Salt Story

I have been fangirling at A WineDark Sea for a while now—it is, hands down, the best blog I have had the luck to read. Its author, Sarah Drummond, was a commercial fisherwoman when I first happened on it, and she blogged about the south-west of Western Australia, the characters she met fishing and, sometimes, her studies on Australia’s sealing past.

The blog’s overarching topic was fascinating, so there was that, but there was also the lyrical language, the way a moment would be captured and mined for meaning; there was the ear for dialogue and the instinct for material that could be woven into a fine tale. And, of course, there was the blog’s narrator. How not to fall in love with that gutsy, amusing, clear-sighted, wild-haired woman?

Often there were several posts a week, all of them sparking with fascinating detail, all of them generous for the insight and entertainment they offered up.  You can imagine, then, how keen I was to get my hands on a copy of Salt Story: Of sea-dogs and fisherwomen, which grew out of, or perhaps in tandem with, A WineDark Sea.

It was also with some trepidation that I opened it. It hardly bears stating that blogs and books are very different beasts. Part of the joy of a blog is its immediacy: the way an experience can be rapidly turned into a published piece that is, from that moment, accessible to the reader. As a WineDark Sea reader, I could be sitting at work, bored, and so decide to click through to the blog and dip into what Sarah had done that very morning: interview a fisherwoman, say, or spot the calling card of a shark in the Sound. There is such a thrill in knowing that the experience-turned-tale I’m reading right now has played out a long way from me spatially but very close to me in terms of time.  Another difference in form is the need, in a blog (something I struggle with!), for pithy posts that begin in medias res and capture a moment, which doesn’t necessarily translate to a book-length work given the aim, there, of immersion. How then would the tales-as-book, in sacrificing the illusion of time shared by author and reader, and in being translated to long form, fare?

I needn’t have worried. The book is divided into 62 short chapters with most hovering around the 1,000-word mark, but in Drummond’s hands this works perfectly for another reason: a much more relevant formal antecedent to this work is, appropriately, the campfire yarn or fisher(wo)man’s tale.  While each of the individually titled tales/chapters would work as stand-alone pieces, the steady accumulation of them—of the happenings and conversations and encounters—presents a life and a lifestyle so rich and intricate you won’t want to look up from the book’s pages. Characters are affectionately drawn, in all their contradictions and wily ways, and their humour and wisdom give cause for chuckles one minute and introspection the next.

Drummond’s book also acts as quiet but firm advocacy for an endangered way of life. These fishers’ practice—which is sustainable, unlike the unseen, huge operations that trawl offshore—is made impracticable by the whims of Fisheries, and by Fisheries’ pandering to the ‘reccies’ (those who partake in recreational fishing) in a project to gentrify the sea and inlets, to turn them into spaces visited for leisure rather than places known and loved intricately by those who work them.

Salt Story is an important documentation of a living history. Drummond’s gaze is that of both insider and outsider, and this twinned perspective gives depth to her book, in that it allows her to trace a geography she knows intimately, while also ensuring that she is attuned to what is special and eccentric about her topic. Drummond writes with language by turns lyrical, colloquial and specific to the realm of fishing (‘carvels’, ‘seiners’, ‘clinkers’), and has a fascinating story to tell: an intoxicating combination.

Elizabeth Bryer’s writing has recently appeared in Seizure, Etchings and the December issue of Meanjin. Her online home is Plume of Words.

Her essay Untying the Tongue: The Elusive Art of Interpreting appears in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings.