I took this photograph last summer on the night in which I swam in the bay at Sörgraven. It was taken from the top of the cliff before we clambered down to a ledge from which we could strip and dive into the sea, and it is the last photograph I was able to take before the camera battery died.
Though through late summer the nights in this part of Sweden are often light until long past ten, this evening the cloud cover meant that even with a long exposure little of the landscape made it through. I suppose that this is part of the reason the photograph diverges from my memory, though the difference unsettles my confidence that I’ve not just made up the whole thing.
That night the water was thick with a remarkable type of plankton that at the least disturbance emits a strong green glow. In fact we had made our way down to the bay for the sole reason of showing this to E’s niece who, like me, had never seen anything like it. We first caught glimpse of it two days before as we swam in the afternoon. M had noticed that the water seemed a little oily, as if mixed with a cordial, and realised what it was. So we returned in the evening and stood at the edge of a jetty, staring in to the water to look for any signs. To my amazement, the fish that we could not have otherwise seen left traces like bullets as they darted about, as if racing from the light they stirred up. We threw stones into the sea and watched the paths they drew behind them as they sank. We watched them until all that was visible was a faint retiring glow, and then nothing. Having confirmed the presence of what we’d hoped to find we climbed to the ledge on the nearby cliff. E was the first to take the plunge. That night I stayed firmly planted on the cliff face, hanging on like a gargoyle, and watched her swim from there. She broke the water with a dive and then led the light upwards in an arc that sent glowing bubbles racing her back to the surface for breath. Oddly, as I looked on I had the sense that I was forgetting it all at just short of the pace of seeing it, as if for some reason it found no firm footing in me.
The Swedish word for the phenomenon is ‘Mareld’, of which the only English equivalent is ‘bioluminescence’, although ‘Mareel’ is apparently still used on Shetland. Though I have only seen Mareld in the sea, it is apparently also often found on the surface of decomposing fish and timber as well as certain kinds of fungi, giving each the appearance of smouldering coolly in the dark. In fact this is one reason offered for its having the name it does. According to the OED, at least, ‘Mareld’ is a compound of two sources, the first of which is the old norse word mor, which means moulding or weatherbeaten. The second, eldr, is the base for the early Icelandic for fire. ‘Mareld’ means, then, something like the lingering metabolism of places marked by loss.
It is tempting to think that it speaks a great deal of the differences between Swedish and English that the latter can now muster only a drab technical term for a phenomenon that in Sweden still takes the name of moulding fire. Indeed, the thought is encouraged by a story of uncertain provenance told by Sebald:
Around 1870, when projects for the total illumination of our cities were everywhere afoot, two English scientists with the apt names of Herrington and Lightbown investigated the unusual phenomenon in the hope that the luminous substance exuded by dead herrings would lead to a formula for an organic source of light that had the capacity to regenerate itself. The failure of this eccentric undertaking, as I read some time ago in a history of artificial light, constituted no more than a negligible setback in the relentless conquest of darkness.
But bearing in mind that ‘bioluminescence’ is all they had to describe the aged, pale glow of a pile of rotting fish, it is perhaps less surprising that the two enterprising Englishmen should have arrived at this otherwise bizarre thought. It is as if their absurd invention served as a mediating link between their word and that thing, an unconscious effort to cross over a gulf between their language and the world from which it had seemingly departed. At any rate I have some sympathy for the men. For while I’m convinced that the Swedish term speaks more of the phenomenon as I found it, I have to take the point as a matter of faith; ‘Mareld’ remains foreign to me, and sticks in my throat.
We returned to Sörgraven the following night. This time I brought my camera and felt ready to swim. While E once more dived from the ledge on the cliff, I found I was only capable of clambering in ungainly. I have never been a strong climber and am not good with heights; I become worried I might lose my footing and move awkwardly. In this state my legs lose much of their flexibility and become strained and tense. Of course this has the effect of making it much more likely that I’ll trip or fall, as it means that I am inflexible to the shape of the ground precisely when I should probably be most sensitive. I found myself in familiar admiration of E and the way she is closed to these fears. I admired the form of the shape of the dive she held as she plunged into the dark waters, lighting them up. Nonetheless my body tenses at the thought of going through that myself.
When I had made it into the water E and I swam together, both of us still amazed by the almost supernatural cloud that we had kicked into life around us. E’s niece joined us and we showed her first hand the Mareld, leading her kicking and splashing through the shallows.
When swimming in Mareld your mind is easily led to dramatic possibilities, to thoughts of whales or other sea creatures rising from the depths preceded by a growing mass of light. And in fact you find your legs often brushed with the glare of the trace of something passing as you stand in the water. But it is easy to forget all this too and just hold yourself in muted awe at the light, to kick your legs further and keep the glow from fading. And anyway, the lighter the water the more everything is covered over by the traces left behind.
After some time we climbed out, E with natural ease, myself with clear discomfort, and dried ourselves and dressed. Mareld leaves a mildly sticky film on the skin so that to slap your flesh lightly releases some sparks. This effect fades soon enough, though, and quickly leaves you only with the sense of having one layer of skin too many and the need to wash it off.