Another spring. It is the time of year that I love most for the great burst of hope and renewal it brings to the land I live and work on, but also to the human spirit. It is also the time when I travel to one of the many small uninhabited islands with a groups of friends to take what we call our ‘wilderness retreat’.
I have lost count of how many times we have done this, and even of the amount of different islands we have visited, but suffice it to say that it has been more than two decades and more than a dozen different islands, each one with different qualities. Along the way, the community of retreatants has expanded to form a body of people – mostly (but not exclusively) men – whose friendship I have come to value deeply. Quite simply, my life would be much less without them, and without the ritual of spending this time in remote places with them.
There is a generosity to these gatherings that I find hard to describe. Beneath the abusive banter, the profanity (often shockingly filthy), the preoccupation with certain bodily functions and the moans and groans from aging bodies something deep and profound happens. People care for one another. They share their food, their tots of whisky, their knowledge of wild animals and their store of stories. Neither does it ever feel like an exclusive group (I hope!) New people – friends of friends or contacts from afar – are welcomed to most of our gatherings. I try to turn no-one away.
In terms of religious allegiance (or not) we are also a fairly diverse group. Some are ministers of religion, others are atheist, or at very best agnostic. Some have firm evangelical certainty, others have travelled far to the fringe. Because of this, the practices we have evolved are never prescriptive. Mostly it is silence, then reflection. The island, the friendship and the shared hardship of rough country does the rest. Most of us can recall moments of deep trancedence, perhaps even leading to radical life change, but mostly the depth and joy is much more ordinary, much more earthy, much more…
There is a simplicity to spirituality mixed from vulnerbility, small community and wild places. Perhaps as get older, the questions that pushed me out of organised religion have rested, unanswered. It is enough to feel love and to let the sound of sea embrace me. I could give you a whole underpinning theology that might try to say why this makes sense, but I will not.
Rather, look at this;
Sometimes our group has been twenty-plus. This year there were ten of us. I missed those who could not come, but community is made with those who are there, and was no less rich for that.
This year’s venue was Inchmarnock, an island I had not visited before because I had rejected it as boring, unglamourous, farmy and flat. I was wrong. It has a different quality to many of the off-shore islands we have been to, perhaps because it feels only recently abandoned, with ruinous farm buildings still containing vestages of the lives they once contained.
Massive highland cattle still wander freely, but we gave each other a mutually beneficial wide berth. There was plenty of other wild life to excite us though- a massive seal colony, barn owls, peregrines, otters and this little feller;
From the outward boat, the birders amongst us got excited at a bunch of graceful Manx Shearwaters, and we think we might have later given the ornothological world a first, because late on the first night, when it was fully dark, the air was alive with their song as they returned (we think) to breeding burrows on the island – something not otherwise known, and might represent a brand new site where these iconic mysterious birds raise their young.
Another difference from many of our previous destinations is that the island is wooded, partly scrub oak, but large parts have previously been managed coppice, presumably for fire wood or fodder for cattle. The coppiced trees have not been cut for a generation, but stand in tall, many-limbed rows, still tended as if with purpose by the roaming cattle, who have made them into glorious labyrinths, down into which the sun filters through the spring tracery of the the hazel and birch to light the floor with carpets of spring flowers. It was like no-where I had been before.
Each evening, over on our sheltered raised beach on the western side of the island, we shared the smoke and the warmth of the fireside. Paul cooked scones in a rock oven. Jokes were passed like hip flasks (which were passed too.)
We also told some stories mined from this book;
This is simply the best account of the spirituality of wilderness I have ever read. It journeys from his mothers death bed, via the Californian deserts then back in time to grapple with apophatic tradition of the desert fathers of the 4th C BCE. The ‘stripping away’ that they sought as a spiritual discipline is not for the faint hearted, but Lane in his book describes too how many of us experience this in grief, in brokenness, in loss, as an inevitable part of a long life. This deeply resonated with me, after my own winter reflecting on loss and becoming lost in what was done to the exclusion of anything that might yet be.
Wilderness makes us small. The wild is indifferent to us like the stars and the sea. Before it all we are not just tiny, we are nothing. Despite this sometimes crushing reality, the desert fathers found that when we are almost eroded by harsh winds, so that it strips us of everything that we were, we find something else.
Connection? A realisation that we are part of it all? That we are held in the abyss? Perhaps all of these, but most of all, they found an indescribable love.
St John of the Cross, poet mystic, described the impact of wilderness in this way (forgive my paraphrasing) ;
- It thrills us with wild beauty, but this often turns itself back to ‘the self’- we consume it, try to capture it and make it our own. Neverless, something of the divine filters in through nature.
- It breaks us down, shows us as vulnerable and alone. It is hard and inifferent. It is dangerous. The divine is found at the end of our comfort, at the end of our coping.
- Some places, for reasons we can not easily account for, are holy, sacred, blessed. Perhaps like those ‘thin places’ of the ancient celts, or the burning bushes. What was ordinary becomes mystically laden with the extra-ordinary. Doubt it as you will, but these experiences can be transformative.
On a short trip like ours, we can make no great claims of transformation, but feel a flavour of all three of the above.
It is good to be home, but the island, the friendship, that coppice- these I keep with me.