I took a trip into the wilderness of Argyll at the weekend. Along with some friends I canoed along Loch Striven, camping on the shoreline amongst the birch trees and the bluebells. The air was alive with spring- birds stuffing last years grass into cracks being watched carefully by all those noisy cuckoos. The sea loch still enough to carry the tell tale ripples made by porpoise or the eager seals or the arrow like dive of the gannets. A huge moon rising over the hills bright enough to cast shadows.
On days like this it is impossible not to be aware of the new season- winter is over and everything is coming alive (even though it was VERY cold at night!) However, our connection to these things is increasingly distanced by the way we live. Our air conditioned centrally heated living spaces remain the same temperature the year long, the food we eat is available no matter what the growing season and the lengthening days serve only to facilitate our leisure pursuits.
It was not always like this. Many of the festivals we celebrate have their roots in ancient ways of marking the changing of the seasons. We humans have a way of ritualising and celebrating boundaries and transitions- particularly the ones that matter- the ones that might be the difference between life and death. So, the coming of milk to the fist pregnant ewe came to be called Imbolc in these parts, and the first blossom on the apple trees brought about the riotous dancing of Beltane. Then there was the celebration of the very last of the harvest- Lughnasadh.
This connection to the natural world is one that many of us still crave, without always being clear why. It is something we only really experience when in the vulnerability of being in wild places. By watching the progression of the year from the sleep of winter to the wilt of late summer and the last blaze of Autumn it becomes possible to see once again this world for what it is, and our small place within it all.
Then the season becomes like a song. It finds its way inside us.
We are back after a wonderful few days out in the wild.
This year the Aoradh wilderness trip did not venture out to one of the islands- a few people dropped out and so the boat charter would have just been too expensive. We decided that we would stay more local, so I scouted out a location half way up one of our lovely lochs- Loch Striven. Five of us walked/canoed in from the road end and spent two days and nights in silence, in community and preparing lavish outdoor meals.
This time we managed to bake bread in a biscuit tin oven, bake potatoes and apples, cook mussels harvested from the shore in front of the tent, and spend hours sitting round the campfire talking and laughing.
Even though the weather was mostly lovely it was unusually cold, which was a shame as I took advantage of the trees to use my camping hammock/tarp set up- which turned out to be rather chilly.
This trip was very different to our other wilderness retreats but still really great- it made us appreciate again the wild places right on our doorstep here in Argyll. We also wondered whether it might be a chance to offer people short taster sessions of what wilderness and spirituality together can offer.
I also got to do some canoeing too, for the first time for a while. Andy and I clocked up around 18 miles of paddling. In the process of which we saw seals, porpoise and countless sea birds. Today we canoed to the head of the Loch and Michaela came to collect us. Lovely!
We are just back from a lovely Easter service.
Thanks to the kindness of Aileen, one of our local ministers, we were given permission to use the beautiful Inverchaolain Chapel– out along Loch Striven. It is a small simple stone building, cupped in the bowl of the hills next to the Loch.
Audrey led us through a liturgy, using some ideas borrowed from Tabled– which is a fantastic collection of creative ideas for communion. We used two objects- one was a crown of thorns suspended with little baskets containing frozen cubes of wine, which dripped down onto a silver tray and a white cloth. The other was a loaf of bread into which we asked people to push nails. The images were powerful and Audrey’s words complimented them wonderfully.
(By the way- if you try the frozen wine thing, bear in mind that wine does not freeze very well- better to use water with some food colouring.)
Afterwards we went back to Andy and Angela’s as the planned picnic was rather rained off. No matter though, we took with us something precious that brought a deeper sense of the death of Jesus, and his resurrection then, and through us, now.
The area in which she went missing is not particularly dramatic- it is rough hill country, rising to a maximum height of around 300 meters, and heavily forested. The woman concerned was fit, well equipped and very experienced- a former teacher from Perthshire in her early sixties.
Despite extensive searches of the area, she was never found. I have often thought of her as I have driven, walked and canoed around where she was lost.
A couple of weeks, two sea kayakers were exploring Loch Striven, and set up camp in an area I know well- a flat patch of land that is only reachable by boat, and has signs of old habitation- I have canoed there with my family, and explored the remains of the houses. It is a lovely, romantic spot. We took a trip there in 2008-
The two Kayakers ventured a little further into the woods then we did- climbing up a steep gully through the trees.
And by some miracle, they stumbled across an orange survival bag and a rucksack.
More out of curiosity they cut the bag open- and discovered the remains of the missing walker.
I feel strangely satisfied that the walkers body has been found. It feels like a circle completed. Family are able to lay their loved one to rest, and a mystery has been solved. Or at least- partially solved. We will never know why she died, or what combination of circumstances contributed to her death.
The other thing that feels right is the humanity that the community celebrates in relation to this lady. The extensive searches- by police and by her friends in a mountaineering club (searches that must have passed very close to where she actually lay.) These searches were not done with even a flicker of resentment- just concern and care.
Then there was the final discovery- the kayakers, the doctors who examined the remains, the police who stayed with the body all night before it could be recovered, the contact with family…
It sometimes seems that our hold on life is so tenuous- a bit like the settlement in the photographs above, all too soon we are overtaken by time and sucked back into the ground.
But humanity is not just bones and buildings- we also have spirit and soul.
May one soul be climbing still.
I have just spent a lovely weekend on a ‘Mountain skills and navigation’ course. I decided it was time to refresh some of my long forgotten skills- which I have lazily discarded over the 20 years since I last did a similar course.
The course was very well led by Keith, who has a lovely relaxed way about him that I very much appreciated, and I very much enjoyed the company of the other course members. In fact, the conversations took over from the learning at times (sorry Keith!)
We spent two days in the Cowal hills- above Loch Striven (to Cruach nan Capull- 611m) on Saturday, and from Lock Eck up to Clach Bheinn (648m) descending down to Benmore via Creachan Beag (545m.) We managed to find a lovely airy ridge today too.
Anyone who has ever walked these hills will know that the slopes are steep and pathless, and the peaks hard won. But I have been reminded again that they are very much worth it. Our maximum height was less than 700m, but the rough terrain had its challenges. Enough to make us feel a sense of achievement anyway.
So here I am. Bathed. Well fed. Big blister burst.
Some photies. (Click to enlarge.)