The Covid Chronicles Part I: Inaccessibilities

This is the first in a series of blog posts chronicling research in the time of Covid19. In writing these pieces, we are exploring ways to try and use the pandemic restrictions as a means of thinking productively about our case study areas and the mobilities (and now immobilities) that are coming to bear on them. Stay turned for the next piece in the series!

Imagining the Wadden Sea

by Eveline de Smalen and Katie Ritson

When we received the news that our project proposal “Corridor Talk” had been successful and we would have funding to work on the Wadden Sea National Parks, the two of us were looking forward to getting our feet wet. However, just a few weeks after the project started, the Covid-19 pandemic hit Europe and all travel plans had to be put on hold indefinitely. No fieldwork and no travelling to meet our project partners; along with many others, we were going to be starting our explorations of the national parks from the comfort of home office in two different places: Katie in Munich, Germany, and Eveline in Groningen, the Netherlands.

Once we had started to reorientate ourselves around this fact, it began to feel less of an impossible task and more of an interesting challenge. As literary scholars, after all, what we are particularly interested in is the cultural representation of the Wadden Sea, and how this particular landscape is constituted imaginatively by those who read and write about it. Perhaps trying to think through this landscape from our desks indoors would even sharpen our awareness of the way that words and wetlands co-constitute each other, giving rise to a place that is both muddy reality and a powerful imaginative assemblage.

The Covid-19 restrictions add a layer to a landscape that is already, in different ways, marked by its inaccessibility to human visitors. Physically, large parts of the Wadden Sea area are accessible at low tide, when it is possible to take long walks across the mudflats and even walk from mainland to island. Practically, however, this is only possible with extensive knowledge of the area or with a guide. At high tide, the mudflats flood and become sea. Specific and substantial parts of the Wadden Sea area are closed for human visitors either throughout the year or during breeding season, to ensure safe environments for a variety of non-human animals to forage, breed and rest. 

Anna-Katharina Wöbse has written extensively on the history of conservation in the Wadden Sea and inaccessibility comes up repeatedly in her work, in more and less explicit terms. In her history of conservation on Knechtsand in Lower Saxony, Germany, she demonstrates that conservationists’ ambitions on the sandbank quickly embraced the idea that ensuring good conditions for birds meant barring humans from entering the sandbank altogether. Wöbse describes how, for many of the people whose work made the protection of Knechtsand possible, this ban resulted in “a painful new process of estrangement from the site they had fought for” (172).

Knechtsand is far from the only landform in the Wadden Sea that is out-of-bounds for human visitors. Rottumerplaat and Rottumeroog in the Netherlands and Nigehörn and Scharhörn in Germany are amongst a number of islands on which public access is restricted or forbidden. While access in the Wadden Sea is thus a complex issue, for many people, lack of access does not mean lack of attachment. Frans Sijtsma et al. consider this attachment crucial, explicitly including “those whom may have never visited such places, or only rarely visit them” (sic, 1752) as stakeholders in their mapping study. Wöbse notes that the presentation of the Wadden Sea as an aesthetically pleasing region to people not physically present was crucial to its establishment as a protected area. One practice of particular importance in this respect was that of aerial photography, which “would unveil patterns, offer large-scale surveys, produce overviews, and document the ever-changing dynamics of the Wadden Sea” (213), and which is marked by its distance from the subject.

Wadden sea in Germany, Hallig Hooge and Pellworm © Ralf Roletschek via wikimedia commons

There are a variety of ways in which a landscape that is partly or wholly inaccessible can take root in human culture, and produce or reinforce the kind of attachment described above. We aim to explore different forms of cultural attachment to the Wadden Sea national parks, and show how they mediate and co-constitute the perception of its landscapes.

One form of cultural mediation is the humble postcard. Mass-produced and designed to be sent to someone “back home” or far away, the postcard communicates attachment to place while engaging with absence in a variety of ways. The postcard mediates between the writer’s experience of place and the addressee: this place is in many cases an “elsewhere” to both parties, a place that obtains its particular significance from the fact that it is removed from the everyday. The postcard brings the experience of the foreign environment “home,” both to the recipient reading the card and the sender, who has considered their experiences and committed them to a small, rectangular piece of paper. A typical postcard measures no more than 14.8 x 10.5 cm, half of which surface is reserved for the home address of the recipient, the absent party, and the story narrated on it cannot be immersive but must remain, like the image on the reverse side, a snapshot. The image, like the message, is a reduction of experience, framed in a particular way. The postcards below from Lauwersmeer, a National Park in the Wadden Sea area in the Netherlands, illustrate this beautifully.

Postcards by Nafitho Cards Roden. Photograph Eveline de Smalen.

The first postcard, showing a bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) mentions three different spots in which the species can be found, but the site in which the photograph was taken is unknown. A mild disorientation results from the ambiguity surrounding the depicted scene. The divide between the postcard’s presented site-specificity and the remove that exists between the recipient and the environment depicted is even more obvious in the fourth postcard, showing four bird hides around Lauwersmeer. The places depicted here do not so much show the particular sights of the destination Lauwersmeer, as they show spaces designed to experience this environment from. The top right photo, of “Jaap Deensgat” does not even show the bird hide but a sign announcing it. The bottom photo, of “Sylkajut” shows a hide that is no longer in existence – although it was closed for visitors due to Covid-19, it was devastated by a fire in April 2020.

The image of Sylkajut, showing a presence where there is now an absence, reminds us that photos on postcards are particular moments in time, framed by a photographer, that neither reader nor writer has experienced. The writer, narrating their experiences of the site (although they have often left that site by the time the card arrives in the recipient’s letterbox) frames their experiences with a photograph of a moment that is inaccessible to them. The postcard is thus a prime example of a narration of an attachment marked by inaccessibility. The prominence of birds in these postcards also intimates how limited and partial the human experience of place is: birds have long symbolised a relationship with place that is inaccessible to humans – their ability to see and move through landscapes in a way that humans can’t (a bird’s eye view, as the crow flies) and the global travel of migratory birds is part of their fascination for many human observers.

Narrative fiction set in or about the Wadden Sea also plays a part in its construction in a shared cultural imaginary, but more than just indicating authorial intention in the way the region is portrayed, it often betrays shared understandings, fears, or apprehensions about place. The (in)accessibility of the physical landscape is a key topic in recent literary works that engage explicitly with the protected areas of the National Parks. The characters in Kjersti Vik’s 2009 novel set on the eponymous Danish island of Mandø are constantly being cut off by the tidal causeway, either unable to leave the island or unable to return to it. Uwe Timm’s protagonist in his richly intertextual novel Vogelweide (2013) banishes himself to an uninhabited island by means of a summer job monitoring the seabird population; the entire novel is recounted from Scharhörn, where his only visitor has to apply for permission from the conservation authorities to set foot on the island. Christiane Neudecker’s narrator in Sommernovelle (2015) tries to return to the scene of her traumatic coming-of-age on “the island” in the Wadden Sea, but she is unable to find it; her memories of the summer of 1989, overshadowed by other borders and threats, are not just of another time but, it seems, of another place entirely; this is underpinned by the sand that is constantly being moved to shore up the island. In the imagination of the Wadden Sea, the physical and temporal obstacles to being able to move through the landscape are one of its most recognizable features.

Thinking through the ways that we seek to understand the Wadden Sea when we primarily experience it second-hand is a useful exercise in recognizing the many ways in which cultural attachment to place is generated. Since the start of the project, Eveline, living near the Wadden Sea coast, has been able to get her feet in the mud. We look forward to exploring this topic further – with whatever amount of salty air we will get to breathe, and muddy footprints we will get to leave. 

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