Running east-west overall, the northern coast may look higgledy-piggledy in its fine detail, but there is something like a pattern or process at the medium scale, at least in the stretch from Blakeney to Brancaster about sixteen miles further west. Between these two, a form, or the ghost of it, occurs three times as Blakeney Point, Bob Hall’s Sand, and Scolt Head Island. Each one, seen from high above, increases in size from east to west and then curls over, like a standing wave curving over on its crest. Taken in a row they resemble what fluid dynamicists call a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability, which arises when two fluids slide past each other at different speeds. The form is common in nature. It is visible in the atmosphere of the planet Jupiter and has recently been discovered in slow-breaking waves on the Atlantic sea floor.
Each of these ‘waves’ of the Norfolk coast is different. Blakeney Point is a long shingle rampart enclosing dunes and areas of marsh. Bob Hall’s Sand is a broad sand terrace that only fully emerges at low water. Scolt Head is a true island and, indeed, the only island on the east coast of England between Mersea in Essex and the Farne Islands in Northumbria. (I don’t count Havergate because it is enclosed by the river Ore.) Separated by tidal creeks, topped with sand dunes and sheltering intensely-curved and profusely-branching channels in the marshes on its landward side, Scolt Head Island is, according to English Nature, which manages it as a National Nature Reserve, 'the prime example of an offshore barrier island in the UK...situated on a very dynamic coastline and steadily growing westward.' It is about four miles long and three quarters of a mile wide at its broadest point. There is nowhere else in the British archipelago quite like it, although several of the Frisian islands on the Dutch and German coasts are strikingly similar. Complex and subtly shaded patterning of many kinds is visible even in fairly crude satellite images, enticing the brain to see shapes that transform into others even before they are fully formed. Viewed in aerial and satellite photos, Scolt Head Island looks like the leaping cat depicted in the Jaguar car marque or like a stomatopod (a mantis shrimp), with the hooked sand-and-shingle forms laid down as the island has moved westward as its legs. At all times the island looks wildly alive.
I woke early on the morning of the spring equinox. It was a bright day at the place where I was staying a few miles inland. An ebb tide low enough to allow one to wade safely across the narrow channel to Scolt (for no boats were available so early in the year) would not occur until later in the day so I went for a run. It had been a cold spring and snowdrops still carpeted a spinney. I saw several hares lolloping in the quiet fields. In the hedgerows, the thick trunks of singleton oaks twisted and attenuated to narrow branches snaking up, down and sideways. Silhouetted against the sky, the branching looked like channels in sea marsh when seen from the air.
Later, as I drove north over the whaleback hills, the pitch of the light changed as it began to reflect the not-yet-visible sea. ‘In a direct and Meridian Travell’, wrote Sir Thomas Browne in an epistle prefacing Urn Burial addressed to his friend Thomas Le Gros, who lived in Crostwick about 15 miles south of this coast, ‘there are but few miles of known Earth between your self and the Pole.’ And I felt the vastness of sea beyond the edge of the land, which does indeed stretch all the way to the high Arctic, before I could see it. Then, like a door opening, there it was: the edge of the sea, an horizon aglow; and Scolt Head Island -- a wide, low, irregular dike or levee the colour of African savannah -- just inside it, about a mile away.
Crossing the coast road, I walked along a grass track past the Saxon round tower of St Mary’s Church in Burnham Deepdale and into the salt marsh. The island and the marshes are well known for their bird life. Geese dotted a mosaic of bathtub-size ponds amidst the vegetation. Dark, slim-bodied, and erect, almost amphora-shaped with elegant necks, they were strikingly different to the squat teapot forms of domestic breeds. Greylag or Bean Geese, probably, soon to migrate to the far north. (In the summer months, terns nest on Scolt in large numbers and waders such as shelduck, wigeon, teal and curlew are plentiful, but in March the dominant birds are wildfowl that have overwintered here.) As I passed each gaggle they shifted nervously, opened their wings and lifted into the slight breeze as easily as children’s kites.
Within quarter of an hour or so I reached the main channel separating the island from the mainland. Now, at low tide, it was a rolling expanse of mud and sand with a shallow silver-yellow braid of water at its lowest point. Unnecessarily, I checked my tide tables again, wanting to make double sure I would have plenty of time to cross, explore the island and return. With a flood tide that rose ten or twenty feet and strong currents, I did not want to make a mistake.
Landscape is sometimes treated as metaphor, imbued with meaning because it is a code for something else. When parts of the cliff at Happisburgh (pronounced: Haps-bruh) on the skull coastline of Norfolk crumbled into the sea in 2006, taking away back gardens and threatening houses, some people saw this as emblematic of climate change, or a nation under siege, or something. But metaphor can easily get out of hand. (Recall The Onion’s headline for the sinking of the Titanic: WORLD’S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICEBERG.) Better, perhaps -- better for the ecology of the planet and the ecology of the human mind -- to see landscape as synecdoche: place can be simply, wonderfully itself and nothing but itself, but it can also speak for something larger or, indeed, smaller than itself. And so it goes for the smell of the land and the sea. A smell, notes the computer scientist and musician Jaron Lanier, is quite literally, a synecdoche: a few molecules of an actual something sensed directly on tendrils of the brain outcropping in a cave inside the front of the skull.
I crossed the bed of the creek, treading warily at first through sticky mud and then with lighter step over sand before wading across the final boundary to the island, a seawater stream that barely reached my knees. This water, I had read, has ebbed and flowed for perhaps four thousand years. As Islands go, Scolt Head is a recent creation. It may have existed when Avebury and Stonehenge were built, or it may be younger even than the Saxon tower at Burnham Deepdale.
The British isles have formed and reformed over recent geological time. Around two and a half million years ago Britain was an island surrounded by shallow seas much as it is today, but by one million eight hundred thousand years ago -- at the time Homo ergaster was foraging in river valleys of eastern and southern Africa -- it was fused to the rest of Europe by a wide bridge of land between what is now south-eastern England and France. The size and shape of this bridge changed as sea levels fluctuated over a succession of ice ages that began around seven hundred thousand years ago. During some interglacials, major rivers flowed along courses that are invisible today or reached the sea at different points. Around a million years ago, for example the Thames reached the sea at Happisburgh on the north Norfolk coast, while half a million years ago a great river called the Bytham of which there is now no trace flowed from what are now the West Midlands across the middle of East Anglia to reach what is now the North Sea on the latitude of the Norfolk/Suffolk border. Around two hundred thousand years ago the Thames continued to flow far beyond its present day estuary east and then north across flatlands between what are now East Anglia and Holland, but hundred and fifty thousand years later (fifty thousand years before the present day), the Thames, the Meuse and the Rhine joined into a common channel that flowed west before emptying into a bay between what are now Sussex and Normandy.
At some point, and probably more than once, a huge flood burst through the land bridge where now lie the straits of Dover. To the northeast, rivers and melting ice had filled a great lake behind a wall of ice to bursting point. When the water topped over in a giant waterfall it caused what some geologists believe to have been the largest flood in Earth history, carving a channel that dwarfs even the valleys gouged by the Missoula floods in the Columbia river valley in North America fifteen to thirteen thousand years ago. Such monumental features are more commonly found on the surface of Mars, where the last floods took place billions of years ago.
During warmer periods between ice ages Britain was abundant in life that seems impossibly exotic today: savannahs, forests and marshes supported rhinos, straight-tusked elephants, hyenas, macaques, hippos. In cooler periods mammoths, reindeer and muskox grazed on tundra to the south of an ice sheet that covered most of the north. The first humans may have arrived in Britain as long as a million years ago. (As it happens, the earliest evidence for human presence is also at Happisburgh.) Bands of Homo antecessor and, later, heidelbergensis, related to or resembling the common ancestor of both Neanderthals and ourselves, they found plenty to hunt and gather, at least in the more benign climatic periods. At least eight times, reckons the paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer, all human presence was erased by rapid and large scale climatic change. Massive walls of ice scoured much of the land of virtually all life. But every time the ice retreated and the climate tempered humans returned, following their prey. Every time except once: the evidence suggests that from about one hundred and eighty thousand to seventy thousand years ago Britain was ice-free and supported rich forests and animal life but had no human population even though Neanderthals were present throughout much of Europe at the time. Thinking of this period of abundant life without humans -- more than a hundred thousand springs and summers of forests filled with the rustle and raindrop on leaves, rippling streams, birdsong and animal noises but no human voices -- fills me with a deep sense of calm and happiness.
On the far side of the creek the mud bank rose steeply to the flat edge of marsh. I started to climb. The mud was like the thickest double cream, and each step made a delicious glooping and shlocking sound. Reaching the top, a little above eye level from the creek, the grey-brown marshland vegetation stretched for about a third of a mile towards the wheat-coloured dunes of the island, which curved like the edge of an amphitheater descending irregularly in height from left to right. Between me and dunes were, I knew, scores of channels in the marsh whose forms, when seen in aerial and satellite photos, had fascinated me because of their resemblance to stunted and contorted tree branches or the vasculature of a human brain. Viewed from high above, the channels appear ‘squashed‘ in the direction of flow: more baobab than poplar, they widen very rapidly in a manner characteristic of low velocity flow. (Marshlands on the coast of Georgia in North America such as Green Island Sound, St Catherine’s Sound and Sapelo Sound look much the same, at least in satellite photographs.) But from ground level I couldn’t see them at all. Only as I began to cross the marsh and came upon each turn did I see each them: the smallest easily jumpable at their higher end but each quickly widening to the main channels as much as thirty meters across -- miniature Grand Canyons with buttes and gorges sculpted from mud. Bob Chestney, who was warden of Scolt Head for many decades, wrote ‘often, when standing among these creeks or channels at dusk, waiting for ducks to fly in to feed, I have heard what sounds like thousands of little sea animals talking to one another. In actual fact the noise is the top and bottom of shells of cockle-like creatures scraping together as they open and close.’
After I had walked and scrabbled for twenty minutes the marshland shaded abruptly into the shingle and sand backbone of the island. I climbed a little way up the dune to a grassy ledge topped by a small hut, paused to drink from my water bottle and then continued upwards. All the way, the ground was firm and dry underfoot, and the sound of the sea became louder and louder. And then, at last, for the first time since descending from the hills inland, I could see out to sea. The summit was only thirty or forty feet high but because of the extreme flatness of the surroundings and the clear air it seemed much higher. The view was grand, almost epic: a clear line of sight along the dunes, with the marshes sheltering on the inland side and seaward the great sweep of the beach -- a broad and benign sunlit terrace lapped by blue-grey ripples -- stretching for miles in each direction.
Once, I took a night flight from Lima to Houston. It was a clear night and the moon, just about full, was bright as we ascended to cruising altitude above the Andes. Huayuash, Huascarán and then, yes, Alpamayo, where only a few days before we had been hiking -- all the snowy peaks cut clearly through the moonlight. Far to the east was the Amazon basin: vast, illuminated both by moonlight and by distant flashes of lightning now here now there. It may seem bathetic that standing on a thirty foot dune in Norfolk I saw a similarity -- the dunes, an Andes, enclosing the marshland, an Amazon basin and its winding rivers -- but the similarity in form, the repeated proportions in big and small, seemed quite evident to me. Landform not as synecdoche exactly, but as echo; landscape as miniature; topography as scale-free network. It was in landscape as miniature that, as a child, the great evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton first found beauty.
All small islands -- separate little worlds -- have their own magic, and there is something especially paradoxical about islands made of sand, an extraordinary substance, as Michael Welland shows in his extensive writings, with the properties of both a solid and a liquid. Not least, sand-made bars and barrier islands are always shaping and reforming. Exactly how they grow and dissolve is not completely predictable, but grow and dissolve they surely do, as surely as the grains of which they are formed endlessly fuse into rocks and separate again. The largest island made of sand in the world is Fraser Island off the coast of Queensland in Australia. Its indigenous name, K’gari, means paradise. According to legend, when humans needed a place to live the primal god Beiral sent the goddess K’gari from heaven to create the world. K’gari so fell in love with what she had made that she wanted to stay. So the messenger god Yendingie changed her into a heavenly island that bears her name. Scolt Head, windswept for much of the year beneath lowering northern skies, may be few people’s idea of paradise, but it was, I found, a good place to dream.
Do we dream in order to remember? Nicholas Humphrey, who helped discover the phenomenon of blindsight, compares what he calls the ‘thick moment’ of consciousness to the experience of being on a ship: deep, unknown water extends far behind and in front of us, but we find ourselves in a penumbra of awareness that surrounds us in a little loop. One could, I think, substitute a small island for the ship in Humphrey’s simile. In great seas, an island -- like a ship -- can mean life itself. And if the island-ship is moving, well is consciousness in the flow of water or the island? ‘History is a child building a sandcastle by the sea,’ said Heraclitus, ‘and that child is the whole majesty of man’s power in the world.’
I began the final part of my outward journey, leaving the highest dunes for the beach and the edge of the sea. Descending first into a bowl between dunes, the breeze and the sound of the sea were suddenly baffled as if I had come into a room. The bowl was a sun trap, even this early in the year; still, and thick with grass and bushes like a walled country garden. The sea was only a far echo. But then, climbing over the far lip of the bowl, breeze and sound hit me full face again, and I tumbled down a small sandy cliff to crunch on wet shells.
The beaches of northern Norfolk are like enormous stages. Swept and cambered by tide and wind, light and colour, they are mottled with pools and ridges that seem like forgotten symbols hinting at a something momentous. But what? ‘Underlying the beauty of the spectacle there is meaning and significance,’ wrote Rachel Carson in her 1955 book The Edge of the Sea; ‘it is the elusiveness of that meaning that haunts us...’
‘For as long as there has been an earth and sea’, wrote Carson, ‘there has been this meeting place of land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life.’ And much of that life exists, invisible to the casual walker, in the apparently sterile and abstract sands beneath one’s feet. Walking across the great flats of a beach in Georgia, Carson saw herself treading on the ‘thin rooftops of an underground city’:
In the intertidal zone, this miniscule world of the sand grains is also the world of inconceivably minute beings, which swim through the liquid film around a grain of sand as a fish would swim through the ocean covering the sphere of the earth. Among this fauna and flora of the capillary water are single-celled animals and plants, water mites, shrimplike crustacea, insects and the larvae of certain infinitely small worms -- all living, dying, swimming, feeding, breathing, reproducing in a world so small that our human senses cannot grasp its scale, a world in which the micro-droplet of water separating one grain of sand from another is like a vast, dark sea.
There are thirty-six or so phyla on Earth. Arthropods, which include insects, spiders and crabs, are one. Chordates, which include all animals with backbones from coelacanth to Lady Gaga, are another. Tropical rainforests, the ‘flagships of biodiversity’, contain sixteen phyla. But the spaces between grains of sand hold twenty-two, each with countless different species. Among the most astonishing of those studied so far are certain kinds of foraminifera, single-celled organisms which select grains of sand of consistent shape and size, glue them together to form a tight sphere and then then add a single larger red stone to their newly completely structure. Scientists from Charles Darwin to Lynn Margulis have marveled at the subtlety, and the capacity for discrimination in something so tiny. Is there something like awareness at work here?
I crossed the wide beach and reached the sea at last. The water lapped on the edge of sand as gently as ripples on the edge of a pond. I took off my boots and stood with my feet in the liquid, watching wet sand fill and ebb between my toes. Then I turned around, put on my boots again and started for the mainland. The tide would not wait.
Earlier in this piece I described Scolt Head as a place to dream. But I’m not satisfied with the word ‘dream’ because in our culture it often refers to something trivial, childish; day dreaming is often considered idleness. Yes, I had spent the day mucking about in the mud and sand like a kid, but I have in mind ‘dream’ more in the sense of W. B. Yeats’s over-quoted line, supposedly from an old play, ‘in dreams begins responsibility’. Perhaps we could say the island was, rather, a place for hypnagogia -- the transitional state between sleep and waking where both obtain. Psychologists suggest that this state of mind is typical of very young children, who have little sense of the past and future but live intensely in the present and thereby experience it in a way that adults seldom do. But hypnagogia, or something like it, can be important for adults too, allowing us to differently imagine the past and future as well the dimensions of the present moment. ‘Hypnagogic states’, writes Pascal Boyer, ‘often include associations that are extraordinarily difﬁcult to express once the mind is fully conscious again.’ And in The Other Side of Eden, a study of hunter-gatherer societies, Hugh Brody notes that such states of mind are treasured by these eminently practical and resourceful people as ways of ‘combining and using more information than the conscious mind can hold...[allowing] memory and intuition and facts to intermingle.’
Scolt Head, a landform that shifts and grows like a living thing and is almost untouched by human hand even in an archipelago as intensively managed as the British Isles, is good to think on. ‘O thou who dwellest not in temples made with hands...’, begins a prayer in the church at Burnham Deepdale. Scolt, my island-boat glimpsed between two tides. ‘I sleep and my heart stays awake,’ wrote George Seferis, ‘it gazes at the stars, the sky and the helm, and at how the water blossoms on the rudder.’