Thalassic, adj. Of or pertaining to the sea; growing or living in, or formed in or by the sea; marine.
Some days the waves caress the shore, sometimes they crash, and on certain days it’s neither one nor the other—a kind of in between wave dragging the shore back out to sea. The waves vary, too, depending on the shape of the shoreline, its gradual changes explaining why the sea laps gently then more fiercely, there being no other visible reason. But maybe there's some change of ocean currents as I move down the beach, maybe it's not because of the headland and it really is inexplicable, its cause and inspiration far out at sea.
I like being on water—the freedom of non-landedness, the sense of being untethered. But I've never associated with it; mountains are what I missed when I moved away from home, high places draw me more than oceans. When I moved to Denmark a few months ago, it suddenly became impossible to even entertain the idea of mountains, something that Danes are acutely aware of; their highest hill is comically named Himmelbjerget, the Sky/Heaven Mountain, despite not quite reaching 150m in height.
While Denmark doesn’t have any mountains, however, it does have extensive coastline and acres of forest. Thatched roofs and rolling farmland make it feel like southern England, but just outside Aarhus, an ancient beechwood follows the sea south, the trees meeting the shore in a continual, seldom-broken line. The forest provides the sea with shelter—a buffer from the land—and it feels wild despite its proximity to the city.
The beach is a liminal place, both connecting and separating the sea from the land. The beaches south of Aarhus on the east coast of Jylland (pronounced yoolan)—the main Danish peninsula, distinguished from the islands Sjælland and Fyn—are a clear realisation of this. The worlds it divides seem so utterly at odds and yet fundamentally the same. One, an ancient, primeval forest; the other, an ocean, even older and more mysterious.
Running along the shore to Strandskoven—literally, beach-forest—you get to know it in all weathers and feelings, the forest and the sea together. Today, it's cloudy, muggy even, last week’s nip in the air a memory; a faint line of light follows the horizon, its border and its buffer, visual relief from the oppressive grey. More often than not a mound forms my journey’s end; just within the forest, it rises steeply up from the sea. Swaddled in a blanket of beech trees, leaves make a carpet beneath my feet, and they’re still falling, an autumnal snow. Behind me I can feel the woods stretching out deep; in front, the water peeks through a fringe of vertical trunks and hanging branches.
The beach changes from one day to the next but today it’s radically different. A solid wooden bridge—spanning the widest beck that crosses the beach, just one of many sea-bound trickles—has been half washed away. Broken from its moorings, it’s been pulled to and fro, but sent backwards up the stream away from the sea instead of towards it. All along the waterfront the sea has trespassed beyond its normal borders. The paths are a blend, their normal surface disturbed; instead of pebble or compacted sand, orange leaves and seaweed come together—a violent congruence of worlds, the entangled remains hard to distinguish.
Further on, another smaller bridge has disappeared altogether, this time actually dragged out to sea. The path moves back from the beach, protected by brambly thickets of rose hips but still not quite in the forest. The bushes form a thick wall, the berries exotic-looking—you can only hear the sea, not see it; but the forest is there, the trees rising steeply up the bank. Running between the two is to be cocooned, in a holloway, a secret place, neither one world nor the other. At intervals along the path, though, the sea has found its way through, depositing stones and round pebbles in thick streams, spreading through some opening in the thicket, seeping onto and along the path as if it really was water, not merely pushed by it.
In Iceland I run along the black sand beaches of the Seltjarnanes peninsula, its rendering in English a tautology, “nes” meaning peninsula. Often the sky is dark and intimidating, even if the sun is shining; sometimes the waves are crashing, and always the wind is blowing. Whenever I run around the headland, looking out onto a fathomlessly wide ocean, a line from a Heaney poem goes through my head, “the secular powers of the Atlantic thundering”. He was looking west from Ireland to Iceland and Greenland; I carry on looking more-or-less due west, following the line of the peninsula, the sea an empty expanse.
But here in Aarhus, the sea does not thunder, it is not the Atlantic. It looks east out onto a small, protected corner of the Kattegat. This small sea borders the Danish straits to the south and the Skagerrak to the north, connecting the Baltic to the North Sea. But perhaps the Kattegat still contains memories of the Norse god of thunder, Þórr, about whom stories were told in Denmark as well as Iceland. Heaney talks of "ocean-deafened voices", and although these seas—the Atlantic and the Kattegat—are different in character, shape, and form, they remain thalassic; the people who knew them are of the sea, their voices ocean-deafened. It is the sea that connects us. It is timeless, a silent witness to changing tides, and historically, a connecting force: a trading highway—the whale-road of the Vikings.
But why has the sea been thundering? The weather has been gentle and not remotely stormy. Meteorologists say that when the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon work together, we experience tides that are more powerful than usual; known as "spring tides", we see approximately two every month. Perhaps it was a larger than average tide; certainly something was powerful enough to sweep bridges out to sea, force waves of stones through dense, rose hip thickets, and beach old rowing boats—abandoned, full of water and seaweed, temporary memorials to the sea’s sudden power.
But perhaps ocean currents aren't so unknown after all. I stumble across the term “moder dye” when reading about Ronas Hill, the highest point on mainland Shetland, and learn that sea-swells can actually be used to steer you home. From Old Norse móðir and däi, it means literally “mother-wave”, and according to John J Graham’s Shetland Dictionary, signifies “an underlying swell of the sea which experienced haaf-men could detect and use as a guide”. Its “Dialect Dictionary” entry in the Shetland Times suggests that a moder dye "sets landward irrespective of the direction of surface waves"; it would therefore be especially useful when out of sight of land, either due to weather or distance. The piece concludes that it is unlikely a modern-day seaman would even know of its existence, let alone use it to navigate. Perhaps one would even have to be sitting in the kannie (Shetlandic for helm) of a sixareen, a six-oared boat, to feel it. Such forgotten knowledge suggests that we have lost touch with natural rhythms, our powers of observation dimmed as we cease to have a working relationship with land and sea, our survival no longer dependent on how we know and understand our environment. As we blind ourselves to its processes, the damage that we do it must surely come to haunt us.
I turn from the mound and start the run back. I think about my running style as I go, trying to be mindful and to think of how to be light on my feet. You can wear any shoes you want Christopher MacDougall, author of Born to Run, tells us, as long as we learn to run gently. So I keep my back straight, force my shoulder blades down and back, keeping them relaxed; and pick up the pace, but keep my strides short. My feet hit the ground in quick succession, but instead of stretching out in front they hit the ground just beneath my hips, kicking up sand. I run where the sea has just receded, moving up and down the beach depending on how many piles of pebbles block my path, and how far up the waves threaten. My upper body stays steady; and, in an attempt to maintain composure, I imagine an Icelandic horse and its unique gait, the tölt—their legs moving quickly beneath them, elegantly high, but their bodies remaining quite level, their rider remarkably stable, a wonder of evolutionary engineering. I wonder if humans, too, are supposed to run with equipoise, and try to keep the picture in my mind.
I stop for a second, not because I want to—this new running feels easy and pain-free – but because the rose hips contrast brilliantly with the sky and the almost white sand of the beach. I examine the bushes closely and find the bright red berries that enable me to identify them, their green crowns giving them away. Beneath the bush, the sea has piled an unwilling and unwitting heap of stones. I see some good skimmers amongst the ocean-debris, choose a selection and try my hand. Memories of a tidal river in Iceland: still, a mirror to the conical snow-topped mountains. A friend said of my skimming "I thought they could only do that in the movies". That day my stones reached the opposite shore, spanning the distance of the river in ten, eleven or twelve jumps, ripples fanning out in its wake. Today though, I manage a measly four. Flint does not skim so well I conclude, but I wonder if I’ve lost the knack as I turn my mind and feet homewards, heading towards the seven spindly cranes that distinguish the Aarhus skyline from the south.
A few lonely drops of rain threaten my return-tölt, but hold off. The wind always seems to be blowing from town as if easing my departure and willing me to stay away. Back on paved streets, my stride can no longer be called a tölt and feels far from effortless. A lone leaf dances on the air and I catch it, surprised it found its way to my hand, the gift of a maple tree of a grand garden of an old house.
Copyright © Jack Threlfall Hartley 2017
Memories of a tidal river in Iceland. Photo credit: Sonja Michel 2017.