If, like me, you are an avid consumer of natural history based literature, you will surely love the below extract from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace – An ecological pilgrimage. The book is the story of an ecological pilgrimage undertaken by the author in his small yacht, Coral, from the south of England and 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 and of fragility.
Out of the church and through the creaking gate I chose the pathway that led high over the centre of the island and, I hoped, toward my original destination. After climbing through muddy woodland to the open hilltops I looked down into Craigaig Bay, a small inlet protected by a scattering of grassy islets, and to islands beyond: Lunga and the Treshnish Islands, with Coll and Tiree in the further distance. The sea was calm; tiny squalls ruffled the surface into patches of ripples and a line of disturbance showed where the tide was racing round the headland. I watched another eagle, this one floating high above the cliffs. A hawk flashed past in the woodland below me, too fast to clearly identify but most likely a peregrine. Swallows perched on the fence posts and twittered at me, close enough for me to see clearly the orange patch under their beaks; as I approached, they fluttered along to the next post.
Farther down the hill, I passed through dense patches of foxgloves fading into a purple haze in the distance. Clusters of primrose, speedwell and low-lying honeysuckle grew in the shelter of lichen-covered outcrops. Now I became aware of a wider range of sounds: the twitter of smaller birds; a harsh cry of distress in the distance, suddenly cut off; then the single call of a cuckoo. All were contained within an underlying silence so profound that each sound seemed to hold a physical, three-dimensional presence.
Above Craigaig Bay I found a place to sit with my back resting against a rock. From here I looked down to where a passage between the rocks led to the sheltered beach. Up from the beach stood the stone walls that are all that remains of some cottages; and surrounding them the mounds and ridges that are all that is left of a field system, lazy beds and a water mill. For generations people here worked the land and fished the seas until they were burned out in the late nineteenth century. They seemed to have left a different kind of silence behind them.
‘Silence’ is a fascinating word. At a very simple level it can be taken to mean the absence of sound, or at least the absence of noise that is intrusive or irritating. But this is misleading. Silence is not an absence of sound but as Sara Maitland puts it in her Book of Silence, it is a ‘positive presence… Perhaps it is a real, actual thing’. It is rather more difficult to say just what it is that is present.
Certainly, as I sat on the grass above Craigaig Bay, I was reaching outward with my listening as if seeking to touch something elusive and fragile: the call of the birds, the whisper of the wind; maybe even the trace of the now-absent sounds of those people who once lived here. Maybe I was reaching into the gaps between the sounds, to hear that which was occluded. Sometimes I felt I was also trying to reach behind those present and past sounds to a sense of an underlying cosmic silence, maybe to what the ancient ones called the music of the spheres.
But the silence was also about me. It was about a certain quality of mind and attention. Sara Maitland describes ‘an interior dimension to silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind which is not a void but a rich space’. This ‘rich space’ certainly is one that is stilled, relatively emptied of internal chatter and self-absorption. But it is nevertheless awake, alert, full of imaginative response to my surroundings.
“Why do you go sailing on your own?” people often ask me. I usually reply that the presence of other humans seems to demand conversation, and however attractive that is, it fills the rich space of internal quiet and overwhelms the possibility of opening to the underlying silence of the world.
So while silence is a positive space, it is a space that opens only when ‘I’ am no longer filling it. By ‘I’, I mean in particular my self-importance and self-concern, my attachment to my own purposes, all of which create a deafening internal ‘noise’. Silence, in the extended, positive sense of the word, seems to arise when external ‘quiet’—the absence of intrusive noise—meets an internal quietude. This meeting is a delicate place: the external quiet may be unexpectedly disrupted, as my encounter with the helicopters suggests; my quietude is continually threatened by egoic concerns. This is the kind of silence prized, according to Barry Lopez, by the Tukano Indians of Brazil when they speak in praise of ‘The Quiet’: a ‘realm of life that could not be sensed until one overcame the damage done to perception by long exposure to inescapable noise.
Solitude helps open this inner quietude, especially when accompanied by an intentional practice such as meditation and prayer. In the company of others it helps to agree to avoid ordinary chatter. Sometimes, quietude arises through social conventions, such as the formal silences that mark moments of remembrance or mourning and the reverence that is customary in holy places. The physical rhythms of walking are often said to lead to an internal quiet. So too do the extended periods in long distance sailing where there is nothing to be done but attend to the movement of the boat through the water. All these are brought together in the discipline of pilgrimage.
Peter Reason is a writer and a sailor and professor Emeritus at the University of Bath. His work links the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources. Peter lives in Bath, UK.
In Search of Grace will be published by Earth Books, ISBN: 978-1-78279-486-8 (Paperback) £13.99 $24.95.