Wilderness- ‘My side of the mountain’

I have just finished reading a book to my son William at bed time. It was a book that I had read at primary school. In fact I think I never took the book back to the school library, so it is still the property of Croft Primary School, Nottinghamshire County Council. I must turn myself in to the police…

But the book had a profound effect on me.

It told the story of a boy who ran away from home in New York, and made a life for himself in the Catskill mountains. He lived off the land, and hollowed out a tree to make a house.

I think it had such an effect on me as some aspects of my childhood were very difficult, and I spent hours in my own dream world, longing for some kind of magical escape.

But it also filled me up with a longing for wild places.

I now realise this this book (which I have never heard anyone else mention) is a famous work of children’s fiction, and was made into a film. Indeed it is part of a trilogy, and so I plan to read the rest of the series with Will.

I found some bits of the film (made in 1969, when I was 2 years old)- and was amazed how much it still stirred me. Some liberties appear to have been taken with the book though- don’t they know that they are messing with my memories?!

Wilderness- Dick Proenneke…

I am thinking a lot about wilderness again- because of my weekend in the mountains, but also as Nick and I are getting further into our next writing project- trying to gather together a collection of things we are calling ‘wilderness meditations’.

The place of wilderness in this world seems more important to me than ever. As we continue to move into a post modern world where the rise of scientific rationalism has been put to the sword, the longing for simpler, more sustainable way of living is ever more on us. Getting ourselves loose from the noose of debt and wage earning in order to maintain the debt payments- this is a dream for many.

And a reality to few.

I came across this man recently, building his beautiful hut in the Alaskan wilderness.

And the envy was on me.

To live in a pristine land unchanged by man…
to roam a wilderness through which few other humans have passed…
to choose an idyllic site, cut trees and build a log cabin…
to be a self-sufficient craftsman, making what is needed from materials available…
to be not at odds with the world, but content with one’s own thoughts and company…
Thousands have had such dreams, but Dick Proenneke lived them. He found a place, built a cabin, and stayed to become part of the country. This video “Alone in the Wilderness” is a simple account of the day-to-day explorations and activities he carried out alone, and the constant chain of nature’s events that kept him company.

Aoradh wilderness trip, 2010…

We are planning another wilderness trip over the bank holiday at the beginning of May (1st-3rd of May.)

This has become something of a tradition every year- a few of us take some tents to a wild place, and spend time on a kind of retreat…

See here for last year’s trip, and here for the year before…

We have enjoyed some trips to tiny Hebridean islands- Scarba, The Garvelachs, Iona, Coll, Little Cumbrae, as well as some land locked places in the Lake district, or Wales in the more distant past. What started as a few friends who liked to get away has become a more open trip- and we love to invite others of a like mind to come with us.

So, if you fancy coming, here is what to expect-

  • A chance to get to somewhere absolutely beautiful- isolated and wild.
  • The probability of being wet and cold.
  • Gorgeous sunsets.
  • Being close to wild creatures.
  • Lots of laughter- some of it of a rather risqué nature!
  • Some prepared ‘wilderness meditation’ exercises- a chance to make a Spiritual journey. A pilgrimage.
  • Friendship and camp fires.

If you come, you will need to be self supporting- in the sense that you come at your own risk, taking responsibility for your own equipment and supplies. We offer friendship and opportunity, but this is no package tour! If you come, you should be used to being outdoors, and be up for a challenge. If you are unsure, then get in touch, and we can give you more details!

This year’s trip may well be to Lunga, in the Treshnish Isles. Cost of getting there from Oban will be around £50.

To whet the appetite- here are a few snippets about the place-

The Treshnish Isles are formed from 8 principal islands varying in size from less than 4 hectares to 60 hectares. The archipelago lies, at its closest, 3 km west of Mull and extends along a northeast-southwest axis for a distance of 11 km. The islands are uninhabited but that wasn’t always the case, hill forts, medieval chapels and castles prove that humans were once permanently living on these remote and unsheltered islands. The population in 1800 on Lunga was about 20. Year-round occupation ended in 1824 when Donald Campbell and his family left the island.

The Treshnish Isles are one of the most scenically evocative features of the Hebridean landscape. The islands are exposed to the open ocean, uninhabited and have no good landing sites, hence the presence of vibrant wildlife communities. The Treshnish Isles possess unique landscape, rich wildlife communities and contain habitat, which is vital for several vulnerable species. They have an archaeological history dating from early Viking times. The islands already have international recognition of their heritage value. They are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) because of their unique geomorphology, populations of seals, cliff- and burrow-nesting seabirds, wintering wildfowl and populations of house mice.

So- if you want to join us- drop me a line…

Postcards from the western fringe 4- footpaths…

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I took this walk out along the coast towards Bosta.

It was lovely. Wind coming in from the sea, sun shining through scudding clouds.

And I started thinking about footpaths. And theology.

It started with a boggy patch- you know the sort- a lush patch of green that looks all firm and supportive, but turns out to be a cunning thin skin over a foul boot sucking bog. Such things always remind me of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian wending his way on the journey of life, until he leaves the path again, and falls into the slough of despond.

It seemed to me that this way of understanding the walk of faith weighed on me for years. It is based on a view that God has proscribed paths for all of us, and should we step to the left or the right of it then well betide us. The best we could hope for, like Bunyan’s Christian, is to stumble back out of the wilderness back onto the golden path…

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Now paths are useful things, as long as

  • You know where you are going
  • The destination is the object of the journey
  • Others have been there before and marked the journey well

But what I found in my spiritual journeying was that the linear, proscribed paths I grew up with became no journey at all. What Bunyan’s followers handed down to me was a spirituality that mapped and measured the life out of each step. A Spirituality that had all the signposts, but had lost all the adventure. That became fixated on the destination, not the joy in the moment, and the companionship of the road.

Walking the mountains of Scotland, as opposed to England, means contending with a much wilder country. The few footpaths are faint, and easily confused with animal tracks. Making your way over rough land is hard work. But these landscapes are no mere backdrop to be drawn past the journey- they are the very place were we encounter the quickening that comes from being tested, inspired and humbled by real wilderness.

The old well trodden spiritual paths are falling out of use. People no longer appear to believe the old signposts, nor are attracted by the destination.

Perhaps the analogy of faith as footpath to be mapped and trod is a poor one. It certainly lacks something for me.

Perhaps the useful analogy should be less focussed on destination, and more on encounter, adventure and dependence. Of moving outwards, looking for the traces of Jesus and listening for the whisper of the Spirit in the wind and the waves.

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But in this wild country, we still need pioneers. We still need to connect with others who walk in the way…

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A day of mixed blessings…

The fridge grave yard.

The fridge grave yard.

Today was a strange kind of day.

We have a houseful of friends coming to stay for new year tomorrow- around 25 will somehow sleep here I think. This means getting the house ready- cleaning up, making space where currently there is clutter, and stocking up the cupboards with food for the masses.

I am really looking forward to seeing friends, catching up with the stuff of life, sitting round the fire with guitars and slow walks with the kids. It is always a time of blessing.

What was not a blessing was the breakdown of the fridge freezer- full of food for the week ahead! We found a replacement, and I suppose the old one had done it’s job for long enough.

Alongside this, the lights in the kitchen packed in (transformer- now replaced) and Outlook Express has decided I am no longer to be trusted with my own e-mails, asking me repeatedly for my password. Modern technology huh?

However, one e-mail that got through was a blessing.

I had an e-mail from a guy in Chile- Chris Esdaile, who has used one of our wilderness meditations , converted into Spanish, with a group in the Atacama desert!

There are some great photo’s on Flickr– showing a very different kind of wilderness.

Technology can bring blessing then- a connection with something whole worlds away…

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Argyll just got a bit wilder!

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Today I was up very early as I had to be in Oban sheriff’s court for 10.00am.

As I left the house (7.30) the temperature gauge on my car read -3. As I drove away from the Clyde, it dropped to -6. At those temperatures, all the moisture in the air is sculpted onto the tree branches and blades of grass as white ice crystals. It was stunning.

Around the head of Loch Fyne, the water’s edge had frozen solid. In fact, the whole shore line was covered in a blue coat of blue-white ice, all several inches thick. Loch Fyne is a sea loch, so I can only assume that at certain states of tide, the slack conditions mean that the fresh water dominates, raising the freezing temperature.

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I drove on past Inveraray, and up into the hills, over towards Loch Awe. And never was a name so apt- with the backdrop of stunning now covered mountains, and the deep blue sky for contrast.

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I had a discussion with my friend Nick the other day about the nature of wilderness. We are still trying to finalise a book of meditations for use in the wild places. He had written something based around the Biblical idea of wilderness as desolation- of removal and isolation from God. However, for me, and perhaps for many people who are over used to a domesticated or urban landscape, wilderness is perhaps a wonderful idea- rich with the possibility of a Created place, unsullied and unpolluted- wild and untamed.

This idea became all the more real to me today, as I heard a story.

Standing in Oban court house with some of the other witnesses, I was discussing the journey, and the state of the roads, and the stags I had seen in the white field next to the Loch. A nice woman, who is a ward sister at Oban Lorn and the Isles General Hospital was part of the conversation.

And she told me that a few months previously, she had been heading to a training course in Dunoon, also early in the morning, and had been forced to swerve on the road past Kilchurn Castle as there was a dead deer in the road that had obviously been killed by a car fairly recently. Then she saw a large black shape near the wall.

Stopping the car, she watched in amazement as a large black cat, about the size of a leopard jumped the stone wall, and padded over the fields into the forest. It had been feeding on the dead deer.

There have been stories (Check out this article here.) Half glimpsed shapes at the forest edge. Big heavy deer dragged into the undergrowth by a powerful animal that simply should not be here… There have been sightings in Aberdeen, and many in Argyll. I always doubted them- there was no solid evidence, and after all, there is the bloomin’ Loch Ness monster!

But this lady- she was a nice, sensible person, who was not playing the story for shock value. She was in no doubt as to what she had seen.

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As I drove the road on the way home, my eyes kept flicking accross to the forest edge. The possibility of yellow eyes watching me past was always there.

Nature red in tooth and claw. And right here.

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Slower now…

The Cuillin ridge, Skye, from Sgurr nan Gillean

The Cuillin ridge, Skye, from Sgurr nan Gillean

When I was a child
I saw as a child
Small
In the small things of landscape
Deep in the tickling grass
Held in the hollow of slow summer days
Now, like the grasshoppers-
Ghosts of memory
Gone forever

But now I am grown
And the woods are no longer wild
My dragons died through education
And the noise of cars on the B6139
(Heading for Newstead)
Drove away the bears.

Instead I lifted my eyes to the high places
Where horizons rolled from ridge to ridge
Always higher, always further north
Crossing the high, hard won corrie
Blood pumping
Free for a while
From the baser motives-
Above it all.

Then, slower now
At the end of heavy days
And in good company
I look again beneath my feet
And try not to trample flowers.

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Another wild day on the Clyde…

View along the Clyde

View along the Clyde

Gale force winds last night again…

No Ferries, water lying everywhere, wind bashing at the leaves on the trees and hastening the autumn.

Beautiful.

This time, we decided to watch the waves as they crashed on our little piece of shore.

Beautiful creatures

I have come to think that this beautiful creature that God made ‘…a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour…’ has a special place in this wonderful world.

But we are such a small part of all the good things that he made.

The sweep of land from forest to crags peering through the shroud of mist.

The wild beauty of a summer storm as lightening splits the night.

The cold flickering of the northern lights in the dark winter.

The smell of spring on fresh April mornings, when all things seem possible.

These events will happen whether or not we observe them, whether or not we participate within them. But in experiencing them, perhaps we bear unique witness to the artistry of the Creator. Perhaps we alone can tell at least some of the story, some of the shape and size of what this thing called Earth really is.

Sometimes it seems to me that we overplay our place as the top of nature’s food chain. After all, we are so small, and other life-forms on this planet may yet outlast us.

But then it occurs to me yet again that we beautiful creatures are alone in our ability to understand, to measure, and ultimately to choose to raise our voices in concert with the angels in a unique song of praise…

Canoes and wilderness- a perfect combination for the soul…

Will and a Loch Eck Cranog

Will and a Loch Eck Cranog

Living where we do, within reach of wonderful lochs and mountains, is such a blessing.

A few years ago, we bought an old beaten up ex-outdoor centre canoe. It still gives amazing service. I slap on a bit of filler around the wear points on the hull every now and again, but on the whole, it seems indestructable.

We have taken it out to the islands of Eigg and Gigha, and paddled many lochs and rivers. We have been buzzed by sharks and dolphins, paddled through packs of slightly scandalised seals, and used it for canoe-camping trips and beach barbecues.

I think the kids take it for granted a little. I sometimes have to persuade them it is a good idea. Michaela has never been totally comfortable in it- despite the fact that we have never once capsized. It can feel very exposed however when the wind and rain whips in, and it is very difficult to make progress if you are heading into the weather.

But canoes get you to places that few other forms of transport can- and their quiet, sedate way of achieving this means that are much more likely to encounter wildlife.

I came across the following clip which kind of dwarfs our humble little adventures. Enjoy…