Sunday, 3 November 2013

Thoughts for Samhain, 2013

Guided by the Lonely Star,
Beyond the utmost harbour-bar,
I’ll find the heavens fair and free,
And beaches of the Starlit Sea.
Ship, my ship! I seek the West,
And fields and mountains ever blest.
Farewell to Middle-earth at last.
I see the Star above my mast!”

"Bilbo's Last Song", J.R.R Tolkien

On Thursday it was Halloween, or Samhain, the Celtic new year and the time when the veils between the worlds are at their thinnest, the time when we remember those who have gone before us, and in joy and celebration become that which scares us.

In neo-Pagan tradition, the West is often the direction of the water, and of the dead. It is the realms of the deeps and the setting sun. The way West across the seas is the way home, to the home beyond home, the Isle of the Blessed. In Irish tradition, the sea god Manannan Mac Lir guards the gates to the Otherworld that lie beyond the sea. That last and final journey across the seas is part of our myths and dreams, as Tolkien well knew.

In culture, dreams and stories the ocean is our trusted infinity, the depths from which nothing returns, the great vastness that enacts our ending.

On Tuesday, my sister linked me an article about the oceans, written by Greg Ray in the Newcastle Herald. ( It describes yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen's journey from Melbourne to Osaka to San Francisco. When Ivan made the journey ten years ago, there were fish to be caught every day. This time, because of over-fishing and pollution, he caught just two. 

From Osaka to San Francisco, Macfadyen saw one whale, 'rolling sort of helplessly on the surface.' Here, the rubbish was so dense that they were afraid to start their motor for fear of the propellers getting tangled in buoys, ropes, nets and plastic rubbish. They returned to Australia with their yacht dented from the trash, it's yellow colour faded and bleached from the chemicals in the waters. Recalling his previous journeys, Macfadyen said:

"In years gone by I'd gotten used to all the birds and their noises.”

"They'd be following the boat, sometimes resting on the mast before taking off again. You'd see flocks of them wheeling over the surface of the sea in the distance, feeding on pilchards."

This time, apart from the waves, the wind and the thudding of debris against the hull, the voyage was made in virtual silence. For 3000 nautical miles there were “No fish. No birds. Hardly a sign of life at all.”

The responses beneath the article, and to friends I had linked it, were similar. What now? Is there any appropriate action to take to this article – ideally, an action that doesn't turn us into freaks and social pariahs, biting off the head of the supermarket clerk when we're offered plastic bags, lecturing families behind us who have forgotten theirs, raging at our friends for eating packaged salad and drinking from plastic bottles? (I don't do these things. I don't want people to hate me. But I think them.)

And I don't want to eat fish any more – except I do, and I'm a little afraid I might turn into the mother of Oskar, from Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum, who was so sickened by the thing she saw fished from the seas (a rotting horse head), that she died from gorging herself on any fish she could find, as if disgust and desire were – when it comes to the oceans – quite the same.

And maybe if we knew more about the relationship between disgust and desire, if we understood why we need – why we want – to get rid of all the things we are endlessly creating – to make and make and make and then shed and forget - then we'd know something more about what we're doing.

Is there any action we can take? And where – when we remember our dead – can we find a place for remembering that distant awful present that is our dying world?

Not to be depressing, or anything.

I just want to end these contemplations by thinking about darkness. This winter solstice, I broached the darkness of Ditchling beacon alone for the first time in my life, and danced under the stars. I dreamt that night that I had cut off my own electricity and what I loved was falling from the sky, and the next night I dreamt that I had eaten of the Nile, and life couldn't return to it.

These dreams seemed larger than my own stuff – and I think I only had them because I danced in the darkness. What I mean is – what I'm trying to say is – it's all very well to enjoy the dark at Halloween with companionship and celebration - otherwise how would we get through the winter?

But what if there was a way – a necessary way - to find that dark space inside ourselves and to step into it. I mean – the space that isn't full of stuff. That space that isn't about having. The place that is just like the infinity of the oceans – that we mistakenly think is somewhere outside ourselves.

Examples? I eat more than I should, and I know that I do it because beyond doing it is the hunger that feels like a cold night outside alone. I have been frightened of losing my partner to others – because beyond that duet of complicity is the space that reminds me of death.

What are our points of safety beyond which we can feel that infinite darkness, and would it make a difference to the oceans if we could step past them?

That's my Samhain thought.

No comments: