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  www.valapublishers.coop/spindrift

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 http://www.valapublishers.coop/Spindrift

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 http://www.valapublishers.coop/spindrift

Was this the pilgrimage?

Bertraghboy Bay

I have been back at home a while now, going through my notes, audio recordings, pictures and, of course, my memories. This had led me to re-live experiences “on the western edge” that felt particularly significant at the time, yet had faded into the background. Revisiting these moments has brought them back into sharper focus…

There was that wet and windy day in Bertraghboy Bay, Connemara. It had been raining since I woke up. The pattering of rain on the deck just above my head was punctuated by the abrupt plops of larger drops falling from the furled mainsail. The noise of the wind in the rigging rose and fell, little crescendos and diminuendos as squalls came and went. In the stronger gusts the pattering on the deck became a loud rattle, and the anchor chain clanked as Coral swung round. Looking out, I could see water pouring down the windows and collecting in little pools before running along the sidedecks and streaming down the drainholes.

The previous day had been a long tiring sail up the coast, spent mainly on my feet in the cockpit. I had arrived late at Roundstone only to discover the anchorage was uncomfortable in the freshening southerly wind. So, rather late in the evening, I had brought Coral round better shelter in Bertrachboy Bay. But today I didn’t have to do anything and I really didn’t want to do anything.  I was just hanging out in the cabin doing odd jobs, listening to the rain and reading Tim Robinson’s fascinating book, Connemara: A little Gaelic kingdom.

From time to time I stood at the bottom of the companionway and looked onto the circumference of wet bleakness.  In the cockpit, the rain was gradually filling the washing up bowl I left out with last night’s dirty dishes. The ensign flew soggily from the backstay. Raindrops hung brightly from the safety rails, then dropped to the deck. Round Coral the dark greeny blue of the bay was dappled with the splash-marks of raindrops. High grey cloud covered the sky, heavier rain clouds blowing across below. When the rain slackened, the far shore appeared as a dark, scarcely green curve between water and sky, but the Connemara Mountains beyond remained hidden. But soon squalls returned and all I could make out was the nearby fish-farm, a circular black framework skeletal against the water.

All morning the rain persisted. In the afternoon the wind blew up to near gale force and veered westerly. It howled through the rigging and set the halliards drumming against the mast. The sky lightened in the south and west with thinner cloud and streaks of blue. All this I interpreted as signs of the cold front coming through. I watched the clouds racing across the sky, expecting the wind soon to blow itself out. But no, I saw that Coral was slowly drifting and realized that with the wind-shift the anchor was no longer holding firm. I got to work on the windlass hauling up the chain and anchor made heavy by mud and weed dredged up from the seabed. I took the opportunity to find a more sheltered spot on the northern shore. After carefully setting the anchor and making sure all was secure, I retired, rather wet and windblown, to the cabin.

Around teatime the wind finally dropped and through the early evening the sky cleared, the wind dropped to practically nothing and a deep sense of calm settled across the bay. I sat outside with my supper looking at the mountains, purply grey in the evening light. A straight line of cloud cut across the taller peaks and rose above them in curly cumulus, grey underneath and white above. Between the mountains and me lay the poor boulder-strewn farmland of Connemara. The low evening sun caught on some facets of the mountains while leaving others to lurk darkly in shadow. But to my right the cone of Cashel Hill remained in full sunshine, grass green with grey outcrops of granite welling out from underneath. Everything was so bright, with different shades of green and complex layers of curves in the hills, curve upon curve, and an odd little bunch of trees clustered round a house.

As I finished my supper, I realized how the breathtaking beauty of my surroundings – the clear air, the quiet rippling of the bay interspersed with the little shrieks of terns fishing nearby, the expansive view of water and mountains – had gradually permeated my awareness. It was high water of a big spring tide and the bay was full to the brim, lapping at the grassland all the way round. Maybe the fullness of the tide had filled me with a sense of the presence of the world around me.

I sat there thinking, “Maybe this is the pilgrimage. Maybe the point of coming this long way was wait through the rain and wind all day and now to sit here looking at the mountains of Connemara in this quietness, watching the way the clouds hang around the tops of the mountains.”

I am finding the word “grace” is helpful in describing these experiences of wonder at the world. Moments of grace cannot be willed, they arrive unbidden and arrest one’s attention. But of course that whole long, slow day watching the weather had created the conditions in which that moment could occur.

Just as I was washing the dishes

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The day began early, as I was woken around 3.00am by the disturbed movement of the boat. We were anchored in the bay in the Sound of Aran, sheltered in all directions except the southeast. The wind had crept round overnight as was blowing rather wildly up the sound. While Coal was secure on her anchor, she was blown down on her anchor chain close a reef off Calf Island. After our long sail from Broadhaven across Donegal Bay the previous day, I had promised Susi and Dave a quiet day, so I felt guilty waking them at 7.00.

“This is neither comfortable nor very safe,” I told them as I handed them their cups of tea, “We need to move into Burtonport.”

Burtonport is a fishing harbour that is reached through a narrow but well-lit and well-marked channel. I showed Dave and Susi on the chart where I was planning to go and where the marks were, and once the anchor was up we set off across the windy bay, spray flying every where. It was not easy to identify the marks, and later Dave told me he had been confused by my instructions, but nevertheless we found our way safely into and along the channel and with the help of a local boatman tied up awkwardly alongside the fishing pier. These piers are not designed for yachts, and we had to dangle fenders sideways to keep Coral away from the metal piles and run long lines fore and aft as springs to accommodate the dropping tide.

While I was left on board, filling up the water tank and topping up the diesel, Dave and Susi went for a long walk to find the supermarket. The long walk clearly involved a long talk, as when they came back and we reviewed our plans for the rest of our passage, it became clear that for many reasons they didn’t want to continue. After a difficult conversation with a lot of heartsearching we agreed, I think mutually and amicably, that it would be best if they caught the bus from Burtonport back to the UK, while I continued on my own.

Since I didn’t want to spend a night alongside the pier I set off as soon as they had disembarked, back down the channel (already familiar) and across the bay. The forecast was that the wind would veer west later that afternoon and overnight, so the anchorage would now be snug. As I started across the bay, the wind blew up yet again, still mainly southerly, bringing hard rain into my face. Was I mistaken in believing that the anchorage would be out of the wind? As I was about half way across and beginning to make out the landmarks on Aran, the rain suddenly hammered down, the wind increased and in a matter of minutes moved, almost flipped round, from southwest to nearly northwest. As I entered the anchorage the water was relatively calm, the wind offshore; it wet and windy but still safe and snug. Even through it carried on raining hard, soon I was securely anchored.

Now I was on my own, I felt it would be good to make a fresh start. So after tidying the cabin and putting away the boots and lifejackets the Susi and Dave had used, I stripped off, washed and shaved, and put on clean clothes. I went through my charts and set waypoints for the next leg of the journey. Elizabeth called, and we had a long conversation full of the intimate mutuality of 50 years of relationship. I then created quite ritual of making myself potato cakes, boiling up the potatoes with carrot and parsnip, mashing them up with fried onion and the frying the cakes in butter. Outside the rain stopped, the wind dropped back to nothing at all.

I was just washing the dishes after my supper, stowing everything in its place, when I was startled and arrested as the sky in the northwest over the hills of Aran suddenly–in a matter of seconds–turned bright orange. The brightness enveloped the land and sea in a warm glow. It felt as if this complicated day was being given a blessing.

With thanks to Susi and Dave for their companionship so far.

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