By Hannah Stowe
The names of these creatures, the totemic figures that the chapters of Move Like Water follow, have become a strange sort of chant, repeated inside my head over and over. Each is a waypoint, a marker of both the physical and emotional navigation that is Move Like Water. The thread, the story, that runs through it all, entwined with the natural world, is a very human experience.
When I first started writing the book, it was for you. Move Like Water was to be an ocean that you could hold in your hands, a book to sweep you away from the shore, into a wild world of water, whale, storm, starlight, and all that is the sea. I wanted you to feel the majesty that it is to share breath with the great whales, the resonant presence when the dark tall dorsal of an orca cuts through the water. I wanted you to see in your minds eye the jewelled droplets that streak down the rorqual lines of humpback whales as they breach through the skin of the sea and up into the air. I wanted you to experience what it was like, to sail for weeks at a time, day and night, with life set to a new rhythm, before returning to the shore once again. These are all things that I have experienced, through my career as a young sailor and marine biologist studying cetaceans from sailing boats.
In my writing, I wanted to highlight how the oceans shape all of our lives, from how they connect the continents, to providing us with the air we breathe as phytoplankton fix carbon in the surface waters. We think of forests, of the Amazon rainforest, as the lungs of our planet, when really, most of this oxygen comes from the sea. Human health is ocean health, and vice versa. As vast and powerful as our seas are, so is the possibility for us to harm them. For centuries, we have viewed the seas as a boundless resource. With one hand, we would take fish from the sea for food, with the other, we would discard our waste beneath the waves. Move Like Water explores the historical scars that whaling and overfishing have left on the seas, the effects of bycatch that are still drowning our cetaceans and seabirds. They are unwanted consequences, snagged in nylon, brought up in gill nets designed to reap swathes of fish from the seas. Once they are hauled ashore, they are discarded, worthless, with no commercial value. I explore how the speed of our lifestyles is adding more and more sound to the seas everyday as tankers move our food and goods around the world, their engines roaring, drowning out the swooping melodies of humpback song. I examine how, through our reliance on fossil fuels and the subsequent climate change, we are changing the very chemistry of the oceans as their pH falls towards acidity. These are all difficult and complex issues, that require different methods to stem or reverse the tide of damage. The key to all of them is action. Move Like Water seeks to educate and empower, and should leave you with a message of hope, helping you go forward to work for the sea, along the path that is most resonant for you as an individual.
This is what I hope that Move Like Water can do for you.
I wasn’t exactly sure what the process of writing the book would do for me. I suppose the work began, in its very early stages, as the field notes and illustrated journal entries I would keep while I was sailing. I started to work at sea when I was 18, on the shores of my childhood home in Pembrokeshire. It wasn’t long before I found myself sailing across the North Sea, on a 95 year old wooden boat, and then surveying northern bottlenose whales from a sailing boat off the coast of Canada. I split my time between sailing and university, studying for a degree in Marine Biology and Ecology. Once I had my BSc, I was working on a sailing boat devoted to conducting cetacean surveys and occasionally hosting film crews making natural history documentaries about the whales. We had just finished working on one of these documentaries, filming sperm whales in the Azores in the summer of 2019. Watching the creative process was equal parts fascinating and frustrating for me. It was incredibly interesting, but the storyteller in me started to ache. I had spent my professional life sailing, and studying these whales. I wanted to use my voice, to add to the stories that were being told, but I didn’t know exactly how.
The sail back from the Azores to the UK took around twelve days. There were only three of us, sailing a twenty-one meter boat, and we rotated in watches, sailing day and night. This meant that apart from the meals we ate together, we were largely alone. I would spend three hours on deck, with six hours to rest, before the process was repeated. Although we had left the island archipelago behind in bright sunlight, that first night, a ferocious storm had broken. When I think back on that voyage, in all my memory of it, it was a very dark sail. The winds and waves whipped at night, and in the day, the sun never broke through the dense grey cloud until we had passed north of Biscay and into the English Channel. For this whole journey, the words for Move Like Water were beginning to form into a coherent idea for a book proposal. Immediately on returning to the UK, I travelled to London, and pitched the earliest iteration to Jessica Woollard, who is now my agent. From there, the real work began.
In 2017, I suffered a spinal injury while surfing in Scotland. The turmoil that followed, the surgery, and the recovery formed a pivotal part of my personal story. Everything that preceded that day, and everything that came after felt entirely different. It was the first time I found myself physically removed from the water. Although I could sometimes take dips when accompanied, there was a barrier of accessibility that I had not previously experienced.
There are seasons in the seas, just as there are on land. At the world’s poles, North and South, winter brings a constant darkness. The diatoms, members of the phytoplankton that fix carbon in the sea go dormant as sun remains below the horizon during these months, just as seeds do in the earth when the frosts form. The outer bodies of the diatoms harden, and they sink through the layers of sea into the depths, waiting, waiting, until the light returns. This was such a season for me, where resilience and waiting become a necessity. The spring brought an energy like no other. As my physical strength grew, so did my need to push myself. I felt that I had just been through an incredibly challenging time, and was now ready to choose challenges for myself. My sailing career accelerated, as I found myself taking on a new job, and qualified as a skipper in my own right.
When I started writing Move Like Water, I knew this would have to be an integral part of the narrative of the book. Much of my life so far has been shaped by the water, and now my body physically had. Although I had explored what had happened, and settled it in my own thoughts, I was nervous about how I would write about such a turbid time for a public audience. For all of my best laid plans of how to approach it, life had other designs.
On July 27th, 2022, it will be exactly one year since I last went sailing. My partner and I had just got home from sailing from Cornwall along the English Channel across the North Sea, through the Kiel Canal, all the way to the Baltic Sea. Although both of us have sailed extensively, it was our first time in the Baltic. We spent balmy summer days at anchor, swimming from the boat and reading on the deck. The day we came into port was perfect. I had no idea that it would be the last day I would sail for over a year, but it was perfect. The weather was warm, with a steady breeze on the beam. Our boat flew along, the main sheeted out on a reach as we sailed in the sun. As we approached our final harbour, the skies opened, and lightening split the sky. We were soaked to the skin, laughing in the deluge as we came alongside to tie the boat up. The whole harbour was decorated for the Hanse sail, one of the largest sailing festivals in Europe, bright flags waving in the evening sun.
A few days later after returning home, I turned over in the night, and tore a damaged disc. From there, things progressed quickly to a very unstable place. It has been a year since I have been particularly physically able. A year since I have been managing chronic pain. A year of having to balance work with hospital appointments. A year of cancelling plans. A year of multiple treatments. A year of getting my hopes up. A year of nothing working. There have been moments that have been incredibly bright, where I have been overwhelmed by the exceptional kindness of others, and the strength of human connection. There have been moments that are too difficult to speak about. There are oddly painful interactions where a stranger looks you up and down, assessing how sick you look, a strange scrutiny of an injury invisible to them.
A year of writing Move Like Water.
Although the experiences of the last year are far from how I imagined I would write the book, they have brought with them unexpected depths to the prose. Although my original intention was to use the words to transport you out to sea, I found that I also needed to transport myself there. I have been able to scoop myself up, reliving experiences of sailing in the North Atlantic being showered my sperm whale breath in the night, researching northern bottlenose whales. Although I was at home with an aching back, I could once more climb mast steps on strong healthy limbs to perch in a crow’s nest, watching sperm whales surface from deep dives to meet their calves in the sunlit waters, in front of the volcanic islands that are the Azores. I would lie in a hospital bed, imagining how it must be for them, as they flick their flukes to the sky, and dive down from sunlit waters, into twilight, into darkness, the weight of the ocean above them, as they use sound to hunt for squid. I could feel the heat of the Mediterranean, the salty sea spray on my face that would dry to coarse white crystals. I felt the quiet inky hours, sailing in starlight, with no space for thought beyond the night, the wind, the sails of a boat.
As I am writing this, I am getting ready for my second surgery. As you are reading it, I will likely be recovering.
The creatures I have spent so much time with during the process of the lived experience behind the book, the research, and the writing. Their names bring a comforting, quiet resonance. I repeat them over and over. They bring me hope, confidence. Move Like Water has almost reached the end of its creative journey. Soon, it will no longer be mine, but go out into the world to be yours. It has done more for me than I could have imagined. It has seemed at times like something inevitable. A full stop at the end of a period of time. I think writing it was the last stretch of the journey it follows. Although my current circumstances are difficult, and unsettled, it has bought me so much calm for the journey ahead.
Move Like Water will be published next June by Granta Books. Copies will of course be available from our shelves at Seven Fables and Hannah plans to join us for an event at some point following its publication. I have had the privilege of reading a passage from Move Like Water, and how she describes swimming with her mother, Jackie Morris, within the shadow of Ramsey Island is truly beautifully.
Granta describe her book as: '...a beguiling and beautiful work of non-fiction about our human relationship with the sea and the creatures who inhabit it. Born beneath the sweep of a lighthouse beacon on the Pembrokeshire coast, Stowe is a marine biologist, sailor and artist and this book draws on her research at sea as well as her experience of sailing through some of the planet’s most varied waters. The book is underpinned by a powerful environmental message, but Stowe’s argument is made through the stories she tells – about swimming with her mother as a child, about listening to whale song, about being at sea at night – all of which encourage readers to fall in love with the seas as she has, to appreciate their majesty and their vulnerability.
Deputy Publishing Director Laura Barber commented: ‘Hannah’s proposal captured my imagination from the first page, which featured one of her magical pen and ink drawings of a sperm whale, and her prose is just as bewitching. This heartfelt hymn to the sea promises to be an unforgettable introduction to one of the most gifted nature writers of the new generation.’
To discover more about Hannah's writing and support her creative process you may subscribe to her monthly digital publication, The Peregrination. Alongside Hannah's prose, poetry, and artwork, it also features other artists and writers, snippets of travel, book recommendations and curiosities she has encountered in the hope that it as intriguing to the reader as it is for her to create.
WORLD OCEANS DAY
THURSDAY 8th June 2023
You are invited to join Hannah Stowe and Seven Fables at East Quay, Watchet, to celebrate the publication of Move Like Water.
Tickets available from the venue closer to the date - do join us!
'The shelves are awash with sea books. But Stowe is different. She doesn't just watch and describe the sea; she's part of it. It surges inside her and crashes out onto the page. The book's drenched with salt water. It fizzes, clicks, booms and screams. Tremendous.' Charles Foster
Writers naturally tend to read, a lot, so we asked Hannah for a few recommendations...
Words and images copyright Hannah Stowe 2022