Thursday, 30 April 2015

Fare forward, voyagers.

 And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think 'the past is finished,'
Or 'the future is before us.'
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
'Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future 
And the past with an equal mind."
                                      TS Eliot

To what shall I compare the world?
         It is like the wake
Vanishing behind a boat
         That has sailed away at dawn.
                                      Sami Mazei

Above and below the waves

If, on a rainy, stormy day, you take a funny little tram/train right out to the end of the very long jetty at Busselton, Western Australia, 

 you can walk down a spiral staircase to the bottom of the sea, and through windows, look into an aquarium - except the sea creatures are all wild, in their natural habitat.  

The water is not very deep - eight or ten meters - so the power of the waves can be seen much of the way down, in the rhythmic rise and fall of a group of large fish, for example, or the waving fronds of feeding corals and sponges. 

And it's lovely looking at the ocean's surface from beneath, that silvery, shifting, illusory film.

This was fascinating in itself, and very beautiful, but what stirred something deep within me was being at the same level as the surface, being able to see both above and below at the same time.

The Celts used to believe (some may still, and who's to say they're wrong?) that the boundary between land and water, be it the ocean or a river or a lake, is a "thin" place, where there is a less firm frontier between the world of spirits and the daily world we live in. 

Spirits and people can move more easily between worlds, at the water's edge. This may be true symbolically and mythically, even if you can't accept it in any literal sense.

This wasn't a beach or a river bank, it was the thin place between air and open ocean. Very wonderful; very strange.

"The river is within us, the sea is all about us," TS Eliot tells us, and I feel this is true in ways I'm only just beginning to understand.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

What the waves at Coogee Beach have to tell me

A dip in the briny is a dip in the briny wherever you are, right?

Not really. I'm no power swimmer, so I don't concentrate on speed or distance, which I suppose might reduce the differences between swimming locations. 

A few strokes, a float, tread water, swim a bit more- so there's time to tune in to the ocean, the sea state, the light, the breeze, the - splash! 

A face full of Indian Ocean, because there is a bit of a swell today, nothing huge or surfer-exciting, just enough to make it particularly enjoyable to float on my back and feel lifted and lowered, with a powerful but irregular rhythm. We saw the oceanic rollers pounding ashore during stormy weather further south, in Eagle Bay. Here there's just a sense of that irresistible power handling me gently. I wouldn't have lasted long in the storm surf, that's for sure. 

The ageing intellect starts up. I"m mostly salt water; life evolved from the sea; the land's edge is the sea"s edge. TS Eliot's "The Dry Salvages" much on my mind recently. There is a strange kind of between-two-worlds belonging that comes from being rocked in the oceanic cradle. 

Always assuming that the classic Australian terror-fish isn't homing in on that tiny cut on my ankle, gaining speed, breaking the surface.....stop it. it's too shallow here, and there's a sort of shark deterrent line of floats I'm swimming inside. You're more likely to be struck by lightning. 

Another splash in the face. I shall give up thinking too much, and just float, rise and fall, dip and sway, give in to the the sensations of the present moment.

..."the unhurried ground swell....the ground swell that is and was from the beginning.."

Or, with apologies to Dylan Thomas, "the force that through the green ocean drives the swell, drives my green age" and very pleasant it is too. For a little while, I belong here, in this moment- rising, falling back, rising...

The brook and what am I in the moment

What the brook in the jarra forest says

Western Australia, in the forest near Dwellingup, in the hills of the Darling Scarp: we pull over at a deserted campsite/picnic site. The sun filters down most beautifully through the leaves of the jarra trees, creating a light, dappled shade quite different from woodland shade at home. The leaf litter and the trees themselves smell faintly and delightfully of eucalyptus- unsurprisingly. There are a few bird calls, there's a little green finch-like bird, another like an overgrown wagtail...

It's peaceful, and lovely in a slightly alien sort of way, particularly alien if I remember the poster in the visitor centre about the reptiles of the jarra forests- the dugite,the death adder, all the usual Aussie terror creatures. But all is clear and feels unthreatening at present, so I wander down to a little brook, which is chattering lightly over some rocks by a small footbridge. Maybe it's got something to tell me, I'll give it some time.

It's natural enough to compare the familiar with the unfamiliar, familiar scenes with new delights, gum tree shade against beechwood shade. We reconstruct memories of past realities and hold them against the present moment, creating preferences and making judgements. Bit of a waste of time, perhaps, though I guess it's one of the innocent pleasures of travel. 

But then my whole sense of me, of being a distinct, separate self, is a ceaselessly recreated construct. I am not the same as when I left home, as when I arrived- it just feels as though I am. That feeling of being the same "thing," more or less, as last week reminds me that wherever we travel to, we take with us who we are. 

Travel isn't an answer, though it may help to pose some useful questions. At one level, I am still me, whether I'm on Anglesey or in the unfamiliar, sometimes strange beauty of the jarra forests.

At another level, I am not still anyone, in fact I am not still; I am not what I think I am. I am processes and changes, part of the changes around me. 

So letting the present take over from the comparisons and the puzzlings, just belong with the great trees and the brook shining in the Australian sunshine- that's good. 

As it would be if I were listening to Afon Conwy going over the falls back home. That brief presentmomentness,  that's what is the same. Not me.

It's worth remembering, I tell myself, that although this has been a benevolent trip, a huge positive experience, not all travel is like that- and any contact with a few moments of being in the present and only in the present will always help, wherever we are. 

It will address feelings of remoteness, of isolation amidst an alien environment, or tedium amidst, say, the familiar clatter of a train journey at home. After all, with apologies to Doctor Who, we can only travel in the present, as we can only really be, in the present. The rest is a sort of substitute life, life as we think it should be, or could have been if only, or as it will be when I finally sort out.....

Monday, 6 April 2015

What the Indian Ocean says least, one thing this bit of its vast expanse says to me.

If you go to Rottnest Island and look east, you see the low coastline of Western Australia and apparently on the shoreline, although in fact some eight or nine miles inland, the towers of Perth's central business district. Quite a modest collection of towers and spikes compared with many other global cities, but nevertheless, a symbol of all the busyness and complexity of a modern city (and a very pleasant one. As they go.)

If your super-powered eye could travel on past Perth, through the Swan Valley wine areas, over the limestone scarp and the wheat belt, you'd hit - well, nothing much at all in the way of human settlements of any size, for a very long way indeed. Perth is, they say, the most isolated city on the planet, in terms of the distance to the next city.

Because if you nip round to the west coast of Rottnest, which is quite a small and quite a delightful island holiday spot, if you nip round on your bike (no cars, hallelujah!) you can stare across at the horizon, of course, as with any oceanic coast. And beyond the blue horizon? Nothing between you and the coast of South Africa.

So there's a coastal ribbon of people, sandwiched between the semi-desert and scrub, and the ocean. It's good to feel, for once, the size and scale of the planet, after the great sham of long-haul flight, the illusory distances on the little screen in the back of the seat in front of you, the miles you fervently wish away.

And just to remind you of where the human busyness sits in terms of the planet and what we are doing with it, moored offshore for a few days is Rainbow Warrior 3, Geenpeace's beautiful, custom-made two-masted schooner.

A little reminder in the vastness that we can't "save" or "destroy" this impossibly complex and beautiful planet. We can only save or wreck our own human civilisation.

So it's good to sit by the Indian Ocean, and listen to what it tells me of ocean vastness and the truths of our human scale.