Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: August

6th August 2020

Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, a new anthology edited by Kathleen Jamie, is published today by Canongate, and is our Book of the Month for August. Read an extract from Jen Hadfield’s contribution, titled ‘I Da Welk Ebb’, below.

At first I think the lean, white mare is dead, lying on her back in a muddy paddock, a pair of shalder – oystercatchers – drilling unconcerned in the dried-up quagmire. I pull into the layby to see if the horse is still breathing. She sighs, grinding the two halves of her clam-like mouth, reassembling herself in a swing and judder of bony limbs, is suddenly upright. She reaches forward with a hind hoof to kick an itch on her face. When she shudders, a cloud of fine dust swells around her. We might not see a day this warm again all summer, hot enough to burn a sun-starved northern nose; wintry showers are forecast later in the week.

After equinoctial storms that I hope have excavated shellfish from their muddy beds, the day’s freakishly still and the sky unclouded. Everything shimmers: the sea popping light like a glitterball. Rare is the only way I can think to describe the sea – as a pearl or jewel are described as rare. Its colour is a fine, pale mother-of-pearl enclosing Foula, the sheltered voes more like brushed metal; from the top of the hill it’s the archetypal, imaginary island, lost in a shift of white haze so it seems to hover, as imaginary islands should.

In fact I think turning real places into imaginary ones is a dangerous practice. We do home harm when we let it be cast as an archipelago on the brink of fantasy. External projections upon real islands tend to exploit and misunderstand them, a Northern version of Orientalism – ‘Borealism’, perhaps – but even I find myself doing it sometimes. I’ve never been to Foula – its iceberg profile has hovered on my horizon, approaching and retreating in a dance of high and low pressure, appearing and disappearing, for twelve years now – and I have somehow chosen to keep it that way. Visible, but just out of reach. A container – a lamp – to fill with imaginary genies. Why do we need islands as repositories for our yearnings, when reality is so much more complex and delicious?

They say Shetlanders don’t so much park as abandon their vehicles. I throw the car into the corner of a turning circle at the end of the Houlland road, and grab the daysack to strike out across the bog, startling up lapwings and, perhaps, a whimbrel. I’m hoping for thick-shelled mussels gone feral from the nearby farm, full of little grey granular pearls; cockles, like valentines half-buried in the mud; smislins (soft-shelled clams) and – since their price has gone up to three pounds a kilo – welks, those glossy, lion-headed gastropods that are Littorinalittorea in Latin, whose friendly name is the common periwinkle.  I scramble downhill and over the bog, aware of the minutes ticking down to low tide. Despite the sun, the cold wind is giving me a terrible face-ache – as if revealing the death mask under my skin. The pillowy sphagnum is lush and red. My greedy strides stab deep, weeping wounds in it. A fierce rush of relief and joy.

And – the journey from desk-writer to gatherer is like the journey from solitariness to mating: a total absorption in the now.The forage is a place where I’m lost to myself, and we’re happy, I think, when we  can forget ourselves. I wonder how it happens. Perhaps in escaping the most modern parts of our brain, the most recent operating system, if you like, the cleverest, most wry, most self- conscious and worldly layer, the bit that allows us to think about thinking, to understand, as if from the outside, that we have a mind at all: when we escape that, we can yomp downhill through luscious sphagnum bog back into our lost heaven

– where the tide is wayyyy out. The shore of the little estuary where the bog drains into the sea through shallow mudflats, the low promontory and its holm, are hemmed with a tawny brocade of seaweed. With a prehistoric screech, a heggri takes laborious flight. I stuff my gloved hands into long black fishgutter’s gauntlets and pick my way into the water. Even through wellies and two pairs of socks, in thermal leggings and boilersuit, the sea is bloody cold, bone-crunchingly cold. I’m already half- planning to abandon my forage. But it’s a nice place to be on a rare, still day. I flip quiffs of wrack on the rocks, looking for welks, peer through the muddling waves. The music hall ‘oo-oooh!’ of gossipy eiders skims across still water. I get a good view of the boys working the mussel farm, winching up ropes encrusted with valuable shellfish, and no doubt they get a good view of me too, stooping over the mudflats and rockpools. Then I spot a good bolus of fat welks just out of reach, and tiptoe hugely towards them through weed-hidden hollows. My boots slide. I get one foot caught between two rocks and teeter, almost losing my balance. The water’s pressure creases my wellies, and puts the squeeze on them, until it finally overflows the cuffs. First trickle of the winter sea around my toes. I let my boots fill and the water steal the blood- warmth from my feet. In time it’ll feel like a warm broth. I experience the first breach of a sequence of sea-safe hatches, leading to increasingly primal and neglected corridors, wending into the back rooms of the brain.

What happens in our brains when we forage? Why does it feel so good? I picked and picked with increasingly numb fingers, as the juicy weight of welks rolled against each other like sticky marbles in my swinging Co-op bag. My eye is keen, my greed measureless. What cold links are being cast in the forge of my  cranium as I bend, guddle, glean, reach, ooze, moonwalk, probe, dell, purl



Antlers of Water is out now and available here, priced £20.00.

Jen Hadfield is a poet and artist who lives in Shetland. You can follow her on Twitter here.