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Blue Skye thinking

coirelagan

Corrie Lagan – Isle of Skye

In the summer of ’86, I took a long drive to the Isle of Skye. I was 25 and my life had not turned out as I’d expected. I’d followed a clearly mapped course from the age of 16: a long technical education, and indentureship to a profession that paid reasonably well. On the surface of things then, give or take a near nervous breakdown or two, I’d nothing to complain about: my car was just a few years old, and paid for, and I had saved enough money for a deposit on a house. It looked as if I was on my way, but something vital was missing and it haunted me.

My life’s course had led me to the edge of the map, and when I turned it over I found the page blank. The map seemed to be saying, this is it, what more do you expect? But the world at 25 was featureless and boring, and the future looked equally uninspiring, empty of mental stimulation, and everything I’d learned seemed of no use to me any more.

It didn’t help I was between girlfriends, pining for the one I’d lost, and not yet daring to anticipate the next. She was supposed to be with me on that trip, but we’d broken up just before, so I was in a state of mind that guaranteed the world would appear superficial, oblivious to my existence and entirely meaningless. But, for anyone craving hedonistic distraction from a serious romantic breakup, the emptiness of the Western Highlands and Islands isn’t the best choice of trip, better by far if it’s a kind of oblivion and rebirth we’re seeking, which I suppose I was. Indeed, as the ever more stunning landscape of the Western Highlands swallowed me up, I felt my loneliness deepen all the more. But there was a kind of adventure in it, too and a freedom of movement and a spontaneity I might not otherwise have enjoyed. I had not arranged a string of accommodation for my tour, but trusted entirely to fate, navigating from one hotel to the next, looking them up each morning after breakfast in my quaint yellow Automobile Association handbook, and ringing from little red call boxes in the most exquisitely picturesque locations. The first hotel to have vacancies would determine my course for the day. Thus it was, by a somewhat circuitous route, and after several days’ motoring I wound up in Mallaig. From there an old Calmac ferry brought me across the water to the Isle of Skye.

Skye is always a revelation, no matter how many times you see it, and though I have not seen it for a long time now, it remains fresh in memory, and for good reasons. Skye cradled my loneliness, not exactly comforting me, but inviting me instead to analyse what it was I felt. Its mountains had something of fairyland about them, something remote and beguiling, yes, but they were also brutal and I knew I was not up to exploring much beyond the foothills. This is where generations of British have trained for high adventure, and is not a place for the faint of heart. Even the rock of which Skye’s mountains are made will  flay the skin from your fingers, and tear your boots to rags.

All journeys have a trajectory to them and we can feel the turning point, the moment the outward leg finds its conclusion and turns for home. Mine came on the climb from Glenbrittle to the mountain tarn of Corrie Lagan. It’s a walk that brings you to the heart of the Cuillin, and from there a choice of more daring adventures. But instead of pressing on up the great stone chute to Sgurr Alisdair, I sat by the corrie in the sun, arrested by the view, and the air, and an indefinable strangeness.

There were men on the opposite bank, soldiers, though not wearing any semblance of uniform. They had just completed a traverse of the Cuillin ridge – a monumental feat of courage, steadiness and skill – and were cooling off. One of them plunged into the clear waters and swam across to me. We chatted amiably for a while, which was kind of him as we were clearly different species; I was a skinny, milk-white office-drone, far from home, and he a bronzed, muscled warrior for whom the whole world was home, and though we looked of a similar age he had already done and seen more than I ever would if I lived to be a hundred.

I realised too the island, and Corrie Lagan in particular had begun transforming my loneliness into a deeper longing, but not for company, at least not of the mortal kind. Nor was it the stimulation of material things I craved, nor the excitement of high adventure, nor even the arcane machinations of career progression. There was, it seemed at once, a deeper and more subtle dimension to the world. I first glimpsed it reflected in the clear scrying waters of Corrie  Lagan that day, and I heard it in the voices, half imagined, echoing from the Cuillin’s savage rim.

True, I would never be a warrior, they said, likely never cross the Cuillin ridge blithely, with my hands on top of my head and I would probably never be a millionaire. My chosen profession already bored the pants off me and I had no girlfriend. But so what? Such vexations might seem important at the time, but in the great scheme of things they are at the very least subordinate to this awakening to a sublime sense of the inner world, a thing not unlike falling in love, a phenomenon whose existence the genus loci of Corrie Lagan acquainted me with, then sent me home with a mind to exploring it for the rest of my days.

You don’t need to climb to Corrie Lagan to find it, though its openings in places like that are more obvious than elsewhere and easier for the neophyte to discern. But awareness of its presence cuts in two directions. Yes, it grants a higher perspective on life’s experience, and it renders much of what we do, and the things that vex us, banal, when compared with the potential we all have for a much deeper connection with the inspirational power of our natural surroundings. But when we see the despoliation of the earth, and the detritus of our messy civilisations spilling endlessly into the sea, we feel also those vital portals closing, shrinking back from our crass presence. We realise then with a sense of panic and grief, the few who have awakened fully to that greater reality, and might guide us more surely towards it, may well be the last of us. And what use is that?

It’s thirty five years now since that trip to the Isle of Skye, and after all this time I would not want this latter point to be the sole lesson of a life’s journey, a kind of too-late warning to mind how you go when the avalanche is all but on top of us. The next few decades will tell whether the map of our collective future leads to better things, or to extinction, but there is no mistaking the fact that right now the world stands on the cusp of great change, materially, socially, politically and ecologically. It could go either way but while pessimism is always tempting, especially given the things I have seen, in spite of myself, I am holding on for something infinitely more hopeful.

 

 

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cropped-girl-with-green-eyes.jpgIn this, the circle of my time,

I see the world for what it is,

these petty things arrayed,

and how the mind perceives,

through its filter of a fractured brain.

And all it is, is dust upon our fingertips,

Trailed loose upon a plain

Of imperfect understanding.

So blow the dust away

Then, clean fingered come

Closer to my lips, that I might

Whisper it to you;

What the circle of my time

In time reveals.

bomber memorial

The Bomber Memorial, Anglezarke, August 2019

The dog days are upon us, bringing with them a stultifying heat, humidity, and thunderstorms. The Western Pennines have escaped the worst of it, unlike Derbyshire, Cheshire and North Yorkshire, all of which have suffered an apocalyptic pounding this week. We’ve had one flood warning, fortunately short lived as the storms broke elsewhere. Anglezarke meanwhile was steamy, the reservoirs as yet not full, but filling fast, the becks running high and the air enlivened by the sound of water as a week’s rains poured from the moors.

I had in mind a brief walk to check out a possible megalith, over in the meadows towards Jepson’s farm, but was defeated by cowardice, or the better part of valour, whichever you prefer. From the Yarrow reservoir there’s a network of footpaths taking you north through lush pastures which rise steeply to the edge of the moor. It’s just a short hop from the car and far enough in such a fierce heat. As I set out I saw a peregrine which gave me pause. When birds of prey are aloft the song birds go into stealth mode, and the atmosphere of a place changes. I’m also superstitious about birds and this one had the look of an omen about it.

Then there were sheep. Suddenly. Thousands of sheep, running, panicking, wave upon wave of them undulating across the green and all heading towards me. Sheep moving like that are generally being driven by something – a dog, or a farmer’s quad-bike – but all I could hear was the beating of hooves on a heavy earth. It was puzzling. Then came another sound, deeper, and distinctly bovine. The thing driving them was a crazed bullock.

The countryphile has no fear of sheep – I know some townies do, but trust me, they’re harmless creatures, even in large numbers, though easily spooked. I’ve read they’re more intelligent than a dog and I had it in my head they’d clocked me as a human being, therefore a useful idiot, and were making a beeline, expecting me to sort this stupid and possibly heat-addled bullock out, give it a stern ticking off for tormenting them. I’m afraid they overestimated my pluck.

The rules regarding potentially aggressive farm animals and public footpaths are strict, but not all farmers obey them, and it’s for the walker to make their own judgement when encountering these large ruminants, which can also come in armed varieties with pointy things on their heads. Cows are generally okay, require caution if they’re with calves but might attack on instinct if you’ve a dog with you, so always let the dog go. Cows are easily identifiable of course: they have udders. Bulls are a different matter, and opinions vary. Some are aggressive, some aren’t. A bull for beef isn’t, I’m told, while a bull for dairy is, but neither kind have udders and I wouldn’t know the difference, nor in what context each might be encountered because they do not come with labels attached.

A bull in a field of cows generally has other things to think about than chasing walkers. A field of bullocks is also considered safe and, though they can sometimes be curious, can easily be discouraged by a wave and a shout. However, while we’re invited to take it on trust the farmer wouldn’t deliberately endanger life, there’s no point lying on a morgue slab crushed under a ton of beef claiming you had lawful right of passage across his meadow.

Now perhaps a charging bullock isn’t as dangerous as it looks, but I decided discretion was the better part of valour and backtracked hastily, left the sheep to their torment, and scrambled to safety over the gate. Peculiar thing – I’ve never seen sheep and cattle grazing together before. Still, it seems sheep do at least keep the bullocks entertained, and vice versa.

So, I abandoned my search for the megalith and am still a bit ticked off about it. Instead I walked a little way up Lead Mine’s Clough, climbed the valley-side to the bomber memorial, then sat down. This is a fine, tranquil viewpoint – no sheep and no bullocks.

The memorial remembers the loss of a Wellington bomber – Zulu 8799 – on Hurst Hill, in the November of 1943. Out on a navigational exercise from its base in Leicestershire, it  struck the moor in the small hours of the morning with an impact that was felt for miles around. It had a crew of six, and all were lost. The pilot, Timperon, just 24, came from Alice Springs in Australia, came half way round the world to die on Anglezarke moor, about as far from hearth and home as it’s possible to imagine.

It’s a sobering thought, imagining those war years and the young being called up, and sent to places they’ve most likely never heard of. From reading war diaries of fighting men, you get a feeling for the mixture of fear and the sense of wanting to do one’s duty, but I have to close my thoughts off from imagining what it was like for those six lads in those last moments before the crash. There are no physical traces on the moor now, though the debris field was still there well into the sixties when I went up with my dad and had a pick through the various bits of twisted metal.

More often true valour does not have the luxury of discretion; it just has to button down, and get on with it.

 

corncrakeThe searing heat abated somewhat today, though the stupefying humidity remained. I decided on just a short outing then, not too far nor too strenuous but still found myself dripping in minutes.

Where was I? Well, see if you can guess: the forest floor was ferny thick and the canopy abuzz with a torment of flies. There were plastic bottles a plenty in the undergrowth, ditto crisp packets, also a wealth of spent nitrous oxide cartridges. Higher up the hill, among the painstakingly restored terraced walkways there were the usual bags of dog turds hanging from trees like bizarre offerings to the ever salivating demons of barbarism, oh,… and there was an adult diaper oozing mess. We could only be in the Rivington Terraced Gardens then, or just about anywhere else in the countryside these days.

But on a lighter note I had recently discovered this thing called Google Lens. If you have a data signal, you can point your Android device’s camera at anything, and it will tell you what it is. So, whilst out and about in the green and with quite a perky signal, I decided to try it out – in the field so to speak. However, it swore blind the oak leaf was from a different tree entirely, a more exotic and entirely unpronounceable Amazonian species. It struggled to find any sort of name for a sycamore leaf at all, was confused by a humble bramble, but did identify, in the corner of that particular frame a corncrake, which would have been sensational had it not actually been my foot.

All of which got me thinking, if Google really is intent on displacing superfluous human activities like driving cars and reading maps, and telling us what things are, there must come a point when we’re no longer capable of knowing about these things for ourselves. It is at that point our entire frame of reference will be dictated by a kind of iron-brained deity we have in fact constructed, placed our trust in, and quite probably sacrificed our own long term survival on planet earth so this unconscious entity can thrive while missing the point entirely, that without us humble thinking beings, this artificial creature has no purpose at all.

It might well be an oak tree we are looking at, but we shall be forced to call it whatever the machine says it is, whether it is or not. And if the machine has no name for a thing, we shall stare at that nameless thing in horror, as we might at a demon come to threaten our entire world view.

For a time there’ll still be grey-haired die-hards who like to read books and maps, Luddites who insist on driving their own cars, but we won’t last much longer and then, well, you kids are on your own, and you’ve only yourselves to blame. The real world is still out there, though looking a little sorry for itself now, quite literally shat upon, and suffering ever more frequent paroxisms of climatic excess that we’re probably too late to fix. And I suppose the thing is we’ve never respected it, trusted instead in our own superiority, in our technologies, so now we find ourselves with gormless expressions, tongues hanging out, noses pressed against the glass of our latest device, peering in to a world that doesn’t exist, while the one that does, the one that sustains us and gives us air to breathe, we have allowed to catch fire.

We are adept at adaptation, so much so there can never be an example of dystopia outside of science fiction, for no matter how weird or absurd, oppressive or dangerous our world becomes, we have already accepted it as the new normal, even before it’s claimed its first victims.

Corncrake? Yea right.

 

 

Joan of Arc, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I was about to spend my first night in an idyllic holiday cottage by the sea. I had arrived weary after two hundred miles of roaring roads, with broken air-con and in a steam-heat that had sucked the energy from my bones. But as I took a brief stroll around my new home for the week I knew I was in for a treat: a quaint old harbour, a clean sea, a good weather forecast and porpoises leaping in the bay. What more could one ask?

I went to bed early, looking forward to a refreshing night’s sleep, but I found it hard to drift off. This sometimes happens after a long journey and a strange bed, but when I did finally eventually slip away, I was assailed by horrific dreams of violence, torture and mutilation. This was not normal, my dreams being for the most part benign and enigmatic. I wondered then where such powerfully gruesome imagery might have come from. Dreams borrow from waking life, but I don’t watch that type of movie or play the computer games that might contain it, and my actual waking life is as tame as it gets.

It was a mystery, then.

According to one theory I was sleeping in a psychical space still contaminated by the previous guest, that I had literally laid my head upon the same pillow and immersed myself in a persisting cloud of fear and knife-slashing violence. The more rational modes of thinking will not allow such ideas of course, and mostly I resist them, but the more mystical forms will and since I was desperate for sleep, I was prepared to entertain them. For help in such situations, we do no better than turn to Tibetan Buddhism, and the yoga of dreams and sleep.

These teachings are concerned with cultivating a lucid awareness during the dream; effectively waking up in the dream, and becoming consciously aware of ourselves within it. This is not something I’m capable of, but the subject interests me as do all studies on dreams and dreaming. Lucidity has been verified by experiment in sleep laboratories, and it seems many of us are indeed capable of it spontaneously. What we do with it varies. In Western culture, according to the books I’ve read by self styled oneironauts, it boils down to wanting to fly, or having sex with strangers and other fantastical, escapist adventures, in other words to use the dream-space as a kind of narcissistic playground. In Tibetan Buddhism however, the goal is to achieve a state of meditation, in the dream. Also, if we are able to become fully aware of ourselves in the dream space, the Buddhists say we are more likely to become fully awake in the awakened state as well. This is something that takes a great deal of discipline and training, but other aspects of the technique are more accessible to the lay person, such as how we prepare the ground for lucid awareness in the first place.

Obviously if we are to meditate in the dream, we need a clean psychical space, untroubled by demons and their drama. So, as we seek sleep, the yogis teach the cultivation of personal, protective archetypes. For a man these are most easily imagined as female warriors of extraordinary beauty and prowess. We conjure them up by a process of active imagination as we seek sleep, then deploy them around our sleep-space to watch over us. We station them in doorways, around the bed or patrolling the garden, wherever we feel a vulnerability. They are infinitely patient and devoted to our protection and by their mere presence they chase away the troublesome demons as sunlight dissolves shadows, or as the presence of a cat will deter mice.

Fanciful as all this sounds, I do find the technique effective and have deployed my personal “Amazons” on many an occasion when unsettled and struggling for sleep. Sure enough, on this occasion too, my later dreams found a more even keel; the gore dissolved to something more wholesome as I sailed through into a placid space and woke refreshed, ready to begin my holiday.

I was not troubled again.

Sweet dreams.

Ref The Tibetan Yogas of Dreams and Sleep

Oberon,_Titania_and_Puck_with_Fairies_Dancing._William_Blake._c.1786[1]

Dreams are mysterious things, too often dismissed as unknowable, and denigrated by materialists as being little more than brain-burp, as bubbles of waste psychical-gas, rising from who knows where to break the surface of who knows what. We can forget them then; life is troubling enough, they say, without bothering our minds with the nonsense of dreams.

We all dream, every night, though we don’t always remember. Indeed some of us never remember our dreams, lending the impression we do not dream at all, which reinforces the point: if such a faculty as dream recall can so easily be lost, how can it be considered important? Well, perhaps it isn’t, unless of course the dream performs a function that can be usefully fulfilled outside of conscious awareness, that we need not be aware of the dream in order to live it, or be informed by it.

But what about those of us who do recall our dreams? not only that but treat them as a meaningful phenomenon? Dreams reveal themselves as beguiling, deceptive even mischievous yet it may be that for all our most earnest efforts we can come up with nothing more informative regarding their nature than if we were to close our minds to them completely. And yet,… there is still something about the dream that rewards us if at the very least we grant it our attention.

Recording our dreams is even better. This allows them to inform our conscious awareness more intently, night after night, revealing aspects of our lives we were perhaps unaware of. We might note then our dreams are, to a degree, coloured by waking life, even by aspects of our waking life we are at first pass unaware of. Looking then more closely at our dreams we can see echoes of our insecurities, and if we are honest about them with ourselves – by no means an easy thing – we can help our soul grow in the direction it most needs to grow. The content of dreams can also colour our waking day. So powerful they can be, they draw attention to themselves and challenge us to take stock, to own this thing we are again perhaps unconsciously avoiding.

I hesitate to describe dreams as “tools” for “self development”, for that would be to dishonour them. Certainly they have always been used in psychoanalysis, as messengers from the unconscious, but sometimes this can be confusing when we neglect to see the dream as having its own existence within us. Indeed we have only to turn our attention to them to realise they can become as much a part of life as our waking experience. Yes, we can get by well enough ignoring our dreams, but that is also to live a life lacking depth and colour.

One of the most remarkable things dreams reveals to us is that our concept of space and linear time is incomplete. We dream of something, a striking image, an event; usually such things are informed by happenings in our recent past, but occasionally a dream will show us something we have yet to encounter. The more materially minded will struggle with this concept, and if you are indeed vehemently opposed to it, I suggest you follow your instinct and dismiss it as bonkers or it will seriously disturb your frame of reference. But we have only to make a record of our dreams to find that it is so.

It needn’t be a dramatic glimpse ahead in time, indeed my own experience suggests it rarely is. For me it happens with places I’ve visited, or images I’ve seen on screens. I dream the image, the place, and then encounter it. True, by all rational reckoning, such a thing is impossible, yet it happens – admittedly not very often and never in ways that are helpful, like revealing ahead of time the number of a winning lottery ticket, But then it does happen, it’s always startling.

It’s as if a par of us has passed that particular way before, just a little ahead of ourselves, and the dream has found the imagery we encountered useful for its own purposes, careless of our line in time – as if indeed we might be following many life-lines simultaneously, some similar, others not. The writer JB Priestly made a study of this oftentimes eerie phenomenon and wrote a book on it: “Man and time”. This is a classic of the genre but he was careful to avoid drawing any rigid conclusions regarding what this might actually mean, I mean regarding the temporal structure of universe, and I shall be careful to follow his lead.

Indeed what we do with this depends very much on our nature. If we are highly egotistical and equipped with a smattering of scientific knowledge, we might want to formulate an explanation, but therein lies madness and the loss of friends as we become too shrill. The wiser ego is chastened by the phenomenon, softened and becomes more accepting of the mystery of life, though nonetheless amazed and inspired by the apparently multi-dimensional nature of consciousness that’s implied.

At best it enables us to step back when the arch-materialist pontificates and sucks out all meaning from life, leaves it as a dried up husk, because we know it’s not like that. Indeed establishing a rapport with our dreams suggests that in addition to the waking life we are aware of, we are also each engaged in some form of psychical existence beyond the bounds of space and time, whether we know it or not.

And that’s interesting.

 

 

 

jefferies[1]

My most treasured book by Richard Jeffries is not this one but a fragile early edition of The Amateur Poacher, (1879). The Amateur Poacher is a collection of essays detailing bucolic life around Jeffries’ native Coates, in Wiltshire and is cherished for its evocation of a rural England now lost. But there’s something else in it, not so much written as alluded to through the intensity and the beauty of Jeffries’ prose. What that is exactly is hard to describe but many have felt it, and wondered,…

Let us get out of these indoor, narrow modern days, whose twelve hours somehow have become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.

Traditional ideas of spirituality and religion are but the ossified remains of this ineffable thing the ancients called “divine”, but it’s still present in the world and can be felt anywhere where the last sleepy cottage slips from view, where we can immerse ourselves once more in nature and intensify our experience of it through the lens of the psyche as well as the senses.  Jeffries allows that nature can be cultivated – meadows, coppices, fields of wheat – it does not have to be wilderness. It’s the life-energy in it that’s important to the soul, while the built world – the towns, the cities – are dead places more associated with the soul’s decay.

The nature of this ineffable “something” haunted Jeffries. While it’s hinted at throughout his writings, it’s here in “The Story of my heart” he attempts a more direct understanding of it. It’s not an easy book to summarise and must really be experienced, so there’s little I can do here but grant a flavour of it.

Written in the intense and emotional language of a prose poem, the book treats mankind as a being both of and keenly attuned to beauty, also as something apart from the world and capable of great perfection on our own terms, both physically and mentally. Nature, on the other hand, though at times ravishing to the senses, is more reflective of something within us, while being of itself blind to our existence. Though not intentionally cruel, nature can easily harm us. Also when we see the low creeping forms of life, it can be ugly, even offensive to the soul. Only superficially then can we describe Jeffries as a nature mystic. He does not deify nature, more something in man that’s higher than anything we can imagine.

“The sea does not make boats for us,” he says, “nor the earth of her own will build us hospitals.”

But for all our efforts with boats and hospitals in the last twelve thousand years, we’ve done nothing more than struggle for subsistence. Yet if we put our minds to it we might harvest in a single year enough to feed the entire world for decades. That we don’t suggests a deep failing, that we allow ourselves to be perversely distracted by everything that is bad for us, deliberately avoiding the need for cultivating the soul-life. Instead, we eulogise enslavement to largely meaningless and unproductive work.

He describes observing traffic in London, the crowds the carriages, the mad, rushing crush of it, everyone driven by an insatiable craving for motion and direction. Yet for all of that, he says, we are going nowhere, and shall continue to do so: while money, furniture, affected show and the pageantry of wealth are the ambitions of the multitude.

He sees the general human condition as one of perpetual ignorance and suffering,… so great, so endless, so awful that I can hardly write of it. He dismisses religion in all its forms, also the idea of deity entirely on the basis of the evidence,… that there is not the least trace of directing intelligence in human affairs.

Our miseries are our own doing, he insists, and we must own them: because you have mind and thought, and could have prevented them. You can prevent them in future. You do not even try.

For us to progress, he urges us to reconnect with the higher mind, what he calls the “mind of the mind” – this being the soul, or the psyche because:

The mind is infinite and able to understand everything that is brought before it. The limit is the littleness of the things and the narrowness of the ideas put for it to consider.

Neither religion nor the physical sciences can offer us anything in this regard, those modes of thinking being completely wide of the mark. But as one who has felt the full blistering force of his own higher nature, Jeffries cannot be wholly pessimistic about our lot either, only lamenting that we need a quantum leap in understanding if we are not to spend another twelve thousand years going around in circles.

But while he tries his eloquent best to tell us the story of his heart, the abiding impression of this book is of an exquisitely sensitive man beset all his life by visions and feelings of such sublime loveliness they left him virtually speechless.

I was sensitive to all things, the earth under, and the star-hollow round about; to the last blade of grass, to the largest oak. They seemed like exterior nerves and veins for the conveyance of feeling to me.

Branded heretical in his time, pilloried by the Church for his paganism, and by urbanites for his unflattering views of London, the book did not sell well and many critics dismissed it as unintelligible. But for others, including me, Jeffries’ prose describes most powerfully those things all sensitive countryphiles have felt, and which we know point to a greater understanding of our place in the Cosmos – if only, like him, we could open our hearts to it properly, and find the words.

*[Richard Jeffries, English nature-writer, novelist, natural historian. 1848-1887]

For more information about Richard Jeffries you can do no better than to click here.