A dark and cold night saw five of us head out of Edinburgh for the rolling hills to the east, the Lammermuir Hills.Read More
Photograph by Tom Ingrey-Counter
On the last day in August a group from Edinburgh ventured southwest to spend some time in the rolling hills of Dumfries, near Cairnhead. The draw was an art installation on three separate summits; Striding Arches by Andy Goldsworthy.
I had read up about the art pieces before seeing them so that I was more clued up as to what it all meant. Andy had talked about how the red sandstone symbolises the migration of many Scots overseas, ‘of the tremendous upheaval they made’. He hoped that the arches themselves would be a ‘celebration to the Scottish people and the travels they have made... that they will act as a connection between those who have left and those who have stayed here’.
When we arrived and were in view of the arches I thought back to what Andy had said. It made me wonder, how do our intentions affect particular outcomes? What would our experience of the Arches been like had we known nothing of the artist’s intended meaning? Would the knowledge that Andy wanted to imbue the red stones with certain symbolic value shape our interaction with it?
As is often the case with a hill walking group, conversations were in full flow as we stomped over the heather, and I mused on this reflection as we clambered over the curving structures, getting a different perspective of the surrounding landscape. Documentation was a must, as pictures were snapped and memories stored. We ate our lunch by the stones and enjoyed moments of gazing at the view.
Descending from the last peak we found a passage-way through the thicket of tree plantations. It had been a good excuse to see this part of the country. I doubt whether we would have spent a day on that lonely natural amphitheatre had the art installation not been there. My senses on this Coracle outing had definitely made some strides.
I don’t think I would’ve instantly thought about the Scots who have gone overseas upon encountering the Arches had I not known that that was Andy’s intended interpretation. The arches, I thought, were awash with potent symbol and at the same time just simple stones. It made me think of Padraig O’Tuama when he says, “you will find meaning, when you give meaning”. How do you feel your intentions affect the outcome of what you are trying to achieve?
A trip to Aberlady Bay and the arrival of hordes of geese, taking in the spectacle of thousands of well drilled geese hoving into view then spectacularly disintegrating (whiffling) as they drop into the welcoming arms of the sandy bay.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
Wendell Berry, What we need is here
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Mary Oliver, Dream Work
A whole journey
I am caught between thinking of journey as a tired metaphor and the conviction that it is a much needed one. It holds together the whole of life, from childhood through to old age, and offers a metaphor of layered meaning for the passage of faith.
Our day out in August at the Ben Lawers Nature Reserve outside Killin reflected some of this chronological reach with young children to 50 year old olds walking, talking and eating together—a merry troupe of 23 in all. The theme was developed materially for us as we listened to Tom Ingrey-Counter describing the new installation that replaced the much derided Visitor Centre.
Discreet and sunk into the landscape at the base of our walk up to the Tarmachan ridge there is a new shieling. This shell of a dwelling is made of turf, stone, thatch and mattress. Within its walls, open to rain and wind and sun, stand a variety of chunky stonelike pieces of art. Text is chiselled into their surfaces reflecting on the rich heritage of journey that is mapped through people’s movements and in the seasonal variations in the landscape of peat and bog, lochan and rare plants. They, plus the flowing floor-stones, bear the messages of journey: ‘Shelter’ and ‘nourishment', the ‘extreme highs’ offered by the terrain and ‘adaptation’ and 'pioneer’ required of its travellers. Its thresholds encourage us to pause and reflect. They welcome and wave off walkers with their final words ‘look well to each step’.
The Bible is etched with journeys, at once both physical and mythical – Abraham’s, Moses’s, the Exile and Paul’s, of leaving and arrival, of endings and beginnings. All or many are about transition. These are reflected upon by scripture itself (as well as by saints down the ages) and regarded as archetypal. They depict spiritual movement as longings of the soul and embed them in the trials and joys of life. Longings leap out of our skin impelling us towards, towards what? The trout yearns to climb, the geese to convoy – our souls too migrate. Journey stubbornly offers the notion that there is somewhere to go, that there is home, yet also that we are destined to roam and wander, as the pilgrims would say, for the love of God. My muddy boot had come down upon the word ’adaptation’, and a mark was left upon me. Do any of the highlighted words above bear a message for you about the journey that awaits you?
Then God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. And with that Jesus breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit". There is a deep relationship between wind and breath, life and the Spirit. We went to St Abbs Head where wind and life abounds. It was a day of great variety: of banks of clover, or sheer cliffs peppered with clinging seabirds, of lochan and lilies and of simple and genial chat with the odd boiled egg and tree climb thrown in too. Adam Tomkins reflects further on the outing...
Openness and shared wonder
It is fair to say the sky was louring and the air was fresh enough for us to need our jackets all day, but Andrew and Kirsty had prepared for us a poignant distraction in the form of a meditation to carry with us on the theme of Breathing. We gathered briefly in the adventure playground and shared scripture in a circle of fellowship. Maximus the Confessor stayed with me along the cliffs as far as the lighthouse if not further: 'God is breath, For the breath of the wind is shared by all...' Amidst the calm and unravelling landscape, we witnessed walls adorned with ochre lichen, meadows stocked up with early sea-pinks, woodlands of pine and sycamore and willow, majestic (sometimes terrifying) cliffs and an idyllic lily-strewn loch with the remnants of bygone boating days and a single floating nest. Nothing was outside our collective experience, indeed the sense of openness and shared wonder was apparent. Our breathing was united, communal, and we didn't need to hear it clearly to sense that we were and shall continue to be all part of something rich and alive and full of promise and freshly breathed Spirit. Here are some photographs from a memorable day.
A large silence
It started with something we were going to do. An intense, intent leaning forward, a silence we were trying to hold. All to induce a movement, an appearance or at least not to be a distraction or an obstacle. It ended with being held by a larger silence and arms that were wider than our own. Something was being done to and in us. We try to still our bodies and attain the optimal posture – to settle. Gradually we drifted into a hushed silence. We were held, together, by the silence of the wood, of the gently swaying bush and the dark holes. We step into its own patience, it own waiting, and we relax. Muscles untensed, gazes took in a greater sweep and breathing became easier and more measured. What was this sense of being purifed, of being washed, of bathing?
Waiting for badgers
I knew little of badgers. A few of my companions it appeared had hidden a long standing fascination since childhood for these elusive creatures. We had crept into this city centre wild park as darkness threatened to descend in the hope of catching sight of a badger set at domestic chores or letting its hair down in play. As we sat perched atop our hard and cold rocks strategically dotted around this small natural amphitheatre what gradually dawned on me was that what we waited for was other. Not really known, different, yes other. There was no reason for the badgers to appear bar their own volition and desire. We did coax by dint of nuts, a tempting bribe we hoped. We’re here, now, we say! Thirty minutes passed by, of shifting and balancing our weight considerately between buttocks. Thirty minutes of apparent nothing, yet at the same time of everything. It’s said that the true self, the soul is a shy animal. To face our own restlessness, to feel our own target fever is best avoided perhaps? To stop and to wait. Offensive four letter words. To attend and be attended to. And after a while it had felt that it mattered little whether a flash of a black and white streak was caught. I was ready, alert and sated. And oddly cleansed.
Clearly this had taken on not merely a description or illustration of prayer but an experience of prayer too. Ignatian spirituality lays significant weight on noticing the movement of the heart, the point where the hearts quickens. It has detected or rather responded to something deep and recognises its own – deep calls to deep, spirit to Spirit. God is about and the heart has noticed it and stirs from its slumber. The welsh poet priest RS Thomas would suggest, I think, that our only resource is (our) emptiness. Put another way evacuation, of the din of inner and outer voices, for the Other. We sat in that clearing. Waited respectfully, humbly for a God who like the badger may prove to be shy. That night nine badgers, young and old, emerged to nuzzle root and twig. Maybe not so shy then.
Oozy mud, glassy waters and moaning seals
We spent a summer’s day walking the Pilgrim’s Way from the mainland to Lindisfarne. Barefoot. A day of squidgy mud oozing through toes, of splashing through cool tidal water, of mulling on life and being captivated by seal song. We stopped on the way out, on arrival and as we turned with the sun lowering its gaze towards the still skies and glassy waters. We paused at points with brief meditations and breathed in the ancient air. From the island we caught sight of hundreds upon hundreds of seals basking near the mainland. On return the eerie song of these singing seals accompanied us on our return journey, reverberating between land and sky. Photos from trip.
Reflections from Teresa and Hopkins
Have you ever walked across a stream stepping on rocks so as not to spoil a a pair of shoes? All we can touch, swallow, or say aids in our crossing to God and helps unveil the soul. Saint Teresa of Avila, extract from I loved what I could love Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; God's grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins
A few comments
“I lived off that experience for a month.”
“I can still near those seals singing.”