Experience and Narrative

Coral in Dunmanus

I have been writing from my experience of the sea and coast while sailing for several years now. I want to explore the ways in which constructing a narrative influences experience.

One of my earliest pieces gave an account of a twenty-four hour Channel crossing in which I stayed on watch on my own through the evening and night because my son Matthew was disabled with dreadful seasickness.  The evening drew in with a moderate swell blowing in from the Atlantic. An endless procession of waves advanced rhythmically toward us. The low light glinted on the peaks so they reflected a metallic sheen, while casting deep shadows in the troughs between. Coral shouldered her way up to each peak, paused a moment, then slithered down into the trough, casting white water all around her. As she rose and fell in response to the swell, I stood balanced in the cockpit, now looking westward across the waves, now up at the sails. She was travelling very fast, and I wondered about taking in a reef, then wondered if I should see if Matthew was OK, but decided, no, neither was needed. I allowed myself to experience a simple joyfulness of the moment.

Do I remember the experience, or do I remember the remembering and the crafting of the narrative? Have I changed the experience, by writing about it (and now writing about it again)? And does it change the way I experience other moments that might be similar, but are subtly, even radically different? Is there a danger that when I write a narrative from an experience I create some kind of clichéd template into which similar experiences are forced? After all, the evening sun does often cast deep shadows on a moderate swell blowing in from the west.

Alternatively, does creating a narrative open awareness to fresh ways of seeing? When I asked my friend and fellow writer Miriam Darlington if she felt any confusion between experience and narrative, she responded

Yes, I have noticed something like this with my writing. What I have particularly noticed is something quite powerful happens when I have written a narrative of a particular place – somehow it has entered into me, or I have entered into it, actually both, and the porous relationship has deepened. It is as if the imagination has worked to blur or cross some boundary, and the connection to the place is sort of emotionally sealed. It is such a powerful feeling that I sense it physically, too. Then when I go back to that place, I often feel I am walking into my own narrative as well as into the place, and my body feels a certain “exquisite fit” as William Wordsworth put it, as if the imagination has opened some doors into place, into its nature, its particularity and wildness, which before were invisible.

I like that phrase: “the imagination has opened some doors into place… which before were invisible.”

My artist friends say the same about drawing. My artist wife Elizabeth and I have been inviting small groups of artists and writers to join us for a day to draw and write together. We chose stimulating venue and work in pairs, taking turns to point out things that attract our attention, and then draw or write (sometimes draw and write) a brief sketch in response. We meet over coffee and lunch to show and tell. The sketchy nature of the exercise allows us not to be too concerned about judgement and quality, and what becomes fascinating is the different qualities people see in the same objects and the imaginative responses these evoke.

In the last three years I have experienced four memorable moments while looking at the starry sky, exquisitely clear because in the middle of the sea there is no light pollution. Each time I have made audio recordings in the moment, listened and transcribed these when back at my desk, re-entered and re-imagined the experiences, drafted, then crafted my account. I have struggled to find the words that fit and do justice to both the phenomenon and the experience while avoiding cliché and fancy metaphor. Each occasion of experience and narrative has taken me into a deeper appreciation of the unfathomable infinity and mystery of the universe.

On another occasion I spent an hour taking pictures and writing about a little lump of thrift on a cliff top in Orkney, going deeper into the sense of the fragility of the plant, of the eroding cliff, of the whole island. When I stood up at the end, for a fragment of a second I experienced the whole of creation as a dancing process, similar, maybe, to that described by the Native American Black Elk. This writing became part of a little article in Resurgence & Ecologist, and now I never see thrift in the same way again.

So I think Miriam is right, it is the combination of experience with the imaginative process of crafting a narrative that opens the imagination to see what was previously unseen – and maybe unsee-able.

But I find I return to my original question: does the narrative in some way fix or reify what is ephemeral process, particularly when the experience touches on the mystical? Is there a danger of “spiritual materialism”, a term the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa used to describe how the most subtle experience can be used for the enhancement of ego. I worry when people respond to my narratives with an “Oh, wow!” tone in their voice. “What a wonderful experience!” they sometimes say, as if I have caught something out of this world. “No, no!” I want to cry out, “It was really special and completely ordinary!”

Two years ago I sailed to southwest Ireland and wrote about it in The Call of the Running Tide. This year I went there again, visiting some of the same places. At times, even though everything was so different – the time of year, my crew, the weather – I had the uncanny feeling that I was sailing through my own narrative. I was full of memories and stories from being there before. I think this was partly because the difficult weather made the actual sailing quite challenging, so the old stories had a rosy glow about them; partly because as a writer I wanted something new to say, to write a new book about new places; partly because much of the time I knew my way around without reference to the pilot books. But I am sure it was also because the carefully wrought narratives of the previous journey had themselves created a powerful attractor.

But sometimes novelty and contrast shocked me into new realizations. Two years ago I sailed into Dunmanus Bay for the first time in a sharp squall, and anchored in the lonely and dramatic surroundings of Dunmanus Harbour a little way in from the entrance. I was alone, and saw the bay as a wild and relatively untouched ecology, so that was how I wrote about it. This year my friend Steve was with me as crew. As we sailed into the bay, even though the weather was cold, the sun was shining, and we were met near the entrance by a pod of dolphins – they always raise the spirits. We went further up the bay, past Carberry Island, which shelters the upper reaches from the force of the Atlantic, and anchored by the wooded shores of Kitchen Cove. There we were closer inland, closer to Bantry and other holiday towns, so that at the pub we met up with English people visiting their holiday homes.

At first I was disappointed that Dunmanus Bay was not conforming to my image. Then I realized I was seeing it in a more complete way. Waterways like this connect the open wildness of the ocean to the relative shelter of the land. They constitute the ‘old ways’, to borrow Robert Macfarlane’s term, that reach from the open sea to the inhabited land, old ways not just for humans but for wildlife too. They provide a wide range of habitats, intermediate and intermingling ecosystems that are rich in variety. The “western edge” that I claim to be exploring reaches in to the inhabited as well as out to the wild.

So crafting narrative seems to potentially cut both ways: there is always a danger that the story reifies and comes to stand for experience; and there is also the creative opportunity that it allows us to look and look again, and to enter the experience more deeply with our senses and our imagination.

I think there is more to explore here, and would appreciate comments and responses.


Miriam Darlington, personal communication, June, 2013.

Neihardt, J. G. (1988, first published 1932). Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Reason, P. (2012). The Great Conversation: Peter Reason explores the significance of new Nature writing. Resurgence & Ecologist (Issue 275).

Chögyam Trungpa (2002) Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications

Macfarlane, R. (2012). The Old Ways: A journey on foot. London: Hamish Hamilton.

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Home Again

Orchard grass

I am happy to be home again, even if only for a few weeks. I made Coral safe on a buoy in Schull, arranged by the ever-helpful Simon at Schull Watersports, drove to London with my son Ben and grandchildren and took the train down to Bath.

Being on land was odd to begin with. At first, I stumbled around a bit. Everything is both much bigger (our kitchen is more than twice the size of Coral’s cabin) yet the context is smaller (houses, walls, and trees interrupt the line of sight compared with the great spaces of the ocean).  But as the train took me into the West Country, with its luscious greenness decorated with the lacy white May and cowparsley and studded with sparkling yellow buttercups, I had a strong feeling of coming home.

Elizabeth met me at the station and was pleased, as I knew she would be, that I had shaved off my sailing beard. We had, of course, much to talk about.

I have missed the best of the blossom on our new fruit trees, but am back in time to see the early flowering of the meadow grass we planted last year in the Orchard. When I left it was still a bit brown and scrubby after the winter. Now it is up to eighteen inches tall, with lovely grasses and daisies, Tom Thumb, poppies and yellow rattle and lots more beginning to come into flower. The trees we planted last spring are all doing well, and I enjoy myself training the new shoots on the maidens and older espalier trees along their wires.

Every morning I sit at my computer and work my notes and memories into words. Can I catch and convey the sense of the wildness and the homeliness of Ireland? We will see.

Family sailing and strange weather

Mizen

My elder son Ben and his children Otto and Liberty arrived last Saturday for the final week of this leg of the journey. My hope was that the children would enjoy an experience on the edge of the wild—not too wild, but not too civilized either. On Sunday we enjoyed a quiet sail down Long Island Sound to Crookhaven, but then the west wind blew up. We were safely moored to a visitors buoy, but I had not reckoned on the way the winds funnel down the valley, and so quite a lot of the time Coral was swinging around on her mooring and pitching uncomfortably in the short waves. We dressed up in waterproofs to go ashore each day and had several good walks, but much the time were rather cooped up together in Coral’s cabin, big enough for one or two adults but not much space for lively youngsters.

On Tuesday we blew back downwind to Schull with just the headsail set and decided we needed a day ashore, so drove to the Visitor Centre at Mizen Head. Mizen is the far southwest corner of Ireland, indeed of the whole British archipelago, and is a quite spectacular setting. The headland itself is actually an island, reached by an arched bridge across a chasm from the mainland. The wind accelerates through the crack with wild whistle, making it difficult to keep to ones feet. Looking down, one can see the waves crash into a narrow inlet, piling foam against the rocks; to the south is the vast expanse of the Atlantic; to the north there is a view through the narrow gap of the chasm toward precipitous cliffs, their strata split into angular forms and piled up by tectonic forces so they lie at apparently chaotic angles, reminding me of the strange shapes of Daniel Libeskind’s postmodern architecture.

Once across the bridge and on the headland itself, we could see that the wind was beginning to pile the sea up. Lumpy waves marched past from the north, and long streaks of foam blew across the water surface downwind of the headland. Immediately below us among the rocks in a particularly disturbed patch of sea the water was turning back against the wind, causing eddies and particularly confused patterns of waves. And where the waves broke over the rocks they threw plumes of white water high into the air that then ran down through the cracks and fissures in rivers of foam.

The whole scene was quite sobering for me, having looked up at the head several times from a small yacht but never before from above, in such strong winds from above. “About Force 6”, said the chatty man who took out tickets. “No more than that. Some people they say, ‘is that all? I thought it would be a gale’ and I tell them to stand in an open car at 40 miles and hour to know what a gale is like.” I wondered what Coral had looked like from up here when Steve and I passed the previous week, when I had imagined the coastguards looking down at us. But of course there are no coastguards actually looking out from the Mizen, only tourists: all the lights are automatic and the coastguards themselves are somewhere further inland.

On Wednesday the weather turned. The depression that brought the strong winds was now dumping rain on the west of England, while we had had a really warm summer day—with a lighter, but still chill north wind. We took Coral out from Schull to nearby Carthy Islands—a group of grass-topped rocks grouped around a sheltered lagoon, reached by a narrow passage between the rocks. The children were able to go ashore on a real uninhabited island as I had promised. Later, we saw that the islands were also home to a colony of seals, some twenty or thirty including some cubs, which caused great excitement for both children and adults.

Later in the week we landed on larger Castle Island, scoured the beach for interesting shells and sheep bones and explored the several deserted houses. Quite small, roofless, tumbling down in places but still with fireplaces, doors and windows, it is funny to think that these ruins were once home to families, with children, parents and grandchildren making a hard living together.

So a good week in the end, and after the hard pounding of the first two weeks of this part of the journey on the whole quite restful. I hope it gave Otto and Liberty a view of the world they might not otherwise have. But lurking in the background is always the question of the strange weather we have been having. “What do you make of this weather?” I asked Simon in Schull Watersports as we arranged to leave Coral on a buoy until Gib and Suzy join me there in July. “It’s really strange, isn’t it,” he replied. “The sun has come out but it is still so cold with this continual north wind.”

It difficult to say whether this odd spring is evidence of the effects of climate change or just a particularly extreme pattern of our changeable climate. But the disturbing thought that human activities are changing the Earth on which we live lies continually, and uneasily, at the back of my mind.

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