In our age of shifting baselines and unstable climate, the ground beneath our feet seems unreliable. Melting icecaps, tsunamis, and warming water temperatures are eating away at our ideas of stability. But in some places, the ground was never quite stable in the first place. On the seashores and on the coastal lowlands, the ground is a half-liquid, seeping, shifting edge between land and water: a mutable boundary of mud, sand, and silt. People have lived on these littorals for millennia, adapting or rebuilding their settlements along with the flux of the tides and the movements of the land. In recent centuries, human inhabitants have tried repeatedly to stabilize and expand the land by means of drainage and dikes, but rising sea levels and increasing storms are forcing a new appreciation of the dynamism of the coastal and fluvial lowlands.
In his seminal “Four Theses,” engaging with the idea of humanity that is in transition to the Anthropocene, Dipesh Chakrabarty charged us to “bring together intellectual formations that are somewhat in tension with each other: . . . deep and recorded histories”;1 this is, above all, an appeal to the human imagination to grapple with the scale and the vocabulary of geological time. Literary texts are one way in which human imagination is exercised, as the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh recently pointed out in his book The Great Derangement.2 Notwithstanding Ghosh’s indictment of “literary fiction”3 for its failure to engage with climate change, there is evidence that the geological forces that underwrite earth systems have been working their way into literary imaginaries. Geological instability and its implications for humanity can be tracked through the appearance in novels and prose texts of the agency of slow-moving and unbiddable silt. In his 1983 novel Waterland, set on England’s low-lying eastern coast, novelist Graham Swift’s narrator recounts:
The Fens were formed by silt. Silt: a word which when you utter it, letting the air slip thinly between your teeth, invokes a slow, sly, insinuating agency. Silt: which shapes and undermines continents; which demolishes as it builds; which is simultaneous accretion and erosion; neither progress nor decay.4
The author goes on with a deep-time tale of how silt created the land, which allowed, subsequently, the formation of marsh plants, then forest, and then peat, before the region was reimmersed by the sea. The slow geological agency of landscape change is in dialogue in this novel with the human history of the Fens, encompassing adaptation, drainage, urbanization, and the individual lives of Swift’s protagonists, who, even as they exercise agency of their own, are also in thrall to the way the water flows and the land shifts in their Fenland home. The agency humans think they have, according to Swift (particularly the idea of progress), an illusion; the landscape is not just a backdrop but a dynamic character in the story that plays its part in shaping events.
Swift’s text has a counterpart in one written by Amitav Ghosh himself: The Hungry Tide (2004) is set in the Sundarbans, on the coastal borderlands of India and Bangladesh, where silt also has both incremental and sudden agency, intervening in human lives and structuring the book as a whole.5 In both works, the drive of human societies toward “enlightenment” and “freedom” is checked by the movement of silt. Both Ghosh’s and Swift’s texts interweave mythical local histories/stories into the narrative as a structural counterpart to the human chronologies; as the protagonists grow and learn and age, the tales and memories of an animate landscape are repeated, remembered, constantly pulling back the progression of human lives into the more-than-human agencies that ebb and flow over a far longer relationship with place.
W. G. Sebald, in his celebrated prose work Die Ringe des Saturn (The Rings of Saturn) from 1995,6 also finds in the lowlands of East Anglia the means to bring together narratives of long-scale changes and the human stories of modernity. In an extended section on the town of Dunwich, a Suffolk town lost to the sea during the medieval period, Sebald ponders the gradual disappearance of this once prosperous human settlement. He notes that buildings now lie spread over two or three square miles under alluvium (Schwemmsand) and rubble on the bed of the North Sea.7 Sebald’s meditation on the drift and disintegration of human settlement follows the meandering itinerary of his walk on the slowly decaying sediments of East Anglia. Even though The Rings of Saturn is centered on human stories, in particular those of the Western Enlightenment, the slow geological processes that underpin these provide a constant, disorientating counterpoint: Sebald’s narrator, faced with the difficulty of reconciling the multiple perspectives of progress and decay, is plagued by vertigo and dizziness. Chakrabarty’s question in “Four Theses” of whether this period of Western history was “one of freedom [i.e., progress] or that of the Anthropocene”8 is underscored in Sebald’s text as in Swift’s and Ghosh’s by the tension between the eroding landscape and the illusions and delusions of the human pursuit of “freedom.”
Silt is not just a cipher for geological processes, but a physical encounter with them. As neo-materialist Tim LeCain argues, the revival of interest in matter decenters the human “to instead emphasize the many ways in which the material world both creates and entraps them”;9 in his essay “Silt,” the British nature writer Robert Macfarlane explores the matter of deep time by walking out barefoot into the mudflats off the East Anglian shore via an ancient causeway known as the Broomway, accessible only at low tide. The narrative of the Broomway is one of (human) disorientation in a confusing land- and timescape, echoing Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The reader learns that the Broomway got its name from the stakes (brooms) driven into the sand at regular intervals to prevent the walker from straying from the path into the mud or quicksand, or losing their sense of direction and being swept away by the incoming tide. Deep-time orientation, a kind of textual “broom,” is provided to us as readers when Macfarlane and his companion step “out onto the flats, and back into the Mesolithic,”10 culminating in a lyrical description of the landscape of Doggerland that once linked Britain to the Northern European mainland.
The shimmering, disorientating mudflats of Macfarlane’s essay are a space of projection: the silty materiality—Macfarlane notes the sensations of walking out on the ribbed sand, of the mud drying on his legs—is what pins down and grounds our imaginations of the landscape past and future.
Considering Doggerland now, it is hard not to think forwards as well as backwards. To those living on the vulnerable east coast of England, drowned Doggerland offers a glimpse of the future. Around the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk, the land is being bitten back by the sea . . . coastlines have become ghost-lines.11
Chakrabarty’s challenge in his “Four Theses” to bring together narratives in both human and geological timescales simultaneously, an exercise that challenges long-held ideas about human progress, is taken up in imaginative texts that deliver multiple perspectives on human and material worlds. Their use of more-than-human agency, myth, and multiple viewpoints provides us with the undertow that Amitav Ghosh looked for in literary texts, one that recognizes and refutes the Western idea of human progression away from nature. In silt we find a material expression of geological agency at a point where it meets and disrupts human history; it is a site of orientation for the imagination of ourselves and our planet in the midst of our disorientating transition into the Anthropocene.
The author is grateful to the editors at Environmental Humanities for their critical feedback and encouragement.