Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Old Man of Storr: a real-life, ancient and "alien" landscape...or the thumb of a giant?

It's an "alien" landscape and topography...but in a most magical, mysterious, and completely enchanting way. Located on the Trottornish Ridge of the Isle of Skye, the Old Man of Storr is a 50-metre high geological formation that defies the imagination. A very, very long time ago, the land around it began to "slip" away towards the sea.

The more durable composition of the "Old Man's" geology (and the other vertical pinnacles and spires) have allowed it to remain, still resisting the massive forces of time and erosion. 

Driving north, from Portree, we could see the formations from the highway, still at some distance away. 

By the time Joan, Linda, and I arrived at the trailhead, rain and cloud had begun to envelop the landscape. 

Reaching the "Old Man", after 45 minutes of climbing, "he" had almost vanished in the clouds, and frequent squalls of horizontal rain.

Other hikers would come and go, suddenly materialising out of the swirling mists, and disappearing just as quickly.

But we'd seen him, the legendary "Old Man", and even taken shelter in the lee of his ancient body.

The geologist's reasoning makes sense...but there's another explanation for the Old Man's presence. Local folklore includes many stories of giants, fairies, goddesses, and spirits. Could it have been that it was the giants who moved into place the massive Standing Stones, and created the timeless and haunting Stone Circles? 

Perhaps, as one legend suggests, the "Old Man" is the thumb of a giant who fell dead, and was buried in the earth, here on the Isle of Skye? Ah, not so "alien", after all.

Maybe...yes, just maybe. This is, after all, a country that is truly a place of magic, mystery, and completely believable stories and tales. ;)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

An Iron Age fort, and the strength of spirit of the men and women of Auchmithie...all in a day's paddle.

Once upon a time, Lud Castle, an Iron Age promontory fort sat above the 30 metre vertical sandstone cliffs. It was a sound location, strategically. Today, we landed our sea kayaks, on the neighbouring beach.

The tiny figures of two hikers on the grassy top (image above), give scale to this site, once inhabited by prehistoric Celts. A narrow neck of land, to a current day farmer's field, was the only access to the ancient coastal stronghold.

Today, for us, the deserted beach would offer a place to stretch legs, enjoy a second lunch...and wonder, dreamily, who might have shared a similarly simple meal in this very place, from 700 BC to 500 AD. 

It was another perfect day to be on the water.

Sea birds had watched our passage from waterfront "balconies", eroded and etched into the sandstone - wonderful observation (and nesting) platforms. 400 million years ago, when these rocks were formed, "Scotland" was below the equator and part of a desert belt.

It was a different world, the advent of humankind still a very, very long way away into the future. Heaven and earth would move before that would happen.

It's rare that we ever encounter folks on the water here, except for those passing by in occasional fishing boats.

This glowing red sandstone, cave-infused, marine bird paradise is a bit of a "best kept secret". It's also the closest paddling spot, closest to home, here at Base Camp 2. Admittedly, we need to get out to more places...but its near-at-hand siren call is hard to resist.

Today, we met up with two fellow paddlers, also enjoying a fine day on the North Sea.

We shared some smiles, some good conversation...thankful to be sharing the waters with one another.

And then we were alone again...


A turn to the starboard would take us to Norway. It would be a bit far for today.

Returning to the waters off Auchmithie, where a year ago, dolphins-on-a-mission sped joyfully by us, we allowed the calm and gently rolling waves to massage body, mind, and spirit. 

Back in the ruined harbour, I thought of those strong and brave women of Auchmithie. There was no jetty, and in the pre-dawn hours they carried their men to the little fishing boats. The fishers would begin their long, dangerous, and exhausting day with dry clothes. It would have most surely been a life-saving, albeit backbreaking, labour.

They acknowledged their need for one another. Some today might raise their eyebrows at the image...women carrying their men to work. The pride of the men of Auchmithie, however, never entered the equation. 

That's strength of spirit...on both sides.

The mystery of Iron Age fort, a reminder of our inter-dependence and our need for one another...all in a day's paddle.

Monday, May 09, 2016

A "dish of ice cream, a bowl of Brandy"...and why self-care matters.

There is never enough “ice cream and Brandy”. :) Taking time for regular excursions to their source, contributes abundantly to wholeness and health. A couple of days ago, we got some elevation, “chilling” in a spring snowfield (the "ice cream"), and drinking in deeply the beauty of a mountain corrie: Loch Brandy, in Scotland's nearby Angus Glens.

Over the years, I have regularly given talks and workshops to groups on the importance of self-care, personal health, ageing, and wellness. By and large, although these gatherings have been generally well attended and received, I don’t believe that they have had much lasting effect. Admittedly, change, and new disciplines are rarely easy.

I have offered similar workshops to colleagues…many of whom suffer the effects of poorly-managed stress and lifestyle choices that are not in their best interests. Few, however, have seen the discussion of self-care as a priority, preferring to occupy their waking (and probably sleeping) hours with endless gatherings focussed on strategic planning, organisational structural change (a contemporary euphemism for “survival”), table group discussions, and a plenitude of other activities for what I see (in my humble opinion, of course) to be “busy talk”.

The idea of of “self” care, it would seem, is just too self-indulgent. Some have even suggested that, given all the issues facing the world, a focus on personal health and wellness is…selfish. Others plead that there is not enough “time” for such concerns, given pressing schedules and itineraries.

Although I would never question the dedication and commitment of such folks to the causes they address, I would gently ask how they plan to survive to carry on: with bodies that are weary, achey, poorly nourished, overweight, and under-exercised; minds that are stressed beyond reason; relationships that are neglected; and spirits that are exhausted and burdened with anxiousness.

Why wouldn’t we want to be at our very best? If not for ourselves, then for those who give our lives deepest meaning and value - our families, and all, everywhere, who depend on our continued ability to make a contribution to peace, justice, and the integrity of Creation. 

We make that contribution to those we love, and all who call out to us, most effectively when we operate from a position of strength and vibrant wellness…aided by committed time and attention to personal health and wholeness.

We all have time for that.

My personal "achilles"...is my Achilles - a little self-care, enroute. 
We may work tirelessly for actions to safeguard the environment and all who are most vulnerable. Yet we spend so little time nourishing ourselves, exploring, discovering, breathing deeply, experiencing vulnerability…connecting. It’s as if we feel that our humanity is separate and disconnected from the web of life. As one writer has said, “we are the animals, the rainforest, the ocean, and the earth.” We are not separate. When we fail to take the time to care for ourselves, our rhetoric, on behalf of others, lacks both meaning and sincerity.

Self-care matters…it is, after all, our “base of operations”. 

And a little more. :)
Why is this so difficult for so many to understand, especially in a society we all know to be plagued with an epidemic of unnecessary illness and poor health. Why are we reluctant to treat body, mind, and spirit with gentleness and respect? What possible excuse could there be not to care sufficiently for ourselves?

On this day, health and wholeness were enhanced by a simple “dish of ice cream and a bowl of Brandy”.

Some might argue that it’s all very well for those that have the time for such “indulgences”. But it is when one believes that they are too “busy" to make the time and effort for the discipline of self-care, time can run out.

There are infinite sources of “ice cream and Brandy” - it is there even in those quiet moments, on the way home, waiting for the delightful little lambs to be gathered together.

We’re only on this planet once…we belong to one another. We contribute to and are an integral part of the web of life, and we need to be the best we can possibly be. 

It becomes a precious gift to ourselves, and to one another.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Celebrating growth, and avoiding "shrink-wrapping" comfort zones...

There is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there will be those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold onto the shore.

The elders say we must let go of the shore, 
and push off and into the river,
keep our eyes open, and our head above the water.
See who is there with you...and celebrate.*

It was a perfect day to be on the North Sea, there was every reason to get out on the water, and to let go of the shore.

But there are other times we cling to the shore...and shouldn't. Those times are never about personal safety, which, of course, would be sensible. 

They are about, for whatever reason, the unwillingness to make the effort. 

Dickmont's Den...at full flood.
Effort, after all, can be demanding. It pushes boundaries, and requires us to leave comfort zones. What effort does promise, however, is growth.

The fullest experience of life, after all, comes with participation, not spectatorship.

Cliff dwellers.
Life needs to be large. It begs exploration, continued learning, and continually expanding horizons. Life, by its very nature, issues a never-ending invitation to seek out new sources of meaning, to explore new directions, to risk, and then savour the promised new experiences. 

The alternative is to fuss and fret about the consequences of leaving the comfort zone, the "shore" - and ending up settling for less than life offers. 

We must never tempt "regret".

Dreams need to be nurtured with confidence and expectation - there is usually a way to fulfil them. Even in the trying, there is a sense of satisfaction and the discovery of new sources of meaning. 

A compass, a horizon, and the faint image of a destination are all any of us really need to entice us on. They bring us the magic and mystery of unexplored places.

Shore time.
Emerson, essayist and poet, said, "Always do what you are afraid to do." I've found that that has almost always been the secret. 

Taking that counsel has a way of satisfying the hunger for adventure.

Tortilla, home-made hummus, lettuce, and chunky-crunchy Ploughman's (Heinz) pickle...mmmm!
Effort, however, is always the key ingredient.

Roz Savage, world record holder for ocean rowing (the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans) writes, "I believe that if you don't keep pushing the boundaries, keep expanding your comfort zone, your comfort zone actually gets smaller and smaller, until you're shrink-wrapped in such a tiny comfort zone that you can't move, you can't achieve anything, you can't grow."

Roz, and the Hopi elders were right, we have to be willing to leave the shelter of what's comfortable, let go of the shore...and choose to grow.

Safely inside a cave, with a view to where we need to be.
We will always find others there, sharing the very same journey...and there will be much reason for celebration. :)

* Part of a statement by the Hopi Nation elders (Oraibi, Arizona, June 8, 2000)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

North Sea Paddle: the fabulously fine art of faffing...and its quiet gift of focus.

Scotland has a deep and delightful richness of language and expression...there are the coolest words and figures of speech, like "faffing". My own definition: "to spend an inordinate amount of time on some activity that may appear to be inconsequential." Some may understand faffing as wasting time, or simply dithering.

But...nothing, could be further from the truth. :)

Faffing is a fine art, to be appreciated, cultivated, and enjoyed.

The other day, for example, was an absolutely perfect opportunity to be on the North Sea. We drove to one of our favourite launch spots, the ruined harbour at the foot of the cliffs beneath the tiny village of Auchmithie, just north of Arbroath. 

Part of the routine of a sea kayaking expedition, multi-day or for just a few hours, is in the preparations. There is the loading, the unloading, the carrying of the boats and gear to the shore, the checking and double checking that everything is in order...and then, for me, the faffing. 

Now it is readily admitted that this component can frustrate those intent on "getting on with it". Most paddlers I've enjoyed spending time with, however, exhibit gentle patience and an appreciation for the quiet, introspective moments of a good pre-launch faff. 

Time, after all, is precious. Every moment needs to be massaged. While Joan continued to load the boats, I faffed along the shore of the harbour, picking up one beautiful pebble after another...

...and allowed my mind to wonder about the marvellous story each could tell. There must have been billions upon billions of pebbles, and not one alike in shape or form.

I tried to imagine the molten rock, forming an intrusion into the mighty sandstone cliffs, maybe 250 million years ago.

A tiny arch, leading to another shingle beach, just begged to be explored.

So much faffing to do...and so little time.

Faffing might be thought of as the antithesis of that much admired activity of modern industry - so-called "multi-tasking". When we multi-task, however, attention to any one matter must be shared with another. Of course, it's possible to be on the phone, take notes, listen to music, and munch on a sandwich - all at the same time, but there can be no real or full focus on any one thing. 

Our human brains are simply not capable of fully focusing on more than one task at hand at a time. As we attempt to tend to several matters, all in the same moment, no single activity receives full focus. Without focus, there cannot be clarity. Sometimes I pat myself on the back, thinking I have attended to several matters, simultaneously. But, it often astonishes me, to think of how little clarity (or memory!) I have of any of it on any given day.

Time, deserves more focus.

When we faff, we tend to put out of our minds everything that can distract us...our worries, our agendas, our concerns for a future, still beyond the horizon. When we allow our minds to simply "be" on one thing at a time, the mind finds deep contentment, even peace, as it rests in that place. It is happy to be there.

It's probably why searching for sea glass, or listening to the waves rush up on the shore, or gardening is so relaxing, so calming, so restorative.

Faffing...spending moments every now and again, with just one delightful thing at a time offers a quiet gift of focus. With focus, comes clarity. With clarity, comes a richness beyond words, remaining with us in memory.

Having nurtured this fine art, yet one more time, it was launch time for another paddle on the North Sea, between Auchmithie and Arbroath.

And it was a cracker. :)

Much more to come...

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Walking with my father, across these gentle Perthshire hills...balance in life.

"Walking with my father, across these gentle Perthshire hills..." The words are from a lovely song by Dougie MacLean. A couple of days ago, Joan and I were out walking, not in the Perthshire hills, but in the Angus Glens. My dad wasn't walking with us on this outing. He's been gone for twenty years now...but he wasn't far away. I could feel his presence. He would have enjoyed the day very much. We walked many miles together when I was growing up. Mostly he would talk...about nature, about the stars, about the need to spend time outside. He would tell tall tales that I actually believed...well mostly. He and my mum believed in balance, and they demonstrated it with the way they lived. Nothing gives greater balance in life than the effort of making a connection with nature. But, of course, there's more to it.

Balance is really an evenness of mind. It's a feeling of equilibrium, of mental poise. It's a place of harmony and wonder. Balance keeps us steady, and safeguards us from being overwhelmed when life's "rocks and roots" boldly threaten to trip us up.

Balance, over rough terrain, is surer when we use hiking poles. They increase stability and ease of travel. They distribute the weight of the body, lessening pressure on vulnerable ankles, knees, hips, and back.

In life, the mental poise, the equilibrium, that we all seek comes when we pay careful attention to all the factors that contribute to balance. The body requires sound nutrition, adequate hydration, sufficient rest, and plenty of exercise. The mind needs stimulation, and every opportunity to be challenged by openness to new ideas and perspectives, and fresh ways of thinking. The spirit needs to think beyond self, and find meaning in altruistic and compassionate living.

We also need to be aware of the situations that cause us a sense of imbalance and be willing to take the steps that we know will restore balance. The willingness to be "burned twice (or more) by the same flame" is strangely common amongst we humans.

I have learned that there are at least three things that help us achieve a sense of balance in life.

The first is accepting and being comfortable with change, and not being afraid of the uncertainty that comes with change. There is no doubt that uncertainty is unsettling. But change, after all, is proof positive we are alive. Everything and everyone changes. Our thoughts change, our perspectives change, our relationships change, our understanding of the world changes as we gain wisdom and experience. But change opens doors to growth. And growth reveals a banquet table of new possibilities. There is nowhere to run from change, and in trying, we simply exhaust ourselves.

Of course facing change is a little scary, it takes courage. This plump Scottish grouse, with his very impressive red eyebrow wattle (much adored, it is presumed by the opposite sex), demonstrated courage when he stepped out of the heather onto our path.  He came to no harm. :)

The second ingredient to achieving balance in life is moving from concern for self to concern for others. We've all had the experience of feeling quite overwhelmed, as if we are in the midst of a stormy sea, at risk of being tossed and blown by wave and wind. We also know that if suddenly, in the midst of this storm, we discover that our children or a good friend needs us, everything changes. We move from the storm to a far different place...a place where we can be there for those we love. Suddenly, the storm is left behind as we allow compassion to take us to where we are needed.

Moving focus from self, to the happiness and the needs of others, almost always restores balance. It also reminds us that we are not alone in life.

The third contributor to a sense of balance, is to maintain a sense of play. Life is serious enough and heaven knows, there are a lot of matters to take seriously. Ourselves? Not so much. When we take our imperfect selves too seriously, we invite rigidity of mind, and constant disappointment. When we are playful, we are like a tree, willing to bend in the wind, and in so doing, rarely at risk of any broken limbs. Playfulness ensures our spirits will not be broken and lives will not be overwhelmed. It is a powerful source of balance.

This very large tree at the end of the trail, in Glen Prosen, reminded us to ground our lives with the kind of strong roots that will ensure balance...a degree of comfort with the inevitability of change, the need to move focus from our inner self to others...and the wonderful inclusion of a sense of playfulness in each and every day.

These three things help bring to us the evenness of mind, the balance, we seek.

At the end of the trail is a most delightful cottage, its red doors and daffodils, bringing warmth to a chilly April day.

The Glen Prosen Church, built in 1802, stands at the trailhead. Several members of the "flock" were there to greet us. :)

My father would have enjoyed this walk, across these gentle Angus hills, very much...it was just the kind of day he always said would bring balance.