The sea begins somewhere else each day. I head for the surf in a straight line. The waves of the retreating tide have whipped up the sand. My feet sink into it. I wade through knee-deep water and feel the cold sea seep in through the holes in the knees and elbows of my wetsuit. Beyond the island of bladderwrack, I make my first crawl strokes.
In the sea, one writes without chair legs, footstool and desk. There is no slow work, no more staring out of the window or eating apples. As an underwater writer you have to discard everything, be submissive, strap on lead blocks; otherwise, you will float back up to the surface and all the newly written words will ebb away.
The forest that I swim through is powerful. The algae seem to be driven by a mysterious current, they calmly wave back and forth. While snorkelling in the bay I lose all sense of scale. I have never seen a landscape so slowly and completely in motion. Loose fronds float past below and above me. Many are almost transparent, but none of them look lifeless. Jagged leaf edges, torn-off stems, broken-away holdfast, only out of the water does the seaweed surrender to the test of time and shrink away. Decay is nowhere to be seen under water.
To my left and right I can see in the corner of my eye how algae each have their own substrate and territory. I try to concentrate on the different stages of development and investigate various clusters for their shape and size. I look around as I hold on, slowly flippering, one hand clutching on to a rock. The sea here is so clear that the sun projects the rippling surface onto the bottom. Everything is moving: the water, the rays of light, the seabed, the seaweed and the creatures. Two young dabs shoot away, the red tentacles of the mottled anemones waft back and forth, and a small school of needlefish hide when my other hand creates a shadow. On the algae I see other algae. I run my fingers over a kelp leaf with a delicate brocade of Obelia geniculata attached to it. I do not pick it, even though I can barely resist doing so. Millions of zoospores and gametes around me are already on their way to creating a new generation. All these travelling particles that carry life within them and will settle on the seabed or some other surface have a strange effect on me. Will they settle on me too? Is the water making me permeable? In all this interconnectedness, you might see an example of an ideal world in which species are tolerant and offer each other holdfast in the current in order to survive. Pure symbiosis.
By Miek Zwamborn
Translated by Michele Hutchison
Extract from THE SEAWEED COLLECTOR’S HANDBOOK
Published by Profile Books (2020)
Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s The Dutch Riveter bookshop.org page.
Miek Zwamborn is an artist, novelist and poet. She lives and works on the Isle of Mull, in the Hebrides, where she runs a project working to explore the natural environment – and particularly its bountiful seaweed – with scientists, designers and artists. This interest is reflected in her latest work, The Seaweed Collector’s Handbook, which was published in English translation in 2020.
Michele Hutchison is a literary translator from Dutch and French. In 2020, she won the Vondel Translation Prize for her translation of Sander Kollaard’s Stage Four, and the International Booker Prize together with author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for The Discomfort of Evening. She is also co-author of The Happiest Kids in the World: Bringing up Children the Dutch Way.