The Luminous Coast

This beautifully written book is the result of a year's exploration of the author's locality - both actually as he teaches at the University of Essex and in history as the place from which his immediate ancestors come. The given geography is East Anglia: Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

The local is exposed as hiding much that is unknown - geographies unexplored, ways of being and living un-encountered - and much that represents the wild. You do not have to travel outside your immediate geography to a find a world that resists human containment - that goes its own way, often subversively to human purposes. Wildness is a necessary substratum of all that lives.

This is most powerfully seen in the landscapes continuous reshaping by water, a water that refuses to accept the taming of our designs. One of the most moving sections of the book is the description of the 1953 flood when a combination of tidal and climatic factors breached the defences, suddenly and without apparent warning. Hundreds lost their lives, many more were saved often by acts of remarkable courage and native intelligence.

Now with the advance of climate change (and the land's natural sinking in response to changes initiated in the ice age) a new approach has been adopted of managed retreat, allowing new salt mashes to occupy certain agricultural land and create a natural 'barrier' to uncontrolled flooding.

The landscape is always changing and yet not all change is of the same kind - some can be assimilated, fashioning a containing, livable space anew, some is disruptive that undermines its capacity to carry its inhabitants including ourselves.

Along the way we discover much about places history - both human and natural (and that division is interesting in itself) and about the impact of different natures or moods of nature upon ourselves, and vice versa.

It is striking for example to be reminded that (in part) our love of the coast is culturally conditioned. Swimming in the water is an eighteenth century cultural amplification of an occasioned necessity. And we were only allowed to swim without our tops (if men) and in mixed company in the 1930s.

I say in part because there are deeper contexts to be considered - Plato, for example, suggested that children be set on the waves (on a floating shield) as part of their education in truth - but the consideration of this dimension - the mystical - is not the author's metier. Deeply respectful of people's cultures and commitments, he is a scientist, and writes as one, both as cultural historian and as biologist.

I was reminded reading it that in the sabbatical of its creation I lured its author away to visit Tuva (in Russian Siberia, on the Mongolian border) and explore ways of harmonizing traditional life paths and modern improvements. It was a wonderful trip that memorably included a shamans' ceremony and a throat singing concert (on my birthday as it happens). The generosity of spirit and openness of engagement Jules Pretty demonstrated then shines through the book.

The highest testimony must be that the book makes you want to don your walking shoes and set off into the places described to add your own experience and understanding of place to the unfolding narrative.


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