‘I do hope Sally’s message is found and read by many – I’ve no doubt they’ll be better off for it.’
By Sally Huband
Published by Cornerstone
These days it’s verging on cliché to interpret women’s nature writing as a cypher for trauma or a means of understanding the human body. Yet it is impossible to ignore an ever-growing genre of Scottish nature ‘memoir’ that uses a re-encounter with the natural world for this very purpose. Equally, it is impossible to deny that this emerging form of nature writing is some of the most exciting work to be produced in Scotland today. Now, we can add Sally Huband’s Sea Bean to that list. Familiar in its form, like the best books of its kind, Huband’s debut works within these parameters to create something unique, weaving together mythology, community and ecology in a profoundly moving story of overcoming disability and rediscovering your place in the world.
Like so many of its type, it begins with a move from the city to somewhere remote. Sally, her infant son and husband move from Aberdeen to Shetland when he’s offered a job flying helicopters to and from the Mainland. They’re swept away by the romantic dream of island life: the freedom, wilderness, community and – most importantly – the house prices. It is a ‘shiny lure of nature’. ‘Lure’, here, is auspicious, and it doesn’t take long for the illusion to be shattered. Biblical winds, electricity shortages and a freedom which soon reveals itself as isolation mean their first few years are a torture. For Sally, especially so. Already ‘unmoored’ by motherhood before their arrival, she quits her job in conservation in the belief she’ll find part-time work on the Isles. She doesn’t. The struggle of caring for a baby on an unforgiving, unfamiliar island surrounded by a ‘hostile’ sea is exacerbated when she suffers two miscarriages. When she manages full term at the third time of trying, the strain put upon her body is so severe that it triggers the onset of inflammatory arthritis, ending forever her dream of walking all along the island’s shoreline. She is bereft, unable to work and unsure of herself or her place.
However, as is so often the case, what seems unforgiving and hostile soon becomes a remedy. Intrigued by the discovery of dead birds on a visit to the beach with her family, Sally takes her first steps into the world of ‘beachcombing’, the search for curiosities or useful objects washed ashore. This proves an able distraction from her struggles, and before long provides purpose: ‘Beachcombing returned me to myself’, she writes in one of many gorgeous turns of phrase. This proves true in more ways than one. Huband continually synonymises the sea with her body, most notably in the image of the eponymous sea bean, the search for which drives Sally as she continues her recovery. The sea bean, she notes, is also known by the names ‘sea-kidney’ and ‘sea heart’ due to its shape. In searching for this drift-seed washed ashore an unnatural environment, Sally is searching for a piece of herself.
After four years on the island they move to a new house in a small community near the shore. Contrary to stereotypes of closed island life, they are welcomed, even by the seasoned beachcomber Tex who paroles the beach each morning in his battered boiler suit. Beachcombing teaches Sally the ‘language of the sea’, both literally and figuratively, as she learns local Shaetlan words such as shoormal – meaning high-tide – or mareel – a type of bioluminescent plankton. She becomes integrated, accepted, a part of something after so many years adrift. As the book progresses this community takes her from the Faroe Islands to Orkney and the Netherlands. Across these journeys Sally learns of the extreme impact the fishing industry has had upon both the marine life and human population around the Atlantic, and when she arrives back on Shetland she does so with renewed purpose. Her return is a homecoming.
On the surface, so far, so familiar. However, Huband’s debut stands out in several ways. The most immediate is its acute focus on the art of beachcombing. Huband’s passion flows through the prose as she breathes life into this lesser-known pastime, revealing its purpose and significance in careful detail, placing it in the historical context of the North Atlantic, and showing what the study of coastlines can teach us about marine pollution. This is no simple ‘cypher’; for Huband the landscape of Shetland – rendered in beautiful description aided by use of the Shaetlan language – is as much a thing to study and conserve as it is a mirror by which to better understand ourselves. Her writing is frank, learned and lyrical, bending effortlessly between hard science and allegory. Neither does the book ever threaten towards navel gazing. Huband is as interested in the peopled landscape as the natural one, providing sympathetic, memorable descriptions of beachcombers she meets along her way, while the rich local histories she weaves into her journeys provide an essential context to the ecological crises she encounters.
Which leads well into the use of the myth. Throughout the book, found objects are placed within stories told and retold across generations. Catshark eggcases figure in a Shetland folktale about Death and grief, while the sea bean, we are told, has been used as a protective charm all along the north-east Atlantic, and an aid during childbirth. However, in the book’s unexpected final chapter, the discovery of a story of Shetland women accused of witchcraft reveals the sea bean to have once been linked to the devil. When Sally further discovers its modern use as a gift for survivors of domestic abuse, the message is clear. This is not simply one person’s story of recovery, but a story about all people, past and present injustices, and what we can learn about this from the shoreline and its gifts. As Sally writes, ‘in these islands it is not unusual for the weather, the body and magic to coalesce’.
In the final moments of the book’s opening chapter, Sally reflects on the remarkable journey beachcombing has led her on. ‘I could never have imagined’, she writes, ‘becoming a dedicated sender of messages in bottles, or the comfort that this would bring’. Equally, she did not foresee that she would become a writer. By the end of Sea Bean it struck me that these two things might not be so different. To write a message in a bottle, or a story for an imagined reader, both are labours of love, sent out without guarantee in the hope they might one day be found and read. I do hope Sally’s message is found and read by many – I’ve no doubt they’ll be better off for it.
Sea Bean by Sally Huband is published by Cornerstone, priced £18.99.
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