Whose Beach, Which Nature?

piles of seaweed on sandy beach, blue sea with high waves in background

Momentum gathers in Worthing for the re-opening of the Lido as a swimming pool space, rather than its present amusement-arcade style space; open swimming groups like Worfolk and Bluetits, which gathered speed during lockdown, show no signs of losing support now that we could – if we wanted – go back indoors; Worthing folks are energetically engaged in discussions about who owns the seaweed here, what the history of seaweed in Worthing has been, and what ought now to be done with it (belatedly recognised by the local authority as resource, not menace – and swiftly privatised and monetised).

piles of seaweed on sandy beach, blue sea with high waves in background
Lachlan Ross at Pexels

A Space that is both Beach and Coast

While I’m now rooted in Worthing, my thinking about what it means to be on the coast or at the beach is informed by my history of working for over 30 years in research sites which have been coastal spaces around the Indian Ocean (Kerala, India and the Gulf states of U.A.E and Oman). I’m interested in cross-cultural commonalities and contrasts in the ways we think about ‘coastal identities’. I recognise that whether we think of ourselves as connected by, or divided by, the seas that lap at land masses is a profoundly political question.

Whether we think of ourselves as connected by, or divided by, the seas that lap at land masses is a profoundly political question

young brownskinned man in white long shirt and cap rowing a small Arab / Indian dhow in open blue sea
Jurie Maree at Pexels

(If you want to read something that I wrote about one of the other coastal spaces that I move in – Calicut / Kozhikode, Kerala – you can find it here.)

Putting Worthing into a broader ‘coastal UK’ scene, in a superficial whip-round of the UK coast, see this article, which notes an interesting correlation between UK coastal communities and pro-Brexit sentiments.

For a truly Brit-sarky look at English coastalness, see the ‘Rubbish Seaside‘ series.  We occasionally see, in satire like this, an acknowledgement of the insane absurdity of the literalness of British uses of geography – where insularity gets naturalised in imperial notions about an ‘Island nation’.

We’ve imagined the coast in England as some kind of border, boundary, and piled it high as the ex-POTUS’ bloody wall with associations around war, defence, keeping migrants out. War memorialism is fervently observed around here and Worthing’s public spaces are full of red poppies and reminders of war histories (to the neglect of other kinds of history – more on that in my next post). One of my younger Worthing respondents pointed this out to me, and told me, puzzled, “It’s almost like they want us to feel guilty or something”.

But the coast doesn’t have to be like that. Doesn’t have to be a space of defence, border, or fear. Doesn’t have to be a space where jingoism and nationalist fantasy shout loudest, pitted against the diversity of the metro cities.

Oceanic Imaginings

Because, the coast in the Indian Ocean is a very different thing – understood as a space of fluidity, openness, and exchange. It’s a space that has historically been – and is acknowledged as – open to incomers. The Indian Ocean coast has been imagined and lived as a porous boundary where people freely leave and travel, return or arrive – a place that has been valued as a space of hybridity and cosmopolitanism. (The latter, of course, are engines of creativity and innovation).

An old Kerala grandmother is one of the strong characters in this Kerala movie – Sudani From Nigeria – about Samuel, a Nigerian athlete who comes to work and live in Kerala as pro-footballer. Umma (mother) delivers a heartfelt speech when Samuel loses his passport and legal repercussions threaten. Umma remembers her own father, who travelled for work and trade all around the Indian ocean in the 1920s and 1930s.

I’d like to leave her speech here for us to think about, in this historically amnesiac moment where borders and nationalisms are being made to seem natural and longstanding, with those who transgress them being painted with immorality and criminality.

‘ഓരോരോ പത്രാസുകള്, ന്റെ ബാപ്പ പാസ്പോർട്ടുണ്ടായിട്ടാ അന്നത്തെ കാലത്ത് ജീവിച്ചത്. മൂപ്പർക്ക് കറാച്ചീൽക്ക് പോകാ വരാ അതന്നെയായിരുന്നു പണി, അതും എത്ര പ്രാവശ്യം.’

[Documents! Passport! What is all this passport nonsense? What kind of passport did my father need? He came and went, came and went, was always back and forth. Without ever having any ‘passport’, he lived a good life, and died. He died a good man, without ever having had a ‘passport’].   (My translation).

Historians have given us similar pictures of the world around the Mediterranean basin, where connectivity and exchange were the socio-cultural bedrock of trade, community and cultural flourishing.

Can we imagine?

The coast could be a place where we hit the limits of our narrowness and learn to get over ourselves. The coast, understood as watery, fluid and unbounded and as site of flux, could invite us towards a stripping off the superficial clothing of nationalist or primordialist identity and suggest a free abandoning of ourselves to the waves of ever-changingness. The coast can be a port, a place of traffic and an invitation to new experiences.

The coast could be a place where we learn to get over ourselves

What if 21st C Worthing were to take on this kind of coastal-ness?

What difference could it make, to Worthing and to Britain, if we stopped configuring coasts as defended borders?

Nature-Culture

The obvious place for us moderns to retreat at this point – so socialised have we been into binary thinking – is to think of a Nature : Culture divide; and to run to the beach as a place where we encounter that romanticised big (capital lettered) Nature.

Here’s a super-interesting post from anthropology blog site anthrodendum, which reminds us that the place we run to for a breath of ‘nature’ is profoundly cultural and is also a site of struggle over competing visions of what a coast or a beach ought to be.

Do take a look at the longer article, but here’s a quote:

“Oceanside’s beaches, like many beaches around the world, are not simply pristine, untouched natural spaces. They are the results of human interventions that led to cascading effects: The dams and harbors severely reduced the sand supply of downcoast beaches (Kuhn and Shepard 1984), resulting in coastal erosion and shorter beaches over time”. (Ryan Anderson writing in anthrodendum. Tweets @anthropologia

pebbles in a balanced pile on a beach

As a social anthropologist who qualified in the 1990s, I’ve tended to take a sociological view of the coast, and to be concerned with human populations there. I’ve been trained to take the question of ‘whose beach, which nature?’ and consider it in relation to race-ethnicity, class, sex-gender, and other flows of power which offer humans differential kinds of privilege and exclusion, ease or awkwardness. My career was shaped by an interest in human belongings and exclusions.

The new generation of social anthropologists understands that we need to walk into bigger stories.

This can mean using concepts like the Anthropocene; it can also call us to engage in wider understandings of history (such as ‘big history) than the mean and narrow histories we’ve been taught to focus on.

Environmental anthropology, non humanistic anthropology, and an anthropology of human and non-human interactions have all been embedded into our discipline since the 1990s. We’re better for it. Anthropologists have also long understand that the idea of a Nature: Culture binary is just another artefact of (yawn) modernity’s wearisome thirsts for division and dualism.

Taking account of the ‘big story’ means facing the shadow side of modernity

Taking account of the big story also increasingly means working with more inclusive frames, facing the shadow side of modernity – and taking on board the profound role of racial capitalism in humans’ profound misunderstandings of and violent re-shapings of the environment they found themselves in.

Whose beach? Which ‘Nature’? What boundaries? are at stake when we think, dream and portray the coast?

2 thoughts on “Whose Beach, Which Nature?

  1. Interesting ‘mini-ethnography’! I wanted to hear more about who owns the seaweed 🙂 In parts of Ireland people used seaweed harvests to build soil in rocky costal areas, so it is indeed an interesting historical and cultural contrast to ponder ‘ownership’ when the thing valued to be owned change over time. You reminded me also of the beach I visit in West Haven, Connecticut. After a long drive, one must park the car. West Haven stops out-of-town people from parking in its public lots, so the ‘aesthetic resource’ is saved for in-towners. But there is a restaurant with a large parking lot where many people park and use the beach. There are signs that threaten with towing if you are not a customer, but this seems to be seldom enforced. I sometimes just buy something inexpensive to “buy the right” to park there and use the beach. I wonder how West Haven people view this restaurant and the way it permits the out-of-towners access to the beach? The restaurant would be paying town taxes, so that is a factor. Anyway, nice blog.

    1. Oh my goodness, the seaweed is quite an issue. Used to be collected by fishers and locals and farmers for their gardens. In the 1960s, the council began to charge people for taking the seaweed, claiming it as council owned resource. Became viewed as a nuisance sometime in the 1970s and the council began spraying it with deodoriser. (I’m not making this up, this is local oral history). By the 80s, the pollution was such that the seaweed died right down. Now it’s back and we’re debating who it belongs to and what to do about it. The West Haven story sounds interesting – similar to our ‘Goring gap’, with a restaurant right on the shore shore, but out of town and the main beach, mostly known and used by locals. Something we cherish here is that our seafront is not super developed or super touristy, unlike our big stepsister Brighton.

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