Reflections on ‘Sea Time’

The Sea Time workshop was a confluence of different currents, where northern hemisphere met southern, scientists conversed with humanities scholars, and indigenous and empirical worldviews shared space.’

'Ocean wave' by irabel8. Via Shutterstock, stock photo ID: 79476640.

David Farrier reflects on the Sea Time: Tales, Temporalities, and Anthropocene Oceans workshop, which explored how marine spaces, processes, and lives interact with structures and experiences of time and narrative, and what these interactions mean in an era of anthropogenic climate change. This workshop was part of a Partnership Collaboration between scholars in environmental humanities and social sciences at the University of Sydney and Edinburgh.

“I first heard about Rán’s daughters on Tjärnö,” Christine told me, “but it was only after you had left.”

We were sitting outside a Darlington cafe in the watery afternoon light, the day before the Sea Time workshop. Last time we’d met had been in September, at a marine research station owned by the University of Gothenburg, on Tjärnö, an island on Sweden’s west coast. Christine Hansen is a historian, and she’d gathered a group of Swedish artists and scholars to spend a few days at the station. The idea was to cultivate collaborations between the arts and marine science, and she’d kindly invited me to join in.

“I asked one of the scientists what the area was called locally,” she continued, “and he said it called Rán’s land. I looked up Rán, and everything went from there.” Rán is the Norse goddess of the sea; her nine daughters personify different kinds of waves. Christine was due to talk about them at the workshop the following day. We were both jetlagged, still tied to the pull of other time zones, and the conversation eddied around our tiredness, but we kept returning to Rán’s daughters. “They were recorded in the Icelandic Sagas in the thirteenth century. But what if they’re much older,” she said, with a mischievous glint. “What if it was Rán and her daughters who gave birth to all the other gods? Maybe it all started with them.”

The Sea Time workshop was a confluence of different currents, where northern hemisphere met southern, scientists conversed with humanities scholars, and indigenous and empirical worldviews shared space. Different times flowed through the conversation as well: Dinesh Wadiwel and Elspeth Probyn described how the instrumentalising time of capital absorbs the lifeworlds of aquafarmed fish; Ingrid Ward recounted the deep time of human occupation of the now-drowned Australian coast, and Jody Webster and Brigitte Sommer told us about the deep history of coral reef architecture; Ann Elias poured light on the forgotten history of coal mining beneath the Parramatta River and Astrida Neimanis introduced us to the patience of military waste slumbering under the waves of Sydney Harbour. The evening before, Alice Te Punga Somerville gave an enthralling keynote, with a reading of Hinemoana Baker’s poem, ‘What the destination has to offer.’ “I threw out the clock,” writes Baker, “the rubbish is ticking.”

Those lines from Baker stayed with me, as I think they did with everyone, throughout the workshop. But it was a line in Christine’s talk at the very end of the workshop that has resonated most with me since. Her talk gave us portraits of Rán’s nine daughters, each one associated with a feature of the North Sea’s waters and an aspect of its despoliation. With each daughter she announced the refrain, “But today, she is wounded.”

For much of the workshop, we’d approached time with empirical precision, assiduously plotted on graphs or according to the strictures of Marxist theory. But other perspectives on time were present too. Jody told us about how the insights of years of careful research into the Reef’s geological past had elicited a shrug from the traditional owners: ‘“We already knew this,” they said.’ And as the refrain repeated, ‘today’ seemed to unfurl, offering a point of entry into another, more diffuse temporality–mythic time.

As I listened, I remembered my final afternoon on Tjärnö. Someone had mentioned that a beach on the seaward side of Saltö, an adjacent island, was one of the most plastic-polluted in Europe. What I found there was a deep bay like a cupped hand, hooked by headlands like pinching fingers that drew in huge quantities of debris into the bay’s palm. I noticed the larger pieces first–a sun-bleached child’s car seat, a collapsed helium balloon, amorphous blobs of polystyrene like white tumours–but the longer I looked, the more smaller pieces seemed to appear, as if I was somehow conjuring them myself.

Just as I had felt on the beach on Saltö, the repeated ‘today’ in Christine’s presentation brought me closer to the time of what Michelle Bastian and Thom van Dooren call the Anthropocene’s “new immortals”:1 an infinitely capacious present, in which the injuries of today flow into a distant future, measured by sea time.

During the workshop, our conversations had turned on the way the sea has for so long and at such terrible cost been depicted in terms that might seem to resemble myth: the eternal ocean, a bottomless sump for our waste. These self-serving myths ignore the fact that sea time is incorrigibly plural, as Louis MacNeice might have it. It flows through the millennial revolutions of thermohaline circulation and the seasonal migrations of ocean-going fish; through the continual remaking of the ocean floor via subduction and the tug of the moon at the tide’s hem. But now sea time is also in the durability of plastic breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces but retaining its molecular integrity and in disturbed rhythms, such as the acceleration of the East Australian Current bringing deadly Irukandji jellyfish further and further south. To dress the wounds of today, we need myths that are attuned both to the ocean’s own times and to the new times we’re imposing on them.

‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water,’ is the famous inscription on the grave of John Keats in Rome. But we’ve all written our names on waves that will bear our inscription through many injured todays to come. Today, and today, and today, she is wounded. As I listened to the refrain of Rán’s daughters, I felt my today flood with sea time.

I’d like to thank Killian Quigley, Iain McCalman, Michelle St Anne and Eloise Fetterplace for their hard work in organising Sea Time, and the Sydney Environment Institute for hosting such an inspiring conversation.


1. Michelle Bastian and Thom van Dooren, ‘Editorial Preface: The new immortals: Immortality and infinitude in the Anthropocene’ in Journal of Environmental Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2017.

David Farrier is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, where he convenes the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network. In 2017 he was a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales. Anthropocene Poetics: Deep Time, Sacrifice Zones, and Extinction will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2019. Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, for which he won the Royal Society of Literature’s Giles St Aubyn award for non-fiction in 2017, will be published by 4th Estate and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, also in 2019. His work has appeared in Aeon Magazine and The Atlantic.