January 2015

Salvatore Ruggiero

nonfiction

This Luminous Coast: Walking England's Eastern Edge by Jules Pretty

From late 2007 through mid-2008, Jules Pretty -- Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex -- decided to walk as much as he could of the East Anglian coastline, which compiles the English counties of Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk: the eastern rump of England. This is where Pretty's ancestors came from; this is where much of English history originates, with the Old English story of the Battle of Maldon; and this is a world and a coast that have changed so much in his lifetime and will perhaps be unrecognizable by the end of this century. Pretty documents his travels, his inquiries, and his observations on nature and the industrial changes humankind has made on it here in a curious and sometimes-without-focus book, This Luminous Coast: Walking England's Eastern Edge.

He suggests that his project was to "listen to other people's ghosts as well as my own. An aim was to interweave stories of the land and sea with people past and present." In fact, Pretty goes beyond that to create a plainsong of literary history, personal anecdote, historical narrative, gossip and hearsay, myth and legend, and a smattering of dogs whose owners claim that they don't bite, all of which prematurely eulogize this land that will be eaten away by polar icecaps melting and by lack of government finance to build stronger protection from the sea.

Following that, it's a lament for contemporary society's distance from and nonchalance to these natural problems, which begins from not appreciating the environment itself in the day to day. He tells us:

Many people still walk for pleasure, but few of us now walk far as part of our daily lives... The trouble is, we get out less today, and the resulting alienation from nature is contributing to environmental problems. We are suffering from an extinction of natural experience.

Such extinction, though, goes beyond natural experience. Sometimes we suffer from the chains of capitalism and the thirst for money. For example, as Pretty discusses his walk through Colchester -- one of the oldest cities in Britain, which was also once the Roman capital of the island -- we understand that:

For nearly two millennia the town was a seaport, but you'd hardly know it today.... Only the Army remains as a significant presence.... The quay is completely abandoned. All is quiet. Empty warehouses look as though they've been untouched for years. Graffiti brightens walls, but there are also piles of fly-tipped rubbish, magazines, and broken videos. There were once famed boat-builders here, now the only building is of new blocks of flats. How will they look in twenty years' time? [...] [T]he official sign says Waterside living at its best.

Why is waterfront property, which is usually seen as highly desirable in a city, so underdeveloped today? The jobs have moved elsewhere, as fewer and fewer people either farm or fish, taking more white-collared employment behind a desk in a cubicle in corporate parks that once again remove the individual from natural environments.

All is not so dark, as Pretty also emphasizes the fascinating and the awesome. Such an example is The Broomway, which dates from the 1400s and is claimed to be England's most dangerous road, which connects Essex to Foulness Island. He writes:

We stand on the sea wall looking east to the sun and sea. How precisely, everyone is thinking, will we walk on water? The route of the Broomway starts at the concrete hard that has been laid over hazel wattles and heads disconcertingly directly out to sea. The tide is out but shimmering puddles on the sands make it look as if we are going to advance into deep water.

This is accompanied by a gorgeous photo taken by the author, where it seems that he's about to embark on a walk out into the sea, never to return.

In this book, one learns about Anne Boleyn's home and Benjamin Britten's youthful residence until age twenty; one reads quotes from Dickens's Bleak House about the all-encompassing and terrifying fog, as well as the marshlands where Pip finds Magwitch in Great Expectations. One gets to experience the people and towns that have been passed over and forgotten by the cosmopolitan British world, people and towns that seem to embody the opposing statements from Charles Swinburne and Henry James. The former said: "Death and change, and darkness everything... This land of utter death," whereas the latter said, "I defy anyone, at desolate, exquisite Dunwich, to be disappointed in anything."

This Luminous Coast: Walking England's Eastern Edge by Jules Pretty
Comstock Publishing Associates
ISBN: 978-0801456510
272 pages