Seascapes: Shaped by the Sea

SeascapesI am delighted to have received my copy of Seascapes: Shaped by the Sea, a book edited by Mike Brown and Barbara Humberstone exploring ‘different perspectives of being with the sea’, in which I have a chapter.

This book aimed primarily at an academic market. The editors use words like ‘autoethnography’ and ‘embodiment’ to frame it. But it seems nevertheless that it would appeal to non-academic readers. I am particularly looking forward to reading my friend Robbie Nichols account of explorations in his sea kayak. (Although its price at over $100 will put a lot of people off. Who pays this kind of price for a book? If you are an academic maybe your can get your University library to buy it!).

My chapter is in many ways a companion to Spindrift and part of my explorations ‘on the western edge’,  in that it explores issues of sustainability through eco-literature. I call it Sailing with Gregory Bateson in tribute to that great systems thinker and polymath, a man who has so influenced the way I think. Much of the chapter tells of a passage through the Chenal du Four – the tidal passage on the northwest corner of France that leads from the English Channel down to the Rade de Brest – how the tide turns against us and I chose to stop sailing and push through with the engine.

The whole sensation of moving through the water had changed: we were forcing our way into the wind rather than working with it. A mechanical wake of water stirred up by the propeller streamed out astern; the bows crashed directly into and through the waves rather than riding obliquely over them. No longer balanced against the wind, Coral sat level in the water yet pitched up and down as if irritated by the waves. And instead of the slap of the waves, the hum of the rigging, and the wind in our ears, the steady roar and vibration of the twin cylinder diesel engine under our feet, running at almost maximum power, dominated everything.

I use this story to illustrate the argument Bateson develops in his paper Conscious Purpose vs Nature: how as we humans pursue our purposes, drawing on fossil fuels and advanced technology, we cut through the complex cycles of mutual influence that balance natural ecosystems. In this case it is just me and my little diesel engine, but writ large on the planet this is devastating: it leads to degraded ecosystems, species loss, climate change.

It also makes the world and our experience of it less beautiful and at times even ugly. In his later life Bateson explored a theme he first developed in his early anthropological studies, linking the aesthetic and the beautiful in nature and in human art with the possibility of enlightened ways of being.

Creative activity and appreciation of art is a means of recovering grace, the reintegration of the “diverse parts of the mind” – especially those we (maybe wrongly) call the conscious and the unconscious. And he increasingly began to link these two themes, suggesting that aesthetic engagement is an essential part of a path toward ecological wisdom, for the appreciation of the systemic quality of the natural world is primarily an aesthetic, rather than an intellectual experience.

I have drawn on this notion of grace a bit more in an article that will come out soon in the magazine EarthLines. The appreciation of the systemic quality of the natural world is primarily an aesthetic, rather than an intellectual experience. Aesthetic engagement – through all the arts, and also through just getting out in wonder – is an essential part of a path toward a sustainable human presence on Earth.

Seascapes: Shaped by the Sea. Embodied Narratives and Fluid Geographies, edited by Mike Brown and Barbara Humberstone, London: Ashgate, 2015.


Inch Kenneth


Mood swings. I am upset and furious that the outboard doesn’t work again, but then pleased with myself when I see how to mend the broken rowlock on the dinghy. Tired and grumpy, I wonder again what on earth I am doing here all on my own. One of the challenges is to keep in mind that, just because it is a great privilege to be away like this, I do not have to be happy, or enjoying myself, or certainly not having transcendental experiences ALL THE TIME. Getting tired and grumpy is part of being human and so part of the human pilgrimage.

I have moved north to an interesting anchorage, set between Inch Kenneth, which is a low and grassy island, and the huge cliffs at the entrance Loch na Keal on the west coast of Mull. The island is sedimentary rock (“triassic conglomerates and limestone outcrops broken down to give good soil”, according to the book Scottish Islands); while the cliffs on Mull are volcanic in origin, Triassic basalt weathered into terraces.

Between these two, the hard and the friable, is this sheltered anchorage, quite a large pool, although guarded by reefs that make entry challenging (especially with an inaccurate hand bearing compass!)

Anchor down, I look toward the cliffs and the three tiny white cottages that lie by the road along the shore. Three white rectangles, in some ways quite insignificant, but in other ways a testament to human abilities to create living space in the most unlikely places.

I decided to stay put for a day, to do nothing. I need to take time to settle into this pilgrimage now I am really into it. I don’t have to justify myself by ‘going somewhere’ or by having wonderful experiences I can blog about. Take it gently, John Crook used to say about solo retreats. So I allowed myself to wake late and have a leisurely morning–strip off for full body wash, breakfast, wash up and tidy, half hour formal meditation. Then I rowed ashore and explored the grassy island, enjoying the wildflowers and the views–for a moment I thought I saw a pair of eagles, but realized that they were (only!) ravens.

Thursday was wet and windy, I saw no point in getting wet and uncomfortable, so I stayed another day. I meditated longer, opening myself to the cliffs. With the rain spitting and fresher winds rocking the boat concentration is difficult, to say nothing of the stream of my thoughts demanding attention. But I do get glimpses of a time scale at the limits of human imagination. These cliffs, according to my book, are geologically quite recent. Sequential volcanic eruptions laid down the layers that over time have eroded into terraces stepping down the hillsides. These rocks have been here since before humans evolved. And yet those little cottages and houses look so permanent, so part of the scene. My sense of impatience at wanting to be getting along, wanting to do something, while these cliffs just stay present. “Thinking like a mountain”, indeed!

“Wilderness treats me like a human being”. So goes the koan. This meditation gives me a sense of our human impatience, our restlessness, our wanting things to be the way we want them to be. And the mountains and the weather just keep doing their thing, Meandering is just that, going with what is. I had intended to move, but I will stay here until the rain stops.

I do have thoughts about quitting, about saying this is all to uncomfortable, too challenging. I occasional have a sense of such loneliness that I can imagine how a person might go quite crazy. The pilgrimage is a confrontation with the self, with the skin encapsulated ego, with the project-driven and achievement-oriented modern human. Every project that comes to mind is a diversion from the challenges of the moment: Let’s go further up the Loch, let’s go to Tiree, let’s make sure we see an eagle by going on a nature tour, let’s get the outboard fixed…. But if needed I could stay here a week with all the food and water available.

So the engagement with the larger world, even in a few minutes of meditation on the cliffs, or with the cliffs, puts the self into a perspective, helps quieten the thrusting ego.

I am also writing haiku that I am sharing with my friend David

Eocine basalt cliffs
pattering rain on sprayhood
one modern man

Fresh Nor’easterlies
cold hard rain
I wait

I am finding there is a discipline in writing haiku that is itself meditative. Haiku (forget the five/seven/five format) I take as a distillation of a moment, removing all that is not essential in an intimate focusing. It is a little like a koan in reverse: instead of having to crack the koan, one has to crack the present experience into haiku.

By staying here these couple of days I have been able to really attend to these basalt cliffs: watching them through the day as the sun moves from shadowing them in the morning to lighting their peaks with orange in the evening; noticing the details of the streams tumbling down and glimmering where the light catches the falling water; seeing the contrast between the cottages and farm buildings at the foot and the enormity of their 200-300 metres drop; understanding their origin by reading the geology book. I have also been developing a sense of time: these rocks are geologically quite young, yet they were here long before human evolution can be said to have begun, have weathered and reduced in size.

All this attention provides me with a tiny sense of intimacy, of being in place rather than of watching scenery.


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.

Moments of Awe

spindrift coverAnother taster from Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea

Several years ago, cruising southwest Ireland, Elizabeth and I anchored in a rocky bay off Goat Island, County Cork. We were seeking out wild and desolate places. I had noticed this cove on the chart earlier, and wondered if it might provide some shelter from the cold north-westerlies that had been blowing all week. Reading the soundings, I thought the water might be too deep to anchor, but we agreed to go and have a look. We motored along the sound and out through the gap at the end of Long Island. Goat Island is a rocky outcrop rising some ten metres sharply from the sea with a thatch of rough grass on top. It is really two islands that only merge together at low tide, the two halves separated by a spectacular crack through the rocks only a few metres wide. Approaching from the sound, the island appears as one solid mass; then the crack gradually opens as the perspective changes, until the view is clear right through and back to the mainland.

We motored slowly into the tiny bay, carefully watching the depth sounder. For a moment the water shoaled to within anchor depth, but then plunged again to thirty feet and then more – beyond the range of the sounder. We crept up to the island, foot by foot, and close to the rocks suddenly found bottom again. “Let’s try it here,” I called, and Elizabeth dropped the anchor, letting all the chain out.

The anchor held, but felt precarious. It was presumably perched on a shelf of rock jutting out underwater before plunging to greater depths. We were very close to the rocks and Coral would not lie still. The wind whistling through the crack between the islands created eddies which swung her back and forth. Every now and then her stern would swing alarmingly close to the shore.

We turned off the engine, and for a moment experienced the silence of the world, a silence that lurked underneath all the sounds that remained to be heard: the wind in the rigging, the cries of birds, the pounding of the waves. It was a silence with a strange depth, infinite and yet so immediate we felt we could touch it. We looked up at Goat Island, at the rocky outcrops pushing through the turf. We saw a place not intended for humans, but for gulls and grass and a few wild flowers. We stayed there a short moment before our anxiety about the nearby rocks drove us away. Elizabeth hauled up the anchor and we inched gingerly back out to sea.

“That was rather special,” I said as we motored away.

“Let’s see if we have a moment of awe like that every day,” Elizabeth replied, only slightly tongue in cheek.

We chatted about how you can’t hold on to that kind of moment; it is there, you can acknowledge it, enter into it, but you can’t take it away with you.


Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Vala Publishing Cooperative

A Day in the Life

DerrynameI woke early and for a few minutes lay in my bunk savouring the warmth of the duvet. As Coral swung to her anchor, the low April sun shone through her windows, dancing oval patches of light around the cabin. I watched them lazily, then shook myself properly awake and climbed out of my bunk, stretching my stiff back and legs. In the galley, I pumped water into the kettle, lit the gas ring and set water to boil for tea, before clambering up the companionway into the cockpit to look around. Derrynane Harbour is a pretty bay on the north side of the Kenmare River, just off the famous Ring of Kerry on the west coast of Ireland, where the land rises steeply from the sea to the mountains. I had arrived in harbour two days previously after sailing around the Blasket Islands and Skellig Rocks, watching gannets nesting and meeting a pod of dolphins along the way. The bay is enclosed by low-lying islands, rocky reefs and sandbars, well sheltered from all directions. That morning, little waves were breaking on a beach behind me, lines of white rolling up over yellow sand. Ahead of me, coastal hills rose gradually toward the steeper mountainside, a patchwork of stone walled fields scattered with white houses and trees – more trees than one often sees on the west coast of Ireland. Above the fields, a clear line marked where the cultivated land stopped, and the scrubby brown of the mountains began.

It was still cold, the air clear and sharp – too cold to be outside in pyjamas and bare feet. Soon I was shivering, but stayed out long enough to notice there was only a trace of movement in the water, scarcely breaking the reflection of moored boats and the surrounding rocks and hills. Hardly a drop of wind. I was disappointed, even a bit grumpy, that there was no sign of the northeasterlies forecast the previous evening – I really wanted a good sail that day. Maybe the wind would arrive as the day woke up properly, as my wife Elizabeth likes to say.

I made tea – black Darjeeling, for the last of my milk had gone sour two days earlier. There was no fresh bread left and without milk I couldn’t make the creamy porridge I had been enjoying each morning, but I found a packet of pitta bread in the dry food locker, toasted two pieces and spread them with butter and marmalade. It was several days since I had been near a shop. I tidied the cabin and washed my breakfast cup and the crockery and pans from last night’s supper in a bucket of sea water. Before I’d set off, my younger son Matthew recalled our first family sailing trip to Ireland, nearly 25 years ago, saying with mock outrage, “You made us wash up in cold sea water!” Partly to conserve fresh water, but mainly to honour these memories, I was using sea water to wash up on this trip.

Those were the days when sailing holidays were part of family life, a way of having shared adventures and being a father to my sons Ben and Matthew, now grown men with children of their own. Mostly these were boys’ trips, but Elizabeth joined us sometimes, especially enjoying three cruises in Ireland. Last time we were here she made a delicate pencil drawing of the Derrynane hillside I could see over Coral’s bows.

But this time I was on my own, for I had a different purpose on this trip. During my career as a university professor I ran courses for management students on the challenges of sustainabilityand led research into the adoption of low carbon technologies.Now retired from university life, I wanted to look at the ecological challenge from a different, maybe more radical, perspective. I know from my professional life that there are all kinds of good ideas about how to make the way we live, our patterns of making and consuming, more sustainable. But I believe there is a deeper question: not only about what we do, but how we experience ourselves. We humans are, after all, just another species, an ordinary (and extraordinary) member of the community of life on Earth. It’s just that we don’t think of ourselves like that very often; we tend to see ourselves as separate, set apart from the organic whole that is life on Earth. Thomas Berry, a priest and theologian who wrote and taught about the deep connections between spiritual and scientific understandings of life, suggested that we humans have broken the great conversation between ourselves and the rest of the living world. What would it take to experience ourselves as participants in a wider, more-than-human world, in conversation with the sea, the land and its creatures?


Taken from Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea, Vala Publishing Cooperative 2014

Available from

What is pilgrimage?

Hand on stone“What do you understand by ‘pilgrimage’?” my wife Elizabeth asked me this morning, as we sat up in bed with our early morning cup of tea. The question was partly stimulated by the title of the book she is reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. “Don’t you think it has become a rather fashionable word?” she asked.

I felt I should have a clear and snappy answer to her question, since I am publishing a book with the word ‘pilgrimage’ in the title. But ‘pilgrimage’ isn’t like that.

The English term ‘pilgrim’ seems to originate in the Latin word peregrinus (per, through + ager, field, country, land), which means a foreigner, a stranger, someone on a journey, or a temporary resident. It can describe a traveller making a brief journey to a particular place or someone settling for a short or long period in a foreign land. Peregrinatio was the state of being or living abroad; and Christians were seen as temporary residents in this world travelling toward their heavenly homeland. This contrasts with an ecological view that we are not just passing through but Earthlings first: we evolved with and profoundly belong to this planet; our place is not in heaven, but here. We are, as Aldo Leopold, one of the originators of the modern ecological movement, put it, plain members of the biotic community.

In Spindrift I quote poet and wilderness writer Gary Snyder, who describes the wilderness pilgrim’s ‘step-by-step breath-by-breath’ progress into the wild, whether the wild of mountains or ocean or meditation as ‘an ancient set of gestures’ that bring a sense of joy, a joy that arises through ‘intimate contact with the real world’ and so also with oneself.

So my sense of pilgrimage is that it is not so much a journey, and it is certainly not about arriving in a particular holy place. It is more a state of mind. As Satish Kumar puts it in an interview in the Bristol Spark: pilgrimage is about seeking deep commitment here and now on this earth; a pilgrim is someone who tries to keep their mind and heart open for whatever is emerging.  Tries, and inevitably fails, I must add.

But while not an essential aspect of pilgrimage, journeying, and journeying into wilderness in particular, can be an important part of pilgrimage. Going away from the familiar and the habitual, from the comforts and apparent safety of civilization, creates opportunities for the mind and heart to open.

In the middle of our morning conversation, Elizabeth started singing, searching her memory for the words of Bunyan’s famous hymn To Be a Pilgrim (after all, we were both brought up in regular church-going families). Soon we were both in full voice, the familiar words hurtling back from childhood, although sometimes in the wrong order. Bunyan’s hymn tells us of qualities that define a pilgrim: Valour, strongly-held purpose, constancy, courage in the face of difficulties. Old-fashioned words and Puritan sentiments, maybe, but important nevertheless.

But pilgrimage is more paradoxical than just hard work and persistence; it can also be where the mundane meets the sacred or numinous. The step-by-step practicalities of the journey have to be addressed (it is important to lock the front door on leaving home); but through addressing them with the intention of pilgrimage something other may open to us. Maybe we discover that the mundane is the sacred. Pilgrimage is also where purpose and intentionality can meet serendipity, where one’s plans are overtaken and transformed by chance encounters and happenstance, where this moment suddenly opens into another dimension of meaning. As I laid my hand on the stone of Dún Aonghasa on Inishmore, I felt a direct, but unexpected, link with the Iron Age people who built the wall in the second century BCE.

All this and much more.  To the modern sentiment, pilgrimage can seem a strange notion, full of superstition, self-delusion and even mass hysteria. It may also seem excessively high-minded and preachy.  But if we are able to look beyond these to the ‘ancient set of gestures,’ to an archetypal practice, we might discover how practices of pilgrimage can inform the development ecological sensitivity and responsiveness and help us rediscover our place in the community of life on earth.

Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Vala Publishing Cooperative

The Ritual Weave

buds‘The human community is woven into the primal ecology of a spontaneously self-generating and harmonious Cosmos’

These words caught my eye this morning as I opened David Hinton’s book Hunger Mountain.  Of course we are woven into the ecology of the cosmos! What else could we be? We are all of us part of a network of belonging, ‘I to we, we to earth, earth to planets and stars…’ as Hinton puts it. The story of evolution of life on Earth, and behind that the story of the evolution of the Universe, makes this so clear – empirically as well as intuitively. We emerged out of the Earth and the Earth from the Universe, just as the buds are emerging from the fruit trees in our orchard on these early spring days.

Hinton’s book explores our world – and specifically his walks up Hunger Mountain near his home – through an ancient Chinese perspective, drawing on Taoist and Chan philosophical traditions and practices. In this view, the individual is not so much an inner self or spirit-centre as part of a weave of social relationships. Ritual – the subject of the chapter I am reading today – invests this social weave with a numinous dimension, a practice of selfless and reverent concern for others.

We are not only woven into society, but also woven into our wider ecology. Aldo Leopold echoes the Taoist understanding when he reminds us in A Sand County Almanac, we are plain members of the biotic community, woven into the fabric of life on Earth and beyond that the Universe.  So what does it take for us to feel that woven identity as a self-evident experience? And how is it that for much of the time most of us walk around self-contained in our ‘skin encapsulated ego’, to borrow Alan Watts phrase?

They are questions that spiritual seekers in many disciplines have pursued through the ages, one that I have explored on my sailing pilgrimages and in my book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea. Hinton writes that ‘Weaving self and landscape together in an opening of consciousness, a walk, like a poem, weaves us into a Ritual fabric’. This is equally true of my sailing pilgrimages.

One of the things I have learned is that, if I allow it, my life is actually quite full of tiny numinous moments, moments when I experience the world as inside me, just as I am inside the world. And these moments can involve everyday objects, as yesterday when the screwdriver, the screws, and the task to hand took on particular qualities of elegance and rightness – suchness, I suppose the Taoists might have called it.  And while these moments are always there, I have also learned that they are very easy to ignore, to pass over in the rush toward some distant purpose. Pilgrimage is not about arrival, but continual open journeying.

Hinton, David. Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape. Boston & London: Shambhala, 2012.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: Oxford University Press, 1949.

Watts, Alan. The Book on the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Vala Publications in April 2014






“How did it go?” asked Melanie a couple of weeks after I got home from the last leg of my summer voyage.  Melanie is a longstanding writing buddy and sailor whose partner, Steve, had come with me on the first leg. “Fine, on the whole,” I replied, and continued, after a hesitant pause, “Although you’d better tell Steve that without his help I hit a rock.” Melanie opened her eyes wide in a horror, “What!” she exclaimed, “But there isn’t a hint of that in any of your blogs!

So maybe it is time to confront my embarrassment and ‘fess up.’

In the gray dimness just before dawn I dropped the lines on the mooring buoy off Craighouse on Jura and steered Coral out of the bay. The green and red navigation lights that mark the channel between Goat Island and the reefs to starboard flashed reassuringly. Once clear of the island I turned Coral north up the Sound of Jura, intent on catching the last quarter or so of the flooding tide north toward Oban. I had it all worked out: the tide times, the landmarks, the alternative anchorages along the coast.

With little wind and a flat sea, I adjusted the engine to push Coral along at around five knots, set the Autohelm and, after checking the course would take us clear of the coast, went below for a few moments.  As I stepped back up the companionway I was almost jerked off my feet by a massive crash. Coral dipped her bows and came shuddering to a halt, mast and rigging clattering violently. For a moment of utter confusion, I had no idea what had happened. And then I realized: Coral had hit something. But what?

I quickly recovered myself, leaping into the cockpit and putting the engine into neutral. Looking around, I could see two, maybe three fishing buoys lurking on the dark water, presumably marking lobster pots set in the thriving ecosystem around an underwater rock. Coral had motored right into it.

I rushed around looking for leaks. For a few moments I pumped frantically on the bilge pump. No water came up. I looked into the deep sump inside the keel where water collects. There were just the normal few inches in the bottom. I looked in the anchor chain locker, under the cabin sole, in the cockpit lockers, wherever I could get a sight of the naked hull. No water was flowing in, there was no sign of damage. Back on deck I went forward and peered over the bows, where Coral’s sharp prow curved down into the water. Nothing was untoward there. Then, to be sure, I stripped and reassembled the bilge pump to check for obstructions that might stop it working and pumped again. Clearly Coral was not taking in water. Looking around on the surface of the sea, I could see no debris that might have floated away from serious damage. Finally, I checked the tiller and was reassured that it moved smoothly from side to side.

I was hot, sweaty, shaken. With the immediate emergency over, I steered round the submerged hazard carefully, set Coral on her course again and went below to check the charts. Ah, there it was, Goat Rock, awash at chart datum, although rather obscured on the chart by a mass of soundings.  But when I pulled out the larger scale chart of the Craighouse area, I could see that it clearly marked; and it was noted as a hazard in the pilot book, too. I had motored right over the top of it, although with the rise of tide it must have caught the keel toward the bottom.

Now was the time for recriminations. “What an idiot,” I thought, “not to check more carefully.” I was furious with myself and also felt a cold sense of dread as I considered what might have happened had I put a hole in the hull, or ripped off the rudder. Was I too tired, after ten long days sailing in windy weather, so that I no longer had good attention? On top of recriminations came embarrassment. What would others think – Elizabeth, friends and family, other sailing people – about such a silly mistake? Could I keep the mishap secret? Or should I write about it in my blog? Hot feelings of shame rose in my cheeks, overlaying my earlier cold sense of dread.

Coral was now motoring along smoothly as if nothing had happened. Every now and then I checked the water level in the sump: it remained low. I could only carry on and see what damage I had done once she was lifted out of the water at Oban. Gradually I relaxed and began to enjoy myself again.  I stopped in Lussa Bay toward the north end of Jura when the tide turned against me, and picked up the first of the next flood to take Coral north past the Gulf of Corryvrecken, through the Sound of Luing, to Oban.

The following day, with Coral moored on a pontoon at Dunstaffnage Marina just north of Oban, I went through all the arrangements for lifting her out and overwintering with Twig Olsen, the Harbourmaster. I seemed to forget to tell him about the collision with the rock until the end of our conversation. When I did, he looked concerned. “That’s not good,” he said, “We’ll have a look when we lift her out.” As it turned out, the damage was bad enough, although could have been a lot worse: a job for the shipwright to repair the underlying laminate with glass cloth and epoxy resin.

It took me a while to write draft this blog following Melanie’s prompting. It has taken me even longer to finish and post it.  Why is this? Of course, it is partly my embarrassment at my own foolishness.  But more than this, I think I was searching for a meaning of the incident for my journey ‘on the western edge’; I wanted to place it in the context of my ecological pilgrimage.

Stories of pilgrimage from medieval times are full of challenge: ‘A cold coming we had of it… such a long journey,’ Eliot has one of the Magi say in his poem. Apart from the sheer length of the journey, pilgrims were exposure to the elements, lost their way in mountains and forests, and experienced fraud, robbery, shipwreck. Accounts from modern pilgrims who, at their best, step out of the illusion of safety that is everyday life, can be equally dramatic.

Environmental activists Karsten and Allison Heuer followed a herd of porcupine caribou in their yearly migration across northern Yukon and Alaska to the contested Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and calving grounds. Academic Shoshannah Ganz argues that this five-month journey can be seen as a pilgrimage not only for the humans but also for the caribou, engaged as they are in an ancient and instinctual movement that is now under threat from oil drilling. And for both humans and animals the journey is hazardous, as Heuer points out:

Four mountain ranges, hundreds of passes, dozens of rivers, countless grizzly bears, wolves, mosquitoes, and Arctic storms – those were the risks, that was the real story.

 A major threat to the Heuers was the grizzly bears. Starving, having just woken from their winter sleep, the bears following the caribou in a desperate hunt for food. Humans might be easier pickings. I met a young man a while ago whose face was scarred and eyesight damaged after an encounter with a hungry polar bear near Spitzbergen; a young boy in his party was killed. As Allison protested,

 “Karst, this is crazy. We’re following the caribou to the calving grounds with a bunch of hungry grizzly bears!”

‘Liminal experience – experience outside the normal frame of reference – means no safety net,’ writes Jennifer Westwood in her book on modern pilgrimage. So what is the place of dramatic and dangerous events like this on a pilgrimage? It is easy to see them as the inevitable consequences of adventuring in lonely places, or to dismiss them as foolish errors and sheer incompetence: the Heuers should have known about grizzlies, just as I should have seen the rock on the chart. But in the context of pilgrimage they also carry some teaching. They seem to be sent to test the pilgrim in some manner, and the individual’s worthiness is measured against their ability to respond.

The first lesson is that the world, beyond and beneath human perceptions and conceptions, is an irrefutable real reality. The pilgrim may start out with a whole range of hopes, fears and expectations, but the encounter with the world will reveal its is-ness. Whatever idealist or social constructionist or anthropocentric worldviews we hold will be challenged.  Boswell famously tells of a conversation with Samuel Johnson:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – “I refute it thus.”

Rocks are hard, grizzly bears are fierce and hungry and once we get past our flashy technology we humans, just like the bears, are entirely dependent on the continued existence of the thin layer of liveable space that surrounds Planet Earth. We will crash into the facticity of climate change, the degradation of ecosystems, the loss of other species just as surely as I crashed into the rock.

So the second lesson for the traveller as pilgrim is that one must be alert for the signs that warn of hazards – those that are obvious but more importantly those that are hidden. As wilderness guides and spiritual teachers continually ask, “Are you awake?” I was awake to the more distant challenges of the day’s journey but asleep to immediate hazards. And the answer for modern humans, as we ignore the seriousness of the environmental crisis, must be, “No, we are sleepwalking into calamity.”

The third lesson is, “Can you respond?” do you have the skill, resources and presence of mind to summon up appropriate action in the face of emergency? And can you act without making the problem worse? I responded effectively enough in assessing the damage, but I do wonder what I would have done had Coral started sinking into the cold waters of the Sound of Jura.

In some ways pilgrimage seems to be about relearning life’s fundamental lessons. My friend Malcolm Parlett writes that responding fully to situations is the ‘heart of human living’. But while we humans appear to be well-designed for responding to emergency-style challenges – such as hitting the rock – he wonders how can we learn to respond to situations of greater complexity, which have a longer time span, where the evidence is less clear cut, and where there are extreme consequences if our choices are the wrong ones?

Gary Snyder reminds us that ‘The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife,’ that the baby hare ‘gets maybe one free chance to run across a meadow without looking up.’ The wilderness pilgrimage not only takes us along that knife edge. It may also draw our attention to the precipice on which we all are teetering.


Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. (1791). Quote retrieved from
Ganz, Shoshannah. “‘A Living, Breathing, Pulsing Web’: Being Caribou as Canadian Ecological Pilgrimage.” Synaesthesia 1, No. 2 (2009): 51-59.
Heuer, K. (2006). Being caribou: Five months on foot with an arctic herd. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart.
Parlett, Malcolm. Growing up Humanity: Revolutionary Change and Personal Integration, in preparation.
Snyder, Gary. ‘The Etiquette of Freedom.’ In The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990.
Westwood, Jennifer. Sacred Journeys: Paths for the New Pilgrim. London: Gaia Books, 1977, p. 88.

Sue Boyle Online

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Rain on Arrakis

I'm Franklin Ginn, a cultural geographer at the Unviersity of Bristol. My research interests are in multispecies landscapes, plant politics, environment-society relations, Anthroposcenes/ Chthulucenes and philosophical questions concerning the nonhuman.


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