Author Interview: Susanne Masters, Wild Waters
- Friday 17 December 2021
Susanne Masters is the author of Wild Waters. Like all books, Wild Waters gives us the opportunity to experience a different world from the comfort our home but it is also an invitation to not only discover how connected we are to the world beneath the surface, through the medicine in our cabinets to robotics design; but also, to experience the outdoors and become familiar with our aquatic plant and wildlife, whether out on a riverside walk, paddleboarding or swimming. In this interview, Susanne tells us why she has written this book and what it means to her, and some discoveries she made along the way.
Out of the six chapters in your book, which one did you enjoy writing the most?
Writing 'Chapter 2: Inhabited' was the most visceral. Taking all these bodies of water that I enjoy and separating out what makes them different spaces to be in and around transported me away from my desk back into water.
What inspired you to write this book?
Wild Waters spent a long time growing and taking form before I wrote it, or even had the thought that it would take the shape of a book. There were several prompts for writing it including friends asking questions about wildlife around water and my own experiences exploring water while walking alongside it, swimming in it, and paddling on it.
Some years ago, I was walking in a forest with a friend and as we saw different animals and plants, I told her their names and a bit about them. She said, 'You can never be lonely outside, it’s like the animals and plants are your friends'. It is true, when you are outdoors, and you know even just a little about wildlife you see there is a familiarity that is comfortable and welcoming. I think that is a positive feeling and the more it can be shared the better.
What is your favourite memory of wild swimming?
Picking a favourite memory is difficult because there are so many great outdoor swimming experiences I’ve had. (Most memorable is very easily the time I got brought in by a wave faster than I could get my swimsuit on and wound up naked on the beach in broad daylight – hello everyone on the promenade out for a walk in the sunshine. Very memorable and I won’t be repeating that socially awkward experience).
Despite the fact that even in summer I grumble about how cold the water is when I get in, I don’t keep memories of feeling cold because the experience is always greater. Even swims where we’ve broken ice to get in, the memories are laughing with friends or how fresh the dawn seemed. Certainly, in daytime swims with bright sunlight views of wildlife under water are better and the warmth makes it easy to swim for a few kilometres. But dusk, dawn, and evening swims, slipped in around 9-5 chores, are perhaps the most memorable. It's why I asked for a pink sky on the book cover; to evoke that liminal space between daytime labours and sleeping at night, which is perhaps my favourite place.
As you will know, wild swimming is restricted in England but not Scotland or some countries in mainland Europe. What is your opinion on the access debate?
A lot of the restriction on access to water in England is by default due to restricted land access. But there are many examples of areas of publicly accessible land where access to water is restricted. In part this stems from concerns about public liability, should people have accidents while in the water. In some instances, it can be due to concerns over the impact of people and their dogs on wildlife in water e.g., trampling vegetation or disturbing wildlife that is usually afforded peace and quiet because it is out of reach across water. Rather than blanket or knee jerk bans it would be better to look at individual sites, make measured decisions, and entertain the possibility of compromises. For example, some riverside locations recognise how much dogs can need access to the water—for drinking, a cooling swim, or old dogs getting exercise with their weight supported by water—and in order to protect bankside vegetation while allowing access to the river, landowners have built steps to the water’s edge.
Restricting people from land and water isn’t a magic wand for conservation. While people can bring disturbance and damage, they can also serve to protect wild places both as eyes and ears noticing damage and as defenders of landscapes they enjoy. We have to start asking what is the function of restricted access? Does restricted access serve the few at the cost of the majority? Isn’t there something strange within systems whereby landowners can access public funds for managing their land, but members of the public can’t access it?
I remember the first time I went to Scotland and had ‘the right to roam’. In England I always looked at a map before going anywhere because I had to find a footpath to follow or areas of common land to walk through and try and connect them into a route. Having ‘the right to roam’ meant that looking at a map was looking at a landscape, and following a route led by the map symbols guiding me towards what I wanted to see and the kind of place I wanted to reach. Crossing a field with a huge bull in it was a decision-making process—in England we tended to assume that a farmer wouldn’t put cranky livestock in fields with footpaths. Being allowed ‘the right to roam’ didn’t just give me access to spaces, it changed my thinking.
Scotland’s right to roam does have limitations on what you can do and how you can behave - it isn’t licensed to rampage and cause damage. For example, where crops are sown in fields you can walk the field margins or the ‘tramlines’ left by tractor paths but should not trample the crop. In 2017 the right to roam was modified in 4% of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park because popular lochside areas were negatively affected by wild camping. In these areas during peak outdoor activity of spring-autumn wild camping is managed under byelaws to reduce the environmental impact of many people using the same place. But these modifications don’t take away the right for access, they channel it in an accountable direction, which seems reasonable. This kind of modification does also seem necessary in particularly attractive places so close to a big urban population and transport hubs that were consequently drawing the higher pressure of greater numbers of people.
Perhaps the unspoken word in ‘access rights’ that needs to be made explicit is that with access rights comes responsibility. You should be accountable for how you behave in wild places and feel duty as a custodian of them.
You have an obvious passion for nature and wildlife, so was being an ethnobotanist always in your career plan?
It was a journey towards being an ethnobotanist, particularly as I had no idea that knowing things about plants was something people or companies would pay for. In between starting out with a degree in Psychology and working in mental health and substance abuse support services and working as a freelance ethnobotanist there was additional formal studying and self-directed learning. I learnt taxonomy: how living organisms are classified. I spent eight months travelling around the whole coast of England, Wales and Scotland in a campervan getting to know wildlife and different wild places (before Instagram and #vanlife were invented). I did an MSc in Ethnobotany and I’m finishing a PhD looking at wildlife trade. Interviewing people in Britain for my MSc research on their wild plant use—not just what species they used, but also how did they know what is edible, how did they know how to use it—taught me a lot about people and how they interact with wildlife.
When attending international conservation science conferences, I’ve always made time to visit local markets and looked at wildlife trade in different continents from the muthi (traditional medicine) market in Johannesburg, South Africa to the farmer’s market in Thimphu, Bhutan. I’ve joined fieldwork expeditions on Mediterranean islands and up in the high mountains of Albania, where I’ve seen wild plants collected for export into the international trade in botanicals. It has been a process of accruing practical experience and formally certified knowledge that led to translating outdoors and wildlife into words. Work takes the form of articles in newspapers and magazines, my (first) book Wild Waters, scientific publications, giving talks, running workshops, and writing reports for companies on ingredient selection and sourcing.
Lockdown saw an increase of people taking up outdoor activities as a hobby, do you think the numbers will decrease when life returns to normal after the pandemic?
I think there will be a new “normal” after the pandemic has eased, and I very much hope that people who found solace in outdoor activities keep enjoying them.
There is a lot of historical background in your book. Did you enjoy researching it? Were there any surprising discoveries you came across?
I did do some research specifically for the book, but its also a vessel into which I’ve put things I’d already come across and thought were fascinating. So, it has made use of my long-term habit of stashing interesting knowledge.
For me the most surprising discovery was quite personal, an unexpected bridge between the wild orchids my PhD research is on, and seaweed used for marbling paper. English people became aware of the art of marbling paper in the 1600s. It wasn’t until a European discovered that locally available Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), instead of exotic gum tragacanth and salep orchid tubers, could create the mucilaginous texture vital to the marbling process that marbled paper was produced in Europe.
You give advice on foraging, what is your favourite thing to make from something you have foraged? Has there ever been any close calls when you’ve almost foraged something unsafe?
My favourite thing about foraging is seasonality and place. Consuming something on the day or preserving it and then being able to return to that season at a later date. Rather than a singular flavour foraging is one way of feeling connected to the landscape.
On fieldwork there was one occasion on which I forgot to check for critters and nearly picked up a snake instead of a leaf sample, luckily for me it was a shy snake that moved away rather than a snake that felt confrontational and ready to use its venom. But no, I have not had close calls foraging unsafe items. No one should have a close call foraging something unsafe! You shouldn’t pick something for use without knowing what it is and how to safely prepare it. Start simple, don’t try to learn everything edible at once. Learn how to identify a couple of things and grow your foraging knowledge gradually.
I would definitely warn against using phone apps to identify plants for foraging, I’ve seen too many poisonous plants incorrectly identified as innocuous plants to think phone apps are trustworthy to the level of relying on them for safe decisions on consuming plants and mushrooms. I do recommend using books and learning from people. If you don’t have friends or family who are foraging, you probably aren’t far from a foraging teacher. Have a look on the Association of Foragers directory (please note there is a bias alert here since I am a member of the Association of Foragers (AoF), and currently serving on the AoF committee). https://foragers-association.org/
Do you have any plans for future books?
Yes! I should send it to Kirsty Reade, Vertebrate Publishing’s commissioning editor.