Sunday, July 17, 2011

Odysseus' Oar

carry your well-planed oar until you come
to a race of people who know nothing of the sea,
whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all
to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars,
wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign -
unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it:
when another traveller falls in with you and calls
that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain,
then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth
and sacrifice the beasts of the lord god of the sea ….
then journey home and render noble offerings up
to the deathless gods who rule the vaulting skies,
to all the gods in order.”
Homer, The Odyssey (trans. R, Fagles)
It is high summer, and I am on a northbound train out of London Euston, travelling home. The sun has declined into the north west, and the contradictions of middle England elide beyond the window: mid-week cricket played on parched earth, children fishing in grass-fringed gravel pits, an immaculately trimmed golf course in the shadow of a coal-fired power station. Gradually, the landscape takes form as familiar landmarks appear beside the track. I am entering the land of my mental geography, where places have associations, accreted with layers of memory.
As adults, our mental maps are based around a series of known nodes, linked by connections which delve into our long-accumulated experience. At the centre of this mental map is the place we call 'home'. For children, it is different. Their mental geography builds entirely from the centre outwards. My own children, who have grown up knowing only this area as their home, have a core of knowledge and belonging which has a clear and defined hub, like a spiral galaxy. From this centre, their world has morphed and expanded as they grow older, as they explore further and further from the place we call home. Like the herdwick sheep on the fells around us, they have been 'heafed' to this land through time and familiarity. At times, I envy them the simplicity of their known world; the certainty with which they prefer the country to the town, prefer the west to the east.
As the train curves effortlessly through the rising hills, I think of the pebble labyrinths laid on the shore by generations of fishermen in the west of Scotland, of how they would walk to the centre of the spiral and outwards again before setting off for the sea; a talisman to protect a safe homecoming. I think of Odysseus, surviving imprisonment and danger, duplicity and enchantment on his long journey home, and I sometimes wonder if all our homecomings are mythic journeys in our small and limited lives.
Home is not simply a place. It is that web of meanings and associations, the patina of memory and belonging which binds us to a place. It is our accommodation with the world embodied in place; our yearning for the relationship we westerners once had with the land before the world shrank, compressed by mobility, by air travel, by disposable income and access to ideas and influences of which our grandparents only dreamed.
For Odysseus, the end of his journeying, the one predicted by Tiresias, was a peaceful end, far from the sea and the pull of his restlessness. His oar became the symbol of his estrangement from home, the tool of his trade which he must forego to ensure an old age at peace with himself. Like Odysseus, we strive to plant the oar of our restlessness and return to the home which we have created from the chaos of our scattered lives. I cling to this image of atonement, in envy of one who has made peace with his restless other.

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