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. http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781472424358

EarthLines: www.earthlines.org.uk

Loch Scavaig again

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“Aye, and to think I have to spend an hour and a half every day just sitting here,” said the boatman with a laugh, gesturing at the scenery in Loch Scavaig in response to our greeting as we tied the dinghy to the steps.

The weather forecast had offered ‘sunny intervals’ but it was dull and overcast as we left the anchorage at Loch Scresort on Rum that morning. With Steve now on board I was revisiting the Small Ises again and having the benefit of a second look. We had spent the previous day with Trudi, the Ranger on Rum, walking into the interior in search of eagles. Unfortunately the clouds had descended, and we got cold and wet in the penetrating light rain and, as Trudi told us, eagles don’t like flying in the rain and cloud. So we decided to cruise around the sound between Rum and Skye in the hope that we might catch sight of eagles from the sea, and maybe dolphins and minke whales as well.

As we cleared the island and picked up the northwesterly breeze the cloud hung low over Rum and gathered ominously over the Cuillin. As we hauled in the sheets and set off toward Skye, a patch of blue sky developed on the horizon and for the next hour or so expanded, so that in time both the mountains of Rum and the Cuillin were clear of cloud, standing sharply against the sky. As we passed the north side of Rum Steve pointed high in the sky: unmistakably an eagle flying down the valley and out of the sound. We followed it for just a few moments until it was lost it in the high cloud.

Then the light shifted again. Clouds gathered, the mountains of Rum covered, and the Cuillin turned into a dark and brooding mass. We tacked back over toward Rum and beyond to Canna, enjoying the sailing and the wildlife: maybe there had been no encounter with a pod of dolphins but we did see some in the distance, lots of guillemots and shearwater, a puffin and a skua.

Toward lunchtime we turned back toward Skye and made our way north of the flat island of Soay into the anchorage at Lock Scavaig. On our way in Steve was sure he saw a whale breeching in the outer loch, and of course we passed close by the seals basking on the rocks, including one or two babies still covered in fur. Now at high water neaps it felt there was much more room to anchor close to the waterfall and well clear of the rocks. Just as we settled, Steve followed a large bird with white markings across the huge rockface to the south and east of the anchorage–surely a sea eagle. So we felt well content with our wildlife watching.

After lunch in the cockpit we motored ashore for our brief and friendly encounter with the boatman, and walked past the rapids that drain the freshwater Loch Coruisk into the sea. “Cross the stepping stones for the best view of the loch,” the boatman advised us, so we clambered over the rough crossing until we came to a small shingle beach from where we could see over the water toward the jagged mountains at the far end. We sat separately for a while in the deep silence until the midges drove us to move. I walked over to where he was sitting; he looked up and simply said, “This is it, isn’t it?”

Loch Coruisk

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.

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.

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.

Not Going Sailing

synopsis

Shipping Forecast – Issued: 0405 UTC Thu 9 May

Wind: Southwest 5 to 7, increasing gale 8 or severe gale 9 for a time.
Sea state: Rough or very rough, becoming high for a time in west.
Weather: Rain or showers.
Visibility: Good, occasionally poor.

Today we intended to set out down the Channel bound for the Scillies and the west coast of Ireland. I was going to meet Steve—my crew for this leg of the voyage—on the Plymouth train at Westbury yesterday afternoon; we would settle into Coral overnight and set off this morning. But since early in the week the weather has deteriorated. The high pressure that brought such a lovely spring weekend has dropped south, a deepening area of low pressure is running along the top of it, so the westerly wind is intensified as it is squeezed between the high and the low. The map provided by Met Office with the Shipping Forecast shows two thirds of Great Britain surrounded by red shading, indicating gale force winds or more. The seas will not be just “rough” but “very rough, becoming high.” “High” is so unusual I have to look it up, and find it refers to wave heights of six to nine metres.  I remember Coral is only nine meters long.

Looking ahead, it seems that fresh to strong westerlies will persist into next week, which will make progress westwards hard work even when the gale passes. So rather than sailing down the Channel I am doing normal things at home: I went to my writing group last night; mended a bit of fence this morning until I got soaked in a heavy shower; and re-read parts of a book I have been asked to review.

In weather like this I can wind myself up, irritated at the interruption to my plans, wonder whether I really want to go to sea at all. I can make the interruption feel like a catastrophe. But there is something truly important about being stopped in one’s tracks by natural forces. It reminds us that we humans are not the masters of this planet, that while by working with the grain of the world we can accomplish wonders, forcing contrarily is not just uncomfortable but foolish and downright dangerous. I remember again Gary Snyder’s comment about things that take us out of our little selves into the wider whole as being sacred .

So rather that wind myself up I find a way to bow to the inevitable, even find a moment to appreciate the teaching the gales are bringing. I know from experience that I have to wait, that in time the weather will be more favourable. Patience is what is needed, patience, respect and careful judgement about when it is safe and sensible to sail.

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