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Exploring ‘Sunken Lands’ with author Gareth E. Rees

A guided tour to the emotional and mythological areas of submerged and rising lands with Gareth E. Rees on the release of his new book Sunken Lands: A Journey Through Flooded Kingdoms and Lost Worlds published by Elliott & Thompson (2024). Jude Montague talks to the author.

JM: What was the particular incident or point which led you into the adventure of this book?

GER: During the pandemic, when I was homeschooling my daughters, I took them to Pett Level for an improvised geography field trip. As they ran over the stumps, logs and peat beds of the sunken stone age forest which emerge at low tide, I thought about how ancient human cultures dealt with trauma and loss as the seas rose and their world radically changed. This gave me an idea to write a book about flooded worlds, lost kingdoms and forgotten people.

JM: What is it about the East Sussex landscape that inspired you explore the idea of sunken worlds?

GER: I wrote about the East Sussex coast in my auto-fictional book The Stone Tide and some of the weird short stories in my book Terminal Zones, and I constantly return to it for inspiration. For me, its imaginal power lies in the deeply layered history, exposed in the rocks and ruins of the coast. I am also drawn to its transient, ever-shifting topography, where longshore drift, floods and sea level changes are constantly reshaping the world – destroying and creating at the same time.

JM: What do you enjoy about mythology and folklore in relation to landscapes? How do you feel ancient stories inform feelings of place?

GER: For me, a place is more than just its history and geography – its also about the stories people tell. It’s about rumour and misinformation; art and culture; myth and legend. For millennia, humans have attached mythic tales to unusual topographical features like rocky outcrops, glacial moraine, ancient megaliths and natural springs. Even today, we fill our landscapes with ghosts and monsters – not only in the countryside but industrial estates, tower blocks and modern housing developments. Stories are how humans view the world and express our hopes and fears. And it is to physical places that these stories cling, sometimes for thousands of years. Many of the legendary sunken lands in folklore are attached to real coastal landscapes that vanished way back in the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages.

JM: What other places did you adventure to in your search and why?

GER: I visited the fens in East Anglia, the most sunken landscape in Britain, now perilously below sea level. Then I toured Wales, which is saturated in flood lore – most of its lakes contain legendary sunken towns and there are two mythic lost kingdoms on the coast, one in Cardigan Bay and the other to the East of Anglesey in the north. In the Isles of Scilly, threatened by rising seas, I looked at how the archipelago was once a single large island, connected to Cornwall by the legendary lost kingdom of Lyonesse. I also scuba-dived over the ruins of a notorious Roman party town the Bay of Naples, sunk by volcanic activity. And finally, I travelled to New Orleans, the location of a modern flood disaster, after which I drove south through the Louisiana wetlands, the fastest-sinking landmass on the planet.

JM: Do you have any unifying conclusions about sunken lands around the world and their stories – did you draw out any similarities?

GER: There are over 2000 known global flood myths, all pointing to the trauma experienced by generations of humans at the end of the ice age, during a period of runaway global warming, which didn’t really stabilise until the Roman times. Rapid ice melt led to catastrophic flooding and isostatic shifts where retreating ice caused the land to bounce back up, causing earthquakes, tsunamis and eruptions. These were catalysts for the collapse of civilisations, along with their culture and learning, fragments of which may survive in religious texts and folklore. Many of these tales speak of human hubris, born of arrogance, technological over-reach, and a separation from the gods in nature. In our own era of global warming, we would do well to listen to their mythic transmission signals.

JM: What visual artists, films and music did you encounter in your exploration of these landscapes that are worthy of comment

GER: I came across plenty of great stuff. Kemper Norton’s album Toll, and Gwenno’s Le Kov, both inspired by mythic Cornish sunken kingdoms. Losing Seahenge, a short film of the sunken Neolithic monument shot on Super 8 film by James P Graham, with sound by Frank Corcoran. Time and Tide Bell, an art installation hanging below a wooden jetty in Aberdovey, West Wales, inspired by the tale of the lost Welsh kingdom, The Lowland Hundred. Can’t Stop the Water, a film directed by Rebecca Marshall Ferris, Jason Ferris and Kathlen Ledet, which interviews the last remaining residents of the Isle De Jean Charles in the Louisiana wetlands, which is being swallowed up by the Gulf of Mexico.

JM: Please tell us about your audio work that has been inspired by sunken lands.

GER: After I finished writing the book I took some of the themes and text, then turned them into lyrics for a disco-punk soundtrack album I wrote and recorded myself, titled Songs from The Sunken Lands. It’s available as a free download on Bandcamp, and via a QR code in the book.

Sunken Lands peels back the layers of silt, sea and mythology to reveal what our submerged past can tell us about our future as rising seas transform our planet. From Stone Age lands that slipped beneath the English Channel to the rapid inundation of New Orleans, Gareth E. Rees explores stories of flooded places from the past – and those disappearing before our eyes.

Sunken Lands is out now in hardback, available in local bookshops or the usual online outlets.
Songs from the Sunken Lands is on Bandcamp (free streaming)
A short film trailer for Sunken Lands is on Youtube

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Posted 13:29 Friday, Apr 12, 2024 In: Literature

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