April 12, 2024

Beachcombing in Shetland: I’ve traveled the world without leaving my home | trip

bBefore I had children, my work as a scientific researcher meant I had to travel regularly. I specialized in conservation and discovered I was pregnant with my first child while visiting an Ethiopian colleague’s field site in the Bale Mountains. The motherhood penalty in academia is high, and when my husband was offered a job in Shetland, I handed in my notice in the hope of finding a new job that would allow for a better work-life balance.

We headed north from Aberdeen on the overnight ferry, and despite a rough journey and seasickness, I was immediately hooked. Shetland is an archipelago of more than 100 islands, 16 of which are inhabited. The weather changes quickly here and there is a constant play of light on a sea dotted with islands. I loved living in a place where there is always a chance to see a pod of killer whales.

The first year I lived in Shetland was marred by two miscarriages, but the next pregnancy lasted and my daughter was born. When I found myself out of work due to the high cost of childcare, I started to lose my self-esteem. To keep my mind busy, I devised a plan to walk Shetland’s coastline, its 1,679 rugged miles, section by section, while my husband could care for our children. I pored over maps and imagined walking along wild cliffs and finding hidden beaches. I couldn’t wait to get started.

But it wasn’t to be. My body behaved strangely in the months after birth. The pregnancy had caused the onset of rheumatoid arthritis and damaged the joints between my pelvis and spine. Pain and fatigue made it difficult to care for my young children when my husband was at work. I became isolated and depression developed.

A message in a bottle found in Shetland. Photo: Sally Huband

It’s strange to write this now, but I found the way forward by counting dead seabirds. Together with a lot of marine litter, the tides wash the bodies of affected seabirds onto the beach. When my daughter was a baby, I volunteered to monitor two beaches. I was able to park right next to each beach and slowly walk along the beach lines. My job was to count each bird, record the species and check the plumage for oil to collect data for a survey started in the late 1970s following the construction of the oil and gas terminal in Shetland.

My first survey was on a bitterly cold February day. The person training me paused to pick a piece of plastic from the beach line. He handed it to me and explained that it was a lobster trap plate from Newfoundland or Labrador. I returned home with a pocket full of beach treasures and the feeling that a door was opening. Soon I was spending all my spare time beachcombing, scouring the coast for the strange and curious things the tide leaves behind.

Beachcombing allowed me to get outside in all weather conditions and improved my mental health. I spent dark winter evenings researching the things I had found, some more natural than others. I started sharing my ‘treasure’ online with a community of beachcombers, from Shetland locals to those living on further afield coasts. And thanks to the knowledge shared by fellow enthusiasts, I soon had compiled my own wish list of dream finds: messages in bottles, birch bark and beaver-gnawed wood from North America, rare egg cases (mermaid bags), and valuable ambergris from the sperm whale pots. stomach.

At the top of my list was a lucky sea bean, the floating seed of a tropical vine. I had seen one in a local museum. It looked as if it had been carved from brown wood and lightly polished: a thick disk with smooth edges. A small indentation interrupted its neat outline, and I saw why they are sometimes called sea hearts. It was so light that I could barely feel it in the palm of my hand. My thumbnail made no impression on the hard surface.

The coastline and cliffs at Braewick. Photo: Nirian/Getty

I bought a field guide to floating seeds and read that they evolved to be buoyant and spread through water. Their tough and impermeable outer layer protects them as they float on the ocean’s surface. Some wash up on warm shores, where they can germinate, but others arrive in cold northern places such as Shetland, where they cannot grow naturally.

I assumed sea beans were lucky finds because they are so rare. I’ve met local beachcombers who never had any luck, others who found more than one. But then I discovered that they had been used as protective amulets since the time of the pagan Norsemen. They were said to keep women safe during childbirth and protect men from drowning. When I learned that a Shetland woman, Katherine Jonesdaughter, was executed for witchcraft in 1616 and that her sea bean was used as evidence for her crime, I became even more obsessed with finding one of my own.

I lay awake at night in pain and imagined an island in the Caribbean with a giant seed pod hanging above a forest stream. I would imagine the pod splitting and a sea bean falling into the water and being carried to a river and into the sea. It was comforting to think of a resilient sea bean floating on the surface of the ocean.

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Beachcombing is not necessarily a form of escapism. Paying close attention to jetsam and wreckage will force you to confront much that is wrong in the world. Just as tracing the story of Katherine Jones’ daughter has deepened my understanding of misogyny, evidence of colonial racism can also be found on the beaches of Shetland. My collection of lobster trap tags from North America includes more than 100, but only five were issued to native fishermen. It’s almost as if the ocean exhibits white complacency, our slowness to connect the capitalist dots between forms of social oppression and environmental destruction.

A ‘lucky’ sea bean. Photo: Alamy

I love collecting lobster tags, but they’re still litter, and every winter storms pile staggering amounts of plastic onto the shores of these islands. Plastic also comes ashore, hidden in the stomachs of dead petrels – beautiful seabirds that nest on the cliffs of Shetland. I welcome storms because they bring a lot of land to landfall, but I fear a future where they will become more frequent and violent.

Our island life often requires us to travel to the Scottish mainland for medical treatment and, in some cases, to give birth. I foresee a future where we will once again seek solace in protective charms.

It took me years of searching before I found a sea bean myself. It lay among the pebbles, still wet from the tide and shining in the low winter sun. Euphoric moments like these are rare, but beachcombing is often absorbing enough to distract me from the pain. While looking for sea glass one winter day, I didn’t notice a group of killer whales swimming near me, just a few feet offshore. It took the explosive exhalation of a whale to pull me out of my deep meditative state.

Beachcombing has helped me through some challenging times and taught me how to maintain hope. It has given me an unprecedented intimacy with these amazing islands and with the customs of the ocean. I learned to travel the world without ever leaving my home.

Sally Huband is the author of Sea Bean (Penguin), which was published in paperback on April 4. Go to Guardianbookshop.com to buy a copy for £9.67

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