Drowned Landscapes


That should be the title of a book — it’s lovely, isn’t it? Sure, there’s Paolo Bacigalupi’s follow-up to Ship Breaker, Drowned Cities, but city is such a harsh word, whereas landscape evokes meadows and birds, flowers and small animals.

Drowned Landscapes is the name of one of the summer science exhibits by The Royal Society, a show that is closing this weekend. It’s the culmination of 15 years of work, trying to piece together Britain’s “Atlantis” — a stretch of land that connected the British Isles to Denmark and was slowly lost to rising ocean levels and entirely submerged after a tsunami 6500 years ago.

By analyzing data from geophysical surveys, studying fossil records, and examining artifacts, scientists have collaborated to map the space and to create models of these lost landscapes — which were populated by humans and woolly mammoths (not quite the small creatures of today’s moors and heaths).

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Tens of thousands of people may have lived in Doggerland in the Mesolithic period, and Britain was once a peninsula. Hard to imagine that a landscape could change so dramatically, even as we’re preparing for our own coastlines to shift.

When I was in high school, I loved Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Every time I felt low (and it was high school, so this was often), I’d listen to Tori Amos, drink hot chocolate, and reread The Mists of Avalon — my cure for all ills. Given the book’s heft and size, the school librarian called it my Bible. Bradley wrote a linked book called The Fall of Atlantis, which I also read at the time. I didn’t love it in the same way, and actually found parts of it to be highly problematic, but the idea behind it caught my imagination — of a battle between light and dark that leads to the fall of a complex civilization and a mandate for the survivors to prevent this from happening again. Also problematic but rather well-loved when I was in 3rd or 4th grade — Tom Swift and His Spectromarine Selector — a book about a young inventor who discovers an underwater city — perhaps Atlantis? — foils a dastardly plot by the Brungarians and discovers an underwater repository of an unusual alloy that would be perfect for his father’s rocket project.

A lost land is a story with a clear narrative arc — a beginning, middle, and end — yet there’s a mystery to solve and the possibility of a new story, a personal story of discovery with shades of loss. Our continued interest in the Titanic shows this as well — we know how the story goes, and yet there are still so many ways to retell it — so many perspectives and lenses through which to understand what happened. And genre makes this even more interesting — weaving in magic or science fiction to add yet another layer to the narrative.

So many stories, so little time. Don’t you want to spend your weekend imagining Doggerland and its people now? Did they know the land was sinking? Did they think they could prevent it? Did their descendants build Stonehenge to hold the land beneath them in place?

Or perhaps this is the story of the child of a scientist who finds a fossilized mammoth bone and keeps it a secret, or of an archaeologist who lost a home to a fire and now studies a culture lost to water.

What’s your version of this story?

© 2016 Anindita Basu Sempere. 
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