Workshop Report: Teaching the Wadden Sea through Literature

On 22 and 23 June, Corridor Talk’s Eveline de Smalen and Katie Ritson co-convened a workshop on literature, education and the Wadden Sea, in which academics in the fields of literature, history and cultural geography and practitioners working in nature conservation and visitor centres came together to discuss ways in which they can learn from, and use each other’s work in their education practices to integrate ideas from nature conservation in literature education and vice versa. The workshop kicked off on 22 June with short introductions to Corridor Talk and the workshop objectives by co-conveners Eveline and Katie (both RCC), after which each participant introduced themselves with the aid of an object they brought to the workshop.

Eveline started off with the poem “The Sanderling” by Ed Leeflang and talked about how it can help us think differently about nature and nature conservation on a changing planet through its engagement with animals and geological forces not as things but as active characters, and its discussion of permanence, change and loss.

The Wadden Sea near Neuharlingsiel (photo by Katie Ritson)

Femke Kramer (University of Groningen) brought two objects: firstly, the book De Wadden: Een geschiedenis (The Wadden: A History) by Mathijs Deen, in particular the story it features of Pliny visiting the Wadden Sea area in the first century CE. She also brought a picture of Sayaguesa cattle dung found on Schiermonnikoog, in the Groene Glop area (for once having a zoom meeting was not so bad!). She drew attention to the many chemicals found in the dung that are linked to products including fungicides and pesticides, that have travelled through the environment from elsewhere and found their ways through the cattle’s digestive systems, showing one remarkable way in which the Wadden Sea is connected to the wider world.

Hannah Wilting (Lower Saxon Wadden Sea National Park) also shared the ancient Roman author Pliny’s work on the Wadden Sea and did so with a bit more detail. She uses the text in her work with visitors where it never fails to amaze them, as it did us when she read from its damning lines… “Here a wretched race is found, inhabiting either the more elevated spots of land, or else eminences artificially constructed, and of a height to which they know by experience that the highest tides will never reach. Here they pitch their cabins; and when the waves cover the surrounding country far and wide, like so many mariners on board ship are they: when, again, the tide recedes, their condition is that of so many shipwrecked men, and around their cottages they pursue the fishes as they make their escape with the receding tide. …” (trans. John Bostock and H.T. Riley)

Anders Ehlers Dam (University of Flensburg) talked about his teaching and the many ways in which he incorporates the Wadden Sea, through choice of texts, the website www.mitvadehav.dk, a beautifully expansive resource on all things (Danish) Wadden Sea, and different student projects that all integrate both literature on the Wadden Sea and different ways of engaging with the physical region.

Anna-Katharina Wöbse (University of Giessen) brought an oyster to the workshop. Pink on the outside and pearly on the inside, the oyster can teach us many things about the Wadden Sea and its history. Although we can still find oyster shells in the Wadden Sea area, the oysters themselves are extinct there. Thus the oyster urges us to reflect on the role of humans in the Wadden Sea, whose activities led to their extinction, but also on the places oysters have travelled to, how we have understood them scientifically, and how they helps us think about time and presence, as the oysters we hold in our hands today are contemporary and ancient at the same time.

Jens Kramshøj Flinker (University of Copenhagen) then took the group on a tour of narrative theory and showed how narration is central to our understanding of the world around us. He talked about the different kinds of narrative that we use to make sense of our environment: whether stories based on empirical facts or particular human perectives, all sense-making strategies we have use narratives. He made a plea that, to fully understand our world, and to understand how we understand it, we need to pay attention to narratives focussing on emotions.

Linde Egberts (VU Amsterdam) brought the book Onheilstij: De laatste jaren van de Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie (Bad Tidings: The last years of the New Dutch Water Line) by Leendert van der Valk, about the series of water-based defence works that formed the main defence line in the Netherlands in the 19th and early 20th centuries. She commended the book for the insights it provides into how people have engaged with their environment in the past and present: how the landscape is and was imagined and used, and how people in the past came to terms with outdated structures dominating the landscape, but no longer performing their main function.

Solvejg Nitzke (TU Dresden) talked about her memories of summer camps on the Wadden Sea, sharing a photo album from her teenage years, and about the question of whether or not the Wadden Sea was a real sea. She mentioned that she was disappointed on first arriving at the Wadden Sea when she found not a sea, but an expanse of mud (a sentiment that resonated with many participants, and literary characters), and indeed, in her daughter’s book on seas, there was no mention of the Wadden  Sea or anything like it. Therefore, she argued that loving this sea-that-is-hardly a sea is an act of resistance against what we expect of the world around us.

Anne Husum Marboe (Wadden Sea National Park, Denmark) presented the programme “Litteraturlig Viis” (Literary Wisdom or The Literature in Nature) that her organisation offers to pupils aged 15-18, in which an author guides them as they write their own prose and poetry about the Wadden Sea. She mentioned that writing is a great way of getting teenagers interested in literature. She also talked about www.mitvadehav.dk, the website that Anders uses in his teaching.

Katie, finally, talked about Rungholt, a town off the coast of Schleswig that was drowned in the Grote Mandränke in 1362. The idea of a lost city under the sea exerts powerful force and many people travel there to see the dike-lines and sheep pasture that is visible at low tide, and to look for archeological remains. Due to the mystery surrounding it, the town continues to speak to our imagination, and it hints at a network of stories of lost villages around the North Sea coast, reminiscent of Dunwich in the UK and Reimerswaal in the Netherlands. In the current era of climate change and rising sea levels, its reverberations are even more strongly felt.

The next day kicked off with a recap of the first session for two guests who had missed that day. The group were joined by Frederike Felcht (Goethe University Frankfurt) and Anat Harel (World Heritage Centre Wadden Sea). Frederike talked briefly about Hans Christian Andersen’s novel De to baronesser (The Two Baronesses): this novel by the Danish author most famous for his fairy tales, is partly set on one of the Halligs in the Wadden Sea. Anat brought I Ask, a method for museum guides developed by the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam that encourages open and reflective approaches to museum exhibitions, and dialogue and exchanges of ideas between visitors and museum guides.

Next, the group split into three smaller groups, divided by country of professional experience: Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Each group discussed a number of questions addressing the role of nature in literature education and literature in nature education, and talked about how the two could borrow from each other. Because literature is often approached in a national context, particularly outside of universities, conversations on this topic were more pertinent in smaller groups. The groups reported back at the end of the session and showed how diverse the discussions had been.

The Danish group discussed the different ways in which literature and narratives are pertinent to contemporary environmental problems. Environmental problems are very much on the minds of visitors to the Wadden Sea. Narrative is key in understanding the world around us, and to change the way we engage with it, we need different narratives. The group also discussed other topics that could be approached through literature and the Wadden Sea, such as tourism and senses of place. One important issue that was raised was that of canonicity: which texts deserve a place in curricula on literature and the Wadden Sea? Is this only so-called high literature? Is there a place for the plethora of crime fiction novels set on the Wadden Sea coast in Danish, but also in German and Dutch literature?

The German group talked about how education on literature and the Wadden Sea should also involve visual arts and music, and also addressed the question of the canon. They raised the question of who teaches whom, a question that is very pertinent to literature, which fosters critical thinking. They also discussed two key questions that are central to thinking through nature in literature and words: do we need to have particular knowledge of species and processes, and be able to name them, to be able to care for them? Relatedly: do we have to, or should we, visit nature reserves to be able to understand and care for thesse specific spaces, or can we admire them from a distance, possibly through the medium of literary texts?

The Dutch group discussed the place of culture in education on the Wadden Sea, and the reasons why it is often absent. The group then talked about different approaches to remedy this situation, both conceptually and practically. For example, they discussed paying attention to the words, and the histories of words that describe the Wadden Sea area and its features, and considering the role of language in shaping senses of place. Practically, they talked about creating programmes in which students from different levels of education work on socially relevant issues to help them learn about different points of view and the history of the area. They also discussed the area’s inaccessibility and the problems and opportunities it creates: inaccessibility provides limits but also entices. Many aspects of the Wadden Sea that we are familiar with from images and have become key in how we think of this area are unavailable to human eyes, such as close-up views of birds, time lapses and aerial views.

In the final session, the full group discussed next steps for a follow-up workshop. They talked about practical issues such as parties to involve, locations and dates, but mostly about what tangible resources they could develop in the follow-up workshop. The issue of translation was raised as most Danish, German and Dutch texts are unavailable to speakers of the other languages. The issue of writing was mentioned, and endorsed, as one that has great power in making students enthusiastic about reading and literature. The group also discussed how a resource on Wadden Sea texts could be shaped organisationally and visually.

Amongst the many ideas for tangible outputs for the next workshop that were mentioned were the following:

  • A syllabus for an (M.A.) course on teaching the Wadden Sea
  • An (online) library of resources for non-visitors and Wadden Sea readers
  • A toolbox for virtual field trips or educational visits
  • A travelling exhibition or online exhibition that functions as a Wadden Sea visitor centre away from the Wadden Sea
  • Translations of key literary Wadden Sea texts, perhaps in an anthology of Wadden Sea texts that can include literary and scientific writings
  • A funding application that allows us to do some or all of the above

For now, the group is working on collating a Wadden Sea bibliography and preparing for the next workshop in November 2021… we’ll keep you posted.

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