Tourist or Pilgrim?

I have been challenged to articulate more clearly the difference between the pilgrim and the tourist.

I think I articulated some of the yearning that I see as part of pilgrimage in my last blog: There is something about the mountains and rocks of northwest Scotland, seen from the sea, which pulled me strongly. I wanted, at least for a while, to bathe in their presence (‘dwell’, that good Heideggerian word, also comes to mind). I had the same kind of feeling with the mountains of Connemara rising out of the bogland last year. The mountains resonate with a sense of eternity, and evoke that good deep ecology maxim, “thinking like a mountain’.

I had a truly wonderful night in Loch Awe. The water was deep and calm, rising to a very high spring tide late in the evening. The seals lay on the rocks looking at me from time to time until the high water drove them away. In the far distance the Quinage ridge showed its different faces with the changing light. Late in the evening, the evening sunlight lit up the rocks so that they shone a deep gold, finally leaving black sillouettes against the twilight sky.

Next morning I left for Stornaway, 30 miles west across the North Minch. The wind was disappointingly patchy, despite the forecast. I arrived in heavy rain with poor visibility, got a bit lost at the entrance because I couldn’t see the markers but soon settled on a pontoon in the marina. Everything was soaked, the rain had even penetrated right through my waterproof trousers.

The following day, after dropping off two bags at the laundry I picked up a little hire car and made my way to the west coast. I wanted to see the Atlantic, I wanted to see the standing stones at Callanish, I wanted to see the golden sands at Uig. And so I did!

Elizabeth and I have always visited stone circles when we can, especially since were were introduced to the Merry Maidens near the tip of Cornwall. These circles carry a reminder, both physically and spiritually, of the ancient ways of being on these islands. We have participated in moving ceremonies at stone circles where we feel we have touched the Earth in a special way. Yet stone circles, especially the famous ones like Stonehenge and Averbury, are also magnets for tourism, so that any sense of the numinous buried, just as in an over-visited cathedral.

I found the Callanish stones particularly strange. The pictures I had seen showed tall, gaunt stones standing lonely against the sky, and I imagined them as being in a wild and remote place. Actually, they are set almost in the middle of a Hebridean settlement, modern houses of no particular beauty straggling across the landscape.

My visit was definitely a tourist experience. Go and see the stones, and marvel at them in a rather superficial way. Take some pictures. If you are with family, take pictures of your family against stone background. Otherwise, try not to get strangers into your pictures, try to take pictures that make the stones look appropriately lonely and wild. Wonder, again rather superficially, why they were put there. Then go to visitor centre for coffee and rather dry cake, wander round the shop and decide there is nothing you could possibly want to buy. Return to car and drive on to next place. This kind of visit doesn’t honour the old stones and it doesn’t honour oneself.

That is a slight exaggeration. I did spend time touching some of the stones, taking in the crystalline qualities of the gneiss rock; I did visit the other two, smaller, circles nearby and spend some quiet time. But there was nothing in the experience that ‘caught me’, and so I moved on, driving my tiny Nissan car like a rolling skate along the single track roads. I drove to the end of Great Bernera–done that; I drove to the Uig Sands–done that!

What I did see, and what I don’t think one would get a sense of without actually being there, was the extraordinary quality of this island, especially of the mountains rising in the south. I am tempted to use the term ‘bleak’ to describe them, but that feels to pejorative; ‘forbidding’ might be a better word–and indeed they do lie across between Lewis and Harris to the south traditionally preventing contact between the two communities. And yet, when I picked up a fragment to take home with me, I was delighted to see the contrasting bands of pink, grey, and white, and the glistening golden glow of embedded mica or quartz.

On the way back, just as I was fretting about too much driving, needing a cup of tea, feeling that my visit had left a sour taste in my mouth, I was struck by the enormous difference between such fragile, short-term, almost pathetic human sentiments and the immense endurance of these rocks, among the oldest anywhere in the world. I had to pull off the road and scribble something in my notebook in case I lost that fleeting insight–again, maybe, into a sense of eternity.

So it was a funny day. I was really pleased with myself when I got back to Stornaway and picked up my two bags of clean laundry.


All this must pass


I set out from Mallaig late in the morning, making for Canna, the most westerly of the Small Isles. It was a lovely day, sunny intervals, with the sea smooth and the wind just strong enough to push Coral along pleasantly. I looked back up Loch Nevis, across to the Sleat Peninsular, and ahead to the island of Rum–actually at the cloud which enveloped it right down to sea level so that the island itself was hidden. “This isn’t going to last,” I told myself, “there is going to be rain soon.” And then the wider thought popped into my mind, “All this must pass”.

I am reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction. This is a first-rate journalist’s account of the many ways in which the human impact on the planet is directly or indirectly brining about the disappearance of other species and ecosystems. Frogs are disappearing because international travel is spreading a fungus around; coral reefs are threatened by ocean acidification and warming; many creatures are threatened by climate change; and more still by the destruction and fragmentation of habitats. Most megafauna, as well as our Neanderthal cousins, were wiped out shortly (in evolutionary terms) after humans arrival in their territory. The book is engaging and deeply alarming.

I have also been reading Charles Eistenstein’s The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible. In some considerable contrast, is an argument that we humans need to move away from a story of separation to a story of interbeing. In many ways this is a new take on the arguments for a participatory worldview that I and others have made for many years. Nothing wrong with that, and he does pay tribute to old hippies toward the end. One of his most important points is that many of our actions to ‘save the world’ derive from the story of separation, and in that sense can be seen as contribution to the problem they attempt to address. I suspect Eistenstein would see Kolbert as still coming from a story of separation

But the idea that a more beautiful world is possible needs to be set against the reality of the extinction spasm. Because Kolbert’s point, as she clearly articulates at the end of her book, is that that we are part of an extinction event that began early in human prehistory, is caused by human presence and is accelerated by modernity. The very things that make us humans–our use of symbol and language, “our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks”, changes the world. And it changes the world in a way that pushes beyond the limits of the current ecological order, just as surely as an asteroid does.

I find myself wondering what quality of interbeing we can have on a catastrophically impoverished planet.

All this will pass:
This moment of insight
This calm sea and gentle winds
This sunshine and showers, these patterns of clouds
These homely houses with their gardens and fields
These towns, harbours, ships
These waters and all that live in them
And this human man.

Even the mountains come and go.

As I worked Coral past the Point of Sleat and round the west of Rum we were blown around by squally rain showers. For half an hour or so my attention was taken with the needs of sailing. Then the squalls passed and Coral settled down again to a comfortable amble. In the clear air that so often follows rain, the sea turned the colour of lead, the sky a washed out blue, separated by the sharp, hard, razor slash of the horizon.

All this must pass, this moment and these mountains. And yet there remains this instant of awareness and beauty.

Sailing North


I spent a couple of day on Ulva, off the west coast of Mull, walking, resting and watching eagles. Ulva is a lovely island but tinged with human sadness, as this was one of the places where there was a truly brutal clearance of the crofters, and signs of their life here remain, including a beautiful and substantial church designed by the celebrated Thomas Telford.

After a night in Craigaig Bay, a remote anchorage among rocks and islets right underneath where the eagles are said to rest (and one glided overhead just as the evening closed) I had to move on rather abruptly: gusty winds from the east plucked the anchor from its holding. For half an hour or so I was busy retrieving the anchor, avoiding rocks, heaving the dinghy on board and securing it, and piloting safely into the deep waters of Loch an Neal. But once I was safe and had got my breath back, I realised that the conditions were excellent for moving north, so I set course for Ardnamurchan Point and beyond. After a wet night at Arisaig, still with a fresh wind but in wonderful sunshine, I decided to take a long route on to the fishing port of Mallaig by going round the island of Eigg.

Eigg is one of the ‘small isles’–Muck, Rum, Eigg and Carna–none of which are actually particularly small. I sailed between Muck and Eigg, turned north between Eigg and Rum, anchored for lunch in a sandy bay, and continued on to Mallaig by evening. This must have been among the most beautiful sailing days in my experience: Fresh wind, calm seas, glorious scenery: the cliffs of Eigg, the mountains of Rum, the Cuillin on Skye in the distance, with wonderfully changing cloud patterns as the day warmed up and clouds gathered around the peaks.

This is picturesque scenery in the fullest sense of that word: It has been written about, painted, photographed, been the context of historical horrors and heroism, and so it feels quite difficult to take it in afresh, for itself, so to speak. Whatever I write feels cliched. And yet surely our human ability to appreciate such spectacular beauty is also part of the way “wilderness treats me as a human being”.

Just to make sure I wasn’t complacent, late that afternoon as I approached Mallaig, dark clouds from the south brought winds gusting round the mountains. After a struggle to keep Coral into the wind while I got the sails down, the port entrance was closed to allow a ferry passage through. I was relieved to find the visitors buoys unoccupied and easy to moor to, and enjoyed a really good fish and chips in the pub that evening.

I do like to gaze at the Cuillins
I do like to sail on the Minch
But I got very cross
At the ferry boat’s wash
And now I just want fish and chips!


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.


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

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

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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.

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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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