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What can we learn from submerged lands about the repercussions of flooding?
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What can we learn from submerged lands about the repercussions of flooding?


As writer Gareth E Rees stands on the muddy beach at Pett Level in East Sussex, he reflects on the Mesolithic communities who once lived and dreamed on the land, now swallowed by the steel grey waves of the English Channel.

The water level is low at Pett Level, revealing a landscape of jagged and marked tree trunks that may be incomprehensible to the fast-paced dog walkers and young families who are visiting the shifting shingle.

Rees has developed a fascination with sunken lands all over the globe, which were once inhabited but have since been submerged under water over the course of history. These areas from the past provide insight into our present predicament, caused by climate change.

Rees shares with me his admiration for this location, where he gets a rush of excitement from uncovering its layers of history, while we face strong winds that cause our scarves to flutter. Despite the harsh weather, Rees, a fit 50-year-old wearing a band T-shirt and stylish plaid scarf, is still full of energy and enthusiasm.

“I envision the forest of birch and oak that used to extend from this spot to France,” he describes, gesturing with his arm. “In that direction, close to the nuclear reactors of Dungeness power station, I can make out the lively roads of Old Winchelsea port, which was submerged by a flood in 1287.”

In 1980, Pett Level was chosen by David Bowie and director David Mallet to film the music video for Ashes to Ashes. The video portrayed the artist’s rebirth at the start of a new decade, incorporating lyrics from his 1969 hit Space Oddity. Bowie can be seen confidently walking through the wet branches of the beach, accompanied by a somber procession of New Romantics in the shallow waters, symbolizing the theme of regeneration.

Gareth Rees explores the sunken forest at Petty level in East Sussex. cannot reword

According to Rees, Pett Level was the ideal option. He describes the area in the video as a place where forests have transformed into swamps, swamps into fields, and then back into swamps before merging with the sea. He then reflects: “As humans, we are born out of amniotic fluid, but we are also descendants of the flood.”

The newest release from Rees, titled Sunken Lands, continues his exploration of east London’s marshes and their rich history and folklore. This follows his previous books, Marshland (2013) which delved into the effects of the 2012 Olympics on the marshes, and Unofficial Britain (2020) which celebrated various man-made structures in Britain, ranging from industrial estates to flyovers.

Sunken Lands was influenced by Rees’s experience with the pandemic. He started parking his damaged Peugeot at Pett Level, which is close to his residence in Hastings. There, he would explore the historic coastline with his two daughters and pet dog, Hendrix.

During those peculiar months, he would encourage his daughters to press their fingers into the soft wood of these old trees that had fallen, just as other children may have done centuries ago, before Jesus was even born. He explains, “My kids were unsure at first, but eventually they understood.”

This book explores the history of how rising waters have caused the loss of lands, through a soft and poetic lens. It traces these events through tales and legends, some more widely known like the story of Atlantis, and others lesser known such as the Welsh myth of Cantre’r Gwaelod or the English Lowland Hundred.

Sunken Lands is inspired by Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways (2012) and Matthew Green’s Shadowlands (2023). Like Macfarlane, the academic in Sunken Lands seeks out ancient paths, roads, and tracks that intersect the British countryside. Similarly, Green’s Shadowlands delves into the remnants and stories of British settlements that have been lost due to natural disasters, warfare, illnesses, and changes in the economy.

Rees takes a psychogeographical approach rather than a historical one, viewing the landscape through the lens of our emotions. This approach is influenced by 19th-century flâneurism and 20th-century situationism, particularly the ideas of Guy Debord, who advocated for playful exploration of spaces based on our reactions to them. However, Sunken Lands stands out from other “lost lands” travel writing in that it also has a clear manifesto. It aims to inspire action in response to the projected rise in sea levels, which could result in the submergence of cities such as Amsterdam, Venice, Kolkata, and New Orleans by 2050.

“Rees chuckles, admitting to once being a hypochondriac but now a climate-catastrophising parent. Part of the book’s purpose is to come to terms with the excessive consumption patterns of Generation X, which can be compared unfavorably with the Boomers who are often blamed for intergenerational issues. “With climate change, deforestation, and microplastics, our children are being left with a chaotic situation,” Rees expresses as we walk on the shingle of Pett, passing a closed beach café decorated with signs advertising 2021 deals on burgers. “How do we communicate with them about this?” he ponders. “Should we sugarcoat the truth?”

The story follows his journey to rediscover and witness disappearing locations throughout the globe. It spans from Sussex to Wales and explores Cardigan Bay, where remnants of ancient birch and pine forests appear during low tide on Ynyslas and Borth beaches. The narrative then shifts to the Fens, portrayed as a landscape depleted by the pursuit of financial gain through land reclamation for centuries. Finally, the focus turns to the Scilly Isles, which are predicted to be the first of our islands to succumb to the encroaching ocean.

In Italy, he explores Baia, which used to be a popular vacation spot for wealthy Romans but is now underwater after a volcano erupted. In Louisiana, USA, he meets with communities struggling to survive in a state that is prone to storm surges and heavily reliant on fossil fuel extraction.

A petrified tree from the submerged forest at Pett Level.

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I pondered the potential consequences of sharing tales of the numerous floods humans have experienced in the name of environmentalism before we met. If humans have always dealt with the changing tides and lost land and societies to water, would this not support the climate-change skeptics’ belief that climate change follows a cycle and that humans should be resilient to its dangers? Consider brave Noah gathering his animals or merchants returning to their trade in spices and wine at New Winchelsea.

Rees suddenly comes to a halt on the pebble beach. He exclaims, “No! No! No!” He wishes to use his stories of land loss to flooding as a means to jolt us out of our mindless desires for consumption, rather than to leave us feeling powerless and despondent.

During the early Holocene, individuals experienced a similar struggle as we do now. They were human, with intricate thoughts and emotions, and felt genuine fear as their homes and hunting grounds were submerged under water. Reflecting on this lengthy period in human history, Rees suggests it can bring us comfort. He believes there is a reassuring realization that we are insignificant and temporary in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos and geological time.

This does not provide us with any justifications. Currently and in the past, we rely on a delicate world that we use dangerously – and we must comprehend that although this has occurred previously, it is much more severe now. The individuals in these old tales were similar to us, and we will become like them if we do not act. This truth is not separate from our own, even if it seems distant in places like Tuvalu or Bangladesh. According to Rees, “It is happening here and now.” The Scilly Isles are predicted to be submerged in a hundred years, and Rhyl by 2050.

During a walk in 2015 from Hastings to Pett Level, Rees came to the realization that his marriage was over. At Pett Level, the land and sea are constantly shifting and never remain the same for extended periods of time. Perhaps, on a spiritual level, we are all indebted to its unstoppable forces. Rees posits that this is one of the motivations for humans to engage in storytelling; to find significance in nature’s perplexing peculiarities and to make sense of our eroded lands and submerged homes.

Over 200 global flood tales exist, spanning oral traditions and major religions. These stories, from sources such as Deucalion’s prophetic vision gifted by Zeus and Hindu texts from around 600 BC where Vishnu warns Manu of a flood in the form of a fish, depict catastrophic flooding events. The Celts also have a multitude of legends of submerged kingdoms, including Lyonesse in the area between Cornwall and Scilly and Ys off the coast of Brittany.

Rees discovered in his research of flood myths that human beings always suffer in the face of actual or potential flooding, regardless of how much effort or resources are put into preparation and prevention. He observed that this same trend is reflected in the current issue of climate change-induced floods, where even the most optimistic or well-funded responses will ultimately be futile. Rees emphasizes that the underlying message in all of these flood stories is the inevitable need for adaptation and relocation, rather than a fairy tale ending where the problem is solved through clever engineering or a miraculous intervention.

We are descendants of a catastrophic flood. These stories have resurfaced in our shared awareness. In 2011, a bell was placed under the pier in Aberdyfi, Wales. It is activated by the movement of the tide and honors the myth of the church bells in the Lowland Hundred, rumored to chime during winter storms across the waves. This resurgence of legends shows how they continue to captivate our collective imagination.

Rees is not just an author, but also a singer-songwriter who cleverly integrates music into his novel, Sunken Lands. He draws inspiration from diverse sources such as Hawkwind’s “We Took the Wrong Step Years Ago” and the lively melodies of New Orleans jazz. In addition to his novel, Rees will release an album of his own music and a Spotify playlist featuring songs he listened to on his road trip. According to Rees, music and spoken word have the power to connect with people who may find literary projects intimidating.

Rees has some strong opinions on the oil industry and their impact on the environment. He compares the oil companies to the tobacco industry, claiming they are funding biased reports and continuing to develop drilling projects in vulnerable areas. He also criticizes their actions in countries like Guyana, where they are extracting oil reserves from beneath the seabed, and their attempts to shift the blame for climate change onto individuals instead of corporations or governments. Rees doesn’t believe that these individuals are inherently evil, but questions their ultimate goals and disregard for the future consequences of their actions.

According to Rees, a future narrative may depict major oil companies as villains, spoken of in hushed tones around campfires. The roles of heroes in this story will instead be filled by organizations like Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion, rather than mythical figures from Celtic folklore such as Seithenyn and Mererid.

The Louisiana segment of Sunken Lands features an intense and industrial setting, consisting of gas-processing plants, drilling rigs, and swampland. The only visible structures are twisted telegraph poles and bare trees, poking through the surrounding polluted and encroaching marshwaters. Rees describes his visit to Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana as one of the most challenging moments he experienced. This once thriving community, home to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe for generations, is now on the brink of disappearing due to the impacts of oil company drilling. A worn sign on the island reads: “Isle de Jean Charles is still alive. But climate change is a serious problem.”

In his novel, Rees describes his mishap in Louisiana while driving his rental car, which leads him to be stranded on a raised mound of shingle. For a moment, he fears being swept away by the dirty floodwaters. As we enter his damaged Peugeot and bid farewell to the old trees and families exploring the rock pools at Pett Level, he reflects on this experience with a chuckle. “In hindsight, it was merely a small puddle.”

We are descendants of the flood, but we are also hopeful youth. In the book Sunken Lands, Rees delves into the depths of our flooded histories and current state, and comes out with a positive outlook. For Rees, the constant consumption of disaster news and fear of climate change is a thing of the past. He has transitioned from a worrisome parent to a post-doomer, and encourages us to do the same.

“As individuals, we each possess formidable tales of resilience and comfort,” he expresses, as a gentle drizzle taps on the Peugeot car window, “and we all hold the ability to bring about positive change.”

Gareth E Rees’ Sunken Lands is available from Elliott & Thompson for £16.99 (or £14.95 on guardianbookshop.com).

Source: theguardian.com