The advantage of interdisciplinary research is that it enables us to think about problems from multiple perspectives. Different disciplines make different aspects of the world “visible”.
Working across marine ecology and the humanities is an integral part of The Cultural Value of Coastlines project. In my disciplinary tradition as a cultural geographer I have been interested for a while in the different cultures of nature. For me, this term highlights all the different ways there are of knowing and defining “Nature” from human perspectives.
‘… our natures are always culturally mediated’ (Massey 2006: 36)
The ways in which nature is culturally mediated is especially important when we are trying to make decisions about how we should manage the interactions between people and ecosystems. Decision-making involves determining and balancing values. For example, the Ecosystem Services framework (which our project addresses) defines nature and values it in particular ways. This can cause problems and tensions. For example, whilst talking about aesthetic and spiritual values of ecosystems, Cooper, Brady, Steen and Bryce have suggested that some perspectives of the relationship between human life and nature are so different that they are hard to reconcile (Cooper et al. 2016).
‘[T]he core conceptual framework of ecosystem valuations (that combines science and economics) is at odds with the conceptual frameworks for beauty and the spiritual that are in common use in Western cultures, however dominated by economic thought these cultures appear to be’
(Cooper et al. 2016: 219)
However, the exciting prospect of the Cultural Value of Coastlines project is the opportunity to have these difficult conversations across opposing disciplinary traditions. I hope that in a year’s time, at the conclusion of this experimental research, we will all come away with a more interesting and developed understanding of the relationships between cultures and natures in their various forms.
‘the task of the arts and humanities, both in their creative and educative aspects, is to contest, to challenge, to question, to undermine, to satirise, to offend, to violate, to deconstruct, to degenerate, to critique, to undo, or to suspend dominant and dominating assumptions of value’
(Miller 2013 in James 2015: 346).
Cooper, N., Brady, E., Steen, H., & Bryce, R. (2016). Aesthetic and spiritual values of ecosystems: Recognising the ontological and axiological plurality of cultural ecosystem “services.” Ecosystem Services, 21, 218–229.
James, S. P. (2015). Cultural Ecosystem Services: A Critical Assessment. Ethics, Policy & Environment, 18(3), 338–350.
Massey, D. (2006). Landscape as a provocation – Reflections on moving mountains. Journal of Material Culture, 11(1–2), 33–48.
‘Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary’. So wrote the great ecologist and writer, Rachel Carson, in her book, The Edge of the Sea (1955). The coast is impossible to define or to measure precisely because it is constantly changing. Tides, waves, erosion, the weather, and human actions – all have effects on the physical nature of the coastline, and also on how the coastline is perceived, used, and valued. Carson sought to explain what drew her, like a magnet, back to the coast. As an ecologist she undoubtedly learned from, and cherished, the diversity and dynamism of the coastal environment. Her books contain a wealth of scientific information about the life forms which thrive in this environment, and detailed explanations of the causes and effects of changes to the shoreline. But she also used words like ‘magical’, ‘exquisite beauty’, and ‘mystery’ to communicate the emotional and symbolic significance of the coast. These words registered a more subjective, personal response, which is nevertheless widely shared, and an abundance of evidence for which can be found in cultural representations of the coastline – in art, literature, music, film, photography – and in recreational and tourist activities. Carson explained this emotional importance of the coastline in several ways. It could be explained as a spiritual experience: ‘Contemplating the teeming life of the shore’, she wrote, ‘we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp’. Similarly, as the sea brought in the flotsam and jetsam from other shores and other environments, it was a place of connection and curiosity. As every child knows, the shoreline always turns up something new. Carson also believed that it was an intensely stimulating and inspiring environment as, subject to constant change, ‘it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life’. As an ecologist, however, she was profoundly aware of the vulnerability of our shores to the pressures which human habitation, exploitation, and transportation place upon them, and committed to understanding and preserving what makes the coastline precious.
On the 15th August we had our first team field trip to Bull Island and Dollymount Strand.
Situated on the North of Dublin Bay and jutting out from the North Wall, Bull Island is a fascinating example of the intermingling of culture and nature.
We began by walking along the North Wall looking out to Dublin Port and the iconic Poolbeg chimneys.
However, it was not long before Tas was on his hands and knees inspecting the seaweed as he and David (the ecologists) shared with John and I (who represent the humanities) the different species, how they function, and where to find them on the shoreline.
After a quick stop at the Realt na Mara statue we headed onto Dollymount Strand, which glistened in the sunshine. As we traversed the long sandy beach we discussed the project, our aims and the different methodologies we might develop to better understand the relationship between culture and ecosystems.
At the end of the island towards Howth, where the sediments shift with the movement of Sutton Creek, we were about to turn back when we spotted an object in the distance. It looked like a beached whale, dark and slumped on the wet sand. But as we approached it we discovered it was something else entirely. A rusting car abandoned and slowly decaying on the sandflats. And yet on its buckled and course metal frame a multitude of seashells had made themselves a home.
This was a microcosm of Bull Island itself. An intermingling of the natural and the cultural that is so combined it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the two. But to what extent is this abandoned car a cultural artifact and to what extent is it a biological habitat?
This is a challenge for the Cultural Value of Coastlines as we try to frame cultural interactions with biota and ecosystems in the framing of Cultural Ecosystem Services.
The Cultural Value of Coastlines is a two-year project which brings together researchers from the humanities and the sciences to study the relationship between culture and ecology on the shores of the Irish Sea. It is a pilot project which aims to develop a model to understand how the cultural benefits of seas and coasts – such as recreation, tourism, aesthetic and spiritual interactions, sense of place, and well-being – are linked to ecosystem health and biodiversity. The project will work closely with coastal communities to understand how people use and value the coast, and to gather information about how cultural and ecological changes are affecting how we use our shores.