The low-lying islands and shores of Germany’s western coast are as much water as they are land, subject to both frequent storms and the daily ebb and flow of the tides. For humans, living in this landscape means living with the weather: although humans have long shaped the landscape, using dikes to claim the land from the sea, it is a precarious balance, and storm floods regularly submerge all but the highest points of the islands. At low tide, much of the water between the islands is transformed into miles of mud laced with deeper channels into which the receding water flows.
The region, known as the Wadden Sea, was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 2009. The species inhabiting this biologically rich ecosystem include the lugworm (Arenicola marina), whose characteristic coiled casts (the worm itself remains unseen, burrowed in the mud) are a familiar sight to anyone walking the mudflats—an activity that has become increasingly popular among visitors to the North. “Wattwanderung,” as such mudflat hiking is called, is an intriguing form of ecotourism in a society where dirt is generally seen as undesirable and our exposure to nature is highly filtered to obscure its less appealing aspects. And yet clearly the urge remains: to walk barefoot among the worms and shells and get mud between our toes.
Although scarcely a typical “charismatic” species, the lugworm has also established a place for itself, alongside seagulls, seals, and sheep, in the repertoire of North Sea memorabilia: tourists can purchase gummy “lugworms” or browse postcards featuring cartoons of lugworms and seagulls commenting on the stormy northern weather.