Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hoping for a god

The summer heat draws dragonflies from the grass. They flicker, yellow and blue and gold, in the fierce slanting glare of the sun. The cliff path is thick with grasses; dust spilling from their seed heads as I walk, as though through a parched desert. The furred kernels of the seeds glow golden in the late sun. The rocks which fringe the path are crusted in mealy flakes of dry, crisp lichens: Ramalina, Xanthoria, Flavoparmelia; the strange litany of their names like an ancient prayer.
I am surrounded by noise in the stillness of a summer's evening. Crickets, invisible but for the noise of their chirring, still into silence briefly as I pass, before striking up again behind me. Black-headed gulls turn and turn in the still air, shrieking this place is mine-mine-mine.

I have come here to rest with the family, to withdraw from the world for a week and gaze aimlessly at the sea. I run the cliff path each morning, flushing deer from the still-damp grass, my footsteps alerting the rock pipits as they skitter across the lower cliffs, disappearing amongst the ochre shades of the lichens. In this unusually hot weather, my eyes are clouded with sweat; my legs dimpled with grass seeds and petals which stick to me from the sides of the path.
It is a pleasure to have no commitments; to feel the length of the day yawning ahead like a featureless sea. Each day settles into a rhythm almost neolithic in its simplicity: walking, swimming, reading, eating. I realise that I have reached a time of my life when work no longer holds a purpose, where ambition pales into a pursuit for younger men, and meaning is to be found elsewhere, amongst the simple pleasures of family and place. Walking down a narrow lane in Kirkcudbright during the week, I read on a house gable the carved words from a poem by Rabbie Burns:
To make a happy fireside clime
To weans and wife,
That's the true pathos and sublime
Of human life
And I know that my task here this week is to stare at the slowly-changing clouds, the ruffled sea, to tread this path around the headland at morning and evening, silently reciting the names of birds and plants like an incantation to protect me against the world beyond.

Beyond the deep gull-scarred bay, a pair of steep ditches circle the headland. They are filled with the low-growing flowers of a coastal summer: stonecrop, thrift and trefoil. The dusty blue of harebells is a reminder of the shortening days; a sign that the best may yet be past.
The earthworks rim the site of an Iron Age fort. In this part of Scotland, such forts are almost always coastal, tucked onto clifftops and headlands such as this, facing the sea on three, safe, sides.
I try to imagine a life here; a low circular hut of oak staves and dry thatch, the near-constant wind shaking the hazel poles in the roof. I listen to the colonies of gulls bickering on the ledges beneath, and try to picture them as food: a source of eggs gathered by an agile young man lowered on a rope plaited from roots, held in a precarious balance between the need for life and the possibility of death. I wonder about the threats which drove these people to narrow, isolated headlands: the fear of raids at night, the need to sleep with the children in the centre of the circle, unaware of the spears and arrows tucked beneath their parents' heads.
It may be that I share no DNA with the three thousand year old inhabitants of this fort; that their line may have died out by the time the Romans arrived, that my own folk may be interlopers; latecomers from the low countries or Germany. Nonetheless, in the yellow light of early evening, as the sun empties its warmth onto the pale rippled sea, I feel their inheritance in the way I view the land. I yearn for their faith and patience, the journeys they would have made to find this site, the earth beneath their fingernails as they dug these ditches, their fear and sense of mystery when faced, at last, with the infinite sea.
There is a knowledge here which is buried in this dry, hard soil. I reach to touch one of the lichened rocks which have been placed end-upwards on the line of the embankment wall, perhaps as a marker, perhaps as part of some defensive system against an enemy we do not know. As I feel the stone beneath my hands, I experience that jolt of memory which reminds me that people lived here, families like mine; that they walked the same route I do today, looked at the same sea, the same view to distant islands suspended on the colourless horizon. I close my eyes and picture them hardening their sticks over a smouldering fire, casting ashes on the waters, hoping for a god who rises, like the summer sun, from the unfathomable sea.


  1. What a wonderful post, Ian. I so relate to all of it, and share a similar response to similar lands/seacoasts (as I write in my own blog, and elsewhere).

    Oh and this in particular sang to me (pun on incantation not intended but felicitous): 'silently reciting the names of birds and plants like an incantation to protect me against the world beyond' – I've voiced that almost word-for-word in a poem of mine, too. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Roselle - I'm delighted to find some synchronous thinking! You may have read my longer post 'Sea Change' about our relationship with the sea last month - a topic which intrigues me.


  2. Another wonderful post Ian. Particularly like the idea of: "feel(ing) their inheritance in the way I view the land". That connection with past lives triggered by place which has been walked and inhabited over time. Landscape almost used as a divining rod. Best wishes.

  3. Thanks for that. I love the image of the divining rod - a kind of compass to the shared inheritance we all have of land and place.

  4. Ian: Although it's taken me a while to say so, I promised myself that I'd come back here and tell you how much I loved this post. Just beautiful. I relate on so many levels. The love of strange names on one's tongue, imagining life somewhere else, sacred sacred places. Thank you for this.

    1. Thanks, Emily. I have been following your blog, your trip through motherhood and summer intertwined, and enjoying it very much. lots of resonances, despite being the far side of a big ocean