“This is an extract from Chapter 7, ‘Mud’, from my recent book The Fresh and the Salt. The Story of the Solway (Birlinn Books 2020; www.thefreshandthesalt.co.uk/book), about a walk that artist Lionel Playford and I took along Grune Point just North of Silloth (you will realise that Moricambe Bay is not at all the same as Morecambe Bay).”
It’s a low, low tide at Moricambe Bay. I don’t think I have ever seen so much of the Bay’s bed revealed, and the edges of nearby Skinburness Marsh are steep dark cliffs at the edge of the dazzling flatness. Change the scale and these could be towering cliffs at the edge of an ocean. There is so much sky: this is such a feature of the Upper Solway, but today it seems that three-quarters of our view is made of clouds and blue light, clouds of all types and shapes and densities that range from dazzling white to silky grey. Lionel Playford has walked out along Grune Point with me. ‘It’s my kind of day!’ he says. Lionel is a landscape artist who likes to paint outdoors, often using natural materials from his environment, and one of his recent projects, Sky Gathering, was with the Cloud Appreciation Society on Lundy Island.
Lionel and I first met a few years ago during a conference about peat; we were chatting as we walked across the raised bog of Bowness Common and we had both, independently, noticed that two twigs on a nearby hawthorn tree were shaking. No bird had flown up, and it was the wind that had set them vibrating, but at different frequencies. Almost simultaneously we each commented on the twigs ‘having different resonances’. That sounds ridiculously abstruse now, though it made us laugh at the time – but the remarks came out of our backgrounds in science and in Lionel’s case, engineering (he was formerly a naval architect, designing and building ships at Barrow).
Today we are at Grune Point to look at mud, because I want to understand how Lionel the artist ‘sees’ mud, and also to talk a little about how scientists and artists can work together. Years ago I had been very involved with the ideas and practice of ‘SciArt’ – working with a sculptor, the late Rebecca Nassauer, and running national projects and conferences that brought scientists, artists and fiction writers together; Lionel, as part of his PhD on art and climate science, had been resident artist, teacher and researcher aboard the German research icebreaker Polarstern as the scientists were gathering evidence about climate breakdown.
So we walk along the edge of the marsh, past Grune Gutter and Calvo Creek where fresh water trickles seawards at the bottom of deep channels, and we talk about what we see. There is an island of sandy mud that is shaped like a perfectly symmetrical teardrop or, since its sides are patterned with ripples, a fish with a long tail; the tail is pointing upstream relative to the beck but downstream relative to the way the incoming tide would advance. Which force of water has the greater influence? But their influences will change day by day, perhaps hour by hour. We wait and watch, and it is a long time before the incoming tide enters the Bay, but suddenly it is there, everywhere. The tide pushes upstream around the island; there are short poppling waves hitting its seaward edge and the tide is embracing it on both sides and forming interference patterns where both arms meet. Water is swirling onto the island from front and rear. A small bay at the foot of the mudbank where we are standing fills with water and there is a spiral of foam gyrating on the surface; the water there is flat in contrast to the nearby rippling, and when the foam spiral disperses the flatness remains. The water that has covered the teardrop island is a smooth plate amongst the roughness. The leading edge of the tide must be picking up microorganisms, living and dead, and the organic molecules that they have made like proteins and fatty acids, and these materials are being gently churned into a froth. The yellowish foam is accumulating rapidly along the tide’s edge and we speculate about the foam’s effect on surface tension, like ‘casting oil upon the water’.
Lionel sits on the edge of the saltmarsh and draws. He wets the paper, and smears bands across it, using mud from the bottom of the shore – ‘lovely slimy stuff ’ – and drier mud from higher up. He spreads the mud with a knife blade and then uses a blue draughtsman’s crayon to draw over it. ‘See how the colour on the paper isn’t the colour of the mud on the shore,’ he says. ‘It becomes yellower, more ochre-y.’ Earlier, boot stuck in the mud, I had fallen on my hands and knees and the mud on my waterproof trousers is drying to that same pale yellow-grey; but it is also, intriguingly, sparkling with minute flakes of mica. Lionel’s impression of what he sees is rapidly emerging on the paper and he has perfectly captured the movement. He tells me that his method is to use a ‘first pass’, a glance at the whole, and then to concentrate on the detail. ‘When I look at an event that is changing, I obviously cannot deal with it all so I have to choose what to focus on. Then follow that through and study the pattern. I need to suggest what is happening, so that if I look back on the sketch days, weeks, months later, it still brings back the dynamic.’ He points out the binary colour of the waves, brown on the near-side where the light is shining through and diffusing in the suspended sediment, but on their further sides reflecting the sky, a flickering pale blue. It’s good to be made to think, ‘Yes. Of course!’ Now there is a gentle splashing of small waves against the shore where previously was bubbling white noise, and a new surge of tide is coming in, dark-edged and with bigger ripples; it looks as though it is higher and riding above the rest. We talk about currents and friction, and the Bernoulli effect (leading to the phenomenon of ‘squat’ in moving ships) and argue about environmental writer Barry Lopez’s assertion that ‘Whenever we seek to take swift and efficient possession places new to us, places we neither own nor understand, our first and often only assessment is a scientific one.’ Our discussion is hardly worthy of the Royal Society, because there are continual distractions: two young friends of Lionel’s family are chatting and drawing nearby, his charming but badly behaved dog frequently sprays us with mud and water, and a strangely dark-clothed man with a balaclava has disappeared into the bushes behind us on the Point (when I encounter him later he points out two pintail ducks that I had missed, so he is probably a birder). And, after I have arisen from my fully clothed dive into the mud, we also talk about landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy’s early performance art where he wallowed naked in the mud of the Lancashire coast.
As Lionel starts a new sketch, I notice that the mud in front of us is prickling with coruscating light. We had seen that the mudflat was densely packed with the burrows and entrance-cones of Corophium – and now the mudshrimps are reaching out and waving! All across the mud, they are waving their antennae – they are not scraping up food, but seem to be signalling or sensing the air. Each is rapidly extending and then withdrawing its long antennae, and the incident sunlight is catching and highlighting the movement. It is another ‘Lopez moment’: suddenly, ‘You know that the land knows you are there.’
Footnote: I also walked along Grune with members of the Pentabus Theatre team back in 2018. After I showed her some mudshrimps, Jennifer Bell wrote and composed the wonderful Mudshrimp Song which would have been part of the production of One Side Lies the Sea at Theatre by the Lake in April 2020. Pentabus recently launched videos of some of the songs, and the Mudshrimp Song and video is here: https://pentabus.co.uk/one-side-lies-sea-music-video . Artful walks around Grune make for collaborations amongst artists and musicians, writers and scientists!
Photographs by Ann Lingard