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22 August 2022

Posted by Katie Holdway & Stephanie Jones

Conversing Along our Coastline Part 3: Sea Stories

The first and second panels of our lightning talks event revealed that a significant number of projects relating to coastal waste and the climate crisis taking place in the south are using a form of narrative or storytelling to drive their work. For example, as Roy Hanney’s presentation about the Octopus Story project showed, storytelling can be used as a vehicle to relay key messages and drive behaviour change. Equally, as demonstrated by the team at One Chance Left, stories can facilitate positive public engagement with key coastal issues, by equipping professionals working in STEM with Humanities-led communication skills that they can use to disseminate research findings more effectively. Finally, as we will see in today’s post, storytelling is a powerful evaluation tool, since stories about the coast and the ocean are often metanarratives that also tell us something about an individual’s response to an experience or moment in time. These metanarratives can help shape policy, public relations campaigns and events programmes.

Coupled with the fact that several of our blog posts have emphasised the importance of storytelling for raising awareness of coastal waste issues, it was fitting that the third and final panel of our lightning talks event should also turn to stories, narrative and, crucially, the often elusive concept of ocean literacy in more detail. The panel opened with a presentation from Anne-Marie Culhane and Jo Salter about their innovative Erasmus+ funded project, Tidelines. The uniqueness of this project lies in its structure, which flips the university-centred approach to research by placing the Tidelines team at the centre of decision-making and project management.

Tidelines has given rise to a significant number of outputs, including the ‘Exe Boxes’: reflective activity packs which were sent out to dozens of Exe Estuary locals during 2020. Activities included writing a letter to the sea; the ‘Future Goose’, where participants were invited to write their predictions about the future of the estuary on the back of a goose-shaped post-it note; and a ‘Questions from the Estuary’ card, with spaces for locals to record what they would like to learn more about. The crucial point about these activities is that they also act as highly effective evaluation methods. Each postcard, question and letter alerted the team to local interests, local concerns and, crucially, the most effective ways to inspire Exeter communities to think about how they engage with local littoral spaces.

Tidelines invited members of the public to tell their own stories about the Exe Estuary, while the project team worked as facilitators by encouraging creative responses, thinking about the cultural meanings behind them, and using that thinking to shape future public engagement initiatives. Facilitation was also a theme in the second presentation on this panel, during which Helen Moore talked about her coastal ecopoetry workshops, which included a boat tour to inspire participants. Helen also flipped discussions by sharing excerpts from her landscape ecopoem sequence ‘Dorset Waterbodies, a Common / Weal’, which was commissioned by Cape Farewell and funded by Arts Council England as part of the RiverRun project. Writing the poem gave rise to creative collaborations with a range of coastal stakeholders, from scientists to organic farmers.

As Helen explained, her main goal for this poem was to combine research with imagination, and this goal is reflected in the poem’s spinoff outputs. The poem was recorded, illustrated, and displayed in a local gallery space using eye-catching window text installations. This approach recalled b-side’s translucent porthole sculpture (discussed in Part 2 of this blog post series) and suggests that there’s something significant about being able to—quite literally—see through text and into the wider landscape. What both these artworks show is that blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction and creating visual palimpsests of meaning are valuable ways to help us entertain new perspectives about coastal management.

Layers of meaning, both real and imagined, were also a theme in Ben Smith’s presentation. Ben spoke about his ongoing research collaboration with the artist, Rose Ferraby, on the project ‘Ghost Nets and Phantom Islands: Mapping the Anthropocene’. This project consisted of a range of artworks that mapped imagined or intervened places onto real ones in order to help us ‘find […] our place in the midst of change’. Rose’s art was paired with speculative fiction, and the project team also used indigenous map-making techniques as inspiration for the artwork, which ensured project incorporated multiple voices. Similarly to Helen and the Tidelines team, this enabled Ben and Rose to layer different narratives and perspectives – in this case to vicariously enact potential futures for the coast and sea while also visualizing the implications of those futures for humanity.

In many ways, then, this panel’s focus on storytelling developed organically into a tacit interaction with UNESCO’s sixth principle of ocean literacy: ‘the ocean and humans are inextricably connected’. [1] It was ultimately the need to find ways of communicating this principle to the public, and to encourage a range of audiences to acknowledge their connections to the oceans and littoral spaces that meant all three of these projects arrived at storytelling as a mechanism for inspiring change.

The panel closed with a presentation from Stephanie about Creative Writing Against Coastal Waste, which you can read about in more detail here. This presentation cemented the connections between creative pedagogy and ocean literacy, while also thinking through the training opportunities we can offer creative writers. This presentation segued into some keen discussion, as we turned our attention to the future and discussed ways to continue to build our new Oceans Collective. Ideas we discussed included a conference, a dedicated mailing list, and a resource bank with support for grant writing and article publishing in this field. We are looking forward to developing these ideas over the coming weeks and sharing our progress on the blog. In the meantime, if you would like to talk with us or have ideas about what a south coast Oceans Collective might look like, please do get in touch with us at oceans@soton.ac.uk.

[1] UNESCO, ‘Ocean Literacy: The Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts of Ocean Sciences for Learners of All Ages’ Ocean Literacy Portal (2020) [Accessed: 19/08/2022].

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