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

Puffins at the Shiant Islands

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In Spindrift I tell of my first encounter with a puffin off Bolus Head, my childlike response calling out “it’s a puffin! It’s a puffin!” As I steered Coral through the tidal popple at the north entrance to the bay at the Shiant Islands, my response was similar: I could see dots of white everywhere, and those wonderful beaks: as I wrote in texts to several people, it was as if the sea surface was littered with puffins. Very soon after I realized that the air was full of puffins too. Most of those afloat seemed to be juveniles, pufflets (puffins live up to forty years but do not mate for the first five years) while those airborne were clearly adults, tirelessly flying too and from to the fishing grounds to bring sand-eels to feed their chicks. These adults seemed so intent on their business that they often seemed not to see Coral, flying toward the mast and only diverting at the last moment and passing within feet. If the sea was littered with puffins, the air was full as if with a cloud of mosquitoes (If you look very closely in the picture you can see the dots in the air; otherwise, please imagine).

It is very difficult not to anthropomorphise puffins. They do look like well turned out but rather insecure and yet self-important people. As I took Coral slowly toward the anchorage, steering through the floating flocks, the pufflets would swim energetically ahead, looking anxiously from side to side as if to say, “I am not really bothered by this great white creature”, until we get too close. They can then either dive underwater or take off. The former is the more elegant choice, a neat flip takes them underwater leaving a patterns of ripples behind. The latter is a bit of a mess, because puffins, with their wings more suited for flying underwater, have huge difficulty in taking off. so they usually splashing frantically along with water, wings and feet flapping away, until they crash inelegantly into a wave.

Once I had Coral safely anchored and looked around, I soon realized that there were nearly as many razorbills as puffins. These are a slightly bigger bird, an auk, distinguished by a black beak with a white line across it, joining a similar line across the face to the eye. The razorbills seem on the whole less nervous than the puffins: I saw one swimming quite happily within a couple of yards of Coral, it seemed quite unfazed as I moved about the deck. When it decided to dive I was able to watch it turn tail up and one underwater open its wings to fly down beneath Coral’s keel.

There are, of course, other birds: shags, various gulls, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, the odd gannet, and for me the most impressive, the skuas, big, heavily built seabirds, brown, with two white stripes on their wing. Again, my first encounter with a skua is recounted in Spindrift, when I watched one attack a gull and make it regurgitate its meal. Skuas are known as ‘kleptoparasites’ because of their habit is stealing food this way. I climbed the heights of Eilean an Tighe, and watched the skuas cruising above the flocks of puffins and razorbills looking for opportunities to pounce. I am sure they would quickly steal a puffin chick if given half a chance. I felt I could see a section of a food chain: sand-eels feeding baby birds and baby birds feeding skuas.

The Shiants are columnar basalt, the most northern remnants of the volcanic chain that stretches all the way south, through southern Skye, the Small Isles, Staffa, Mull to the Giants Causeway off northeast Ireland. These rocks, still looking as if recently thrust out of the earth, as so different from the ancient worn down gneiss of the Outer Hebrides and the Torridonean sandstone of the northwest mainland. The islands belong to the Nicholson family, and I enjoyed reading Adam Nicholson’s account of his life on the island in Sea Room: An Island Life. I spent almost two full days and one night at the Shiants, enjoying the spectacular scenery. But really just watching the puffins.

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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

Sailing North

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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!

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.

 

 

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

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