JUSTDOLIT: a single tool to analyse all texts

Proximity between nature and society II: Waterland's Fens

If Graham Swift's novel Waterland is one of the author's top two, much of it has to do with the way in which it handles setting and makes it part of teh novel's most important concerns. The title of chapter 3 of this novel is "About the Fens", and, as the title suggests, describes the setting of the novel. I have tried to condens into three columns what takes place in four pages (the columns follow the chronological order of the text). As far as I can see, this condensation does not greatly affect the content of the passage:

1. The Fens & silt
2. Watermen
3. The Dutch
[T]he Fens […] are reclaimed land, land that was once water, and which, even today, is not quite solid. [...] What caused them to retreat? […] Silt. The Fens were formed by silt. Silt [,…] invokes a slow, sly, insinuating agency. Silt: which shapes and undermines continents; which demolishes as it builds; which is simultaneous accretion and erosion; neither progress nor decay. […] For consider the equivocal operation of silt. Just as it raises the land, […] so it […] renders the newly formed land constantly liable to flooding and blocks the escape of floodwater. […] The problem of the Fens has always been the problem of drainage. (8-9)
What silt began, man continued. Land reclamation. Is it desirable […] that land should be reclaimed? Not to those who exist by water [,…] the fishermen, fowlers and reed-cutters who made their sodden homes in the stubborn swamps, […] and lived like water-rats. I am speaking of my ancestors […] My ancestors were water people. They speared fish and netted ducks. (9-10)

[… Then the] Dutch came, under their engineer Cornelius Vermuyden […] they cut the Bedford River […] to divert […] the Ouse from its recalcitrant  and sluggish course by Ely, into a straight channel to the sea. […] They dug subsidiary cuts […] and converted 95,000 acres into summer […] grazing. Practical and forward-looking people, the Dutch. And my father’s forebears opposed them […] And nature, more effectively than my ancestors, began to sabotage [Vermuyden’s] work. Because silt obstructs as it builds; unmakes as it makes. (11)

Column 1, The Fens and silt: This excerpt describes the making of the Fen area of Cambridgeshire. The Fens are "land that was once water" (this refers back to the title of the novel, "waterland"). Water here functions as nature both because it is older than land, and also because it is less human than land: we can live on land, it is more difficult to do so in water. How does that water become land? Our expectation is that people would reclaim the land, thus creating the opposition nature (water) - society (land). This is something which we can find in another famous, this time German, novella from the nineteenth century called Der Schimmelreiter.

In Waterland something else happens: it is nature itself which creates land through the accretion of another natural element, silt. We could therefore say that nature itself functions as a civilising element in the novel. Excerpt 2 acknowledges this: "What silt began, man continued".

The action of silt, however, is even more complicated than that, for just as it creates land, it also ensures its reflooding by blocking the water's outlets into the sea. Hence the reference to the "equivocal operation of silt".

Column 2, Watermen: The second excerpt speaks about human beings, and could thus be expected to focus on the human agents of civilisation who ensure that the operations of silt are carried to a socialising end. Yet again, expectations are broken, for we encounter "water people", i.e. human beings who are closer to nature than to society, for they "exist by water" and "lived like water-rats". Their social belonging is reduced to "their sodden homes in the stubborn swamps" and to activities typical of the primitive hunting and gathering stage of human societies: "fishermen, fowlers and reed-cutters [...] They speared fish and netted ducks". It seems as though there are human beings who can be considered even more primitive than the silt itself.

Column 3, The Dutch: Society is represented by the Dutch, "engineers", "Practical and forward-looking" people who "channel" the "recalcitrant and sluggish" energy of nature. As we can see, the Dutch are opposed by the water people. More importantly, they are opposed by nature itself, in the form of silt: "nature, more effectively than my ancestors, began to sabotage [Vermuyden’s] work. Because silt obstructs as it builds; unmakes as it makes".

Conclusion: There is something fascinating in the way in which the opposition between nature and society works at two levels in Waterland:

  1. in nature itself
    1. through water and land - the Fens;
    2. with silt in between, tending now towards nature, now towards land
  2. in human beings themselves
    1. through water people and the Dutch, with the water people appearing as only minimally socialised;
    2. with silt again in between water people and the Dutch
daniel.candel@uah.es ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann