Book Review: ‘Strands’ by Jean Sprackland

In beachcombing, if we look closely enough, we find philosophy, history, art. The meditative, contemplative act of scanning the shoreline, enables discoveries of an alternative version of places that we think we know. Usually mundane objects become exotic if we choose to see them in such a way. To collect these items is timeless and restorative, good for the soul. For most of us, the activity stops at selecting shells that particularly draw our attention, perhaps fossils if we are lucky enough to find any, and placing them in a bucket or bag, to take away and display in our homes or unknowingly cast aside in a different area of beach before returning to our everyday lives. If intent on collecting litter, we discover an endless amalgamation of plastic objects. This is the physical experience of beachcombing. However, occasionally, if we choose it to be, the activity becomes one of deeper discovery, as we grow intent on delving into the stories of beach stranded objects.

Jean Sprackland’s evocative book Strands is the product of a year walking the stretch of beach known as Ainsdale Sands between Liverpool and Blackpool and collecting items caught on the shore. From the large to the small and the natural to the polluting, Sprackland takes each of these objects in turn, drawing upon these finds to inspire broader marine and terrestrial narratives.

Living by the sea does not necessarily mean that you have a close relationship with the beach that borders it, but anyone who takes the time to look, listen and feel their way across a beach will learn to understand the complexities and joy that this special environment evokes. In reading Jean Sprackland’s book I was transported from my home to her beach, throughout the seasons. Hers is a place foreign to my own experience, having never visited the dunes and marshes of Lancashire, and yet I could find solace and reflection in my own experience of beach walking elsewhere.

For me all good place based writing should be embedded in the local but link to wider grand narratives. This is my kind of writing, although I understand that it is not for everyone. Sprackland attempts the format and is mostly successful, although I was glad that she occasionally stays true to her poetic personal heritage, with at least an element of poetry to her style and literally when she quotes the work of other poets.

Sprackland’s lyrical tones, whist of mixed success, do not fail to captivate. When writing of a dead jellyfish she describes how it ‘resembles the smooth dome of water that forms just before a geyser shoots into the air’. Her use of simile is also clear when she describes the act of mapping out the size and shape of a car on the beach as ‘like reaching up into a high cupboard and feeling around, trying to visualise what’s in there. Then beginning to realise that it’s not a tin of beans or a jar of peanut butter but something incongruous like a cat or a set of false teeth’. Her language isn’t pretentious or trying to be something that it isn’t. A spade is a spade, a crab a crab and a lump of coal a lump of coal, and yet she is able to broach the divide between mundanity and over-complexity.

Strands is a book of discovery, of strange and familiar objects and the stories behind them, of nature and humanity, of weather, climate, mystery, salt, Neolithic footprints and messages in bottles. Occasionally, and explicitly, the environmental activist in Sprackland is released and for me these were some of the most powerful parts of the book. She doesn’t shy away from engaging with the ‘hard issues’ of plastic pollution and overfishing, although she has received some criticism for noting such ‘truisms’. I applaud Sprackland and her editors/publishers for not holding back when it comes to plastic, overfishing and pollution. We need to stop criticising those who speak openly about these issues for the sake of it. It’s too late for that. An estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic can be found in each square mile of ocean. 100 million tonnes of the total floats in a single block in the Pacific Ocean. It is affecting the very ecology of place, ingested by fish, and in turn consumed by those of us who eat fish. We ourselves are consuming plastic, a strong image that I have struggled to rid from my mind. As much as I am personally aware of the great challenge we face when it comes to plastic pollution, seeing it in the words of another always brings it home to me.

This book reminds us that the thrill of adventure can be found in the mundane and the local as much as the exotic and the distant. Behind the most basic of objects – thrown away and of no use to anyone, we can find brilliant stories of origin, connected to the very way we see ourselves. It is also a reminder of the fragility of the marine landscapes and ecologies and the narrative of loss that we experience in the age of the Anthropocene.

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