“All ye need to know”

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From the Shiant Islands I sailed Coral to Loch Seaforth and then on to the North Harbour at Scalpay. I arrived there on Sunday afternoon and, on taking the dinghy ashore, found the usual noticeboard telling the visitor of the local attractions, but in this case also asking that you ‘respect the Sabbath’. And indeed, the houses of the community, lying between the north and south harbours, seemed effused with a silence and respect, so that I felt out of place even to be walking around. But this is a prosperous and hard working community, as was evident with the fishermen on the quay waking me at half past four in the morning, clearly well rested and ready to get to the week’s work.

I was ambivalent about where to take my meandering next. Part of me was called to the southern islands of the Outer Hebrides, the Uists, but more to the far southern islands like Barra and Mingulay; another part was called back to Skye and to the northwest corner I had not explored. I was also feeling I had been away from home long enough, seen more than I could digest. And I felt I should be at home, since Elizabeth’s aged mother was in hospital with an uncertain prognosis. Slightly grumpy and a bit confused, I decided to allow the wind to make the decision for me.

It seemed more of a performance the usual, getting going that morning. Maybe it was the comparison with the six, or was it eight, young French people on the neighbouring boat, who had more hands to do the work than was needed and were soon sailing away. As I hauled the anchor chain in it spread a very black and sticky mud all over the foredeck, and I had to leave the anchor itself hanging while I found the deck brush and cleaned it off. Then the dinghy had to be hauled on board–I had left if afloat in case I needed to deal with a snagged anchor–and various rocks and reefs to negotiate. And once I had done all that, the mainsail up and was ready to start sailing, it was clear that what wind there was was very light, and I needed rig the inner forestay and hoist the big No.1 genoa rather than just unfurl the working genoa. I seemed to be constantly on the go from cockpit to foredeck and back again.

For a while, Coral sailed elegantly across the unusually smooth waters of the Little Minch, making well over three knots toward the northern end of Skye. After all the struggle of getting things going this was delightful. And the decision about destination seemed to be made for me. But then the speed dropped to three knots, then two, and after creeping along for half and hour or so, none at all. Let it be, I told myself, there is plenty of daylight, we are not unsafe or uncomfortable. And so I allowed Coral to just sit there, out in the middle of the sea. No longer engaged in trying to get Coral to sail, I started to look around me.

The day was pleasantly warm with the southerly wind. Loose cloud covered much of the sky, with the sun shining fitfully through the gaps. The wind was even more fitful, ruffles on the surface promising some action but fading into nothing very much. Ahead, Skye was a dark silhouette; behind, bright sunshine picked out the outcrops of gneiss on Harris. Fair weather cumulus, maybe holding a touch of rain, was rising over the mainland and all the islands, showing the line of the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Stornaway, the tops of the mountains. The sea was quiet, but with undulations on the surface, like a dimpled mirror, throwing shallow reflections this way and that. In the far distances north and south the horizon where sea met the sky was not a razor sharp line, as I have described in an earlier blog, but diffuse and uncertain. Sea and sky were both an exquisite silvery grey so closely matched in tone so that the one merged into the other.

Gary Snyder writes of the ‘sacred’ as that which takes on away from one’s little self into the wider whole. This sense of the sea merging into the sky, the sky into the sea, of being held between two lands, did just that for me. This was all it took to drop my disappointment that the wind had faded and my wider concerns about what I was up to, and for a few moments to open my heart to a simple sense of wonder, a kind of ordinary ecstasy.

If I have learned anything in three long seasons of sailing ‘on the western edge’, of pilgrimage in search of a different kind of relation to the earth on which we live, it is that these sacred moments arise, often quite spontaneously and unexpectedly. And at these moments, ego concerns drop away and the boundary between self and world becomes as diffuse and uncertain as that horizon between sea and sky. The challenge, the creative opportunity, is quite simply to be open to these moments when they arise. If we can catch 10%, then maybe we are doing well.

That is what I now know, and, to add Keat’s insight to Snyder’s, maybe that really is ‘all ye need to know’.

However, and in case all this may seem to be too sweet and lovely, the rest of the day did not go so well. I did need to get somewhere by nightfall, and so I determined to motor on to Loch Dunvegan on northwest Skye. But I allowed myself to be deceived by the charming quality of the day, I didn’t do my pilotage calculations carefully, it was further than it seemed and the tide turned against me round the headlands. Silly and definitely unseamanlike, I ended up pushing for hours against the tide round a headland and anchoring very tired and cross with myself. I am sure the world around me still carried that sacred quality, but I became too wrapped up in my irritation and disappointment to notice.

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

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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