The Sea, as Artist
To stand—salt-stiff and spray-drenched, high on a cliff watching the sea grow and grow until she takes up the whole bay, a constant rolling thunder, breaking and cracking as she arrives, every seventh wave the largest, every seventh seventh larger still—is to feel alive.
There are few experiences like this, existing on the edge of the world, the waters beyond presenting wall after impenetrable wall, no way out into the ocean, wind whipping clothing and hair, thumping gusts staggering, echoing in your chest and stealing your breath, flinging it out somewhere behind you, far inland.
Once the storm has passed, those shores you came to understand, to know, on walk after walk will be rearranged. Here, a patch of crumbling cliff has vanished, there a new sandy cove, ripped from somewhere else to lay in a bay previously rocky. Somewhere on the same coast, someone else will head out for their usual walk, only to find the sand stripped away. Give, take, reorder—such are the methods of the waters.
The sea is an artist and her canvas the coast. She works in colour, in depth and, above all, in texture. Some days she is contemplative, perhaps gently placing an empty shell, or subtly altering the strandline, one tendril of weed or shed feather at a time. Others, she rages and works faster, angry and seeking something new, something which reflects the season and the insistent urging of her furious muse, the wind.
Walking the coast after such a storm is to rediscover your world anew, like a child with a new, old game. Every time there is something fresh to find, a path never before trodden. It is rare I come back from a beach walk without something gathered, something gifted.
We place meaning on these things. We pull time into the equation, linking a shared past with a healthy burnish of imagination. Perhaps, on that walk, I am to find a tightly curled bundle of thick birch bark—thicker than that provided by local species. These, in the islands to the north of Scotland, are known as Loki’s Candles. Growing up, the tales of the trickster God, Loki, were limited to those who read widely—whether the ancient texts or perhaps the world of comics—or listened to the elders. Now, children the world over know him through film and television.
Pick up such a candle and set it alight and you will see where the name comes from. These have travelled far and long, all the way down rivers on the opposite side of the Atlantic, bark originally wrapping their respective birch trees, pulled and torn and carried to the ocean. These trees move on migratory patterns, shepherded by currents and gyre, until their wood rots away, leaving behind the oil-rich bark, which curls, gathering a soaking of salt as it floats from one continent to another.
Long used as fire starters, the salt in the bark causes crackling, spitting, and popping once alight (and birch bark will burn when wet). Tricksome, indeed.
Once, we walked along shoreline devoid of anything but the natural. Imagine that—strolling along a beach and seeing not one piece of plastic? Perhaps, one day, this will be possible—for now, however, the ocean uses the material she is given, whether birch bark or nurdle, bladderwrack or HDPE plastic bottle. In our era, the pieces she produces are often unsettling, leaving us to ponder the Anthropocene, with no place to hide from our own failings.
If you see value in these dispatches from the intersection of fiction and non-fiction, especially from the perspective of time, nature and liminal places, please do consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Do you also love watching—and thoroughly sensing—storms? If you are by the sea, have you witnessed that immense power to reorder things at whim, perhaps a beach gone missing, or a sea wall torn away? If you live somewhere else, is there another natural phenomena which alters the landscape? Do you gather rubbish when you walk? (When I used to walk Orlando the sprocker spaniel, he would nearly always come back from a walk with a plastic bottle in his mouth, to thankfully, find its way to our recycling bin. Sometimes, however, he would cycle through several in one walk.) Finally, have you ever found one of Loki’s candles—and what is your prize beachcombing discovery?
There is a saying amongst my people—when the tide is out, dinner is served.
It has been one day, one night, and one morning since we fled.
One day and one night and one morning since all I knew was torn from me in those cold hours before dawn. I do not know who they were, I do not know why they chose to kill as they did, why they had not challenged, as is the way. Perhaps some of the others escaped, silently merging with the mother-forest to hide, to live. Yet there had been such screaming.
I was lucky. I had not been in my shelter when they had crept into the camp. I had been wrapped against the night, out in the dunes, my roof the sky, ablaze with the stars of late summer. I had not been alone.
My lover was not as lucky, behind my in the canoe as we paddled north, two other craft giving chase, arrows catching in the frame but, mercifully, somehow missing the skin covering. They had not, however, been merciful to the one who has now lost his spark.
It was only after our pursuers turned that I discovered he had been caught in the back by an arrow, saying nothing until it was too late, somehow paddling on, regardless of the life leaving him with every stroke. Without him, I do not think I would have escaped.
I do not know these shores, I passed beyond the headland at the edge of the land which owns us some time ago, before dawn, the mountains to my right now shifting in profile, showing a hidden side, dark, gullied, and threatening.
The shore reaches up beneath me and guides me into the small bay, a narrow channel just deep enough to float winds into the thick and tumbled woodland, beyond the bare rocks and sand of the shore. I do not want to keep moving north, this seems a good place to rest for a time, think and grieve and consider my next move. I block thoughts of my family. I block thoughts of my friends. I block thoughts of him. I simply need to survive. Water, fire, shelter, food. All comes down to this.
My muscles are screaming as I guide the canoe into the shelter of the trees, I need sleep, I need water.
As the sky began to grey, heralding dawn and a clear horizon behind me, I let him go back to the ocean, slipping over the edge and sliding, naked into the current. He was already long cold.
I was lucky. The waves had been kind, that current aiding me, the spirits wishing me well.
I have the clothes I was wearing, the pouches and knife on my belt, and little more, a blood-soaked shirt, a necklace and some other jewellery all that remains of my partner, he who is now nothing more than food for the fish, his spark somewhere out there on the sea, or perhaps carried on tide and wind into the mother-forest. He had not had time to pull on leggings or fasten his belt. Three arrows, two from the canoe frame, one from his back, the canoe and two paddles. This is my world now.
This, and memory and knowledge. We come from the land, we come from the ocean, both will sustain me, both will provide all I need, both will heal my own spark and both will fill me with the strength I shall need to pass the darkness of the winter ahead, the first change of colour already showing on some of the leaves around me.
I can do this, I have to.
I pull ashore and I do not think about those who have gone. I do not allow myself to consider the life which grows inside me.
Water, fire, shelter, food—and the tide is out.
Long-term readers or those of you with a keen eye will perhaps recall I mentioned a project named A Time of Trees? This was to be a novel, set in the Mesolithic of what is now western Europe, and serialised here on Substack. I drafted parts of this, before it was put to one side as I decided how best to proceed.
The above piece of short fiction is based on one of the beginnings to this story.
The idea behind this novel was to share ancestral skills in a different fashion—in this case, fiction. As you are probably aware, I am to begin sharing the second season of Ancestral, Wild Empowerment soon, and that series has essentially taken the role I considered might have been played by A Time of Trees. As such, for now, this bushcraft/ancestral skills novel is placed on proverbial ice, perhaps to one day see the light in a slightly different format (it was actually planned as a prequel to another novel, but that is a tale for another day).
If you wish to catch up with earlier editions of Edges & Entries, please do so, as I shall soon be archiving the oldest letters behind the paywall.
Finally, welcome to all you new subscribers, I’m really happy you are here—there’s a lot more to come this year.
Happy New Year to you all!
(Here’s a bonus video of the storm pictured above. Video is not my forte, but you get the idea—it was powerful.)