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.