Tuesday, September 24, 2013

People and the Sea - relationships which call for more than rational thinking

My love affair with the marine environment really began 10 years ago. I was coming to the end of a year's travelling around Latin America and south-east Asia and had signed up for a 4 day liveaboard trip to go diving off the south-west coast of Thailand in the Similan Islands National Park (an area which, only a year later, was devastated by the South Asian tsunami/Sumatra-Andaman earthquake). I had left my backpack with my cousin who lived in Songkhla near the Malaysian border and was travelling with literally one change of clothes for what I thought would be a 4 day trip spent mainly underwater. Six weeks later, my backpack was gathering dust in Songkhla, my one change of clothes was wearing thin and I had completed my PADI Divemaster training with Sea Dragon Dive Centre in Khao Lak - a completely unexpected twist at the end of a year's travelling. The following year I returned to Central America to work as a divemaster - in Utila off the coast of Honduras, and also in Guatemala and Belize. My eyes were opened more and more to the breathtaking natural beauty of this underwater environment which I had rarely thought about up to this point. As my confidence underwater grew, and as I relaxed more and more into guiding holiday divers and introducing them to the underwater flora and fauna, I slowly became aware of a deep sense of peace and stillness which this environment evoked within me when I was immersed in its watery depths. Without realising it at the time, I was tasting the peace and stillness of my inner world, which, a few years later, I learnt to access by diving within myself  - to explore my own inner seas.

My diving continued, inner and outer, as a year studying marine policy at the University of Plymouth revealed another layer to these watery realms - they are not only inhabited by marine flora and fauna, but also by people, through complex and multi-layered human relationships with this environment, be that through work, play or simply breathing this environment through the pores of their skin. My work at SAMS over the past 5 years has reinforced and expanded my awareness of the complexity of these human-nature relationships with/in/through the marine environment. For coastal communities in particular, these relationships are vast and deep - they are bound up with a sense of identity and belonging and not always rational or even conscious.
Relationships between people and 'their' sea extend beyond the rational, thinking mind and encompass also feelings, intuition and embodied knowing. In the Gaelic context, the sense of belonging to a home place, and of responsibility for that place - described by the great Gaelic scholar John MacInnes as a form of 'emotional energy' - is encapsulated by the not easily translatable Scottish Gaelic word dùthchas.
dùthchas is a word of the land - it is derived from the Gaelic word dùth which can mean 'earth' or 'land' - recent research suggests that the emotional energy of belonging and responsibility that word conveys extends to the waters around the homeland. In a more general context, transdisciplinary philosopher Glenn Albrecht has created the term 'endemophilia' to encapsulate the 'particular love of the locally and regionally distinctive in the people of that place'. Albrecht describes endemophilia or 'homewellness' as similar to Relph's 'existential insideness' - 'the deep, satisfying feeling of being truly at home within one's place and culture'.

 In Dùthchas na Mara/Belonging to the Sea the authors ask questions about the deeper nature of maritime conflict that two separate Gaelic-speaking coastal communities - one in Ireland and one in Scotland - have become embroiled in during recent years. The work neither justifies nor invalidates the island people's feelings of being under threat; nor does it argue for or against they way in which they have responded to the threat they are feeling. Instead, the research looks behind the political antagonism to explore shared maritime traditions and principles of belief and conduct in these two communities that may be motivating the resistance manifest on both islands to the legislation of the states that rule them.

This is the kind of territory being navigated, perilously, by marine policy-makers right now - a watery realm of lovers, replete with culturally-specific nuances; humans (individuals, institutions, political processes) and nature continuously responding to and shaping each other. Is it any wonder that trying to manage this environment by means of a 'right' and 'wrong' logic alone is simply not enough?


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