Beachcombing: Claiming, Disclaiming, and Reclaiming in the Anthropocene

Often writing from the edge spaces of islands and remote coastlines, Kathleen Jamie and Roseanne Watt observe how the sea and other natural forces can reclaim man-made objects. For these two Scottish poets, an Anthropocene dynamic of disclaiming and reclaiming is at the forefront of their work.

In her essay “Findings,” Kathleen Jamie documents the strange assemblage of man-made and natural debris scattered on a remote Hebridean island. A “bleached whale’s scapula” and an “orb of quartz” are found alongside “a doll’s head” and “the door of a plane” (60). Moving beyond the menacing image of the sand dunes “choked with plastic,” Jamie recognises that these discarded objects of consumerist culture “had their own fascination,” finding herself oddly drawn to the “doll’s head” (59, 60). For Jamie, the mercurial way in which the sea has thrown these objects together seems to be telling us something. The unsettling but fascinating entwinement of human and nonhuman debris represents the networks of ecological harm and culpability within which we are increasingly implicated. However, the assortment of objects also represents a kind of possibility-space, in which human meanings – the objects and the purposes and stories they carry with them – are washed clean and reclaimed by the sea. This reclamation in turn urges the human observer to re-evaluate the kinds of plastic legacies we leave behind, transforming and reclaiming the small-scale narratives of ‘things’ until they reflect the larger narratives of anthropogenic climate change. We are forced to confront these narratives ourselves, causing Jamie to question “if it’s still possible to value that which endures, if durability is still a virtue, when we have invented plastic, and the doll’s head with her tufts of hair and rolling eyes may well persist after our own have cleaned back down to bone” (67).

Echoing the windswept setting of “Findings,” many of Jamie’s poems are similarly concerned with beachcombing. The speaker of “Fianuis” walks “the last half-mile to the land’s frayed end / to find” what the wind and the waves have “laid on for us, strewn across the turf” (Selected Poems, 226). In “The Beach,” this debris is markedly more human, with “heaps of frayed / blue polyprop rope” which is “thrown back at us” implicating the speaker and reader alike in chains of ecological harm (163). However, just as on the Hebridean island, this debris-strewn coastal space is also a possibility-space for new, perhaps nonhuman, meanings, as the beach’s human visitors are “hoping for the marvellous, / all hankering for a changed life” (163).

Both this possibility-space and an awareness of human harm is also present in the poetry of Roseanne Watt, whose writing is oriented around the Shetland Islands. In Watt’s work, the liminality of coastal spaces takes on an added linguistic dimension, as her collection Moder Dy  is suspended between two languages: English and the Shetland dialect, which mingle together in a rich but destabilising possibility-space. For Watt, the entanglement of human and nonhuman debris takes on an uncanny edge. Situated in a coastal space of transformations, “Raaga Tree” is written from the perspective of a piece of driftwood that has become literally and figuratively entangled with human detritus: “tang / an auld nets” (“seaweed and old net”) (Moder Dy, 24). Besides her written work, Watt also produces multi-media film-poems, created at a confluence of landscape and language. “Raaga Tree” has its own film-poem accompaniment, Raaga, where the uncanny atmosphere is heightened by the visual use of semi-human figures and masks and costumes fused with a plethora of natural and non-natural debris. The skulls often incorporated into these costumes gesture to a “vodd / wirld” (absent world), markers of environmental absence which are literally entangled with bright blue fishing twine, simultaneously revealing the connections between human livelihood and land, and the darker implications of these entanglements.

Jamie’s beachcombers and Watt’s figures seem to acknowledge a disorienting realisation that, rather than remaining separate from a distanced, pastoral “nature,”, the human is fundamentally interconnected with the nonhuman, in what Anna Tsing has described as “an interspecies relationship” (Tsing, “Unruly Edges,” 144). Everyday human detritus such as plastic bottles, toys, and old fishing nets take on a strange afterlife, severed from their human uses and narratives, extending into geological deep time. In this sense, the plastics that “choked” the dunes represent a spectral legacy of human stories with a very material impact on the natural world.

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Just as Watt’s film-poems gravitate towards human figures, it is no shock that the plastic object that most haunts Jamie is the head of the doll. Sitting at the uncanny cusp of human and nonhuman, the doll’s head seems to invite us to see ourselves reflected in our plastic legacies. Given the focus on the doll’s “sea-blue blinking eyes,” human debris here appears to act as a kind of prosthetic for seeing with, directing us not only inwards but also towards wider entanglements with other forms of life, however fraught (Findings, 69). How, then, can we see through plastic legacies? Perhaps by adopting a mode of seeing akin to Jamie’s beachcombing and Watt’s driftwood figures, open and attentive to the human and nonhuman forms of debris that wash up, darkly entangled, in our Anthropocene borderlands. Such a way of seeing will require a new relationship to the idea of claiming, reclaiming, and disclaiming. This recalibration begins with an attentiveness to the ways in which natural forces reclaim human spaces and human objects, eroding their cultural contexts and throwing them into unexpected arrangements. These arrangements, in turn, can direct us to confront our own place within dark ecological webs. Crucially, however, this mode of seeing will also require us to disclaim ownership over the things and places at the cusp between human and nonhuman, to allow this reclamation to take place.

Watt’s poetry often implores the reader to “tread light” on the thin skin of her coastal borderlands: “It’s not yours to take” (“Tattibokey,” Moder Dy, 9). Instead, the kind of beachcombing practised by Watt and Jamie rests on the disclaiming of authority over nonhuman narratives, until even the presence of the observer becomes undermined and destabilised. Counter to mainstream environmental narratives in which nature is presented as a pure and distant, for Jamie, “wildness” is “a process rather than a place”: a “constant negotiation” with “a wildness which is smaller, darker, more complex and interesting” (Jamie, “A Lone Enraptured Male”). This principle is illustrated perfectly by Watt’s “Nightwalk with Natterjacks”. In order to “enter” this wildness as possibility-space, as a way of seeing – this “shadowland / of listening close” – we must “become more /silhouette // than substance”, whilst acknowledging our material impact on the landscape: “hearing where / our footsteps fall” (Moder Dy, 57). The mode of attention modelled here is built around an “attentiveness to the stories of others” that acknowledges human culpability in “a world of escalating suffering, loss and extinction”, in the words of Thom Van Dooren (Flight Ways, 78, 143).

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The unsettling mix of discomfort and “fascination” generated by the intimate entanglements of human and nonhuman may make us want to turn away from beaches “choked” with plastic, to snap a picture of the view instead. However, in Watt and Jamie’s poetry, we are confronted with this destabilising feeling, fostering a new attentiveness to wildness as “process” in an enactment of Donna Haraway’s theory of “staying with the trouble” (Haraway, Staying With the Trouble, 125): a practice of delving into chains of ecological harm to recalibrate the narratives within which we frame other-than-human life. For Watt and Jamie, we can allow our narratives, our ways of seeing, to be reclaimed by the nonhuman, but to do so we must simultaneously disclaim ownership over the nonhuman, and claim responsibility for ecological harm.

This constant fluctuation of claiming, disclaiming, and reclaiming is perhaps best modelled in the coastal spaces that form the backdrop to Jamie and Watt’s poetics. The “land’s frayed end” is itself a kind of “shadowland,” where sea and shore are engaged in a perpetual interplay in which neither has ownership over the other. However, we do not need to drive to where “the road / gives out” (Jamie, “The Whale-Watcher,” Selected Poems, 147) to find these liminal spaces. In the Anthropocene, the borderlands are all around us. In parks, footpaths, and overgrown industrial sites, it is not difficult to walk into a “shadowland” where strangely defamiliarised and oddly beautiful reclaimed objects are “thrown back at us”: a rust-wheeled bicycle, a haggard teddy bear, a tin can presented by a small child with some of Jamie’s “fascination.” Perhaps the “fascination,” and the discomfort, of these borderlands can prompt us to recalibrate our ways of seeing the entanglements between human and nonhuman, and our own fraught place within them.  

By Lizzie Smith

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