museum of East Anglian life –  and it explores how communities lived worked and traded in the period before the creation of the Ijsellmeer in the first half of the 20the century. Many of the buildings come from communities that are either now underwater, or like the town of Irk, were once islands in the middle of the Zuiderzee and now lie on reclaimed polders. Most importantly the museum does not nostalgically represent passing way of life, but describes the relationships between humans and the interaction between the land and the sea. Nowhere in Europe will the effects of climate change and sea level rise be more felt by people in North Holland and Freisland. I’m sure this helps present generations frame their response to the inevitable change.

Has East Anglia been tamed?

Since Roman times , the people of East Anglia have tried to both tame and exploit the land. Their experience of the sea, the shifting coast and climate change should remind us of the impermanence of human intervention. In the 13th century Dunwich was the fourth largest town in England, but coastal change led to its decline in the 1300s. Today it is a hamlet, it’s 8 churches lie a mile out in the sea.

The towns of Great Yarmouth, Southwold and Aldeburgh have all changed locations. As recently as 1930 the declining village of Slaughden, just south of Aldeburgh was finally wiped off the map by a storm surge. Two of the most familiar East Anglian landscapes are born out of human intervention.

The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads are the flooded remains of peat beds established by the Romans first exploited the rich peat beds of the area for fuel. In Middle Ages the local monasteries began to excavate the peat lands selling fuel to Norwich Cathedral which in the 13th century took nearly 320,000 tonnes of peat a year. Then the sea levels began to rise, and the pits began to flood. Despite the construction of windpumps and dykes, the flooding continued and resulted in the Broads landscape of today, with its reed beds, grazing marshes and wet woodland.

In the Middle Ages the Fens of Cambridgeshire were marshlands dotted with islands. Chronicles of Peterborough Abbey noted how the 11th century Saxon Hereward the Wake resisted the Norman occupation in watery fastness. Fenmen had ancient rights to use the marshland for fishing and reed cutting. At the beginning of the 17th century gentlemen adventurers led by the Earl of Bedford began a programme to drain the fens. These early venture capitalists funded the construction and were rewarded with large grants of the resulting farmland and peat beds but also depriving Fenmen of their rights to the marshland.

The work was directed by engineers from the Low Countries. Following this initial drainage, the Fens were still extremely susceptible to flooding, so windpumps were used to pump water away from affected areas. However, Once drained of water, the peat shrank, and the fields lowered further.

The more effectively they were drained, the worse the problem became. The dead vegetation of the peat remained undecayed because it was deprived of air (the peat being anaerobic). When it was drained, the oxygen of the air reached it, since when the peat has been slowly oxidizing. This, together with the shrinkage on its initial drying and the removal of soil by the wind, has meant that much of the Fens lies below high tide level. As the highest parts of the drained fen are now only a few metres above mean sea level, only sizeable embankments of the rivers, and general flood defences, stop the land from being inundated.

The Fens today are protected by 60 miles of embankments defending against the sea and 96 miles  of river embankments. Eleven internal drainage boards maintain 286 pumping stations and 3,800 miles of watercourses. Whilst the fens are some of the most fertile lands in Britain the commericial exploitation of these landscapes requires constant human intervention, through drainage pumps and dykes.

This was also the case in the more general farming areas of the East. Until the 1950s half the working population of East Anglia were employed in agriculture. Most workers were fully aware of the needs of managing water, either in excess in flooding or through drought (Suffolk and Norfolk are the UK’s driest counties). The rural historian George Ewart Evans described a hireling market in Bungay in Suffolk in which day labourers were required to carry out 2 hours of ditching every day regardless of their other work.

How we experience the land today

Today our connections with the land and the sea are borne out not through our experience of work but through culture and leisure encounters. Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes opens with a chorus of townspeople singing of their weary daily round and their relationship with the sea and the seasons.

But human experience of the land and sea has changed dramatically from those that look out from the land: the labourers and workers. The new experience is predicated on the ‘visit.’ The observer now experiences this landscape through controlled experiences, tea shops and log-bordered car parks, with information boards tempting them onto walks and paths.

There is multitude of often competing interest for the land the preservation of bio-diversities, wildlife, research, military use and economic concerns all figure. The reduction of liability and risk now seems to be a major factor in our experience of the environment. The ‘dangerous’ cliff edges that we risked life on, are at ‘risk’ themselves. So this gives the illusion that it is us who control nature.

Past communities we were better equipped culturally for coping with flooding. More people working on and knowing the land, and word of mouth, allowed for effective response to emergency and repair of damage. This has been displaced by transient communities and disconnection, exacerbated through the reliance and expectation that public agencies have all the answers.

Laurence Edwards, one of the country’s finest sculptors in bronze, has a studio in Butley, Suffolk. He observes,

Artists could foster new physical and philosophical spaces. They could build floating houses, use rivers as meeting places, grow floating gardens, ‘enpolder’ mud flats and make new land, ‘artipelagoes’. We could invent novel ways of creating flood banks using clothes filled with earth – ‘The fabrics of society’, develop ‘amphibiliving’ projects which draw us back towards a deep connection with the water.. This landscape is mined culturally, it is sifted intently, its traces are harvested in many ways, but it is not only a provider of food, its value is not only economic. Defending it with ‘Rock Armour’ preserves one value, but does it destroy another? The tethered edge, the lost path, the stumps and the rounded bricks on our beaches, add cultural value. We discussed the idea that as artists, we had the ability to frame landscape, to digest it, to interpret it. Concepts such as the Romantic, the Picturesque and the Sublime evolved with artists, and these constructs now inform our notion of the beautiful. They inform the criteria for areas of outstanding natural beauty and are fundamental. Capability Brown re-ordered landscape according to them. It is hard to think that the Lake District was considered an ugly, scary place until the romantics re-imagined it.

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One Response to Can culture help us respond if the sea keeps rising in the East

  1. Today, I went to the beach with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it
    to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed.
    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her
    ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is totally off topic
    but I had to tell someone!

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