Preparations for Pilgrimage

Skellig

As I prepare to sail “On the Western Edge” I have been exploring how it might be appropriate to think of the voyage as a pilgrimage. The idea of pilgrimage grew from a strong religious context—one thinks of the requirement of good Muslims to undertake the Hajj at least once in their lives; of the Christian pilgrimages of the Middle Ages; and the journeys of Hindu devotees to sacred sites on the River Ganges. In modern times has become customary to speak of pilgrimage in a secular sense: a Wagner devotee may so describe a trip to the Bayreuth Festspielhaus; as might a cricket lover a visit to Lords. This casual use in many ways detracts from the special, even archetypal, qualities of pilgrimage. However, it seems that we are experiencing a pilgrimage revival in current times in which the idea takes on new meanings and practices. The wilderness pilgrimage, the ecological journey, can be part of this.

In its fullest sense a pilgrimage entails a long journey in search of qualities of moral or spiritual significance, a journey across both outer physical and inner spiritual landscapes. A pilgrim separates himself or herself from home and everyday relationships, maybe in company with like-minded seekers, sometimes wearing special clothes or other marks that indicate their pilgrim status. The purpose of leaving the familiar is to journey through an in-between space toward some transcendent purpose. Places where two ecosystems meet, such as the brackish water of lagoons, are rich with lifeforms and ecological adaptation. The liminal space of the pilgrimage journey offers a fluid and imaginative space between human and more than human worlds, between matter and spirit, body and soul. This is a space in which the familiar can be made strange, facilitating movement across the boundaries between worlds.

My voyage does not fall within a religious tradition, but nevertheless has many qualities of pilgrimage. I will separate myself from home, undertaking a long and quite ambitious journey. It is a real physical journey that at the same time has a wider purpose in seeking to understand how we modern humans may deepen our sense of being participants in the ecology of the planet. And just as religious pilgrimage includes acts of devotion, so too does my journey, for I see it as a deep ecology homage to our islands. On such a journey the travelling, and the quality of that travelling, is as important, even more important, than the actual destination—as the poet Constantine P. Cavafy puts it:

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.

Seeing this voyage as pilgrimage raises all kinds of interesting questions. First of all, there are questions of purpose and motivation: what am I up to? is this a worth venture? what qualities should inform the decision to undertake a pilgrimage? From history one learns that pilgrimages are sometimes undertaken for less that pure motives—because it is expected, because it brings status, or because it takes the pilgrim away from challenges that need to be met at home (think of The Canterbury Tales). Yet I also suspect that whatever the qualities of the motivation, the challenges of the journey and its characteristic in-between-ness may bring about a transformation in motivation. So just as the pilgrimage may degenerate into tourism, so the tourist may be challenged into experiences that are transformational.

A second set of questions concern preparation. I have to make sure Coral is in good shape for the voyage, arrange for people to come with me, buy and stow equipment and stores. There are so many practical things to do: last week I was painting the bootline, fitting new hatches and greasing the seacocks while the engineer overhauled the engine; this week I have been checking charts and sailing directions, mending my binoculars, updating the first aid kit, and buying seaboots; next week Coral is to be launched and I will set up her running rigging and sails.

But preparations for a pilgrimage also demand attention to what is left behind. As well as practical preparations for the voyage I have been making sure all the jobs that need my attention in the house, garden and orchard have been completed. More importantly, I am attending to how I am leaving relationships, in particular with my wife Elizabeth, but also business relationships. Maybe inevitably those left behind will feel bereft as one departs, feeling deserted for some cause that is seen as more important. And one may feel some degree of responsibility, if not guilt, for leaving them. These issues cannot be resolved, but do need careful attention.

What has to be given up is also important. Many little things: while I will probably catch the best of the apple blossom before I leave, I will miss the burgeoning of the “upstart spring” in our garden. Since I plan for Coral to be away from her home port for two, maybe three years, I have given up the familiar mooring she has occupied for the last fifteen years, given away the hard dinghy I no longer need. In the greater scheme of things this is no big deal, but letting go is strangely upsetting. And more than this: my intention is that at the end of this voyage I will sell Coral and let her go to a new owner. By then I will be in my early seventies, time enough to hang up my waterproofs. To give up my identity as a sailing person involves a huge shift in my sense of who I am and how others see me.

So am I ready? I believe so, but my belief will be tested by the journey. Preparation, I realise, is what I do now, not what happens at some future time.

Picture: Coral sailing toward Skellig Michael and Little Skellig, off the coast of Kerry, in 2011. Skellig Michael has been a place of pilgrimage since the fifth century.

Waiting

hint of pink

For the past few weeks I have been waiting: waiting for spring to arrive and the daffodils to come out; waiting for it to be warm enough to get Coral ready for my voyage On the Western Edge; waiting to hear from my literary agent about Call of the Running Tide.  Waiting to get on with my plans.

As Fritz Perls, the originator of Gestalt Therapy told us, anxiety lies in the gap between the present and the future. It is a gap that can be filled with all kinds of worries and fantasies. I worry about why on earth I am going on this voyage; I worry about storms and shipwreck; I worry about all the practical details—what to do about my mooring in Plymouth while I am away; where I will be able to leave Coral en route; can I carry enough emergency diesel?

And my personal worries about the voyage rub up hard against my worries about the state of the Earth and climate change in particular. Will we ever move beyond this extended winter, this long cold spring? Now the Arctic weather systems seem to be extending southwards, will we ever again have a proper maritime climate, will rain-bearing depressions ever again come in from the Atlantic, bring their wet warmth to our islands?  What does the future hold and, more immediately, is the weather now so unpredictable that it is unwise to undertake a long voyage in a small yacht?

And I worry about my engagement with these issues. As a nature writer I want to show how our experience of the world around us is linked to large-scale planetary patterns. And I want to write in a way that shows how we are part of the ecology of the planet, part of the natural world rather than apart from it. But is this any longer relevant? Every day I read more detail about devastating changes to the climate system; that more and more creatures are nearing extinction. Every day I am asked to contribute to a different campaign: Greenpeace want me to help ‘save the Arctic’: Eradicating Ecocide need money; 38 degrees want me to write to my MP about bees, about the Energy Bill. I am continually asked to protest here, to contribute there. And every day I am confronted by my own behaviour, by the waste and pollution—plastics, energy, chemicals—I cause just by being a member of twenty-first century society.

Then on Easter Saturday the sun came out and I was able to drive (yes, drive) down to Plymouth and spend the day getting Coral ready for the season: I installed the batteries that had been on charge at home, adjusted the Aries steering gear, cleaned the cruddy marks along the waterline and painted on two coats of antifouling (more chemicals). It was a physically exhausting day, but actually doing something practical was an immense relief.

I have to remind myself again and again that there are lots of people younger than I am who are making the running, articulating and campaigning for the politics and practices that will help move toward a more sustainable world. I have to continually revalidate my own personal choice as to where I can best contribute. We will not learn to live in harmony with the ecology of our planet until we develop a powerful sense of wholeness and of living as part of the whole. New forms of politics, economics, social relationships are all essential. But they will need to rest on a deeper sense of belonging in the world, a capacity to link the immediate and the local to the whole, an ability to see the sacred in our damaged and degraded planet. And that is what I want to write about, in a way that I hope will be attractive and engaging as well as relevant to our times, in a way that might make a tiny difference.

Yet at the same time I write these words with a strong sense of conviction I also experience my complete inadequacy: the task is too big; there is no way I can live up to this aspiration. Then through that moment of despair I remember the old saw: How do you eat an elephant? One spoonful at a time!

Here is today’s spoonful.  It is good to write something, even a little piece like this.  And then, just before I post this I see there is at last a hint of pink on the apple trees, and a series of proper depressions are sweeping across England bringing south westerlies and promising a wet weekend. Blessed relief!

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