Rounding Bolus Head

In 2011 Peter Reason sailed his little yacht Coral from the south coast of England to the west coast of Ireland, round the Blasket Islands and the Skellig Rocks, on a pilgrimage to explore our human place in the ecology of the planet.

His account of these explorations is told in Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea, from which the following is adapted. The excerpt starts as he leaves Derrynane Harbour in County Kerry early one morning.

is a long-time sailor and now Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath. He has focused on writing for an ecology in crisis, drawing in particular on his experience of the sea through mindful sailing.
I hauled up the anchor hand over hand, enjoying how it stretched my muscles and got my body moving. Then I carefully followed the leading line out of the harbour, keeping the two white beacons in line astern and passing very close to the reef on the westward side of the entrance. After the winds of the night before, a moderate swell was rolling in, and the sea surged up and down the rocks as Coral passed close by. As she rose on each wave I felt as though I was actually looking down at the water sucking around the rocks, barnacles clinging to their wet surface. Each time the solid water of a wave retreated, I watched the white foam hang in the jagged rocky crevasses, then fall back in tiny glistening waterfalls to join the sea again. In much more of a swell the entrance would be dangerous.

Once well clear of the hazards I turned west toward Bolus Head. Although still no wind, the sky was clearing from the west. I had a moment to look around me at the coast to the north stretching westward from Derrynane to Hogs Head, backed by a row of mountains. Halfway up the slope I noticed a row of houses marking a straight dividing line. Above them rose the rocky, uncultivated land of the mountain, steep, rough, patchy brown. Below, stone walls criss-crossed fields dropping gently to the low cliffs at the edge of the sea. Further along on Hogs Head, sunlight fell more strongly on another cluster of houses nestled in a hollow in the hillside, picking them out bright against dull browny-green fields. The fields themselves were strewn with boulders. This land is beautiful, but it must have been really tough work to make a living from farming it.

As we left the shelter of Hogs Head to cross the entrance to Ballinskelligs Bay the wind arrived, from the northeast as expected and across the beam, filling the sails for a reach toward Bolus Head. I could now see clearly in all directions, back up the Kenmare River, south to Dursey Head, and west to the Skelligs in the far distance. It was a beautiful morning. Coral bubbled along through the water happily, which made me happy too: my early grumpiness and yesterday’s homesickness dropped away with the sea and the sailing. For a moment I was tempted to carry on this fast reach right out to the Skelligs, but decided to stick to my plan and continue northwards.

Bolus Head itself loomed ahead on the starboard bow. The pilot book warned me that the cliffs between Derrynane and Dingle Bay are high and spectacular, but I was taken aback, not expecting to see such an enormous bulk of rock towering above me. Bolus is another eroded fold in the geological strata: the rockface on the eastern face, toward the morning sun, rises from the sea in vertical flat planes, as if carefully split; the end of the head facing the ocean is rough hewn where the sea has broken the rock away. Even though I kept a good distance off, we passed into the windshadow of the headland and Coral’s speed dropped back. Slowly rounding the head, we ventured out into the Atlantic proper and into the ocean swell that rolled around Bolus toward us. It was only a moderate swell, but as each wave approached, higher, it seemed, than Coral’s mast, it blocked off the view. Its peak became the visible horizon: I could see nothing but the water in front and the mass of the cliff above. Coral lifted her bows, rose up the slope of the wave, and for a moment we were on top of the world. I could see clearly in all directions. And then we disappeared again, down the back slope of the swell and deeply into the trough, the wider world hidden from us again.

There was nothing dangerous about this swell. The water was not rough, the waves not breaking. But quite suddenly I felt overwhelmed: the headland, the swell, the sky above were all so massive. How tiny we were, little Coral and me, in these rolling waves and this mass of headland. I had been chatting into my audio recorder to make notes about what I could see, but I was silenced by this awesome contrast of size.

And within seconds, I spotted a bird in the water ahead, just a dot at first, then I saw its strange coloured beak and I realized it was my first puffin. I sang out to myself like a five-year-old, ‘It’s a puffin, it’s a puffin!’ I had never been in puffin-inhabited seas this early in the year when they come from the ocean to nest. I was overawed and overexcited at the same time and had to calm myself down to attend to my navigation.

The koan ‘Wilderness treats me like a human being’, which I was holding through the voyage, unfolded here in another dimension. The headland and the rolling swell put me firmly in my inconsequential place; the puffin gave me a child-like thrill. With skill and experience, information and the right equipment, I could safely navigate this hugeness, make sense of it, appreciate its loveliness, delight in and feel humbled by it.

At this moment I experienced Bolus Head and the Atlantic swell not as things in the world, but as presences with which I was required to negotiate. The world around me took on a subjective presence. And I thought of Coral and myself as ‘we’, for now she was not just a machine for navigating the seas, more a companion in my adventures.

The modern worldview, based as it is on materialist assumptions and scientific method, would tell me that this is a romantic conceit. The objects of nature are composed of inert matter, operating according to causal laws. The idea that a cliff, a headland, has presence, in the sense of any meaning for itself, is inconceivable. The notion that Coral is any more than a machine assembled by human ingenuity, useful and effective for my purposes, is anthropomorphism of the most foolish kind.

But philosopher Mary Midgley tells us that worldviews are not just abstract philosophical positions; they are guiding myths and imaginative visions. They deeply influence our sense of who we are, our place in the world, what kind of universe we live in and what is ultimately important to us. They are the stories we tell about ourselves and our world which are embedded in everyday assumptions and language. If we consider the material parts of the planet to be brute things, even ‘natural resources’ – as we do – it is difficult or impossible see that same material either as interacting in a larger ecological system, or as part of a sacred planet.

About ten years ago, I visited Thomas Berry at his home in the Southern Appalachians. Thomas was a Catholic priest and monk in the Passionist order who called himself a geologian or ‘Earth scholar’. I count him among my greatest intellectual and spiritual teachers, although I only met him personally this once. He died in 2010 aged 94. I had flown down from New York to interview him and write an article about his new book, The Great Work. In this he emphasised that the task of our time, to which all humans are called in some way, is to restore the balance in human-Earth relations and heal the devastating impact of human activities on planetary ecosystems.

Thomas explained to me that it is a mistake to see the universe as a collection of objects. Rather, mind and matter are two aspects of a single reality. The universe as a whole, with its immense diversity, has both an inner, spiritual or subjective dimension – a being for itself – and an outer, physical dimension. There is a spiritual capacity in carbon just as carbon is implicit in our highest spiritual experience. The inner dimension provides the capacity for self-organisation and self-transformation that drives the evolutionary process of the universe. This is expressed in its outer being through the matter and energy of which it is composed. These two dimensions are like two sides of the same coin, different but inseparable. I had read Thomas’ assertion that ‘the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects’ many times before. His view was that this must be the starting point for our understanding of all things, and the only place from which we can act if we are to contribute to what he calls the Great Work. But listening to him now, I was touched more deeply with the idea that the universe and the Earth should be understood as sacred communities.

Thomas felt strongly that all understanding begins with story, and that modern Western humans lack an adequate story of who we are, where we came from and what our purpose is. He went on to tell me how the understanding of the universe that arises from recent cosmological discoveries offers a new story of human origination, a story with the potential to give meaning to our lives. This is not the story of a static thing, but of a great evolutionary, self-organising and self-transforming process of which everything is a part. As Thomas’ colleague, the cosmologist Brian Swimme, puts it, ‘you take hydrogen gas and you leave it alone and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes and humans.’ It is a story in which great transitions occur that are irreversible: the original flaring forth in the ‘big bang’, the clustering of the first galaxies, the creation of heavy elements in the explosions of the first supernovae, the formation of the sun, the solar system, the Earth itself and the emergence of life. These are all moments of grace through which the universe articulates itself in more and more diverse and complex forms, and from which sentience in plants and animals and eventually human consciousness emerge.

This new story shows us that we humans, with our particular intelligent, emotional and imaginative capacities, reflect one of the deepest dimensions of the universe. It is a story that is both profoundly scientific, drawing on and emphasizing evolutionary cosmology; and at the same time profoundly spiritual, showing how our understanding will be distorted if we only see the world in its external, objective aspect. The universe, Thomas explained, is the only self-referential being: everything else originates in, refers back to and is part of it. The story of the universe is the story of which we are all a part and which every being tells in its own way.

Philosophically, this is a ‘panpsychic’ perspective, one that embraces the view that all matter has inner ‘psychic’, ‘subjective’ or ‘experiential’ qualities. While the panpsychic perspective contradicts many modernist assumptions about the nature of the world, it actually forms a strong thread through Western philosophy connecting Plato through the Renaissance to the present day. Yet it remains difficult to find appropriate words for this sense of the presence of the world. Words like ‘subjective’ or ‘psychic’ or ‘spiritual’, are contaminated by the dominant materialist perspective when applied to the physical world. One might borrow words from other traditions, and call it Tao, or Atman, or Great Spirit, but this may not offer any clarity and distort the meaning of these words in their original discourses. Or one might follow the philosopher Spinoza – who is often described as the originator of modern panpsychism – and simply call it God, seeing God as synonymous with Nature. But the word God carries with it such strange baggage that is likely to lead to yet another set of misunderstandings. I am inclined to follow my ecologist friend Stephan Harding and adopt the ancient term anima mundi, literally the ‘soul of the world’ that permeates the cosmos and animates all matter. Anima mundi is not associated with modern meanings of subjectivity, sentience or consciousness, and points to a mysterious and indefinable aliveness permeating everything.

Sailing Coral past Bolus Head I remembered my conversation with Thomas and resisted all those internal voices telling me it was foolishness to see anything other than material objects in these rocks and waves. If, for just a precious moment, the headland and the swell appeared to me as presence, I chose not to dismiss this out of hand. I allowed myself to experience a strange communion with the world, and to feel the immediacy of – indeed, participation with – anima mundi.

Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea was published by Vala Publishing Cooperative in April 2014.

  1. Thank for this, Peter (if I may). You couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful place in which to write about Berry and his teachings. I look forward to reading your book.


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