We are delighted to share this blog post from Louise which weaves together threads of felt experience, citizen science, craft and care around the increasingly critical story of sea temperature. Jon Tinker from the Met Office who co-faciliated an online event with us: What we want to know about…changing Sea Temperatures during lockdown will be updating us in August on his work as a second part to this blog. See also Notebook sea temperature drawings.
This blog post is, in part, about my obsession with recording the temperature of my every swim. I assign each degree of temperature a colour, and then use the colour indicated by the temperature of every swim to create blankets, scarves, and paintings. Mostly one per year.
Thanks to over five years of records, I now have what is becoming a mini data set, not a scientifically accurate one, it is not even all taken in one location, on regular days, or times, but it is beginning to show some patterns. I also have a variety of crochet blankets, three scarves, and a painting that was painstaking to create, is incredibly messy and looks a little odd. My swim temperature data patterns have colourfully strange material realities.
Messy; process over product
When I was invited by Tidelines to write about my swim temperature data and related creations in response to the changing sea temperature I was told this is often an overlooked consequence of climate change. I was struck by the statement that sea temperature change is overlooked and considered why this may be. (Editor: This summer it has really started to hit the news)
When I immerse in the sea I feel part of the flow of life. This might sound dramatic but I am sure that other sea swimmers will recognise this too. It is a profoundly strong connection and call to pay close attention and care for the seas. So I did not want to just write about patterns of numeric data woven into colour because that misses something else, and I think that paying attention to that ‘something else’ alongside the numbers and creative reflections could offer a way out of the tendency to overlook sea temperature change and its consequences globally and in the UK. That ‘something else’ is the felt reality of connecting with the sea.
I am inspired to pursue this line of thinking by a range of writing on the ‘more than human’ world, interconnections, and how to inspire regenerative action on multiple levels. In particular:
The Mushroom at the End of the World; On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, by Anna Tsing (2015)
Active Hope; how to face the mess were in with unexpected resilience and creative power, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (2012)
Both call us to look closely at the world and to become aware of ourselves as part of a multispecies entanglement from which new and surprising ways to live can emerge (Tsing, 2015), or connected in the flow of life as a process of, ‘active hope’ (Macy and Johnstone, 2012).
And so, this is not just a blog post about my slightly obsessive hobby; it is also a call to see and connect in diverse ways. And to use that awareness and connection to inspire regenerative action that responds to the need to care for and protect the sea with a vibrancy that matches the laughter of a group of sea swimmers on a frosty winter morning at Exmouth.
My slightly obsessive hobby
I first started recording the temperature of every swim, all year round, in autumn of 2018, first on a Twitter account and then in books. Firstly, with a ‘hippo’ baby bath thermometer which sadly broke, and now with my ‘turtle’ accompanying me on every swim. Not remotely scientific, but a representation of temperature change, nonetheless. By tracking the temperature of the data, and inspired by a similar project from a friend, I began to crochet; every degree centigrade was assigned a coloured yarn. Every single swim became a line of crochet with the colour determined by the temperature. Initially this was to be a one-year project to create a blanket, but I could not stop. I am now in my fifth year of creating in colour a representation of my swim temperature data.
The data itself sits in books; it shows a similar-ish annual pattern. Yet in the last few summers there has been a marked rise in the number of records with ‘!!!’ scrawled after the temperature; ‘!!!’ being my standard expression for a swim with a ludicrously bath-like temperature or an unusually warm swim for the time of year. Plotting my 2022 swim data by ‘swim number’ into a spreadsheet created a satisfying wave, with an alarming number of very warm swims*.
*It is worth noting that 14 of the ‘very warm’ swims plotted here are in lidos, where the water on a warm day can very quickly get above 20 degrees. However the majority of these swims are in East Devon seas, with many in Exmouth.
‘!!!’ swims in crochet
As I crochet or paint the temperature into colour I get a chance to reflect. Drawing together the threads of yarn I will recall the feeling of being held in the water, connecting with geologic time, watching the everyday life of seagulls, or bumping a jellyfish. My creations literally wrap themselves around me and hold all these moments and feelings. Of course they also show patterns. My ‘warm’ yarn colours are becoming increasingly prolific year on year.
But what is missing?
Those very warm swims are not just numbers and colours. The sea feels different; mixed up, disturbed. It feels like a sea ‘out of sorts’.
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone argue that we need to ‘see with new eyes’ as part of an empowering shift in perception that generates our capacity to act. Seeing with new eyes is both about cultivating an openness to unfamiliar perspectives including embodied senses and connection, and a shift in our framing of the world towards one that recognises ourselves as emergent beings within the flow of life. By giving space to knowing sea temperature rise beyond numbers, perhaps we can connect more fully with its reality and become better able to frame meaningful responses both within ourselves as individuals, our communities, with/for those who hold power to set protective and regenerative policy.
I love my swim temperature data and the creations that arise based upon it but I want to cast light on other ways of knowing towards rendering visible the fullness of the reality of sea temperature change by stepping back for a moment from my data to THAT moment. The one other cold water swimmers will recognise where you stand waist deep in the sea, hands clutched above the water, often on tiptoes, thoroughly questioning your sanity, before taking the inhale ‘embrace the cold’ and plunge…
In that moment as I commit to immersion everything changes. Senses are thrown into sharpness while awareness stretches like a web. The sea itself is never passive in this encounter, it co-creates it. This encounter implores me to awareness of myself as part of the deep time histories of the sea and its co-created reality emerging from entanglements with (amongst many others) air pressure, protozoan life, lunar gravity, colonial power relations and inequality, global supply chains, coastal geomorphology, kelp, and coral. This is a meeting of self and planet that I feel as an overwhelming reality when I am in the sea.
Perhaps I am being dramatic, but that immersive connection is MY way of knowing the liminal space of the sea. When you observe the sea on its own terms, histories, and specificities, you become aware of possibilities that decentre our human perspectives (especially an individualistic ‘business as usual’ perspective) and allow space for imagining and creating new ways of living. If reading this ‘does’ anything I hope it will inspire you to pay attention to how we can know and acknowledge the impacts of the climate emergency in different ways, draw strength to act from connection with the sea (or the more-than-human world in general), recognise the importance of access to these sources of strength for all, and use that strength to play a part in collectively moving towards a caring, just, and regenerative future.
Louise MacAllister, July 2023
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