Fogland Lighthouse – Episode 11: Land Under Wave
“This is the million-year rain under the sea, this is the new land being born underneath an ocean. It’s not a dream. It’s… a memory. The land under wave. Millions and millions of tiny shells…This land was alive.” – Terry Pratchett.
Content Warning: Climate Change.
A list of the content warnings for this episode is included in the liner notes.
This is Fogland Lighthouse, I’m Jack Dean.
It was quite uncomfortable to think about, but there was no denying the fact that it was there. For centuries the Dogger boats, the short, sturdy fishing vessels that gave Dogger Bank its name, would haul unusual objects up with the fish and mud in their trawling nets. Strange-looking bones, fragments of peat from long-dead plants. The Dutch sailors would give these pieces of ancient debris the delightful name of “bonken’ and throw them back in the sea. Not only were they a hazard to the integrity of the nets, they were a hazard to the integrity of a worldview, that of a universe made fully-formed for mankind by God, and of an island on the Northwest end of Dogger Bank, that set great store in being just that: an island.
Over the 19th century, the idea started to spread that the planet might be a bit more than 6000 years old, and with it the scientific method, and a greater sense of inquisitiveness about the world buried beneath the mud and sludge of Dogger Bank. Expeditions were launched across beaches and shallows, turning up signs of not just animal but human life – axes, arrowheads, hammers, chisels, spears, and in 2013, at Happisburgh, just of the coast of Norfolk, the 900,000 year old footprints of children.
It is a hopeless business to try and condense nearly a million years of time, geologic time, deep time, mind-melting time, into a thing resembling narrative, but I’m going to try anyway. What is now sea, was once land. A vast stretch of it, linking what is now England, Scotland, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. Some would call it a land bridge, but that is putting the centre in the wrong place. This was as much the heart of Europe as anywhere around it. A landmass of 200.000 square kilometres at its peak, as big as the island of Britain itself. Over the millennia, the ice ages would come and go, the sea levels would rise and fall, but this land we now call Doggerland was there far more often than it was not. In the ice ages, it became an arid tundra, where mammoths, bison and woolly rhinos would roam the frozen grasslands. In between, in the warmer periods it was a rich, forested, marshy land full of birch, beech and oak, where deer, wild horses and giant elk leapt and cavorted. Through this land, a river ran, a great, maternal river, uniting the Rhine, the Meuse, the Seine and the Thames into one great torrent. And into this land, always moving, came the humans. First Homo Antecessor, long-limbed, broad-chested, though easily recognisable as human to us today. Then Homo Heidelbergensis, together with their cousins the Neanderthals. The latter were no mere club-wielding brutes, but people with complex societies who made tar for sticking tools together out of ovens dug into the soil of Doggerland. Then, at the other end of the freezing and thawing, through the many geological eras with their arcane names, Elsterian, Holsteinian, Saalian, Eemian, Weichselian, out into the warm, damp Holocene, came Homo Sapiens. You’’ll have heard how mastery of fire and complex tools helped us edge out the other subspecies of man, but some say that equally, if not more important, was a uniquely large memory. Memory, after all, helps you know where you’ve been, and from that, figure out where you are and where you’re going.
We don’t know what they thought or dreamed of, those people of ten thousand or more years ago. Many believe they only worked fifteen hours a week to get the food they needed, fishing the abundant river and shorelines, hunting the roving bands of beasts, snacking on nuts and seeds, and the grains of a strain of wheat from far away east, where, it was said, whole tribes stayed put in one place just to make them grow. Surely a baffling concept for a people to whom the land was already alive. All this free time would have have left plenty of room for the things that truly make a life, socialising and sex and art, like the seashell necklaces and red ochre dyes found over the hills at a burial site in Wales, or the ornately carved auroch bones lifted from the silt southwest of Brown Bank.
We know they were a people on the move, from the widely dispersed origins of the things they carried. We know that the land was shifting under them at a pace rarely seen as the icecaps melted, sea levels rising two metres a century, a flash flood through the lens of deep time. What was an open plain to your grandfather would be a beach to you, a folk memory buried under the brine. We know that around 6150 BC this came to a head, as a colossal landslide off the coast of Norway created a mega-tsunami that came crashing towards Doggerland. A wall of dark water over a mile high, incomprehensible, unimaginable, final, like the smiting hand of a callous, jealous god. When the waves receded, there would be fragments of land that would persist for a while, but things would never be the same. Some say the chain of islands left in the channel, along with some dim memory, helped guide the boats bearing the next wave of migration into Britain, those with tamed grains, new technologies and roots to put down. But who can say? The memory is gone now.
It’s uncomfortable to think about it, but there’s no denying the fact that it’s there, this mesolithic Atlantis between Dover and Calais. Perhaps the unease is about Brexit, but the concept of the nation state or the trade agreement would be meaningless to the Doggerlanders. Their nation was the world, their trade was just to live on it. Perhaps the unease is about climate change, which is understandable. We fear another wave will take us away, drown our bridges, bury our culture. But submerged under that, under layers of silt and millennia of civilisation, there might be the glimmer of another thought. That the land is alive, and like everything else, on a long enough timeline, we know we must move with it, taking with us only what we can carry, leaving only the imprint of tiny, shoeless feet.
Fogland Lighthouse is written, produced and scored by me, Jack Dean. I get project management help from Izzy Fitzgerald. The show is presented by Jack Dean & Company, a disabled-led, artist-owned non-profit telling stories of how things could be. you can find out more about us and our other projects at jackdean.co.uk. We’re on facebook, instagram and twitter, or you can email me on email@example.com. If you get a moment, please leave us a nice review on Apple podcasts or share the podcast with someone you think might like it, those both help an awful lot. I’ll catch you guys soon.