Swimming into Green Transitions

by Dr Marianna Dudley (History, University of Bristol), reposted with permission from The Greenhouse.

My reason to apply for a Green Transitions Fellowship at University of Stavanger was to make a start on a book about the history of wind energy. I presented my work to the academic community here early on, and spoke about how the history of wind energy has been shaped by interactions between people, place, and technology. The wind moves through these interactions, itself a product of planetary motion, oceanic currents, and the meeting of sea, air, and land. And while it was time in the quiet work room that helped me commit words to the page, it was time out in the Stavanger land- and seascape that helped me think.

I’ve been developing ideas on how energy technology interacts with place and the people who inhabit it. British state interest in wind turbines just after the Second World War was inflected with ideas about landscape, weather, identity, and productivity, and this shaped how and where turbines were tested. The wind is a dynamic actor in this history: it challenged attempts by meteorologists to predict it, and by engineers to harness it. New wind technology layered over old traditions of living with abundant and occasionally extreme weather, adding to already established and embodied knowledge of wind and place. Throughout my work I’ve been fascinated by winds, waves, tides, rivers – environments on the move that resist attempts to pin them in place, and yet forge a sense of place through their very transience.

A diving board on the edge of the fjord. Seaweed is visible in the blue water under the diving board

Arrival in a new place brings with it an impulse to get grounded. As a swimmer, I like to learn the land by stepping off it and into the water. Here in Stavanger there is plenty, and I’ve been offsetting my solitary, stationary, writing with as many swims as I can. The view from the water helps to make sense of the shore.

Swimming reaffirms again and again that environments are dynamic, changing, and alive. The fjords pulsate with life like the lion’s mane jellyfish I avoided and comb jellyfish I didn’t (transparent, and without venom, brains, or complex nervous systems, they were so wonderfully, barely, there). The seaweeds are spectacular. Shallow fields of sea grass and inky deep fjords alike have been crystal clear, though signs warn against fishing in certain spots due to contamination. Contrasts of clean/dirty, visibility/invisibility, course through the history of energy. Renewable energy claims to cleanliness need to be interrogated carefully. Swimming in Stavanger – an oil town – has helped me keep these issues in mind.

Freya the walrus painted on a wall in Stavanger by street artist Pøbel

New friends have joined me on many of these swims and we’ve joked about writing an article on ‘swimming-as-praxis’. Here is my confession, then, that (pretension aside) I believe that swimming helps me understand my work and the world around me. One of my first swims here was in a dock while Pøbel, a local graffiti artist, painted a tribute to Freya the walrus on the side of a grain warehouse. Freya had visited harbours across the North Atlantic, sinking sailboats in her magnificent wake. She was killed by Norwegian authorities in the Oslofjord days before I arrived, for the crime of attracting too many crowds to see her (but on the bizarre grounds of her own safety). Seeing her take new shape by the water’s edge at Stavanger was a prompt to keep thinking about power, about place, about ecosystems and care. To keep swimming. To keep writing.

Dr. Marianna Dudley is a historian at the University of Bristol. Her work explores environmental change and its impacts on communities, places, and politics in modern Britain. The rise of renewable energy is a current focus, and she is writing a history of wind energy. She was a Greenhouse Green Transitions Fellow at University of Stavanger, 15 August – 15 September 2022.

This post was first published on The Greenhouse Green Transitions Fellows Blog, and we are grateful for permission to republish it here. The Greenhouse is a research center at the University of Stavanger that draws together those with an interest in the environmental humanities. Since 2022, the Centre for Environmental History has partnered with The Greenhouse.

Layers of the Landscape: Perception and Shared Experience on a trip to the Brecon Beacons

Dr Richard Stone, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History (University of Bristol), reflects on the recent CEH field trip to the Brecon Beacons.

If there was one thing the Centre for Environmental Humanities field trip to the Brecon Beacons in July 2022 brought home to me, it’s how each of us perceives the landscape in a different way, and how in turn our perception is shaped by interaction with each other. 

The Dipper which flew up the river alongside the Blaen y Glyn waterfall trail is a perfect example of this.  After 25 years of birdwatching, I took one look at the river valley and was expecting to see dippers there.  It was a perfect habitat, with clean fast running water and not too much disturbance.  I heard the call before I saw the bird, and was able to turn and point it out to others in the party before the portly little dart flashed round the bend and out of sight.  The shape, sound, and behaviour of Dippers are all logged in my mind, so this brief glimpse was enough for me to know what I was looking at, to be aware of this aspect of the landscape.  To me, this was a Dipper valley. 

Photograph (C) Richard Stone

Perhaps most who walk that way, however, would not encounter the Dipper.  Their ears might register its call, and eyes observe a bird shape fly past, but it would not break the surface of their consciousness.  It was my knowledge of the Dipper and its behaviour, and the fact that I am always scanning the landscape for birds that bought it to the attention of the rest of the group, and meant that they too saw a Dipper and learned a little of its story. 

Each of us views a landscape in a different way, and in turn draws out different features.  Many of our group were wild swimmers, assessing the river not for its potential birdlife, but for pools which might be deep, clear, and accessible enough to bathe.  While they did not pull me into the water and fully into their world, through sharing a walk with them I too learned to view the landscape through a different lens, and to see a layer of its nature which would normally pass me by.  To me, this was now also a swimmers’ river. 

Photograph (C) Richard Stone

I learned most about the way a landscape can be read, however, from our guide Paul as we walked from the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre.  The way he recognised and understood the plants of the bogs and moor was perhaps similar to the way I was seeing their birds.  But it was the way he could point to a parcel of land or a clump of trees and tell its story that really hit me, explaining what had shaped it from deep geological time up to what he himself had witnessed over the last twenty years.  He knew why that patch of trees was there, and how it would dry out the bog over the next 500 or so years.  And he knew that the patch of lighter green at the edge of the wet ground was where the peat cutters had turned their carts in the nineteenth century.  Clearly some of this was knowledge and training as an environmental scientist, but there was something else there too.  This was the kind of seeing, the kind of knowing, which can only be obtained by spending decades observing, shaping, and living with a single place.  It was a privilege to be granted a glimpse of Paul’s Brecon Beacons. 

Follow Richard on twitter @Dr_RGStone