Sundown

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Sundown

Nine thirty in the evening I put aside my book and come on deck. The sun is just going down behind the peak of the island to the northwest, throwing a rich golden light onto the sandstone rocks that circle the anchorage. In the dark shadow below a heron stands motionless, poised to strike.

In the opposite direction the three-quarter moon is rising into a just-blue sky over the line of mountains on the mainland. The low sun highlights the ridges and casts the valleys into shadow, giving the mountains a dimensionality and body even though they are in the far distance.

The sky is clear apart from a few wisps of dark cloud over the peaks. The sea reaches calm all the way to the mainland shore, its tiny ripples casting a repeating pattern of dark shadows across the surface. The tide is falling, revealing the reefs at the entrance to this pool and uncovering the pale yellow coral beach, where an oystercatcher is hunting along the water’s edge.

A few gulls cry harshly; there is a twittering of land birds from the shore. The flag halliard rattles lightly against the backstay. Otherwise silence.

Night is coming, and yet at this time of year and at this latitude it will be scarcely dark, especially now with the near-full moon high in the sky.

And in the time it has taken me to scribble in my notebook and then type out these words, the sun has disappeared, the distant mountains seem to be in a greater light, the moon has risen higher and is more clearly defined in a darkening sky.

I am here on my own, floating on the sea as I have done nearly every night since late May. All that connects Coral to the sea bottom is 30 metres of chain. I am not far from the human world, but have few human distractions away from this closing of the day.

Wet morning off Eigg

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A slight swell from the south east sets Coral pitching, gently at first, then more violently as her own rhythm entrains with the waves: halliards rattle a bit, crockery moving uneasily in its racks. Then the entrainment fades and the movement is quieter again. All through the morning this sequence repeats: now more energetic, with the winch handle knocking as it moves with each pitch; now the waves splash up as the stern smacks into the water; now the movement slows and it is quiet again.

Around Coral the rocks are emerging with the dropping tide, their columnar basalt structure showing clearly, the weed that was floating on the surface now lying flattened on the tops. The swell moves past Coral and breaks ever so gently on the rockfaces, sending out the hollow sound of breaking water.

Behind that there is that silence again, the silence through which each pinprick of rain landing on the sprayhood seems to stand out distinctly; in which the twittering of shorebirds and (of course) the cry of the oystercatchers are distinct entities to themselves.

It is still very wet, but now the clouds have lifted somewhat and some individual cloud shapes can be seen. The horizon is clear, and I can see a yacht well out in the sound, although the mainland is obscured. Toward the land the new ferry pier makes its mark, I can’t make out any detail, but the strong horizontal line is marked by thin vertical slashes of lights and masts, with the wide sloping slipway running down to the water. Houses, a bit of roadway, then the wilder, rougher hillside of Eigg.

Steve has gone off on his own to explore the caves and buy some milk. I am on my own for a few hours. After the companionable discussions over first cups of tea and what to have for breakfast (boiled egg, baked beans, pitta bread and orange juice) my attention moves out to the more than human world around me. This process of writing itself feels like a kind of conversation in the world.

Maybe it also gives the reader something about a dull, damp morning, anchored off Eigg. I might say, “what a horrid day”; or I might take the opportunity to look more closely.

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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

Loch Scavaig

IMG_2752High pressure and light winds make it possible, almost obligatory, to visit Loch Scavaig, a celebrated dramatic anchorage. From Sandaig Bay, where I spent the night, it was a quick reach across to the Point of Sleat, then a long beat to windward, at first with a fresh wind, but as I approached the Cuillins from the south the wind dropped and I set the big No.1 genoa for the last few tacks. With a dry northerly wind, there were no clouds on the mountains of Rum nor on the Cuillin. From a distance I could see little white dots, the sails of yachts, creeping along the bottom of the towering rock faces. The mountains themselves are dark, occasionally lit with fragments of sunshine.

The entrance to the anchorage is rock-strewn and requires care to identify the features that guide you in. It is low water springs, so nothing looks at all like the description in the Sailing Directions; what should be islands are attached to the land, and rocks that are usually hidden rise clear out of the water. Slowly and carefully I made my way as directed, finally passing the tip of the last island, leaving that rock that is usually underwater to port, into the pool and with some difficulty anchored Coral securely.

The anchorage is surrounded on three sides by mountains, rising directly from the shore in terraces; the fourth side is sheltered by a rocky island. Opposite the entrance is a waterfall, falling past boulders down a crack in the cliff; in places the water tumbles over the rock face, in others buries itself being fallen debris face. The air is filled with the soft sound of tumbling water–more than a trickle, less than a downpour. Behind the waterfall I catch sight of a line of jagged peaks that must be Meall na Cuillice, while to the east, behind the rock climbers’ boffy, rises what appears to me as much more lumpy rock, curiously patterned with fissures and gullies. I think it rises to Squrr na Stri (and I am not sure if the names really matter, but they did seem to want to be included).

My geology book, The Hidden Landscape, tells me that these rocks are gabbro, “black or darkly green with crystals as coarse as granite, but dominated by rather dark minerals.” These are ignatius rocks that poured out of volcanos and have resisted weathering ever since. It is a dark, brooding place, made ever more so by the gusts of wind that, even in calm conditions like today, suddenly channel without warning down through the gullies, blow patterns of disturbed water across the anchorage, and swing the yachts around on their anchor chains.

For even though this place is remote, in a sense truly wild, it is also strangely busy. Six yachts have visited, four appear to be staying the night; several tourist launches have come and gone, dropping off passengers at the metal landing stage, and collecting those that are waiting. And a party of young rock climbers are making themselves at home in the bothy; I watch them collecting driftwood and now can see blue smoke rising from their fire.

Early evening, having decided Coral was safe, and feeling happier now the tide had risen and there seemed more space between the rocks, I took the dinghy ashore and walked to the freshwater Loch Coruisk. Surrounded by huge boulders, their crystalline structure easier to see close up, the loch’s still water reflects the darkness of the mountains; a burn tumbles from it south end down the rock face into the sea.

I don’t quite know what to make of this place. It is spectacular, dramatic, sublime rather than picturesque. And yet I feel that its being-for-itself, its sense of its own presence, is overshadowed by the use we humans have put it to as a tourist and recreation destination. I am reminded of my experience of the Blaskett Islands off the west coast of Ireland. When I first visited them in April four years ago I experienced them as astonishing and overawing; I wrote in Spindrift that “these islands have an integrity of their own beyond the grasp of human comprehension”. But when I visited again last year, in the high holiday season, they were busy with visitors whose presence seemed to overshadow that sense of integrity. I am also reminded of the controversies surrounding the large numbers of people who now climb Mount Everest. What happens to the sacredness of a place when it becomes a destination?

It is clearly ridiculous and snobby to want to have the place to myself; and it is clearly contradictory to rely on the well-researched directions in the Sailing Directions but nevertheless expect unadulterated wildness. I have no answers, but the puzzle perturbs me.

Early next morning when I step out into the cockpit everything is completely still. It is high tide, the pool is full to the brim. The yachts’ anchor chains hang vertically into undisturbed water; their flags flop listlessly. The water surface reflects the rock faces that rise steeply all around. As I look up I see that the sun is just catching the peaks, and clouds drift almost imperceptibly across the sky. The sound of the waterfall fills the air, save for the occasional call of an oystercatcher–those birds seem determined you know of their presence. Then a noise somewhere between a cough and a sneeze alerts me, and I scan the surface for signs of a seal. There are none for a while until I notice a pattern of concentric ripples on the surface, and through my binoculars see the smooth head, black eyes, and whiskers just above the surface.

A figure wearing a bright red top emerges from the bothy–the tiny dot of red both complementing and contradicting the natural greens, browns and greys. My attention is drawn to the other bright human artefacts–a couple of buoys and the life-ring by the landing stage. Smoke rises momentarily from the fireplace near the bothy, then vanishes.

Somehow the busy-ness of yesterday evening has retreated, and the place seems to be asserting its own identity again; or is it that I am more open to it? Then the neighbouring yacht starts its engine and gets its anchor up, the crew on the bows calling instructions back to the skipper and making quite a fuss about getting all the mud of the chain. We exchange greetings as the pass Coral and as the leave through the narrow entrance an orange RIB enters and drops off more walkers or climbers at the landing stage. The human day has begun.

And this blog posting was going to end there, but on the way out I passed a dozen or more seals lying around on the flat top of the rock called Sgeir Doigich. Ahead of Coral two or three more seals were swimming around: they dived under the water when they saw her coming in a lazy, almost slow motion, downward arc. One might say that they all thought the loch still belonged to them.

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Inch Kenneth

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Mood swings. I am upset and furious that the outboard doesn’t work again, but then pleased with myself when I see how to mend the broken rowlock on the dinghy. Tired and grumpy, I wonder again what on earth I am doing here all on my own. One of the challenges is to keep in mind that, just because it is a great privilege to be away like this, I do not have to be happy, or enjoying myself, or certainly not having transcendental experiences ALL THE TIME. Getting tired and grumpy is part of being human and so part of the human pilgrimage.

I have moved north to an interesting anchorage, set between Inch Kenneth, which is a low and grassy island, and the huge cliffs at the entrance Loch na Keal on the west coast of Mull. The island is sedimentary rock (“triassic conglomerates and limestone outcrops broken down to give good soil”, according to the book Scottish Islands); while the cliffs on Mull are volcanic in origin, Triassic basalt weathered into terraces.

Between these two, the hard and the friable, is this sheltered anchorage, quite a large pool, although guarded by reefs that make entry challenging (especially with an inaccurate hand bearing compass!)

Anchor down, I look toward the cliffs and the three tiny white cottages that lie by the road along the shore. Three white rectangles, in some ways quite insignificant, but in other ways a testament to human abilities to create living space in the most unlikely places.

I decided to stay put for a day, to do nothing. I need to take time to settle into this pilgrimage now I am really into it. I don’t have to justify myself by ‘going somewhere’ or by having wonderful experiences I can blog about. Take it gently, John Crook used to say about solo retreats. So I allowed myself to wake late and have a leisurely morning–strip off for full body wash, breakfast, wash up and tidy, half hour formal meditation. Then I rowed ashore and explored the grassy island, enjoying the wildflowers and the views–for a moment I thought I saw a pair of eagles, but realized that they were (only!) ravens.

Thursday was wet and windy, I saw no point in getting wet and uncomfortable, so I stayed another day. I meditated longer, opening myself to the cliffs. With the rain spitting and fresher winds rocking the boat concentration is difficult, to say nothing of the stream of my thoughts demanding attention. But I do get glimpses of a time scale at the limits of human imagination. These cliffs, according to my book, are geologically quite recent. Sequential volcanic eruptions laid down the layers that over time have eroded into terraces stepping down the hillsides. These rocks have been here since before humans evolved. And yet those little cottages and houses look so permanent, so part of the scene. My sense of impatience at wanting to be getting along, wanting to do something, while these cliffs just stay present. “Thinking like a mountain”, indeed!

“Wilderness treats me like a human being”. So goes the koan. This meditation gives me a sense of our human impatience, our restlessness, our wanting things to be the way we want them to be. And the mountains and the weather just keep doing their thing, Meandering is just that, going with what is. I had intended to move, but I will stay here until the rain stops.

I do have thoughts about quitting, about saying this is all to uncomfortable, too challenging. I occasional have a sense of such loneliness that I can imagine how a person might go quite crazy. The pilgrimage is a confrontation with the self, with the skin encapsulated ego, with the project-driven and achievement-oriented modern human. Every project that comes to mind is a diversion from the challenges of the moment: Let’s go further up the Loch, let’s go to Tiree, let’s make sure we see an eagle by going on a nature tour, let’s get the outboard fixed…. But if needed I could stay here a week with all the food and water available.

So the engagement with the larger world, even in a few minutes of meditation on the cliffs, or with the cliffs, puts the self into a perspective, helps quieten the thrusting ego.

I am also writing haiku that I am sharing with my friend David

Eocine basalt cliffs
pattering rain on sprayhood
one modern man

Fresh Nor’easterlies
cold hard rain
I wait

I am finding there is a discipline in writing haiku that is itself meditative. Haiku (forget the five/seven/five format) I take as a distillation of a moment, removing all that is not essential in an intimate focusing. It is a little like a koan in reverse: instead of having to crack the koan, one has to crack the present experience into haiku.

By staying here these couple of days I have been able to really attend to these basalt cliffs: watching them through the day as the sun moves from shadowing them in the morning to lighting their peaks with orange in the evening; noticing the details of the streams tumbling down and glimmering where the light catches the falling water; seeing the contrast between the cottages and farm buildings at the foot and the enormity of their 200-300 metres drop; understanding their origin by reading the geology book. I have also been developing a sense of time: these rocks are geologically quite young, yet they were here long before human evolution can be said to have begun, have weathered and reduced in size.

All this attention provides me with a tiny sense of intimacy, of being in place rather than of watching scenery.

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.

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

 

 

 

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.

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