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12th November 2020

In this blog, Poet-in-Residence, Rebecca Drake writes about nature and the city of Hull on a visit to the Far Ings national nature reserve. She explores the relationship of people with the maritime environment in the city.

I am driving across Humber Bridge. The river below glitters, but up here I can feel the wind slamming the car as I drive away from Hull and towards the Far Ings nature reserve on the south bank of the River Humber. It might seem strange to write about nature as part of my work at the Maritime Museum, in the city, but the natural environment is a big part of the museum´s collections, as well as of Hull´s maritime history.

A bittern, a rare water bird, Image by Donna Zimmer

I want to use my time at the museum to think about how we live both with and alongside maritime environments, so I am going a little way out of the city to get into nature. As I drive, though, I begin to realise that there is no noticeable point where the city ends and ‘nature’ begins. From the edge of the wetland at Far Ings it is impossible not to see Humber Bridge, and even this far out the noise of traffic mixes with the calls of water birds and the occasional sheep.

A view of the River Humber

The reserve is breathless, noisy and alive. I (I should say we, as I am not that figure of a lone adventurer that is so common in writing about nature today – I have brought my partner with me, who has, more importantly, brought a large flask of coffee) walk along the foreshore, following bird tracks in the river silt. The wind is harsh, freezing our faces where tightly-drawn hoods won’t cover. Every so often we stop to try to capture the golden afternoon light in the reeds, or the sparkle of water coming off a cormorant’s back as it surfaces from a dive, or the lone bittern which we spy with held breath, standing forlornly in an inlet of swaying reeds, seeming so perplexedly to contemplate their movement. To do so is, of course, beyond the scope of a camera lens, and perhaps even beyond the capacity of any human invention.

The Far Ings Nature Reserve is breathless, noisy and alive

Hull is the perfect place to think about the interaction of people and nature. The city sprawls over acres of salt flats and wetland landscape, a small pocket of which has been reserved – kept free of human interference – at Far Ings. The first thing I notice when I arrive at the reserve is that, despite its well-defined patch of green on the map, it is very difficult to determine where the reserve ends and human territory begins. Trees, reeds, and bushes overgrow fences, blending into agricultural fields on one side and seeping into the Humber on the other. The second thing I notice is that, even in this pocket of land that has been reserved for nature, or animals, there are signs of the human everywhere: cranes, buildings built and in progress, waste, and the looming Humber Bridge. Nature and the city intertwine almost inseparably.

The Maritime Museum tells the story of a city built into its environment

The Maritime Museum tells the story of a city built into its environment. Hull grew out of the sea. The city was founded on its intertwined relationship with the sea, which was especially important during its peak whaling years of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One object in particular tells this story: a vertebra from the spine of a North Atlantic Right Whale, also known as the Greenland whale. This whale vertebra is part of a collection of objects that tell the story of HMS Truelove, a whaling ship based at Hull in the late nineteenth century. This vertebra was probably used as a butcher’s block. Such practice is thought to have been common, especially in Hull. You can still see the marks made by the butcher’s knife in the whale bone, in hundreds of crossing lines, and I can’t help but think of these marks as a kind of writing that tells a story. The story of the butcher who made a living off the back of the whale bone, and the story of Hull’s maritime past, a city built up from the sea.

The vertebrae of a right whale

What’s more, in the whale vertebra you can see a metaphor for Hull and how human industry and nature coexist here. In its daily use as a butcher’s block the whale bone has become a tool, an object of use, in addition to being part of the body of a whale, a natural organism. The lines made by the butcher’s knife are a tracery of unintentional human design; what’s fascinating is that these lines, made by a person, have also given the bone the appearance of wood. The bone is brown and brittle with age, and is riddled with empty blood vessels and cracks which look like woodworm or the cracks in a tree stump. In the same way the rings of a tree tell its age and story, the gnarls and whorls of the bone and the lines that have been cut into it tell the story of the whale’s afterlife. Perhaps ironically, its use as a butcher’s block has made the whale vertebra look like a piece of old driftwood, something that appears more fashioned by the sea than it did before, when it was swimming in a marine world. If Hull has been influenced by its relationship with the sea, then this whale vertebra speaks to how the natural environment has also been shaped by Hull.

This relationship of people and the maritime environment is something I will be thinking about as I continue to write poetry in response to the Maritime Museum, but it’s also something you can think about as you walk around Hull. Where does the city start and nature stop, and can you find objects that tell the story of how we live both with and by the sea?

If you’d like to learn more about Hull’s whaling past, you can explore the maritime museum’s collections online here.