06 June 2016

Intertidal Life. Part One

You may call it the English Channel but the French don't.  And contrary to common impression, the Channel Islands are not part of Great Britain nor are they part of the European Union.  Neither here nor there, this is a telltale sign of intertidal life.  The islands were created during the last period of rising sea levels, circa 6000 BCE.  Land passage between Celtic Britain and what is now Normandy washed away, leaving an archipelago along the Norman coast where the population sorted out their their changed circumstances in the usual ways, through mayhem and marauding.  Continually shifting, intertidal life is a geographical limbo, indeterminate yet confining, a place where landscape peters out but a recognizable seascape is constantly encroaching or receding.

Separated by water as they were, the islands' language has never been a stable version of English or French but rather a mixture of dialects containing remnants of Old Norse and Old Frisian tongues. Linguists trace the -ey suffix in the names Guernsey and Jersey back to the Norse word for island and, in particular, Mari C. Jones speculates that the the name Guernsey may be in part the Frisian word gers, an adjective meaning grassy, for this the largest and the grassiest of the Channel Islands. Norman roots for some words are easy to figure: caoste for coast, couture for fields reclaimed (designed)  from the sea.  Others come from a little farther afield: bequet for  a finger of land,  friquet for wasteland.

Victor Hugo set his novel Les Travailleurs de la mer (Toilers of the Sea, 1866) on Guernsey, a place he got to know well during a fifteen year exile.  Hugo had been forced to flee France after denouncing the emperor Louis Napoleon as a traitor.  Before settling on Guernsey, Hugo had tried Jersey but he was expelled from that island after criticizing Queen Victoria.  The great novelist apparently believed that everyone was entitled to his opinion, a view the authorities did not share.

The French, known for their hegemonic and abstract tendencies, went so far as to name uninhabitable islands and  even rocky outcroppings.  Known collectively as Les Diroiulles, they were christened with descriptive monikers as Les Ecrehous (The Eskers), Les Minquiers (The Minkies) and Les Pierres de Lecq (The Paternosters), their names hint at delicious, hidden wonders.  And even from away, on the beach, the mystery and wonder beckon.

1. Henry de Waroquier - Ile aux Moines, 1906, private collection, France.
2. Henry Edmond Cross - Le Naufrage (Sinking), c.1906, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

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