Tiny oceans 2

Twenty three days and I have collected twenty three tiny oceans. A small scoop of a wave each morning as I walk the coastline. It has been still and stormy, I’ve been at high tide and low. Every day is different and each view is the same.

I bend down trying not to get my feet wet, sometimes the jar fills quickly and easily – I find a groove in the stones that the water sits in after a wave. Sometimes I am bent over for ages, left with just foam, the water too quick for me to catch. The contents of the jar always starts cloudy, a bit murky and brown. Sand and stones are stirred up, fragments of what else creates the beach is caught with the salty water. On Wednesday it felt as though the whole world had been stirred as the tide continued to smack at the shore, clambering higher and higher across the prom.

In this short time I have learned that a loved one has cancer. In this short time I have lost my beloved cat. These jars show nothing of that. They are jars of memories. Water washes away and water dilutes. They are, for me, for now, a constant. A repetitive ritual to my day. If I do nothing else I will visit the sea and catch a wave, a fragment at least. I had anticipated working with the residue that is left. Today I am urged to replace their lids and keep them safe.

In the Eye of the Shoal at Wealden Literary Festival

Learning to dive in 2014, my love of the ocean has grown as my fear has diminished. After working on a seahorse conservation project in the summer of 2016 I discovered Poseidon’s Steed, Helen Scales’ first book (published by Gotham Books). With this in mind, and having been confined to dry land ever since, I was waiting for Helen Scales’ new book, Eye of the Shoal, with baited breath.

Published earlier this year by Bloomsbury, Eye of the Shoal has it all – sex, death, deception and intrigue. Everything you could want in a book, and fish – fish as the most incredible creatures you could imagine, most of which you could not imagine. Challenging any notions that might be held of fish as simple creatures, Eye of the Shoal shows how they live in complex social structures, communicate, feel pain and have adapted to many wild and varied landscapes. There are fish that live on land, in deserts, some that walk and some that breed in the air – mid flight. This beautiful book is an elegant and gripping read which includes many complex scientific findings and the history of our understanding of evolution. It is a journey around the globe and through time, illuminating the darkest recesses of the oceans and giving an inside glimpse at some hardy scientists tasked with developing our understanding of the sea.

It was with some degree of awe and anticipation that my invitation to interview Helen for the Wealden Literary Festival was received. We emailed and Skyped, Helen mid book tour was giving a lecture in California the week prior to the festival. She was as warm and generous as her writing suggests, indulging me in a great many questions and wonderings about diving, conservation and writing.

Dr Helen Scales is a marine biologist, broadcaster, writer, surfer and diver. Helen lectures at Cambridge University in Science Writing and Marine Biology. Eye of the Shoal is her third book about the sea – the second, Spirals in Time, is a beautiful study of sea shells and was chosen as book of the week by BBC Radio 4 and book of the year by The Times, the Guardian, the Economist and Nature. Her deft skill at weaving through time and place creates a sense of being under water with her and makes for a very seductive and colourful read. Interspersed with folklore and illustrations (by Aaron John Gregory), Helen creates a wonderful exploration beneath the waves with thoughtful insight and intriguing science.

The final speaker at Wealden Literary Festival 2018, we followed an impressive line up. Edited highlights included talks from: Tim Dee, Mark Cocker, Diana Henry, Miriam Darlington, Natasha Carthew, Tim Birkhead, Katherine May, Yuval Zommer and Will Atkins. Blessed with endless sunshine in a glorious setting, it was a joy to share some of the riches from Eye of the Shoal with the audience. Helen talked eloquently, skilfully and energetically about bioluminescence, the wonders of sharks, and her thrill at meeting the ‘Shark Lady’ herself, Eugenie Clark. Helen shared stories of other scientists, including Losey and his research trips, and the repercussions of keeping the blennies he was studying in his swimming trunks. Reading passages from Eye of the Shoal, Helen ended the session reading the final folk tale in her book, an early fishy version of CinderellaThe fish and the golden shoe – a ninth century Chinese tale of Sheh Hsien and her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. Helen Scales’ enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for her work and the oceans spread throughout this patch of Kent countryside on Sunday afternoon, several people sharing a new found desire to learn to dive.

Wealden Literary Festival is a celebration of nature and place through literature, arts and craft. The dates for 2019 are June 29th and 30th.

Dr Helen Scales with Louise Kenward at Wealden Literary Festival, photo courtesy of Alex Woodcock


Waves as tall as me. Tide so high we stand face to face. I am confronted full force with what is out there. It comes at me, throwing stones. Impossible to outrun, the tide keeps coming. Water loops around as the sea wall stills its power, I am just out of reach. It claws up further before a slap across the ground spills over, picking up speed, reaching my feet, passing my ankles, and then dragging me back to the ocean.



There are days when there are no edges. I blur into the air around me, skin unable to hold me in. I smudge at the corners – leaking out and absorbing everything beyond. The world drifts in and passes through, dragging my insides out as it goes. I try to scoop it all up as I pool across the floor.

It feels like I’ve left a bit behind, slipped into a crevice, or held on too tightly to something else that doesn’t belong. A curious feeling is left where nothing seems to fit, something is lost, nothing is defined.


Tiny Oceans

20181018_093607All of life can be seen in the therapy room, is the thing I think of in planning to write this post. It was not my intention and was not connected consciously with my plans when thinking about starting something new. Perhaps it is relevant. I am adding a process to my routine, my ritual of walking to the beach and looking at the sea. I usually take a photo on my phone. I usually look out for interesting things thrown out by the tide.

I want to work with salt, sea salt, so today I have collected a ‘tiny ocean’ in a glass jar. I plan to do this each time I visit. I will then wait. I will wait for the water to evaporate, to leave a trace of crystals like tea leaves at the bottom of the cup, and perhaps they will tell me something.

The ocean is our air, our atmosphere, our life. Perhaps studying tiny fragments (as is done in therapy) will throw up new things, in connecting and understanding.  20181017_100702 20181017_100718 20181018_093001Tiny ocean no. 1: 0930 Thursday 18th October 2018


Autumn rainbows

Tracing paths through the south downs during August and September – after all the heat and parching of the ground in June and July – I watched as new colour came from what had looked barren and dead.

Following the same foot steps day after day, repeated actions made change all the more noticeable. Rhythms and pace – slow enough to see, quick enough to show. It had all looked so dry, so without promise. Then the rains came and wild storms, churning and hurling and soaking the ground. Day by day new things grew, a brightness unworthy of what was before. Rainbows spreading outwards, in hedgerows and under foot.

autumn rainbowAutumn rainbow1


It’s raining. Hard penetrating rain. Every layer soaks through. Water bounces up from the ground to splash anything the falling rain misses. Dampness in the air sneaks between buttons and zips. A dance of osmosis – anything dry attracting the wet, soaking it all up until everything is saturated.

The view is soft. The rain is hard but it’s presence softens the landscape. The outcrop of land in the distance is obscured by mist and dampness in the atmosphere. There is a weight, a screen the rain has brought – an atmospheric cataract. The view has shrunk. The world is smaller on days like this. It is empty too. A few solitary dog walkers and ardent joggers, the only life to interrupt the hardness of the ground and the thickness of the air. A shared experience of isolation and coldness draws us together – a nod, a word – in passing.

After the jubilance of the start to a new season, the heaviness of change sets in. New things bring new energy, and then reality falls. An endurance is needed. A buoyancy at the outset, a surge and a rush, expects some payback. Everything slows and hardens.

I am caught out again. No matter how many times this cycle loops round, I am surprised each time. Stranded on a desert island – an island without sand or sun. There are no three wishes or essential items. It is barren and chilled. My world shuts down outside and in. How easy it is to get cut off. How quickly things overwhelm. It becomes too much and too little all at once.

The edges blur: land, sea, me. Smudges of pigment slip into each other. Nothing is defined, there is no clarity of form – no discernible depth or texture. A heavy thick nothingness fills the sky and the world in front of me.




Nothing is still

It’s windy, the tide is high and the sky is overcast. It is not yet cold. This feels like home. September has been especially welcome this year. A long time away leaves me finding my house anew. The start to another school year and a change in the weather drives most people away, back from the edge, away from the sea. It becomes wild, more wild. An unleashing of energy, it is no longer docile and lapping at the stones. Ocean splashes up with force, wind skips across the surface and surge stirs up the wrack. It feels like change, as if new things are possible.

It is a year since I became ill, more than a year. There are no fixed dates, no clear signs, it just slides in and out of focus: wellness, illness. It is a year since I began to think I needed to take it seriously again. Not that it wasn’t ever serious, it just sharpens and softens in and over time. I am beginning to do new things again. It is not an interesting illness, there are no particularly unusual signs or symptoms – I just stop, I am slow and I am exhausted, my body gradually but certainly shuts down.

I am excited by Autumn’s arrival. New air is blasting through. I throw open windows and doors to let it in, driving out what was. A shedding of skin, sloughing off what is now dead, making room to reveal the new and fragile beneath. The shift in seasons shows the vivacity of change, the colour of transformation. It can be turbulent and brutal. Loss and bereavement for the long warm days of summer give way to a freshness in the air and red and golden trees. New views open up and perspectives change.

A few years ago I left the UK to travel. One of the most striking things I noticed, travelling mostly overland for many months, was the stillness of the seasons. Aside from a couple of weeks of Winter in Siberia and Spring with cherry blossom in British Colombia, the weather was either hot and dry or hot and wet. For all the things I experienced, it was the seasons I was struck by most. I missed the change – noticing how different the world can look when you stand still for long enough. I don’t think I had ever been so aware until I moved to live by the sea. In the past I’d noticed trees changing colour and the loss of their canopies, tights and jumpers dragged out of musty drawers – but I hadn’t really connected with the change. This year it feels like it mirrors me, what happens on the inside, a bit more. It is a farewell to many things, and I need to trust that this loss is also making way for the new, the as yet unknown.

During the time I was away recently I followed the movement from Summer to Autumn across the South Downs. My illness allowed me to see things more slowly. Moving more slowly, and with a smaller world to navigate, each thing became more significant. Each small thing became much larger. Like looking through a telescope, distance becomes closer – what might seem insignificant far away becomes significant up close. And, just as when turning the telescope around the wrong way, what might be close up can seem far away. How difficult it can be to judge which way round you are looking.

The sea is never the same. The tide changes, the light, the weather, all shift and swirl even as you stand and stare. This lack of control, lack of predictability, just is. The seasons give a framework, an idea of what to expect, but there is only clarity in hindsight. Being able to adjust and adapt, to tolerate and thrive, seems integral to survival, integral to being able to cope with an uncertain future and an unpredictable body.

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10:05 Wednesday 19th September

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10:06 Wednesday 19th September