I steered my little yacht Coral through the confused water of the tidal stream that poured out between Garbh Eilean and Eilean Mhuire. The calm pool opened in front of me, littered with specks of white as if some giant had cast handfuls of torn up paper across the surface. Soon Coral was surrounded by puffins, with their startling white breasts, the distinctive markings around their eyes and brightly coloured beaks. The air was full of puffins too, so full they seemed more like a cloud of mosquitoes than a flock of birds.
I was in the final stages of my travels, which over two summers had taken me and Coral from the south coast of England, round the west coast of Ireland and through the Western Isles to the far north of Scotland, mainly single handed. As I turned southward, I made for the small archipelago of the Shiant Islands, an isolated group, separated from Lewis by the Sound of Shiant, notorious for its strong tides, overfalls and underwater hazards.
I saw my travels as an ecological pilgrimage. There is a longstanding tradition in most human societies of making a journey, more or less arduous, away from the comforts of home in search of new insights and deeper understandings. This practice may be as old as the human species: Mesolithic peoples in Europe certainly made long journeys to the sacred sites marked by stone circles; the Aboriginal people of Australia take extended walks along ‘songlines’, re-enacting the journeys of ‘creator-beings’ during the Dream Time.
The idea and practice of pilgrimage developed in a religious context. One thinks of the requirement of good Muslims to undertake the Hajj at least once in their lives; of the Christian pilgrimages of the Middle Ages and the continuing contemporary practices; of the vast numbers of Hindu devotees who travel to sacred sites on the River Ganges; and of Buddhists who walk the difficult path to circumnambulate Mount Kailash.
In its fullest sense, pilgrimage entails a long journey in search of qualities of moral or spiritual significance, a journey across both outer physical and inner spiritual landscapes. Pilgrims separate themselves from home and familiars, maybe joining a group of like-minded seekers and wearing special clothes or other marks to indicate their pilgrim status. The pilgrimage journey offers a fluid and imaginative space between the everyday and the eternal, a liminal zone between body and soul, heaven and Earth, humanity and divinity. For it is not easy to move across the boundaries between these worlds when locked in the familiarity of the everyday.
Religious pilgrimages are taken to sacred sites in order to encounter a holy realm for worship and the affirmation of faith, in search of illumination and for healing.
As I conceive it, the ecological pilgrimage seeks a primal, heartfelt connection with the Earth itself and the community of life that has evolved on Earth. It is also a celebration and an act of homage, honouring the Earth as the more-than-human world of which we are a part, existing for itself rather than for human use. By taking the pilgrim away from the habits of civilisation and by disrupting the patterns of everyday life, pilgrimage offers an opening to a different view of the Earth of which we are a part.
Before I left for Scotland, I read about the Shiant Islands and studied the sailing directions. I learned to pronounce the name properly, in one softened syllable: ‘Shant’. The little archipelago is made up of three rugged islands: to the west Garbh Eilean and Eilean an Tighe are joined by a natural boulder isthmus; across an open pool to the northeast lies Eilean Mhuire. Adam Nicolson, whose family have owned the islands for many years writes, ‘The rest of the world thinks there is nothing much to them. Even on a map of the Hebrides the tip of your little finger would blot them out. But the Shiants… are not modest. They stand out high and undoubtable.’ Although keen to visit, I doubted whether it would be possible, for they are very exposed and offer little shelter. But it seemed I was lucky: the weather was quiet, with a smooth sea yet enough wind to sail. Nevertheless, I approached them with caution, keeping an eye on the tidal streams and carefully noting landmarks.
Once I was safely in the pool and had got over the thrill of seeing so many puffins, I turned my attention to getting Coral settled. The recommended anchorage is by the isthmus that connects Garbh Eilean and Eilean an Tighe. This is protected from the prevailing westerly winds, but open to the light easterlies blowing that morning. Since these volcanic islands rise abruptly from the seabed, the bottom shoals steeply and consists of boulders, so there is sediment of mud or sand into which the anchor can sink and get a good grip. It took a little while before I was happy that the anchor was holding, with Coral tucked into the corner between the isthmus and the precipitous cliffs of Eilean an Tighe.
With Coral safely anchored, I could look around. I soon realised that there were nearly as many razorbills as puffins in the pool. They are also auks, but rather bigger, 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 watched one swimming within a couple of yards of Coral, quite undisturbed as I moved about the deck. When it decided to dive I was able to watch it turn tail up and, once underwater, open its wings to fly down beneath Coral’s keel, the bubbles of air around its feathers gleaming as they caught the sunlight.
Looking up again across the pool, I realised that there were tens of thousands of puffins and razorbills, for this is one of the major nesting places in the North Atlantic. There were, of course, other birds: shags, black-backed gulls, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, and the odd gannet. For me the most impressive were the skuas, big, heavily built seabirds, brown, with two white stripes on their wing. Skuas are known as ‘kleptoparasites’ because of their habit of stealing food from other birds: I watched one attack a gull, hanging onto its wing as they tumbled together to the water to make it regurgitate its meal. I am sure that given half a chance they would snatch a puffin chick, as would the big gulls. I imagined the links in the local food chain: marine plankton feeding sand-eels, sand-eels feeding baby birds and baby birds feeding skuas and gulls.
I spent the afternoon sitting in the cockpit watching the birds and enjoying the changing light. A few yachts visited, but none stayed for long; a couple of fishing boats chugged through the pool. As the long northern evening drew in I began preparations for the night. The weather was calm enough for it to be safe to stay overnight at the islands, but I wanted to move to a more secure anchorage. The dark cliffs and the stony isthmus looked too close, and if the anchor were to drag Coral would soon be ashore. Even if the light winds persisted through the night, it felt unseamanlike to sleep while she was anchored off a lee shore where there was poor holding.
So I hauled up the anchor and motored round the end of Eilean an Tighe to the western side of the isthmus. This anchorage is open to the swell of the Little Minch and disturbed by the tidal movement through the Sound of Shiant. Despite this, with the light wind blowing Coral away from the islands, she felt safer. Two Danish yachts had already taken the best positions but I was able to find a spot where the anchor held closer inshore.
In the early evening the crews of the Danish yachts returned from their expeditions ashore, and soon there was a whiff of diesel and rattle of anchor chains as they left the anchorage and disappeared north round the end of Garbh Eilean. With their departure I felt suddenly alone and vulnerable. I checked the forecast on my iPhone yet again, even though that meant waiting ages for the weak signal to load the page. I looked again at the anchor chain – it was hanging almost vertical, I had plenty of scope out, so all was well there. I looked about me and consulted the chart to see how I would leave the anchorage in the dark if I needed to – there was sea room to the southwest. There was no rational reason why I should not stay safely overnight, so I took myself in hand, sat down quietly, made myself breathe properly and look out at the world around me rather than inwards to my anxieties. I might feel exposed, just a speck in a vast sky and expanse of sea, but I could relax and appreciate it.
The evening wore on, the light faded and I became enveloped in the quiet mystery of twilight. Coral pitched gently on the light swell. Little waves rolled continuously up to the stony shore and broke with a hollow crash on the boulders. The mound of Garbh Eilean loomed above me, dark against the evening sky, the details of the basalt columns obscured. Nicolson’s little cottage on Eilean an Tighe stood out ghostly white, then, as the light faded away, merged with the hillside behind. Looking over Coral’s stern, past the line of rocks and islets that stretches toward the mainland, I searched the surface of the Sound for a glimpse of the flashing green light on the buoy that marks Damhag. All I could see was the grey sea and the distant hazy line of Lewis.
Through the evening the inexhaustible stream of puffins flew overhead; the skuas and black-backed gulls continued their patrols around the cliff tops. If I peered out to sea I could just make out the white flash of gannets on a late search for fish. I sat out late, enchanted by my surroundings while still feeling strangely vulnerable, reluctant to go to bed.
The word that keeps coming to my mind to describe this evening is ‘fragile’. It captures both the strength and the vulnerability of my situation, of the puffins and of the islands themselves. The Shiants are the nesting ground of one of the last flourishing populations for puffins: huge populations in Iceland and elsewhere have quite suddenly disappeared as climate change has brought warm waters that have disturbed the delicate ecological balance on which they depend. The basalt columns that form the Shiant Islands appear strong and stable, but are weakly jointed; over time, wind and waves penetrate the joints, allowing large chunks to break away. And indeed of all of us, despite the veneer of civilisation, are at root unprotected in a wild world and the wild universe.
Our attention has been drawn to the fragility of Planet Earth by the space programme. Ever since the early Apollo missions, pictures of planet Earth from space have been widely available, starting with the most famous ‘Earth Rising’, taken as Apollo 8 emerged from behind the moon. This has been called ‘the most influential environmental photograph ever taken’. For, it is argued, now that humanity can see the Earth alone within the vast reaches of space, we will realise her beauty, fragility and significance and band together to protect and preserve her as our home.
Astronauts report that they spend much of their spare time on missions simply ‘Earthgazing’. NASA engineer Nicole Stott tells us, ‘I think you start out with this idea of what its going to be like, and then when you do finally look at the Earth for the first time you’re overwhelmed by how much more beautiful it really is…’ Shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman goes further: Earth ‘… looks like a living, breathing organism, but it also at the same time looks extremely fragile’. And Ron Garon, who served on the International Space Station, remembers ‘When we look down on the Earth from space we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet… It’s really striking and its sobering to see this paper thin layer and to realise that that little paper thin layer is all that protects every living thing on Earth from death’.
Edgar Mitchell, who was the Lunar Module pilot on Apollo 14 and the sixth person to walk on the moon, is one of many astronauts to reflect deeply on their experience. His view is that it is not just that you get see the beauty and fragility from space, but there is also a shift in consciousness which he describes a close to the ancient accounts of savikalpa samādhi. There is as a direct experience of interconnection: ‘You see things as you see them with your eyes but you experience them emotionally and viscerally as ecstasy and a sense of total unity and oneness… It’s rather clear to me as I studied this that is was not anything new, but was something that was very important to the way we humans were put together’.
I wonder if the experience of the astronauts was so very far from my own as I sat in the long northern twilight off the Shiant Islands: it was just this kind of direct interconnection that I was seeking on my ecological pilgrimage. Of course, I am not among those who first saw Earth rising from behind the moon; I have not watched the shadow of night move across the face of the Earth; nor I have experienced the thin blue line of the biosphere clinging to the curve of the planet. And yet, as Mitchell points out, the astronauts’ experience of oneness is nothing new. I think we may idealize their experience and in doing so see the capability of experiencing oneness as something special, something extraordinary, something for which we have to go outside the planet. Maybe it is better to see it as a dimension of human consciousness that we modern humans have neglected and marginalised, rather than something only available from outer space. Maybe a better way to celebrate the astronauts’ experience, the way that ‘Earth Rising’ might change human consciousnesses, the way it might kick-start a true environmental movement, is realise our own capacity for such experiences.
Zen masters teach us not to seek the extraordinary, not to look for special or ‘sacred’ places. To seek that seeking prevents us from seeing what is before our eyes – the specialness of the everyday, how everything rolls together in being and nonbeing, how we are every moment part of a living planet. These are capabilities that we must bring back to ourselves, and not just to our pilgrimages into the wild, but into our homes, our gardens, our cities, the everyday world around us and our relationships with other humans.
As the darkness finally gathered off the Shiants and day finally rolled into night, my long watch was rewarded by the waxing crescent moon rising, a deep red, between the two dark humps of the islands. The overhead stream of puffins ceased, and I too was at last content to climb down the companionway and sleep.
Peter Reason is also the author of Spindrift: A Wilderness Journey at Sea, an excerpt from which was published three years ago on the Dark Mountain blog.
In Search of Grace is the story of an ecological pilgrimage undertaken by the author from the south coast of England, round the west coast of Ireland to the far north of Scotland. It explores themes of pilgrimage, the overall pattern of separation from the everyday, venturing forth and returning home. It tells of meeting wildlife, visiting sacred places, confronting danger, expanding and deepening the experience of time, of silence, of fragility.
It will be published in October 2017 by Earth Books. You can read pre-publication reviews, more excerpts from the book and watch a video describing the journey here.