My intention is to bring my pilgrimage home. I have spent two summers sailing round the western coasts of Ireland and Scotland in my yacht Coral contemplating the question, “How do we western humans develop an emotional and spiritual experience, as well as an intellectual understanding, that we are entirely part of and dependent on the natural world?” (see blogs On the Western Edge). I have spent two winters writing an account of my experiences. Now was the time to bring what I had learned into my everyday life in my home on the outskirts of Bath in England.
My first intention was to spend midsummer night in our orchard, sleeping under the apple trees I tended and amongst that grasses and flowers of the meadow that Elizabeth and I had sowed four years ago. And my first discovery is that leaving for a pilgrimage at home mirrors the challenges of leaving on a longer pilgrimage voyage. Midsummer night I was too weary after a week of climbing up and down scaffolding to repair and repaint our conservatory; the following night a family crisis kept me at home; the third night I thought is unwise to sleep outside immediately after an osteopathy appointment. The fourth night, I made it.
There were still preparations to be made: borrowing a bivvy bag, digging out the old sleeping bag and my Medicine blanket, carting a mattress and all the bedding up the lane and finding a flat place to lie down. It is important to take care of 70-year-old bones. Then there was the strange process of saying good night to Elizabeth, leaving her to sleep on her own; locking the front door behind me and walking in my night clothes through the twilight; unlocking the orchard door and settling in the bed I had made in the corner under two apple trees and an oak tree.
Once snuggled into my sleeping bag, I immediately noticed how the earth underneath me felt very, very solid; there was no movement, no pitching and rolling, as I was accustomed to on Coral. And this solidity brought with it a different sense of silence, with no ship’s noises, a still silence. There was surprising little noise from the town, just a little background hum from traffic, which soon died away. The trees made a faint breezy noise as the branches moved slightly. I felt this was a silence of absence, although it was soon filled with cheeps from my mobile as people responded to the tweets I was sending out about what I was up to: at least ten people were following me on my night outside.
I lay there for a while musing: what was I up to? should I go to sleep or stay awake and watch? was I completely mad? would it get really dark or stay a midsummer twilight? And with those wonderings I fell asleep.
I woke again in the middle of the night. It was much darker. The moon, low in the sky, was now shining through a gap in the clouds, giving shape and texture to the sky around it. I could see it from where I was lying, under the branches of the apple tree, through the network of meadow grasses. In contrast, the sky directly above me, framed by the black silhouette of the branches – the smooth curves of apple leaves, the jagged edges of oak – was uniformly dark, almost featureless. Yet as I gazed into it I saw strange, darker patches floating past, maybe black, maybe deeper blue. I knew these were patches where the cloud had thinned and I was glimpsing the night sky beyond. Yet as I looked into them, they appeared to me as cracks or crevasses: I might think I was looking up at the sky, but with a tiny shift in perspective I was looking down into great depths. Of course, in relation to the sky, I was neither looking up nor down, I was simply looking. And the earth was holding me here with gravity. Otherwise I would float away.
A tiny breeze blew through and brought me back to earth. I felt the air soft on my face, present and palpable, as if a viscous liquid had wrapped itself around me. I drew in the complex smell of the meadow: the scent of flowers, the tickle of pollen, the sweet rotting of humus. But now I was awake I had to get up to pee, struggling out of my sleeping bag, rocky on my feet for a moment. Once upright, the light from a bedroom in a nearby house assaulted my eyes, previously hidden behind the orchard’s high wall. It was almost painful. When my eyes are accustomed to the darkness I want to hold around me like a cloak; it always feels strange to me that people so habitually strip the night bare with bright lights.
Back in my bed I was soon asleep again and dreaming, just like on any other night in any other place. I woke briefly to see dawn very slowly creeping in. All was very still, very quiet, except for the distant noise from airplanes coming in from the east. Then a solitary blackbird started to its flowing song; I listened intently for a while, then fell asleep. A little before 6.00 I finally woke. Above me five parallel contrails had been drawn across the sky, disintegrating quickly into mare’s tails. The stone walls were catching the golden light of the morning sun in one of two places. The air was now full of birdsong: the jackdaws at their conversational best, pigeons engaged in neverending grumbling, smaller birds cheeping and chirping in the background.
I was slightly cold and a bit stiff, but lay still for a while thinking about the night. There was surprisingly little say about it all. I felt deeply content. But I needed to stretch and I needed to wee. My night was over.