Leaving

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My bags are packed. I have been up to the Polling Station and voted Green. Put out the recycling. Walked up to look at the garden and the orchard. This afternoon I go up to London and tomorrow on to Scotland. My plan is to spend until mid-August exploring the west coast and the islands, on what I am increasingly willing to call a sailing pilgrimage.

I feel sad at leaving home. This place has been the centre of my life for nearly 40 years, and carries a deep sense of familiarity. And it is strange to leave at this time of year, when everything is bursting forth, changing, developing. As I walk up the footpath I notice that the May, which last week was at is peak of glory, covering the fields in ‘bling’, as Elizabeth put it, is now beginning to fade. The white petals fall as a light snowfall, dropping slowly through the air and littering the paths. In the orchard, the blossom is over and the fruit is formed on the trees and bushes, growing larger and taking on colour day by day. Maybe it is the flower meadow in the orchard I will miss most. Through the winter and early spring we kept the grass cut to stop it swamping the flowers. While the grass was still short there was a sprinkling of cowslips; now it is longer, the yellow rattle is flowering and the black eyed daisies in bud; I know that through the summer different species will dominate in a glorious sequence, and that I will miss it.

So I leave things behind and look forward rather anxiously to the adventure in the Scottish islands. What will I do with myself, alone for much of the time, for weeks on end? why am I doing this? Is there going to be a book to write out of this pilgrimage to follow Spindrift? Will I have anything new to say? Sarah B says go and be a shaman first, and through that I will find what to write… but I am not very sure what that means. People I speak to seem impressed that I will be away on my own for that long.

I have to remember what that I am attempting to rise to the challenge of finding a different sense of identity as a human being. A different story of who we are. It sounds completely over the top to say this or write it down, but that seems to me to be part of the challenge of our times.In Spindrift I took from Thomas Berry the importance of developing a conversation with the world; I used the koan “Wilderness treats me like a human being”. More recently I was taken by an old quote from Alan Watts “We need to become vividly aware of our ecology, or our interdependence and virtual identity with other forms a life…” “Vividly” seems a very apt word.

But I must remember my own way of putting in a tweet: “In these terrible times it is comforting to know that there is a great work to be done, changing the way we modern human see ourselves”. That is what it is about. And that is why I am leaving the comfort and familiarity of home and facing the anxiety of being alone at sea.

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Remembering the gale in Biscay

Matthew BiscayIn my book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea, I write about crossing Biscay in a gale with my two sons Ben and Matthew, and Ben’s then girlfriend, now wife, Kate. I write about the way we had to close up the companionway with the washboards to prevent the waves coming into the cabin when they broke over the cockpit. Going through family slides I discovered just one or two photos I took during the crossing, one of which is of Matthew on watch alone taken through the crack in the washboards. I wrote in Spindrift:

“It was lonely work at the helm… It was also hard physical work, as the big seas coming over the quarter would slew the stern around to starboard and then back to port as they rolled past. Each one of us, when it was our turn at the helm, had to tune into this rhythm, so that without thinking we could anticipate the movements and steer a reasonably straight course. After a couple of hours, arm muscles began to ache.”

wave biscayA second picture shows one of those waves. It looks quite dark and menacing, although it seems nothing like as big as I remember, or indeed as I write about in the book.

“As each one reared over the stern we could look up into its curving underside. For several moments it would be a sense of colour that predominated, for as the wave prepared to break it turned from dark grey to deep green and then to a translucent turquoise streaked with white. Poised above us it was arrestingly beautiful. Then it lost its form and its colour, breaking into a mass of foam.”

Did I make it up when I described the waves rising above Coral’s cockpit so we were actually looking up into them? I think it more likely that when the waves were really big I was too busy managing the boat to worry about photographs. It also shows that while it is commonplace that a picture is worth a thousand words, the craft of writing can show aspects of experience that are not available to a flat photographic image. Writing evocative descriptions of the sea state is quite a challenge.

 

 

Meandering

me at helmLast year, sailing round Ireland to Scotland, I set out a series of objectives. My plan was first to sail down the Channel and across the Celtic Sea to County Cork and on past Kerry and Clare to Galway; after exploring Galway Bay and the coast of Connemara, I would set off round the northwest coast, past Erris Head and Bloody Foreland and across to Scotland. For each leg I worked out an approximate number of days sailing, and identified places to stay along the way.

In the event, with persistent fresh northerly winds, it took far longer to reach Galway that I expected. More difficult weather made the last leg to Scotland hard work. I rushed past places I wanted to explore and appreciate. I alarmed my crew and got very tired.

My original plan for this year was equally ambitious: I would sail from Oban up the west coast, around the north of Scotland, through the Pentland Firth and return to the west coast via the Caledonian Canal through the Great Glen. But as I studied the charts, I realized this if I did this I would again rush past places where I might want to linger. I realized that heroic objectives are not necessary.

So I have began to explore a different metaphor for this year’s journey, that of meandering. A meandering river winds through the countryside, its changing course guided by its own internal dynamics and in response to the land through which it flows. The river does, of course, flow with a sense of direction, meandering always down toward the sea; but its course may take it in great loops away from this destination.

The word meander is used metaphorically to refer to suggest leisurely wandering over an irregular or winding course. ‘Wandering’ generally means to go without fixed purpose or goal, or to go by an indirect route. ‘Meandering’ implies an inclination rather than a goal. Just as a river follows a meandering course toward the sea, so a human wandering may have some sense of a direction and purpose, but does not allow that does not dominate their choices. Meandering suggests rather an emphasis on spontaneity and choice in the moment, influenced by circumstances and opportunities – in my case the wind and the tides – and by one’s own inclinations in the moment.

But a river does not meander all the time. Meandering is a response to particular environmental conditions: a relatively wide valley, soft soil, a gentle incline. Where it flows over hard rocks, the river may be forced into ravines, tumble through rapids or over falls. And in similar fashion, the meandering pilgrim will at times need to reach a temporary destination, a safe anchorage in bad weather or a town where stores can be replenished. And yet, maybe in the longer term all rivers meander, as can be seen by the way the Colorado River now meanders along the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which it cut through the rock. Wikipedia tells us that “… this process of making meanders seems to be a self-intensifying process … in which greater curvature results in more erosion of the bank, which results in greater curvature ….” So maybe all life is best seen as a meandering, and the plans we set out are no more than entertaining fictions.

As a river meanders it leaves behind it a record of its history – often an extensive fertile flood plain, layers of deposits, occasional oxbow lakes. A sailing yacht leaves a wake behind that is very soon disappears into the ocean. As a pilgrim sailor I can leave another kind of record – in the stories I can tell, the meaning I can fathom from my journeying.

So this year my intention is to wander away from Dunstaffnage, where Coral has spend the winter, and meander up the west coast of Scotland, exploring the islands as I go. My meandering will have a certain inclination – toward Cape Wrath and the Outer Hebrides, toward the wilder rather than the more urbanised. But I might end up just slowly ambling round the Isle of Skye.

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