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The Wadden Sea National Park
The Wadden Sea National Park. Photo credit: Theo Aartsma/Unsplash

Waterlands: five songs of memory

In this beautiful prose poem, Colin Williams navigates themes of migration, memory, oral tradition, and the people of the Danish Wadden Sea.

A photograph in black and white of Colin Williams, the author of this piece
About Colin Williams
Colin Williams is a writer and speaker who explores human heritage and our relationships with the landscape, its history, and its wildlife. He has travelled widely, worked as a conservationist, an occasional wildlife guide, and as a curator of words and images. His first book was published in 2013 and he has written for The Guardian, Orion, BBC Wildlife, Earthlines and Caught by the River and many others.

In 2019, Colin Williams was invited to go to Denmark with the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA). In partnership with Denmark’s Vadehavet National Park and UNESCO, the SWLA will produce an exhibition and book celebrating the landscapes, people, and wildlife of the Wadden Sea and how their lives, histories, and stories intertwine. Across the Tøndermarsk, and the Islands of Romo and Fano, Williams worked alongside the artists, collecting stories as they produced their work.

The global COVID pandemic delayed further visits, but the team will be returning over the course of 2022 and 2023, and Williams’s book on the project – from which this extract was taken – will hopefully be published later this year. Visit Colin’s website at colin-williams.com, or chat to him via his Twitter account.

We are delighted to be able to publish this beautiful prose poem for the first time on Tradfolk.

A large dwelling in Tøndermarsk
Tøndermarsk. Photo credit: Colin Williams

i. Confluence

‘The local people here have a saying,’ Rie tells me, as she leads me between two houses to the edge of the village to look out across the oceanic flatness of the fen-like fields. Ahead of us, the great sea wall lies across the horizon like the back of a sleeping beast. And between here and there, at our backs, and opening up around us, is the Tøndermarsk, the Marsh. ‘They say, If we do not drown in salt water, we will drown in freshwater.’

I would come to learn that such sayings and proverbs flow as freely as the water they evoke. They are used liberally, unselfconsciously, and come as easily as songs. And standing in an autumn morning of the marsh this particular axiom is a confluence of history and geography, just as the place itself is a meeting of two realities. Beyond the defensive dyke is the free and vibrant dynamic of the Wadden Sea. And from the east come the rivers, their floods and seasonal fluctuations held in check by an intricately veined lattice work of ditches, drains, and sluices. To come to this part of the Danish coast is to inhabit both of these worlds, and both are under the power of the spell-casting water.

Ships crewed by demons navigate the coastal channels… and return in the nightmares of ill-behaved children.

It hangs on the lips of storytellers: The tides, mudflats, sands, islands, and coastal regions of the Wadden Sea – across all of its three-country range – have given up folk tales shot through with darkness. Ships crewed by demons navigate the coastal channels, riders drown themselves in the maze of marsh creeks, and towns disappear beneath the waves only for the drowned to rise and return in the nightmares of ill-behaved children.

It sits upon the lintels. The older houses and the doors of the church bear the ubiquitous local coat of arms; a tall-masted ship in full sail, capped by a crown of wheat or barley. Beneath which is inscribed the words ex mari natus: Born of the Sea.

the ubiquitous local coat of arms
‘The ubiquitous local coat of arms’. Photo credit: Colin Williams

It waits in the mind and in the eyes, where the still water of mere, river, and creek turn to mercury beneath a clouded sky and into ribbons of flame under a sun. Both the eyes and the heart need time to adjust when you move from the vertical world and emerge into the horizontal. It is stark, brooding and storied, layered thickly with half-truths, some measure of fear, and a very particular beauty. It’s restless with the memory of the sea that once covered it.

And the water waits in the calls of ten million birds. Every year ten million wild voices pour out across these bright flatlands and on over the muds and sands. Above where we stand the calls of barnacle geese are dragging us from our resting state and pulling us westward, towards the sea.

ii. Voices

On the open meadows golden plover have gathered in flocks so large that their individual notes become a choral, unanimous expression. While we pause and watch and listen, the conflicting tones move against each other and create a new voice for the marsh, a stridulent and pulsing music. The phrases of their calls cycle through their short measure over and over, phrases shifting in and out of synchrony, setting up a thrilling and delicate drone. At odds with the learned experience of single, lonely calls, we are silenced by this unfamiliar, massed organism.

Still the geese call us on.

They have led us to where the sea wall rises and a landward mosaic of scrapes, and reedbeds. The topography here means we can be eye-level with the great reefs of birds. When the sea eagle, peregrine, merlin, and harrier come and spring them into the air, we are thrown into the centre of a storm of wings. The lower horizon fills with the shimmering static of the flocks and the placid sky shatters into ten thousand points of moving light. For a few moments we are hemmed in by a swirling architecture.

How does an artist know when a given work is finished? ‘When everything is in balance’, I am told

Immersed at the centre of the place and its birds, the artists pull images from this many-tongued landscape. From the sky comes the birds and winds carrying with them brine-scented and saltwater memories. From the freshwater marsh come the sinuous waterways. An endlessly shifting convergence of elements, tides, water, life, and light opens deep wells from which every pencil and brush can draw without fear of drought. The unflinching and constant change means that one question arises again and again: how does an artist know when a given work is finished? ‘When everything is in balance’, I am told.

iii. Grief

The barnacle geese flying above us in frayed strands are newly-arrived from the far northwest of Russia. A little less than four weeks ago they left their breeding grounds amongst the basking walrus and bleached whalebones of Severny and Yuzhny Islands in the Kara Sea. They have staged and fed at the Kanin Peninsula, the White Sea, Estonia, and the Baltic Sea before arriving here. And over the last thirty years – in what seems a rare reversal of the global litany of loss – their numbers have doubled.

‘We have an expression in Danish…it is a place where the heavens are high. It means a place where my thoughts and emotions can have space. Where I can think every thought.’

Some say that the closure of the camps of the Russian gulag, where these geese were hunted to feed huge prison populations, has played a part in their increase. I pause beneath them to wonder whether or not they carry some migratory memory of the barbed wire and huts of Vaygachskaya, Yugorskiy, or Sorokskiy. They are here now. They have pushed through the map of grief picked out by the gulag, the abandoned relics of whaling, oil pipelines, and mineral exploration. And they have emerged to find rich winter quarters.

Likewise for the people.

Those I speak to on the sea wall all seem ready to tell me why they’ve made a journey to be here. “The lessons of impermanence taught me this” declared Gretel Ehrlich in The Solace of Open Spaces, “loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life.” Such release seems to be why they come up from the marsh, climb to the top of the sea dyke, descend towards the saltwater and be beside the ocean. They meet friends, bring their children, eat, drink, kiss, remember, and maybe try to forget something. Sofia tells me that she lost her Father a few months ago. ‘We have an expression in Danish…it is a place where the heavens are high. It means a place where my thoughts and emotions can have space. Where I can think every thought.’

iv. Remembrance

Many of the geese will peel off to feed on the muddy landward sides of the islands on the Wadden Sea. On the island of Rømø the people bring the sea in armfuls to their doorsteps and to decorate their gardens. The sea’s memory lies on the thresholds of the houses – driftwood, shells, stones, and whalebones – like the ad hoc vows of votive offerings.

‘We say this island is…forældre…this word means my parent…I will stay’

In Juvre a low garden wall constructed of the jaws of bowhead whales lies along the road to Toftum. Behind the wall is a courtyard of farm buildings and, acting as house sign, is a sperm whale, carved in dark mahogany and perched on a stone block. Jens lives here.

Jens has a face made of seafaring history. His skin is tight and red with the wind and his moustaches are in full and fine sail across his smile. His hands when they swallow yours in a welcoming shake are rough as deck boards. Jens is the fifth generation of his family to live in this house and he raises his hand, fingers spread to show just how long that has been.

Jens says the whalebone wall used to be much longer and stretched around two whole sides of the property. But two hundred years is a long time and rain, frost, and wind means that most of it is now fragments in the soil. The last remaining section is perhaps seventeen metres long and just a few feet high. Time has turned the flat-sided bowhead jawbones into something else. Some look like rotting grey wood, others seem as stone. There are fifty-six uprights in all and if only half of the jawbone was useable for this purpose then the fence represents at least four animals. Testament to the abundance of whales that once existed; witness to the brutal efficiency of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century northern whale fisheries.

whalebone around the houses of the Tøndermarsk
Whalebone. Photo credit: Colin Williams

‘My family built this house with whales. They went north. Spitsbergen. Svalbard. Greenland. They went to….’ and Jens points to the mahogany sperm whale he’d carved and mimes the action of the harpooneer, wide-eyed and face held in a mock grimace. I asked if he had ever been to sea or seen the oceans and whales that made the money that built his farmhouse. He hadn’t. ‘We say this island is… forældre… this word means my parent…I will stay’, says Jens and he turns his palms towards the ground and motions downwards.

I’d seen this before, in the Tøndermarsk; this universal sign for ‘home’, belonging. It says much about Jens and these communities. No longer bound to stay by the industries and jobs that brought their ancestors here they have stayed all the same.

South of here, the Tøndermarsk and the sea pass into Frisian Germany, where the word for home is heimat. This word does not simply mean home. It runs much deeper than that. It is perhaps better translated as ‘homescape’. It encapsulates not just the familiarity of the surrounding environment but a feeling, a state of dwelling. It is redolent of such words from other languages. The Wadjari of Southwestern Australia have their word karlup for home. But it extends its meaning to include the hearth and, most beautifully of all, ‘heart-country.’

v. Rest

Night comes as slowly as a tide in the open, mountainless waterlands. So slowly that a new country emerges, between day and night.

Strings of barnacle geese are moving between foreshore and roost, dropping calls of comforting solitude as they descend to the salt meadows. Migration is over. Russia is nothing more than a genetic echo. The future is their business, and all their instincts are bent upon it.

The child – seemingly too pure a being to be given so easily to the cold earth – had been carefully placed upon the outstretched wing of a swan

Some four hours west of here, stragglers in the migratory flock would have flown over a well-heeled Copenhagen suburb under which was once a boggy reed-clogged marsh as wild and as vivid as this one. In the mid-1970s a cemetery of six-thousand-year-old burials was uncovered during excavations for the construction of a local school. In grave number eight a new-born child had been lain next to its young mother, a flint tool ritually deposited at its hip. The child – seemingly too pure a being to be given so easily to the cold earth – had been carefully placed upon the outstretched wing of a swan.

Such overt links between the human and non-human worlds are not the sole preserve of the archaeologist; nor do they exist only in academia or in prose. Here on the marsh and on the islands, such is the people’s ease with both of their water-worlds and the stories and birds that inhabit them, that it feels as if one could interchange their names; that the names of Ruth, Jakob, Malthe, Rie, and Jannick could sit in a notebook comfortably alongside marsh harrier, barnacle goose, black redstart, tree sparrow, sea eagle, otter, and godwit. Trying to explain such an observation is difficult and a ​woman I meet on the sea wall called Inger, laughs in response to my attempts. The people here are brimming with sayings – all the better to understand their relationship with their home – and Inger pauses as she anticipates the arrival of another one. ‘We sometimes say the Tøndermarsk sticks to you like the mud…I think this is what you are feeling.’

Yes, that is what I am feeling. You can lay me upon the wing of a goose. It seems a fine place; a place where I might more easily be carried between winds, between waters, between land and air.