Sea Roads

In Old English the hwaelweg (the whales ´sway), the swan-rad (the swan´s way); in Norse the veger; in Gaelic rathad mara or astarm ara in English the ocean roads, the sea lanes. There are thousands of them.We think of paths as existing only on land, but the sea has its paths too, though water refuses to take and hold marks. Sea roads are dissolving paths whose passage leaves no trace beyond a brief turbulence. They survive as convention, tradition, as a series of coordinates, as a series of waymarks as dotted Lines on charts, and as stories and songs.

The discovery of the sea roads necessitaded a radical re–imagining of the history of Europe. Try it yourself now. Invert the mental map you hold of Britain, Ireland and westerneurope. Turn it inside out. Blank out the land interiors of these countries-consider them featureless, as you might previously have considered the sea. Instead,populate the western and northern waters with paths and tracks; a travel system that joints port to port, island to island, headland to headland, river mouth to river mouth. The sea has become the land, in that it is now the usual medium of transit: not barrier but corridor.

Once you have carried out this thought-experiment, this photo-negative flip, many consequences follow. One is centrifugal. Matter and culture spin to the edges. The centre is emptied and the margins become central. The Atlantic fringe of Europe is no longer the brink of ‘the Old World’, but rather the interface with the New. The coastal settlements are places of departure and arrival, thriving crossroads: the Orcadian archipelago is not remote but a focal point, standing at the heart of a trade and pilgrimage network.

A second consequence is that today´s national boundaries shiver and collapse. Instead of belonging to particular nations that happen to posses coastlines, these outward-facing coastal settlements-from the Shetlands and the Orkneys all the way round and down to Galicia and Spain- become a continuous territory of their own: Atlanticist in nature, sharing culture, technologies, crafts and languages. A dispersed occidental continent, if you like,whose constituent areas are united by their common frontage onto the same ocean. A shared cultural identity developed over ten milennia along this Atlantic facade, such that Galicians,Celts, Bretons, and Hebridians might be said to have more in common with one another than with their ´inland kin´.

Uit THE OLD WAYS: blz 91-94 water –south Robert Macfarlane

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