Friday, 17 August 2012

Sprackland: Strands

Jean Sprackland (2012) Strands, A Year of Discoveries on the Beach Jonathan Cape, London; 256 pp.; ISBN 9781409028123

One of my uncles used to take us, a group of pre-school nieces and nephews, for walks along our local beach. There were still rusted old hulks sticking up out of the sands, remnants of World War II, and our uncle told us they were the wrecks of pirate ships. He would point out spots where we should dig for buried treasure and inevitably we turned up a hoard of pennies. At that age the fact that the coins were only a few years old and that we always ended up with two pence each (enough for a small bag of sweets) never aroused our suspicions. Later we would scour the dunes for dewberries, eat some there and take the rest home to make a tart. In childhood, the beach was a wondrous place.

Jean Sprackland is a poet and has a poet’s fascination with the particular as a doorway to the universal. She has also retained a childlike wonder at the mysteries and riches of the seashore. For over 20 years she walked the stretch of sands in north-west England between Southport pier and Formby Point. Now she is about to go and live in London, so decides to keep a record of her final year on the beach.

The book is divided into the four seasons, though the seasonal changes along the waterfront are not always central to the story. Rather, other themes emerge as we accompany her along the sands. She has a passionate interest in sea creatures and introduces us to a motley crew. I had never heard of paddle worms, sea mice or brittle stars before, but they turn out to be fascinating characters in the ocean world. Larger animals such as sharks, seals and jellyfish also make appearances, and we see them in a different light from their popular images. Many species are threatened, but others are dogged survivors no matter how awful the environment becomes.

Sprackland introduces us to the equally strange world of aquatic and seashore plants. I was happy to see laver there and a celebration of it as a food, but the uses of algae and seaweeds turned out to be far greater than I had ever realised. Samphire grows in the dunes and is making a comeback as a food, but the asparagus industry that once thrived here is a casualty of encroaching tides and saline soils.

If you have travelled much on the wider oceans you will no doubt have come across a swathe of floating rubbish in the middle of nowhere. There is a mass off the US west coast that is reputedly larger than Texas. The seas have always carried and washed up flotsam, but our modern existence has increasingly made this more dangerous and less manageable. Plastics and chemical residues in particular have transformed the life of the sea in less than a century, but our tendency to consume and discard just about everything with blithe indifference to the consequences has seen a mesmerising array of detritus washing up on the world’s beaches.

Among all this, Sprackland still finds a few precious items: a teacup from an old Cunard liner, petrified wood and a yellow plastic duck (they are used to track ocean currents). But these are the exceptions. As long as we continue to trash the sea, the sea will always return the favour and wash our shame back up in our faces.

The essence of a beach is the sand, and sand itself comes in countless forms. It is composed of many different kinds of material, all worn down by time, wind and wave. As well as being a kind surface on which to lie down or a blank canvas on which to leave our footprints or dreamy castles, sand is also a major commercial export. Sprackland reminds us of the paradox that Britain exports sand to Saudi Arabia, and this is only a tiny part of the global trade. Sand is used in building, foundries and glass production, as well as for land reclamation, but its removal can have long term effects on the stability of shorelines.

Sprackland has an almost nerd-like obsession with the beach. When she spots a dead creature she doesn’t recognise, she is off home and on the computer trying to identify it and asking why it washed up here. A similar hunt on the internet and in the maritime museum in Liverpool help her to identify the teacup she found. Such enthusiasm carries the risk of boring the recipient of the tale (ask anyone who’s been accosted by a train spotter), but Sprackland has a poet’s love of words and an ease of expression that pulls you along on the journey and leaves you hankering for more.

In the final chapter of the Winter section, she finds an uncovered mass of old sedimentary rock containing the prints of animals and people from Neolithic times. Here, in what was once a shallow lagoon, families worked and played, gathered sea produce, fished and collected small animals, and hunted large red deer. Whoever walks here now must realise that almost ten thousand years before, others did the same. That environment no longer exists and the character of the beach changes almost daily as the world is constantly re-made. Our individual lives, however long they might be, only ever allow a glimpse of the bigger picture.

Every beach, large or small, has treasures to show us and stories to tell if we are willing to look and listen. Every new tide brings mysteries, for the sea is that part of our world that we know the least. Sprackland has written a wonderful book that will ignite your imagination, deepen your knowledge, and make you look at the sea and strand with renewed awe.

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