By Karen Lloyd
Driftfish is a new anthology of essays, fiction and poetry ‘in celebration and defence of marine wildlife,’ published by Zoomorphic. It joins the ranks of Dark Mountain and Earthlines, amongst others, in publishing work which engages with the themes of species loss and environmental challenge. This first edition focusses on the pelagic. With contributions from the UK, United States, France and as far afield as New Zealand, the journal forms its own network of connecting sea-roads. More than half the contributors are women. Does this matter? The latest issue of Clutag Press’ Archipelago contains not a single female voice; Driftfish goes a long way to recalibrate the balance. For how can we accurately map, without both male and female voices?
‘You can get in if you don’t have whale blood on your shoes’ - Sarah Thomas’s essay An Island Ecology records an encounter with a whale hunt in 2015 on the Faroese island of Vágar. In its aftermath, Thomas walks along a row of 124 pilot whales hauled out onto the quayside. She knows there are 124, because the numbers are inscribed into the blubber of each whale. Western sensibilities deplore the hunt, yet Thomas asserts that the Faroese live in closer connection to their environment. But the whales – which are still eaten – are now toxic because of pollutants in the food chain. As a fluent speaker of Icelandic, Thomas communicates with the Faroese as an insider, a non-threatening presence. It's an incisive mechanism for offering her island perspective.
There are a lot of whales in Driftfish. They represent a kind of pinnacle of engagement, do they not? In Bottom of the Food Chain, James Michael Dorsay writes of kayaking in close proximity to killer whales, and witnessing an orca funeral. Close to another pod off the coast of British Columbia, Dorsay paddles in the space between a group of females hunting salmon, and an alpha bull whale. ‘He knew of my presence long before the hunt began and not only tolerated me, but allowed me to bear witness. I feel this as strongly as if he were talking to me.’
In The Northern Whales, American writer J. Bowers gives new life to the true story of PT Barnum’s American Museum of New York, circa 1841. Barnum took whales from the ocean, transported them by train and placed them in the public gaze by means of a tank in his museum, where, inevitably, the cetaceans perished. It is depressing, is it not, to think of their grim endurance? Then remember contemporary SeaWorld, and Lee Nash’s searing and successful poem Tilikum about a bull killer-whale, killer of three people; ‘yet years/of swimming round a bathtub/and waving his pectoral fins/and soaking a captivated audience/can crack any good whale.’ The bull was kept for its semen, ensuring a kind of captive gene security for the breeding of more killer whales. Tilikum ensures the misery continues without the need for taking animals from the wild; more fodder for human voyeurism in all its nastiest, least connected senses.
In Sally Huband’s essay on Shetland’s threatened red-throated divers, she communicates how big business, in the green disguise of a windfarm developer, has been given permission to construct 103 turbines each 145-m high on peat bog. The construction project will, inevitably, damage the carbon storage capacity of the bog. Huband questions whether the divers will be able to survive both the disturbance and the blades once they begin turning. And the locals? Don’t begin to think the windfarm will benefit them. It is pleasing to see this; much of the tension in the natural world currently exists in the rubbing-up of green against the animal and plant world. (So what is meant exactly, by green?) During my own research, I discovered that the responsibility for monitoring bird strikes at the immense Walney offshore windfarm in the Irish Sea, constructed on the major migratory route of whooper swans and geese, was the job of the windfarm owners. But importantly, Huband acknowledges that it was the oil industry that took her and her family to Shetland.
The stories and poems in Driftfish are beyond the polemical. They construct their own narrative through the camera lucida of those who have borne witness. In her concise poem Flatly, Scottish writer Beth McDonagh deals with the mundane and the urban. A pair of herring gulls, ‘all gallus,/visit town/Irish dance,/ hard flatfoot’….‘Thirsty worms/will believe/what they want.’
Elsewhere in the collection are polar bears (a doomed species if ever there was one), an itinerant community of volunteer bird recorders on remote North Ronaldsay in Orkney, whale sharks, mangroves, turnstones, shells and much more besides.
Karen Lloyd is a Cumbria based writer whose work focusses on the natural world. She contributes to The Guardian Country Diary, and her prize-winning book The Gathering Tide; A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay is published by Saraband.