I’m spending a few days in Cornwall, exploring the ancient harbours, walking on the coast, picking up driftwood on the beach. I’ve bought one of my favourite books with me, ‘Waterlog: a swimmer’s journey through Britain’, by Roger Deakin. (Vintage Books, 2000).
Deakin was a man who observed the boundaries of things, a writer who explored the natural environment with the deepest knowledge and keenest eye for detail. He only wrote a few books before his untimely death: ‘Wildwood – a journey through trees’, ‘Waterlog’ and ‘Notes from Walnut Tree Farm’, his semi derelict farmhouse, with ancient moat, where he lived in close harmony with nature. His work is unusual for it’s simple observations, it’s earthy language, it’s honest observation and it’s sheer volume of interest. He was a wise man, in the truest sense of the word.
When Deakin writes about beachcombing, he mentions coming across the shell of an old Austin motor car, buried in the sand, and nearby, a whale’s jawbone. Both skeletal remains of something that was, but is no more.
Wandering the shoreline, searching for the flotsam and jetsam, the remnants and detritus of society, cleansed and polished by the waves, scoured and rubbed clean by the salt, this is a process of discovery and learning. Yesterday i found a bottle, with ‘St Ives’ written on it. It’s frosted by the action of sand and water, chipped an cracked, with the calcified trails of barnacles over it, but recognisably from St Ives. There’s a story behind it, something that can be traced, for anyone with the time and inclination. Just as the spread of bronze trinkets across the continent can be used to trace trade routes, and the spread of curvaceous Coca Cola bottles across continents can be used to trace the spread of capitalism, so too can the shape of this bottle and the distinguishable words be used to trace it’s history.
But beachcombing is more than just a process of discovery. It’s a process of the mind as well. Learning is only partly about discovering new things; the other part is reflecting upon them, absorbing them into our frames of reference, challenging them, reworking them, changing how we act and feel dependent upon them.
Stood by the waters edge, listening to the sound of the gulls and the waves, watching the Red Admiral fishing boat chugging out of the harbour; beachcombing is half about discovery of new things and half about learning from the old.