A Salmon at Sea

Catherine Olver is a third-year PhD student whose research considers
how depictions of the five senses in YA fantasy present humans as part
of the natural world. She frequently feels at sea.

When I grow up, I want to be a salmon: shimmer-sleek and strong enough
to swim against the current, fat with facts and prophecies after eating
all nine hazelnuts that dropped from the world-tree into the well of
wisdom. I’ll gift my knowledge to thumb-sucking little Fionns, and
inspire Taliesin’s poetry — preferably in a version of the myth
where I live on despite being cooked and eaten:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salmon_of_Knowledge [1]. I have faith in
this future, because https://www.pottermore.com/ [2] has solemnly
informed me that my Patronus is a salmon, and Pottermore never lies.

patronus
Screenshot from Pottermore.com.

However, I’m definitely not the Fish of Knowledge yet. I’m not quite
sure I’m even a fish—sorry, Bruce—but maybe we can still be
friends? If children’s literature research has grown from a pond to an
oxbow lake to a fast-flowing river, it certainly has the power to sweep
me down to the sea.

I recently presented papers at two conferences: ‘A Place on the
Edge’, organised by the Association for the Study of Literature and
the Environment in the UK & Ireland, which took place on the Orkney
islands; and ‘Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene’, hosted by
Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. The ocean where theories and
disciplines mix is a frightening place, but I love it. Here are three
reasons why.

* MONDAY I FOUND A BOOT

IMG_2470
Photo by Catherine Olver.

You pick up all sorts of things from the sea. The objects that litter
Scotland’s beaches embody the problems of pollution; Dion
Dobrzynski’s story of a thread from a fleece jacket hauntingly
illustrated the problem of marine plastic one evening in Stromness. But
positivity is vital, so let’s stay with the metaphor of picking up
useful tidbits from an ocean of mixing disciplines.

Appropriately for an avowedly ecocritical gathering, the ASLE conference
was grounded by its Orkney setting and its theme of edge places, which
the speakers probed deeply rather than paid lip service. It involved
British scholars, of whom the majority studied British literature, but
many were also practitioners: poets and storytellers, sound artists and
visual artists, conservationists and outdoor educators. Parts of the
conference were public events organised for the Orkney Science festival,
opening our conversations wider to the engineers who have made Orkney
one of the world’s ‘cutting edges’ in renewable energy generation,
or hearing from locals and young people about their past victories and
determination for the future.

Who better to express the strange gifts of Orkney’s sea than the poet
George Mackay Brown? Here are two stanzas from ‘Beachcomber’ — I
particularly identify with Wednesday, and can gratefully report that I
did not return from either conference with the beachcomber’s Thursday
haul:

Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.
The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.

Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,
Wet feet and a loud cough.

You can read the whole poem here:
http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/beachcomber [3]

2. THE NEW NORTH

Conferences make me tilt my head to see my topic from a different angle.
Here in the CRCLC I feel like ‘the ecocritic’, but at ASLE I was
‘the children’s literature researcher’. At ‘Fantasy and Myth in
the Anthropocene’, I didn’t have to explain why I’m looking at
fantasy literature to understand the ‘real-world’ disaster of
climate change — Brian Attebery and Marek Oziewicz addressed that
underlying question in their excellent keynotes. However, the flipped
viewpoint made me justify repeatedly why I’m working on writing for
children and teens.

The link between children and nature is largely a cultural construction
that needs analysis, especially now it’s disintegrating. It is _not_
just a natural instinct that we can complacently take for granted (we
should take neither nature nor instinct for granted anyway).
Relationships between people and nature have always been shaped by
politics and economics, as is amusingly illustrated by the symbolic map
of Europe as a Virgin (1592), which really did make me tilt my head:

postcard
Symbolic map of Europe as a virgin. Photograph of postcard by Catherine Olver.

If we still believe, as the Romantic poets suggested, that children are
closer to nature than adults, then the teenage years are a transitional
stage. The degree to which teens imagine themselves continuing to be
part of nature will shape their responses to climate change.

map
Sources: Arctic Data; U.S. National Snow & Ice Data Center; NOAA; Reuters./G. Cabrera, L. Desrayaud, 24/08/2018.

3. THE POOL OF SILENCE

The third reason I love that feeling of being at sea — grabbing useful
bits & pieces that may unlock other areas, reorienting my research, and
talking and talking and talking with so many people… is the gratitude
that settles silently around me when I get back to the quiet of my desk.
Here is George Mackay Brown reading his own ‘The Poet’. The
recording is all the more special because he refused to read his work in
public: https://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/poet [4]

I wonder whether my next conference, the upcoming IRSCL congress, will
manage to conjure the silence it takes as its topic.

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