← Back to portfolio

Robert Newton: 'Before Coming Back'

Published on 5th December 2019

 I have been back for two days when my dad and I carry the kayaks, one by one, down to the water’s rising edge. We go slowly – I am barefoot, and we are walking on gravel. At the higher tides, this area is submerged, but when the water is low, holidaymakers and local sailing enthusiasts use it as a carpark. Right now, it is between these two states; the rim of the tide advances imperceptibly towards the boats, the cars, and the village beyond, which I have known since childhood. We set down the first kayak so that it is half beached on the gravel, half buoyant in the water. Currents tug at its floating nose, insistently – not seaward, but into the marsh. Then we go back for the second boat.

 I have been coming back all my life. Returning again and again to the same place can feel like returning to the same moment. By carrying the second kayak to the water, I repeat something I have done here many times. It feels unsettlingly like I am doing so as, or alongside, myself as I was last year, or before. A path snakes over the marsh. I have walked it barefoot every summer of my life. With every walk, footprints sink into warm, smooth mud, and with every subsequent tide, salt water rinses them away. I remember the Saami belief that the dead walk in an inverted realm, sole to sole with the living; and I picture a host of my past selves, footprints scattered and diffused in the marshes. Then Dad and I reach the water. We lower the kayak. I remind myself I do not come back unchanged to an unchanging place. Strong, restless currents run through the channels; every falling tide discloses new patterns in the sediment. And the prices have gone up. The pharmacist shut down, but there are plenty of new art galleries. They all sell the same overpriced watercolours of the beach, the mudflats, and the marsh into which Dad and I are guiding our kayaks, gathered inward by the rising water.

 Before coming back, I have been reading Elizabeth Rush’s 2018 book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. It is about the adaptive strategies resorted to by American communities threatened by rising sea levels. The book, like much of the literature that seeks to testify to the debilitating planetary-scale changes now underway, braids together disparate forms and genres, searching for a way to relate geosystemic events with no precedent in modern memory. Rising weaves deftly between reportage and elegy, memoir and polemic. It asks what each of these forms may offer to the collective need to express apprehensions of a destabilised reality; and it brings these offerings together to create a hybrid, experimental work. Rush also insists that any adequate record of what she calls ‘the rise’ must be polyvocal. Placing extended first-person testimonies of interviewees between chapters, she ensures that her narrator’s fluid, multigeneric voice is only ever one among many, involved in a long, slowly unfurling conversation. And running through the stories Rush gathers, one bright thread of inquiry:

 Many of the landmarks we have long navigated by are going to disappear. It is not a question of if but when... The commonly held notion that what has happened will happen again, that there are no new stories, this idea becomes fat with water, fully saturated, then it too slips beneath the sea’s dark surface.

 Rush is interested in how new kinds of storytelling can inform adaptation to a shifting world; she is interested in those stories which may help us to live on an altered planet, and in those which impede understanding; in how to ‘learn to acknowledge that the water will come’. In the course of her study, she gives voice to victims of predatory flood insurance policies in Louisiana; to families flooded out of their homes in Staten Island, New York; to Native American communities holding fast to vanishing land. The implication is that storytelling may offer those worst afflicted by the climate crisis a kind of imaginative control over their situation – ‘if not over the physical world, then over the words they use to make sense of their experience in it.

 The longer I spend on our disintegrating shoreline, the more this strikes me as an adaptive technique that humans alone might have’. Somewhere through this book, I started thinking about the low-lying place to which I am always coming back; and I started thinking about my grandmother, whose kitchen window looks on to the marsh.

 All of this is on the edge of my mind as I sit in my granny’s living room. She sits opposite, and in a third armchair sits her miniature poodle, gnawing a shoe. It is on the edge of my mind, but mostly I feel a full, simple gladness to see her; to be in her familiar presence, and to hear her stories. She is a virtuosic, eclectic storyteller. Her presence – bright, deep-set eyes and a darting voice – might be familiar, but the stories rarely are. Granny tends to arrange narrative strands along lines of familial descent. When I was a child, this storytelling technique helped (along with a series of patrician schools and the obsession with succession in fantasy novels) to elicit in me a fascination for ancestry; a way of thinking which informed a teenage period of elitism. I still feel uneasy about this old fixation on lineage – but I also understand that telling stories in this way allows Granny to draw together, often to startling effect, seemingly unrelated events; to compose families of stories. Shortly after shaking out a skein of tales – beginning with a drunken Quaker merchant in 19th century Wisbech, pivoting upon an elopement, and ending with Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub – Granny beckons me into the kitchen to show me the two Christmas stockings she is making for my cousins’ small children. I hold one in my hand. Father Christmas hovers above a picture-book house, floating in a dark blue field. It is an intricate thing; skilful, loving work. She is visibly (but critically) pleased with them both. ‘They’re beautiful’, I say, and we make tea, and sit down again, and keep talking. Granny unravels more stories; I ask her about life in the village, and she asks me about life in the city. The poodle gnaws the shoe. The stockings are forgotten. But later, driving away along the coast road, I remember the figures stitched tenderly into that blue expanse. They illustrate an old story told to children, to reassure them that the future is secure. The cycle will repeat itself; the stocking will be hung up, year on year in the snug room, and it will fill with gifts through an old and powerful magic. I remember the stitching that holds this particular telling in place. Then I remember the view of the marsh through the kitchen window. Tawny saltings to the horizon; a grey mirror at the highest tides. Another connective fabric. More familiar rhythms, which I worry are coming undone.

 In 2013, powerful waves driven onshore in a storm surge clawed into the soft, gravelly cliffs beneath the East Anglian village of Hemsby. Three houses fell into the sea, and many others were badly damaged. On the issue of accelerating coastal erosion due to rising seas and intensifying storms, the British government has four core policies, which run from ‘holding the line’ to ‘managed realignment’. Local governmental groups in places where the shore slides into salt water must choose between these four policies. Starved of funding, Great Yarmouth Borough Council have so far been forced to adopt a policy of ‘managed realignment’ for Hemsby. For residents, this means that the state will not defend them from the sea. Those already displaced must also reckon with their ineligibility for insurance – companies will not pay out for ‘damage caused by subsidence, heave or landslip caused by river or coastal erosion’. The ongoing story of Hemsby, and of contemporary coastal unsettlement in the United Kingdom more generally, recalls the older story of the lost medieval city of Dunwich, which subsided into the North Sea in the late 1200s. As W.G. Sebald relates in The Rings of Saturn, Dunwich was a wealthy place:

 Shipbuilding, and the trade in timber, grain, salt, herring, wool and hides, were so profitable that the town was soon in a position to build every conceivable kind of defence against attack from the landward side and against the force of the sea, which was ceaselessly eroding the coast. One cannot say how great was the sense of security which the people of Dunwich derived from the building of these fortifications. All we know for certain is that they ultimately proved inadequate.

 After a storm surge hit the city in 1285, ‘no one could tell where the land ended and the sea began’; more ‘catastrophic incursions of the sea into the land’ followed. Eventually, all that remained of Dunwich were a few gnomic, teetering towers:

the walled well shafts, which for centuries, freed of that which had once enclosed them, rose aloft like the chimney stacks of some subterranean smithy, as various chroniclers report, until in due course these symbols of the vanished town also fell down.

 As the story of Dunwich shows, sudden shifts and realignments are by no means new to the seething east coast. This has long been a region of slippages between land and sea. What is new, though, is the influence of the rise upon these old intertidal negotiations. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change foretells a rise in sea level of two feet by the end of the century; the United Nations expects three. Harold Wanless, the climate scientist dubbed ‘Doctor Doom’ by certain factions of the American media, believes something closer to six and a half feet is more credible. The British government’s official advisers on climate policy warn that the ‘current approach is not fit for purpose’ – that plans to maintain existent boundaries between land and sea by building strategically-located coastal defences are unviable for roughly a third of the country’s shoreline. In any case, these plans, which would cost between £18-30 billion, have practically no funding, and are not legally binding. Vulnerable communities will be forced to move inland, whether they can afford to or not. But there is little to indicate that those insulated from this threat by their power take seriously such a possibility; that they understand, or care about, the lived implications of the melting ice, the rising sea and the crumbling land.


 The boat slides through the water, and the water slides into the marsh. Sea purslane is thick on both banks; rosaries with sea-grey beads, tumbling into water. I dip a blade to guide the kayak around a long, slow curve. I don’t feel like paddling; the boat moves with the water. This doesn’t seem like drifting, but something more purposeful. An inward movement. I enjoy the hunkered feel of the kayak. The lowered perspective admits sight only of the striated banks, sea purslane and sea aster wriggling into marsh mud, and the sinuous pulse of the tide. Sometimes I glimpse what I begin to imagine as the world outside the marsh – arable fields inland, and the unrevolving white sails of a windmill. Because the kayak is in constant motion, and because of the winding patterns of the channels, my vision is not anchored in a single point in space. This means that the fields and the windmill seem slowly to orbit the marsh; as though they too had come unfixed from their stations. I lower the other blade, and the weight of water presses on my shoulder. In the lee of the paddle water eddies, emits a low gurgle. The boat swings, and a channel unfurls toward the sun. Then a curlew lifts in silence from the sea purslane, holding its weight in the air, and the sun briefly scorches it from sight. I watch it fly quietly south, twisting my body around. Another curlew glides out of the sun’s dazzle, and then another. I let the kayak wheel slowly around and drift backward, and I count fifteen curlews flying out of the marsh.

 A tidal marsh, writes Rush, is

a transitional region where distinctions blur and the entirely wet world morphs into the entirely dry one. It is a liminal ribbon. An in-between. A spit of land at the edge of things, where the governing laws change four times a day.

 It is also ‘one of the most nimble types of ecosystem in the world and one of the most imperilled’. Over the last few centuries, marshes worldwide have been diked, drained and tarmacked. Those that are left provide havens for thinning wildlife, and spongy buffers against the rise. However, marshes depend upon a steady influx of sediment to keep pace with rising sea levels. In many places, the rate of rise is starting to outstrip the rate of sedimentary accretion; or, as Rush puts it, ‘the ocean and the tidal marsh are falling out of sequence’. This means that marshes slip slowly under salt water, where they rot. At many marshes, such transformations are not yet complete but they are underway, and visible to those who know where to look. Rush describes a line of dead trees that mark the fringes of her local tidal marsh in New England. ‘Some have tapering trunks that fork and split. Bark peels from their bodies in thick husks’. The trees are called tupelos – a word that is ‘Native American in origin, and comes from the Creek ito and opilwa, which, when smashed together, mean “swamp tree”. Built into the very name of this tree is a love of periodically soaking in water’. Except that the water in which these tupelos love to soak is no longer fresh, but increasingly saline; after taking draughts from intrusive salt water, the trees ceased to grow, shed their leaves and died. These deaths bring Rush to another word: rampike. Rampikes are ‘trees with bleached skeletons or splintered trunks, those undone by natural forces’; those ‘bare of bark or flesh, looking as though picked by ravens’. Rampike. Raven- picked. In the rampikes that remain of the tupelos at the edge of the marsh, Rush reads situated traces of a planetary shift, detecting marks of the rise close to her home.

 A few years ago, I noticed that saltmarshes have three-dimensional tidelines. Here is what I wrote about this observation at the time:

A stain ran through the marsh plants – a three-dimensional tideline, recording the passage of sea foam, the depth of the waves, the alignment of the earth and moon. Above the stripe of silt, sea lavender bruised purple and dragonflies zipped and hummed.

This year in the kayak, I consider how the line also records the forces that link this place with ice sheets splintering apart in the hot Greenland summer. I cannot read the marsh well enough to identify what might speak here with the precision and eloquence of New England’s rampikes. However, I can picture how the tideline will waver upward over time. Gliding through swelling water, I imagine that the present tide does not stop climbing the dusty stems of the saltmarsh grass. I imagine that the water keeps flowing in from the sea, bearing the kayak up, out of the labyrinth of channels, onto a flat blue plane. I imagine the submerged marsh decomposing, belching methane bubbles up through the sea and into the atmosphere. And I imagine floods.


 The poodle is gnawing the shoe. Granny is reminiscing about her children’s childhood – in particular, about my Dad’s dislike of a group of brothers who were, she exclaims, known as ‘the terror of the marshes! They were devils, they were completely out of control. They used to rush around bullying everybody and upsetting them out of their boats and doing awful things’. I briefly imagine my dad being tipped out of a boat, and Granny and I chuckle. The boys’ mother, she tells me, is one of her oldest friends. ‘And they live – right on the marshes. You know, in 2013 there was the most frightful flood. And the boys said, “Mother, watch it! You’re probably going to have to get out, because the water’s so high”. “Nonsense”, she said, “I’m perfectly all right”. So they said – “Come on, come with us”. And the sea wall goes – well, about as near to her house as those houses are over there’. She gestures to the flint-clad new-builds that overlook her house from across a small courtyard. ‘So they took her – and there’s the steps that go up – and the other side, the water was that far from the top’. She indicates a small gap between her hands. ‘And so she said, “Oh yes, I think I do see what you mean”. And luckily, at that moment, the wind changed, the tide changed, and everything went down. So they had a very, very near escape’.

 I ask her about the infamous North Sea floods of the 1950s. ‘That was awful. The tide couldn’t get out because the wind was so strong. Where my parents lived in Lynn – that was awful’. She winds her sere pink scarf more closely about her neck. The small gold apple that hangs from her necklace swings, and is still. ‘The poor old boy came down the stairs and all his books were floating in the sea. And the sea had come up the quayside, up the street, and up the cellars too. People were getting out and sitting on their roofs’. She draws out the oo and softens the f; rooves. ‘The Americans were wonderful – they were still stationed in some area, they went out and sort of helped rescue them. A lot of people were drowned. It went – right the way around. Halfway up the Lincolnshire coast, and all the way around the Norfolk coast, and into the Thames to Canvey Island. Canvey Island I think had an awful time.’ Granny remembers a friend of hers who lived on an island off Essex and was a conscientious objector, and the conversation moves on. Later, when I type ‘Canvey Island floods’ into Google, the drop-down menu depending from the search bar suggests ‘Canvey Island floods 1953’. I discover that fifty-nine people died, and thirteen thousand were evacuated. Google also suggests ‘Canvey Island Floods 2014’; ‘Canvey Island Floods 2016’; ‘Canvey Island flood risk’; ‘Canvey Island flood risk map’. I learn that the majority of Canvey Island lies under sea level, that it is protected by a high sea wall, and that many properties there are not eligible for flood insurance. I read that it is ‘possible that a majority of the island would be inundated if a major storm surge occurred and led to major overtopping of defences’. I draw a mental line down along the Lincolnshire coast, hooking east and curving south through Hemsby and Dunwich, then swooping up into the Thames estuary – a long littoral swathe. Right the way around. Of course, this is not the only low-slung coast in the United Kingdom. This place and its people are far less vulnerable than many who live close to water in countries, like Ecuador or Vietnam, that have done far less to destabilise the climate than wealthier nations, and that have far less capacity to sustain the rise. But, as Rush writes:

I have read about the disappearance of tree frogs in Panama, the droughts scraping across Kenya, the heat waves killing thousands in Paris and Andhra Pradesh and Chicago and Dhaka and São Paulo. I have written about communities affected by sea level rise. But my life has seemed so removed, so buffered from these events... I am finally glimpsing the hem of the spectre’s dressing gown. The tupelos, the dead tupelos that line the edge of the disappearing marshland, are my Delphi, my portal, my proof.

 Before I leave, I ask Granny what she would do if the water started closing in. ‘Oh, if the experts said so, I would get out’, she laughs. ‘But I suspect I’ll be gone before then’. Then we embrace, and walk outside, and I climb into my battered car and turn the key. Refined organic matter from the Carboniferous Period, three hundred million years ago, combusts in the engine, and the exhaust snorts carbon dioxide molecules into the air. I wave at my waving grandmother. And I drive home.

Robert Newton is writing about the entwined cultural and environmental histories of 20th and 21st century 'legacy contaminants', such as plastics, synthetic pesticides and radionuclides. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.