Travelers Don’t Know Where They’re Going

Sunrise through the treesSunrise through the trees at Alfriston Camping Park
Dawn at Alfriston Camping Park

Travelers don’t know where they’re going,
Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.—Hostel Wall in Inverness

I saw that quote on my first trip to Britain and Ireland, and it neatly sums up my approach to traveling. I plan, loosely, but leave as much wiggle room as possible. The world has a much better idea of what I should be doing and where exactly I’ll be going than I do.

I expected to do a lot of blogging on the trip I’ve just come home from, for example. That didn’t happen, and I’ll be doing my best to make up for it now. There was too much living packed into too little time. Old friends and new, and people I wanted to see but didn’t get to. I planned carefully, but allowed for last minute changes wherever I could. Hostel reservations, for example, can be cancelled, in most cases. The few times I did get hooked for an extra night, it’s usually cheaper to book in advance and eat that cost than to try and get a bed on arrival. Train tickets, likewise, are much cheaper in advance, and a few minutes with a site like trainsplit.com will let me know which fares never change and what the difference in cost is if I book a nonrefundable fare in advance, or get a fare that can be changed or canceled. Besides, I find trip researching a particularly pleasant form of daydreaming.

Loaded bike trailer and laid out bivy sack in Alfriston Camping Park
Camping in Sussex

My first stop was Anderida Camp, in Sussex. It was the first stop on my first trip to the UK, and it was a bit off the beaten track this time, but I was determined to return. I had missed climbing the Tump in Lewes the first time, and thanks to some time on Google Earth before I left, this time I was able to walk right to it. Thanks to some overambitious travel plans though, by the time I got there I was in a slightly altered state. I’d gotten about two hours sleep in the last 48, and had learned by then that Caffeine is Good, Food is Dangerous. I found I could function as long as I remembered that, and kept busy. It took two cabbies and an online map to figure out where camp was—I knew, but they didn’t, and I was giving directions from a different country, really. I walked in there at around hour 50, but this time all my friends were there, and I was soon set up among their tents, being fed tea, and generally having a wonderful time. I was also talking to Tony Stark by then, and by hour 55 I felt like I was surrounded by pillows. I decided I’d better sleep, and missed the opening ritual.

I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling much more grounded in reality, and went to the fire. A weekend of connection and community followed. Anderida Camp is known for Burning Things, and this camp was no exception. The firesides are also the best to be found anywhere. There was the happy-off, where we all played the happiest music we knew, and the hippy-off—well, you get the idea. A camp-wide version of the Age of Aquarius had us all on our feet. This, for me, is the heart of Druidry. Connection with people, and with the Land. Once again I felt the chrysalis around our world. It may feel as if we are dying, but it is only the old ways dissolving to make way for the new. This, I think, was one of the reasons I didn’t know why I was making the trip, or the shape of it. I still don’t, but the work I have to do is before me and the more of it I do, the clearer things become.

Maybe it was the ridiculous marathon of getting to Camp, maybe it was meant to be, but I lost the pouch with all my magical things in it somewhere along the line. Among them was my set of ogam feda. These look like a bundle of sticks, but they represent the ogam alphabet. They can be thought of as wooden tarot cards, though the system they represent is more a skeleton on which oral knowledge is hung. It is a way of memorizing such knowledge and organizing the relationships between it. The first letter, for example, is called Beith. The word means Birch, but it is also associated with Ban (white), Besan (pheasant), and beginnings. Among other things. The old Bardic schools used to teach oral knowledge, and for the first three years, students memorized 50 sets of associations for each letter. Once that structure was in place, their education continued with stories, philosophy lessons, grammar, etc. A Victorian reconstruction of a list of their studies can be found in P.W. Joyce’s A Social History of Ancient Ireland. One of the sets of associations are the different woods in the Irish forests, and modern use of this system tends to emphasize that set of meanings over the others. Accordingly, I decided to make my first set out of the woods. It took me many years to learn to recognize the trees and collect the various woods, and make the first set. It was very hard to lose it, along with my first Awen, and the pouch full of items that was attached to it, the presents I had for people, and so on. However, gone was gone. I could grieve over what were essentially things and let the loss overshadow the trip, or I could realize that I made many of the things that had been in that pouch, including the pouches themselves, and treat this as a new beginning.

I was in the land where the forest reflected the ogham. I decided to treat this as a “final exam.” The first set I’d constructed had been made by trial and error. I know more now, and can do a better job this next time. I also have a chance to make a set that is wholly from the forests of England and Wales. My first set reflected my own American state of being, being constructed from woods from several states as well as a few I could find only in Albion. My first trip gave me the last woods to complete that set.

So my trip was a chance to look closely at the forests around me and find the trees I needed. It was a chance to connect with each tree, and exchange gifts. It was a chance to create a ritual to contain that sharing, and to explore the difference between giving and theft. I didn’t have much time, and I am not completely satisfied with how I went about this task, but I did complete it, and learned a lot in the process. I came home with a forest in the form of a bundle of sticks. I know now that I can recognize every tree in the system in its natural habitat, and I have a ritual for collecting that creates connection between the gatherer and the gathered. I have seen a community in a field of Heather, and had a centuries-old Oak throw a branch at my feet. I know where each wood came from and can remember the conversation we had. Most of all, I am involved in a process, and am learning the phases of creation of a set as a set, rather than disparate woods gathered at different times. All of them came home with me as a bundle of green wood. Now I am in the process of stripping them of their bark and allowing them to dry completely. That has to happen before I can choose a size for each fid (wood), as each stave is called. I also have to decide how I will shape them this time as I no longer have access to the tools I used the first time.

Not knowing, but trusting, was a wonderful way to travel. It wasn’t all good, but neither is life. I feel as if the Land was testing me. The first two trips the red carpet was rolled out. I was cradled and protected by the Land. This time, more is expected of me. The gifts were no less munificent, and I count the tasks among them. What I lost may be the catalyst for someone else when they find what amounts to a kit for Druidry somewhere. In the meantime I have articles and songs to write, blog entries and recordings to make, and experiences to share. I have friendships and memories to sustain me here on the Shores of the Western Sea. I am blessed beyond measure by the Druids and the Land of Albion.

Chalk path--South Downs Way
South Downs Way

 

Where Are Your Edges?

Red-tailed hawk sitting on the roof of a car
Encounter With A Hawk

I had an encounter with a red-tailed hawk recently. I was on my way to work, walking up the hill to the bus stop. It’s a nice way to start the day. I’m almost always completely alone among the quiet houses and have space to think and gather the peace of the neighborhood around me. The hawk and I surprised each other. It seemed to fall out of nowhere, landing with a soft thump on the roof of a car just ahead of me. In this quiet space, our meeting was the last thing either of us expected. I stopped, then quietly pulled my phone out of my pocket before creeping forward. Zooming a phone camera always results in a grainy picture, but it was the only way to be sure of getting a shot, so I did it. The hawk looked at me, then flew off to a nearby fence. I followed slowly and quietly and got another shot.

We shared a moment of connection in that short space of time. The hawk didn’t really want to be anywhere near a human, but wasn’t afraid, knowing its wings held safety and reading in my movements that I wasn’t an immediate threat. I, however, wanted the moment to last as long as possible. I looked past the bird rather than directly meeting its eyes, hoping to appear less of a threat, and as it fluffed its feathers I took another shot. It hopped into the air and was gone.

I felt lucky, connected, blessed. I felt a part of my neighborhood in a way I hadn’t a moment before. The wildness is still here to be found in the city, available to all of us. All we have to do is look, listen, and be quiet enough to let it venture close to us. We just need to blend in. We just have to know where our edges are, how far they extend, how and where they meet those of others.

We all have edges. That’s where mystery and power lie. We don’t always pay a lot of attention to them, though. For a moment, the hawk and I shared that awareness. Our unexpected encounter was in balance for a short time, the hawk willing to stay and be observed as long as the distance between us and the quality of energy remained within its comfort zone. The moment may have been longer had I not chosen to pull out a camera, and maybe if there’s a next time I’ll make a different choice. Like a pair of fencers we shared a moment shaped by proximity and intent on a cool gray morning in the heart of the city.

Quiet and awareness are available to all of us at any time. Sitting on a bus, driving a car, even shopping for groceries can be done fully in the moment. I enjoy walking and bicycling so much because both modes of transport give me space to think and be aware of my surroundings. They are enhanced by such awareness. I may not particularly like the neighborhood I live in, but I know it well because I see it at walking speeds and know its beauties as well as its shortcomings. I belong to it and it to me in ways I didn’t when I only drove through it. The moments of our lives are all we really have and we don’t experience them when we’re waiting for this commute to be over, or thinking about what happened the day before. The hawk doesn’t have that problem. For it, it is always now.

I’m deliciously alone when I walk through my neighborhood. This is wealth indeed. On the side streets I essentially have a beautiful estate, full of trees and animals, all to myself. Since almost everyone drives and the few people I encounter are on their way from their cars to their destinations, or reversing that journey, there is rarely any interaction at all. I’m also deliciously alone, however, when I walk the streets of San Francisco. Columbus Avenue is the fastest, flattest way between my workplace and the transit station. It’s two miles through North Beach, in the heart of the city, and though it is well traveled, unless you go out of your way to strike up a conversation, you will usually be left to your own devices. This is actually not as alienating and barren as some who do not live in cities describe it to be. It’s actually a way of giving each other space in the cauldron of activity and stimulation that is a large city. There’s a scene in the first Crocodile Dundee movie that plays with this concept. The main character tries to greet everyone he meets on a crowded New York street. In his small town, this is possible and desirable. In a large city, it’s impossible and exhausting. It is, however, possible to make friends and be a part of the community, and fairly quickly this is what he does. By working with the environment you’re in, instead of lamenting how it isn’t the way things are where you come from, you become part of what is instead of alienated and unhappy. We humans have so many different ways of relating to each other, and we can choose to cocreate our shared space. We can even do it with other species, as the hawk and I did, and as I do with squirrels and other urban wildlife. And if someone in the city needs directions or other interaction, surely it isn’t that difficult to switch gears?

We can choose to be aware of our edges and of those of others around us. Like the first few minutes driving an unfamiliar vehicle, we can and should spend a minute or two finding out where we are on the sidewalk, as we climb onto a crowded city bus, or when we step onto a forest trail. Who and what do we share the space with? Where are our blind spots? Can we see the sky? Sometimes it’s wonderful to block out the sound of other peoples’ phone calls or conversations with headphones, but if we do it all the time we’ll miss the birdsongs in the morning and the interactions we could be having. We’ll miss the chance to be part of where and when we are. We won’t see that hawk.

Stinson Beach and a Seagull Caught In Flight
Seagull Caught In Flight

A Year In Albion

Grey sky, the green hills reflected in the still waters of the lake
Llyn Tegid Stood Still

One day, it came into my mind and heart to go to the land of my ancestors…

I made that first trip when I turned 50. Chance–or was it synchronicity–put my arrival the day of the Anderida Autumn Camp.  I got off the plane and onto a train to Lewes, then cabbed it to Camp. I knew no one, had barely started the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) course, but I knew this was where I needed to be. The Camp was experiential, and the story we were to be working with was the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. It was a story I thought I knew well. I left that camp a changed person. So many new friends, the welcome of the folk of Anderida should be legendary around the world. I arrived an American stranger, dragging a bike trailer of camping gear, and within the hour I had a place to camp, a cup of tea (I think) and was sitting in a circle of new friends. It was a wonderful introduction to a weekend of music, magic, and deep spiritual work. When I left, I no longer knew my own last name. It had been gently taken from me by the Gods, as had my previous identity. I was still myself, but no longer the woman warrior I had been, I had been reborn a Bard.

At Anderida, I was invited to the Anglesey Druid Order’s Cauldron Camp. Kristoffer Hughes, the Chief of the Order, had come down to give some mindblowing talks on the Fourth Branch. A native speaker of Welsh, he very kindly opened my eyes to the deeper meaning of that tale, and I quite happily followed him north at the end of a month of nonstop discovery. Their camp, coincidentally, was held on the last weekend of my trip.

Based on Kristoffer’s book, From The Cauldron Born, the work of that camp was to brew the Awen. I’m slow sometimes. I booked that camp partly because I had learned so much in one weekend and wanted more, and partly because I wanted to experience as much of Druidry in the land it had sprung from as I could. For all I knew, this would be my only trip there. I didn’t realize that I’d not only booked myself into a camp where we would be working with the myth of Taliesin and Cerridwen, but we’d be doing it on the very shores of the lake where the myth had taken place. I got chills when I first realized where I was. Then I discovered that the work would go on for the next year. I had choices, I could of course have just gone to the camp and gone home. I didn’t have to physically stir the potion and go out in the woods to find the ingredients each month. Nor did I have to find a way to come back the following year to finish the work.

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I learned so much! Many of the ingredients don’t grow in California. Some are here as exotics, but I had to find equivalents for quite a few and doing that work brought me closer to this biome I grew up in. Just coming back after a month away showed me my home in a new way. I’ve gone on to the OBOD course and now, on the verge of completing it, I feel called to learn the language of Druidry in the biome in which it was created. Whether Druidry was only a product of the cultures of Albion or not is immaterial to this particular task. The Druid Revival happened in Albion, and the Druid Orders who teach today are largely based in Albion and Ireland. Their teachings, their pantheons are all part of this particular biome. While it is perfectly acceptable and absolutely possible to practice Druidry in any part of the world, I am called to go back to the source, to spend an entire turning of the seasons in the biome Druidry’s newest incarnation was born in.

The website, and this blog are the start. I don’t yet know how it will happen–a year off is a difficult thing to swing for a lower echelon American worker in these uncertain times, but I can have a job and a dream, or I can just have a job. And I’ll be going back to that camp on the shores of Llyn Tegid in September. This makes trip number three. For a person who didn’t know how to swing even one trip, that’s a good start, I think.

Bus Stop Song

Wrecked Honda in the mechanic's garage
Wreck of the Pacific Coast

My last car was knocked off the road back in 2008. I’d just visited the Trees of Mystery and was on my way out of Crescent City when a truck coming the other way turned left in front of me. I stood on the brake and managed to get down to about 35 before we hit.

I just sat there a minute, then got out of the car and looked at the bashed in front end. It felt like losing a friend. I knew that this was the end for Phoenix, a 1980 Honda Civic that had come to me through another bad accident. That time his rear end had been crushed, but the SUV that had done it had been so high off the ground that the frame had survived. No such luck this time. The front bumper was leaning at a terrible angle, the whole side of the car bent downwards. I was a couple of hundred miles from home, hundreds from my destination, a three month long sailmaking course in Washington State. I felt like crying, but there was no time for that. There were people running towards me, and the driver of the other vehicle was babbling that he hadn’t seen me and had really had to pee. I calmly reached inside and grabbed my coffee cup out of the teapot I’d been using as a cup holder. Phoenix hadn’t spilled a drop.

The insurance company of course wrote off my car as a total loss. a hunk of metal good for nothing but the scrap yard. They rented me a car, and blind with tears, I unloaded the friend who had given his life for me into the rental. I sent him off well. Two brand new tires, four quarts of oil lined up on the back seat, and a plastic Viking helmet I’d brought along on a whim perched on the dashboard. I remember thinking that it was as close to a Viking funeral as I could manage for him. I christened the rental Jeeves about ten miles down the road, out of frustration for his annoying habits of doing everything for me, whether I wanted it or not. The doors locked the moment I began driving. The GPS “helpfully” asked me if I wanted to set a destination at the beginning of every trip (no thanks, I carried perfectly good maps, and it’s damned hard to get lost on Hwy 101).

I bought a real junker to get me through the three months, and sold it as soon as I got home. I’d decided a while back that Phoenix would be the last car for me. I think that as a culture we have to rethink our relationship with the personal automobile, and as I said in my last post, it might as well begin with me. I’ve gotten by on a carshare, a bicycle, and public transportation ever since.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m not here to judge you, or really to convert you. I’m just relating my experience and asking you to think about the way we get around.

Yes, it does take a bit longer to get some places without a car. Some places are out of reach without one. This is why I belong to a carshare. There are rewards, however, and I’ve had adventures and made connections I never would have if I’d stayed strictly behind the wheel. I have to think before I go places, but I have freedoms I didn’t have before, and luxuries as well.

I’ve gotten a much deeper connection with my neighborhood. I know the fastest walks and the nicest ones. I admit I know the trees better than I do most of the people, but that’s mainly because almost no one walks in this neighborhood unless they have a dog. I live in the heart of the city but I feel at times as if I have grounds and a large estate because there is so much greenery and wildlife to be seen. I’ve learned a lot about plant identification simply by walking and identifying what I find. And I have all the wild onions to myself, sadly.

I know the public transit system very well. This has shown me how much we have been neglecting this vital set of links between places, but I will never be stranded by the loss of a vehicle or a breakdown of any one system. When BART went on strike, I just switched to the transbay bus. My commute is my gym. It may cost me a little more on a daily basis to commute, but I have no insurance bills, gas costs, or tolls. Or gym costs. When I had a car, it was easy to decide to drive to BART that morning instead of bike. Now I can’t get out of walking or riding, and I’m in better shape because of it. And I really like walking. It’s a chance to think, and explore. It’s also a great way to do errands. When I’m walking, I can stop in at any store I please without having to look for parking. I don’t have to backtrack to where I parked, I am free to keep walking, or hop on a bus.

When I travel, my habits really pay off. I know how to learn a public transportation system, and how to explore an unfamiliar city. I don’t live in the greatest part of town, and traveling around it without a car has given me a certain amount of street smarts. I’m not saying I’m superwoman, but I do know a bit about keeping out of trouble. I really get to experience the places I go because I see them at a walking pace, able to stop anywhere that interests me. I know how to use a map and love doing so. When I go home I can relive the trip from my marked up maps and pictures.

The carshare is turning out to be cheaper than my car ever was. I spend less per month on it than I did for just the insurance payment on my last car. If I’m short one month, I can just not use a car that month. When I do drive, I’m always driving a car much newer than any I’d ever owned, and I don’t have to pay for gas or maintenance. Sadly, I always have to drive an automatic, but that’s a small sacrifice to make. I don’t miss doing tuneups and oil changes in the street, or unexpected repair bills one bit!

Not being able to go to out of town wild places as often as I used to or visit my out of town friends as much makes me treasure those times more, and if there is one thing I wish I could change about being without a car it’s that. I don’t think getting back in one is the best way of solving that particular problem, though. If the public transportation system in urban areas has gotten less useful over time and doesn’t give convenient access to all the places it used to, we are partly responsible. We have overwhelmingly chosen to travel by car even when it isn’t the best option.

I’ve learned, above all, that there are many definitions of freedom. A car has been sold to us as a nation as a symbol of freedom and a way to express our identity, but I’m no longer so sure of that. No, I can no longer step out my front door and instantly into my “seven league boots.” But I have learned that most of my regular destinations don’t really require a car. I’m not a big drinker, but when I do go out, I don’t have to worry about not being safe to drive home. I’m a lot more physically fit because now I’m in the habit of walking and biking and I have time while doing that to do a lot more thinking. I get more reading in because I’m on the bus a lot. And I’ve got more options financially because I’m not having to pay all the costs associated with owning a hunk of metal that spends most of its time parked.

I leave my house early each morning and walk through my quiet neighborhood. I hear the dawn chorus of birdsong and feel the song of the earth around me. Is it gray and cool, or is the sun beginning to paint the clouds pink? What is the shape of the day just beginning? I imagine what it could be like, if my neighbors were out here as well, if we were all sharing the streets, the buses, if we could put a name to a face and so had some idea who we share these folded hills with. I wonder what it would be like if the stores that sell cheap liquor and junk food sold staples like flour and milk and produce, if I could walk around the corner and barter the eggs from my chickens for milk or butter or produce with my neighbors. What if we hired the people with spray cans who are currently shouting their existence and worth through scrawled tags to paint murals on retaining wall and storefront with the owners’ blessings? What if our neighborhood was safe because there was always someone on the street?

I look at the trees in the yards and next to the freeway. There’s a lemon tree that drops its fruit at the top of the hill and I usually pocket one good one. The rest are left to rot anyway. I can name many of the trees and plants, and some of the birds. I have my own little hedge school each morning. The wood grain of the fence behind me speaks the language of the forest it came from. The concrete below my feet was once part of the floor of the ocean. At the bus stop the fennel, oxalis and plantain colonize the glass-choked dirt behind me. Weeds, or healers? It all depends on your point of view. I know I never would have seen the things that I do if I’d stayed behind the wheel. I am a pioneer of the post-gasoline age and I like it.

Walkway over Hwy 580, Oakland, CA
Have You Seen Jack-In-The-Green?

Sailing Into Land, Sky, and Sea

The Golden Gate Bridge, and the waters of San Francisco Bay framed by the ship's rig.
The Golden Gate Bridge seen from the deck of the Lady Washington

It takes five types of lines to work a square sail. That means that if you understand this basic pattern, you’re well on the way to understanding the rig, and how it works. Sure there are well over a hundred lines on any ship, but there are only three basic repeating patterns–the square sails, the fore and aft staysails/jibs, and the gaff rigged spanker. There can be a few others thrown in there, depending, but once you know the basics, the others become pleasant variations. So I’m making a tiny demonstration mast with a square sail on it and those ten lines, one set of five for each side, to show people how it works.

I neither expect nor want the visitors to go out with an understanding of all of this, I just want to present the boat as something accessible and user friendly–because it is.  It’s sad to see people consider the language of the sea as complicated and impenetrable. It is short and precise, true, but based on patterns which are basically the same in any ship in the world. Our mission statement in part directs us to preserve the maritime culture and history of the sea. If I can’t paint and scrape any more, I can certainly do that.

As a Pagan and a Druid, I see Land, Sky and Sea come together in a sailing ship. This is a liminal space, and that’s why it’s so hard on ships and people. That’s why it can bring out the best in us, and it allows for a deep connection with those three realms. This is why skill has always been the yardstick at sea. The sea will always find you out, and the ship will do what she can to preserve the life within her, but she will not serve a bad master, or put up with poor seamanship, or craftsmanship. The sailor must put the ship first, for she is our life. We have to be aware of what she needs–that annoying deck leak will get worse if not dealt with. If there’s water in the bilge, where did it come from? If there’s rust, or rot, grab some tools and fix it. Keeping her brave with paint, bright with varnish and black with tar is not just aesthetics and respect for the vessel, it is what keeps rot and rust from becoming dangerous.

So a ship is a tool for developing awareness, and skill. The life of ships is measured in what sailors do and see. The tasks are repeated endlessly, but they are varied and can be endlessly fascinating. It feels good to get better at them, to notice when a line is getting worn or the coatings are failing–and to renew them. It definitely feels good to pass the skills on to the next set of hands. Sailors are links in a chain, passing the tasks and the vessels from hand to willing hand. Ships, like the world, are held together by love.

The ships talk to me. If the bilge water is salty, the ship is telling me that she leaks, down below, where it’s dangerous. That cleat that is crooked, leaning towards the strain of the cable is bedded in wood that is rotting away. The brightwork, shining in the sun, is the handiwork of a volunteer, an old man who sailed in steam and, strong and healthy still, comes in as dependable as the sun to do that work. The ship sustains him and he sustains her. I enjoy the sight and walk on. There’s a strange dull circle on the deck, inside where the mizzen mast passes through it. That deck used to be outside. The ship tells me where the fife rail used to stand by the marks it left in her deck. I ask the oldest shipwright about it. He points out the varnished deck and tells me of the capstan that used to be on display next to the mast, where it of course could never have been used. It kept a section of the deck as it had been when the ship was in service, because of course, the deck of a working ship is oiled. I remember the smell of a freshly oiled deck, the slow meditative work of pushing the mixture into the wood with a shearling pad on a pole. Together we find the square patch where a section of deck had been replaced long ago, where a capstan had originally been bolted down. Marks on the steel show where sections of bulkhead were altered, replaced. The ship wears her history on her hide.

Poetry is born where Land, Sea and Sky meet. A ship is a bit of Land, a dry place for humans to set their feet as we cross the trackless Sea under the endless Sky. I am a different person offshore and I miss the taste I have managed to get of that life. When conditions are good, it is like a bubble of quiet. I remember the Lady fighting her way north, up the coast, under power because there was a schedule to keep. The steady hum of the engine was the background all other sounds were built on. I learned to wedge myself into places on deck and below, becoming one with the steady pitch and roll, rocked to calmness by it. I slept like a starfish, spread out in my bunk, rocked to sleep. We are quiet because someone is always sleeping when the ship is under way, someone is always on watch. I crept through the darkness in the foc’s’le, a red lens in my flashlight as I checked the bilge, my crewmates sleeping around me. I stood on the bow, the eyes of the ship, walking quietly aft to report what I had seen to the watch leader. I climbed down into the hot, noisy engine room, making sure the straps of my gear were well tucked, my long braid securely down inside my coat. The cool air on deck was a relief when I emerged. The land danced beneath my feet for days after each voyage until I lost my sea legs. The poetry of wind and water will be with me forever.

Now I can no longer pull my weight aboard ship. So I limit my time to museum ships, retired like my Ladies. Since I can’t seem to keep my hands off the lines when others are working, this is simple self preservation. I’ve lost enough mobility and physical strength, thank you. I am still a link in the living chain of sailors, but my task now is to pass on skill, to inspire the next sets of hands and show them how to forge their own connection and find their own truths.

Ghost Story

The rooftops of Glastonbury, from an upper room of the hostel there.
View from Glastonbury Backpackers Hostel

I’ve seen ghosts. I’ve never looked for them, I don’t want to see them, frankly, but it’s happened nevertheless. None of them have been particularly scary, but they’ve scared the life out of me every time. Maybe it’s just because our worlds are not meant to meet. Maybe it’s because they are not meant to be, echoes that were supposed to move on but are trapped like flies in amber. Maybe it’s just my instinctive fear of death. My mind knows it’s just a passage from one state to another, but my body knows better.

There was the little dog under the bed across from mine in Glastonbury.  I had the luxury of a four bed dorm–with a view worthy of any novel concerning scullery maids–to myself for three glorious nights. On the second night I woke up to see a little dog curled up under the bed opposite placidly looking at me. I jumped for the light. The dog disappeared. It took me a bit of time before I could turn the light off and go back to sleep. Too bad, perhaps it was only observing me. Perhaps it was planning a journey that only we two could share. Perhaps I was having a dream that could have been even more interesting. I’ll never know because my first impulse was the light switch.

The ghost aboard the tallship came long before the dog, however. He really chilled me. He kept coming back, which was even more unpleasant. The first time I saw him I was sleeping alone in the main hold. All the bunks in the fo’c’s’l’e were taken and I was making do, hoping, as every recently joined crew member does, that one would open up. The main hold contains the galley, and padded bench seating that serves as the ship’s living room. So it’s basically couch surfing, salt-flavored. I woke up and it was dark. I saw someone bending over the coffee pot at the far side of the space, and my first thought was ‘Oh. It’s the cook putting on coffee. It must be 5:30.’ Then I realized the figure was glowing. “Joe?” No answer. “You’re not really there are you,” I said, and jumped for the light. The figure disappeared. I was alone in the space. The galley clock struck 7 bells. 11:30. PM. I was a big chicken and left the light on. We were in port, on shore power. No one noticed, as no one was standing watches. I didn’t do too much more sleeping anyway.

The next night the engineer came in late, drunk, and amusing, at least for a while. He knew what was what, and had no problem telling us. He steadily got angrier, and began talking to the bunk I’d been sleeping in. He was talking to someone who wasn’t answering him. He wasn’t having any of my telling him no one was there, and the purser, who had a Zen way about him that could calm almost anyone, was having a hard time with this one. By then I was getting upset, because I knew who I thought he was talking to, and that someone was lying in my bunk. In the end, the engineer went to bed, and I told the purser about the ghost. He took me to the fo’c’s’l’e and made a crew member, who was sleeping with his girlfriend each night anyway, give up the extra bunk he’d been claiming as his. She was crew as well, it was a common enough arrangement aboard, but I didn’t know the ins and outs of it all. I was just grateful not to have to spend another night alone in that empty, dark hold.

Things were fine, we left port, and lived in that wonderful calm bubble that is offshore sailing. One watch on, two off, and all that we do is done in the service of Herself, the vessel that encloses us. We serve Her, she protects Us. We are one, and even if the food isn’t great, and the trip up the coast is bumpy in the extreme, as long as conditions at sea are good, we all fall into a state almost meditative. We stand our watches, take our turns steering, scanning the sea ahead for lights at night and obstacles by day, and check the bilge, the engine, the lights. We walk quietly on deck and don’t talk near hatches, knowing that the ship is hollow, like a giant guitar, and someone is always sleeping.

One night I woke. The ghost was in my bunk. I didn’t dare open my eyes, but I could see the glow of him through my eyelids, surrounding me, and hear the hum of him, there, but not there. I reached for my bunk light, and again, he was gone. I spent a long time telling him silently to go away, that this was MY bunk, and he was NOT welcome to share it. He didn’t return. Why me? I’d never seen a ghost before. I’d never *wanted* to see one, and very much never wanted to see this one ever again, though I felt sorry for him. The purser, you see, had known whom I was talking about. He’d told me that they’d picked him up one night, offshore. Maybe he had drowned and come across the ship one night. He didn’t know. That was all he said, and all I know.

The last time I saw him the ship was in port, all the crew gone except me. I was catching a greyhound bus south in the morning and was spending my last night aboard. I had my favorite fo’c’s’l’e bunk, had stayed up late reading in solitary splendor after an excellent dinner ashore. I once again woke up, in the middle of the night. A figure made of light was climbing down the fo’c’s’l’e ladder, inches from my bunk. JESUS! I jumped for the bunk light, he was gone. I eventually got back to sleep. The next morning I was gone.

In retrospect, maybe I missed out. I don’t know if any communication was possible, because I never tried. Only one other person on board knew what I was talking about–but I only spoke to one about it. No one else that I know of saw him, except possibly the engineer, and he was not in ordinary waking consciousness. Neither was I, every time I’ve ever seen a ghost I’ve been awakened from a sound sleep. What side of the border of sleep did these encounters happen on?

Maybe the ghost missed out too, if ghost he was. What state of consciousness was he in? What awareness did he have of the ship and of us? He climbed aboard one wet night, apparently. What might it be like to flow like the sea after dying in it, perhaps not knowing when the boundary between life and death had been crossed? The waters off the coast of California are cold indeed, he might have let go of life from the cold alone. Was he just trying to live his life, aboard this ship, or was he looking for a way to move on? Could I have helped him to do so?

All these questions flowed from that jump for the light switch. If I’m ever in a similar situation again, I hope I’ll stay tucked up in bed and see what happens.

Share the Joys

I spent the weekend in a shared hotel room. I think the five of us had a lot more fun together than we would have had separately. I know we laughed a lot more than we would have otherwise. I watched a blind woman learn to swear in American Sign language, that was definitely a highlight. I came away with a new friend, and a deeper connection with my old ones.

We are all richer when we share. In time, in money, in experience. It is only when we hoard things that we feel the lack. We create scarcity by focusing on what we don’t have–what we will run out of if we don’t lock it away from others. There is plenty for all of us, really.

Yes, there are a lot of us hurting worldwide, there are people actually starving to death. This is tragic–and preventable. They aren’t starving because there isn’t enough, but because someone won’t share what is there. Some of us will steal from others–their time, their labor, the good things that are all around us. Some of us think we need more than we have. Our personal lives and the lives of our communities and nations are the life of our planet. As we take from our fellow humans we also take from the other beings around us.

We’re really taking from ourselves. Our planet is a closed system. Aside from the occasional meteorite, everything that is here has been here since the earth was formed. When the salmon don’t have enough water to get upstream to spawn we don’t get to eat salmon. Is there really not enough water for both the salmon and the farmers? Is there really not enough room for our houses and the trees? Is it really so impossible to share with other beings?

Do we live in a crowded house, or do many of us have more than we need? When you can’t find it, do you really own it? When you can’t make use of it, is it really yours? Saying that it was always done this way, and we can’t afford to make the changes is on the same level as the little kid who says they don’t want to clean their room. Is change really so difficult and unpleasant? Is it really too expensive to take the needs of the rest of the world into account?

It really comes down to sharing. We have always shared everything with all beings whether we realize it or not. We can do it willingly, and with awareness, or we can create scarcity for all of us. It took all of us to create the systems we use today, the systems that did not take into account the needs of all beings, and it is going to take all of us, working together, paying the costs, to change them.

We look at what we think needs to be done, and we see hard work and deprivation. I say that that’s a failure of imagination. I could have looked at that hotel room this weekend and the prospect of sleeping on the floor with dread. I could have looked at the idea of having to live on the food we brought as a long few days of deprivation. I chose to see it as an adventure. It was a lot of effort, and very little sleep, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.  

I know humanity can come out of the coming change the same way.

Five Thousand Years in Fifteen Minutes

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There wasn’t enough time. There was no real choice either. Fifteen minutes with twenty-plus people, or nothing at all. That is the only way you can see Newgrange. It was still amazing. All 5,000 years of history were right on top of me as I stood in that chamber. After it was over, I realized I’d missed the most famous spiral, so quickly had we been herded down the passage. It made me appreciate my experience at Calanais all the more.

I took a cab from Drogheda to Newgrange Lodge, I had just missed the last bus. I got a mercenary of a cab driver, but he was great other than the naked avarice. He was on two different cell phones and two radios the whole ride, and he gave me a business card and told me to call him when I wanted to go. I smiled and said thanks, I would, but had no intention of doing so. I knew there was a perfectly good bus to be had every afternoon.

Newgrange Lodge was beautiful. It was a converted stone house and looked nice enough to be a hotel, which I thought it was. I had booked a camping pitch, but when I found out it was really a hostel I decided to give myself a present. It was threatening rain, and for ten Euros more I could have a bed. I ended up with a private ten bedroom dorm with an en suite bathroom for 18 Euros. No laundry, ehh wi fi, and the equivalent of a polite Basil Fawlty for an innkeeper, but quite nice all the same.

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I went down the road to check out the visitor center at 7 AM, just to find out what to expect. Basil Fawlty was no help, he had never been there, believe it or not. The place was of course locked and silent, but the signboards told me everything I needed to know. A tiny little trail leading off the main path in gave me my first view of the tomb.

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I never did find out if the stage management at that place is deliberate, but I have to say I was impressed. Both Navan Fort and Newgrange have planted a little forest of birch, alder, holly and hazel around their visitor centers and run paths through them. It’s very beautiful and very effective. Ogham trees all, though that probably has little or nothing to do with it. At Newgrange the effect is, if you miss the tiny little trail and the outlook at the end, there’s no way to see the tomb from the visitor center. Unless you go see the 7 minute movie, that is. It explains the whole Solstice alignment and goes into a lot of frankly fabricated ideas of how Neolithic peoples thought that if they didn’t see the shortest day of the year they thought the cold and dark would go on forever. They marked it, surely. But what they thought about it we will never know. After the movie, you exit through a pretty nicely done mockup of the central passage that goes uphill to a viewing platform at the top of the visitor center. That is the only place you can see the tomb from. The effect is, when you do see the tomb it is like the entrance of the diva. It’s really effective and I can’t believe it wasn’t planned.

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It was raining when we got to Knowth. I was very glad once again of my tincloth. The guide did the whole tour from inside a small chamber built next to one side of the passage inside the mound. Knowth is even more interesting than Newgrange. I heartily regret not buying the book on it. Knowth was built last and is more sophisticated, but it is also more heavily damaged and you can’t go inside. The mound was converted to a ringfort after Christianity arrived and was ditched and had souterrains (passages for storing food and hiding in) built in it during that period, as well as houses built on top of it. We wandered around a little bit after the tour, but it was raining pretty hard.

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Newgrange was just as wet, but I was in the first group to get inside as I’d arrived so early.

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The tourguides are really good, they know their material very well. Correctly, once again, like at Calanais, they told us that the people who built the tombs were not Celts or Druids, they were Neolithic peoples. They didn’t tell us why these people built the place, just that they had. It is a mystery for now, and by acknowledging that, we leave room for the answer to come someday. All I know, or need to, is that the span of time is great indeed. We have as humans lived long enough to have forgotten some things totally. And those peoples were wise indeed. 5,000 years and a drystone corbeled roof is still in place and *doesn’t leak!* I can’t keep a twenty year old deck from leaking without constant maintenance! My roof is good for thirty years. These people built a passage that is still sound, covered over with tons of earth and is still stable and focusing a narrow beam of sunlight once a year after five millennia. There are no words.

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The rain stopped just before we left the tomb.

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Crows and ravens were everywhere. They were magnificent, but just birds again. I think Scathach was messing with my mind, seeing what shadows she could cast.

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The afternoon bus didn’t show up. I had to call Paddy, the Mercenary Cabbie. I was in Dublin by early evening.

More photos at my website

Stones In The Mist

ImageIt was raining when the ferry reached Stornoway. It’s Scotland, I didn’t expect any different. Grace was swathed in tincloth, I was likewise. I didn’t have a hostel reservation, because I’d planned on going straight to the stones, and then to Tarbert to catch the morning ferry to Uig.

I expected the hostel in Tarbert to be a bit of an adventure. It was also a fairly important link in the trip. There are two ferries per day to Uig. One at 7 AM, the other in the late afternoon. The problem is, getting hold of the proprietors of the place is a real challenge. Every email address I was able to locate bounced, and the review I found online had a very entertaining story, the upshot of which was, call them a day or two in advance and if all else fails, knock on the door. You may or may not get in. I’d gotten hold of the owners the night before in Inverness and they’d informed me that the place was closed.

When the ferry docked, I headed straight to the Heb Hostel, the only one listed for Stornoway. It was full, but the person who answered the door was friendly and told me that there was another hostel in town, as well as the location of the tourist information center. I couldn’t find the hostel from the directions, so that was the next stop.

Every tourist information center I visited in Scotland was beyond helpful.They knew where almost everything was, and what they didn’t know they were pretty efficient at locating. They sold great maps, along with souvenirs ranging from truly tacky to downright beautiful. The woman behind the counter was helping another traveler in the same predicament I was in, and by the time she was done I’d seen everything in the shop several times over. Good service takes a bit of time and I was on vacation after all. I was soon on my way with a map marked with the spot. The hostel was not marked, the door was locked and the phone number on the door wasn’t being answered, but eventually one of us got in, and the few of us with patience followed. The proprietress had had no cell service in the Tesco’s.

The hostel still has no name, at least not one I know, but it was almost the best place I stayed on the entire trip. It was brand new, and run by a couple. I only saw him for a minute or two, but she was the spirit of hospitality. She started by giving us all free run of the kitchen. There was a fridge stocked with food, proper pots and pans, and best of all, tea and sugar. The wi fi only worked in the kitchen as it turned out, but the kitchen was the heart of the hostel. Later in the evening, I came back to find her in her PJs doing the family dishes. It was their main kitchen as well. She found out I hadn’t eaten yet in the course of our conversation, by then we’d both come out of the broom closet, so to speak and she offered to cook me dinner, which I would not allow. She was on her way to bed, the kitchen was full of food, and I was feeling better cared for than I had since Anderida camp. If I ever go back to Stornoway, that place will be my first stop if it still exists. Stornoway, by the way, is a really nice town, big enough to be interesting, small enough to be friendly.

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But you were expecting to hear about Calanais, right? You’re about to, but you can’t separate the place from the people and the people of Lewis were wondrous indeed. I’d missed the last bus to the stones finding a place to sleep, so I got on the first bus in the morning with a fellow traveler from the hostel. The ride was misty and wonderful. The visitor center was still closed so we went straight to the stones. The mist got thicker the longer we stayed, and quite soon I had the place to myself in a light rain that only made the weight of ages close in further.

The quiet was immense. It was more than just the usual quiet misty rain brings. The gray of the sky set off the gray of the stones, and the green of the grass, just as it does in my home on the shores of the Western Sea. It was so similar, yet so different. There were no trees, but the green of the moss and of the grass more than made up for it.

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I could see the shape of the land to where it disappeared into mist, and the bare bones of the rocks where they broke through on the hilltops. The rain ran off my duster and my sou’wester, its soft dripping the only sound there was, or could be.  

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I walked slowly around the perimeter of the stones, and set my back against the farthest one, where I was sheltered from the wind and could look up the long avenue of irregular rocks. No, the stones didn’t speak to me, not as such, but the quiet slowly seeped into me and I came to know that we humans didn’t know any more what these stones had meant to the people who raised them, and we didn’t need to. The keys to this place have been lost, at least for now. It really doesn’t matter because it served its purpose for the people who built it, and it is impressive enough to us to make us act to preserve it. Like any great work of art, its existence is enough.

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Eventually I walked up the avenue and into the stones. I felt as if I had all the time in the world, and for that moment, I did. I sang the song I had brought to the stones. Giant, by Stan Rogers. I did it without the drum, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell it would have been playable in that weather. It didn’t matter, all that was necessary was that I did it.

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By then, the rain had stopped and people were beginning to filter back up to the stones. When a large tour group showed up, I went down to the visitor center and learned enough to make me very curious about what was going on in Britain and Ireland 5,000 years ago. These people were not Celts, though their blood of course runs in our veins still. They seem to have done things in a much more egalitarian way, as perhaps the people of Stonehenge did too, in the same period. There’s a very interesting Nova episode that can be watched online about the alignment of Stonehenge with the solstices, and another nearby site called Durrington Walls. Calanais may have had a lunar alignment.

This strand properly should lead through Newgrange as well, the same immensity of time draws those places together for me, but I will give that tale its own space.

 

The Shadow of Dun Scaith

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The closer I got to Skye, the more I realized how much I was dreading this part of the trip. Sure, it was a long walk to what would probably turn out to be nothing, but surely a pile of rocks and a rainstorm weren’t that scary.

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I saw my first hooded crow as I got off the ferry in Stornoway. I didn’t know what the creature was. It hopped like a crow, it was shaped like one,  but a gray-bodied crow? Crows and ravens had been scaring the pants off my partner and I since before I left for the trip, and sure enough, once again there were three hooded crows, not two, or five. We found out a day or so before I left that both of us had been keeping our mouths shut about this fact, so as not to scare the other. Once again, I told the Morrigan that if she wanted me, she would have me, but I hoped to make it home.

Two mornings after I was walking around Portree on Skye at a ridiculous hour of the morning. I had tea at the only place open, where the people who actually made the town run got theirs, and pulled Grace around town checking out what would be open when and when the buses ran. When the tourist center opened I went in and asked about Dun Scaith. The woman behind the desk didn’t have a clue about where I was talking about, but she knew the island and was more than willing to look things up. Every tourist info center in Scotland was like this, by the way. I am turning over a new leaf and hope to be as helpful when I get back to work in San Francisco. The upshot was, she thought I was a little nuts, but hid it well and wished me luck. She told me to tell the bus driver to let me off at the road to Ord, and the walk would be a little shorter. Drivers on the islands will let you off and pick you up almost anywhere they pass by, which was a blessing indeed.

I ended up standing on the road to Ord at about 10:30, thinking that this was another fine mess I’d gotten myself into. I went through my pack for some trail mix and came across a camping meal I’d been given back at Anderida camp. Beanies and weenies. I ate it all, even though I didn’t particularly want it, knowing I needed the fuel and blessing the wondrous soul who’d given it to me. I repacked Grace and pulled out my little flashing light to attach to the trailer. The mist was closing in and the road to Ord was one lane wide. I kept my ears open and was ready to leap to the side at any minute. I remember telling Scathach I was coming to see her, knowing that was a little nuts, but also knowing on some level that it was only manners. I also gave myself permission to take a ride if it was offered. I wasn’t expecting anything, but I was willing…

The first car that passed me stopped, backed up, and offered me a ride. They were holidaymakers, just like me, and I climbed in back with their baby girl, who got over her fear of the stranger in about two seconds. We proceeded to have a lovely drive up the road to Ord. They drove me literally to Dun Scaith. They didn’t know where it was, and didn’t mean to do so, but on one of our numerous stops to see the gorgeous scenery there it was. They didn’t want to come across the field of sheep with me, which was probably wise, and a blessing on them and their house for being my magic bus.

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I manhandled Grace across the sheep field. There were a couple of signs pointing the way to “the castle,” but they were just signs the landowner had put up. When I couldn’t drag her any farther I left Grace beside the path, her rain cover firmly in place. Good thing. The mist got heavier and heavier. I got to the castle, and even took a few pics before the rain started, and with it the wind. OK, I thought, the rain has been off and on since I got here and it has always cleared in about twenty minutes. The bridge had been the first thing I investigated, and, how appropriate, the bottom had fallen out of it. A salmon leap was needed. I tucked myself into a corner of the bridge, out of the rain and almost dry, and waited. And waited.

After a bit, I put myself in a meditative state. Seemed the thing to do. After a bit, I started to hear music, tunes I had never heard before. I admit that for a moment I was crazy with the knowledge that it was too wet to pull out my iPad and try to sing them into the device, but I got over it and just listened. Maybe I was nuts, maybe I wasn’t, but Scathach asked me my business, and asked me for the songs I’d written that would go next to hers. I gave her a song, then another. She invited me in. I tried, but I couldn’t find a way up the hillside that would’t result in a broken leg or worse in that storm, and I had miles to walk to get to Armadale. She kept inviting me in, and wouldn’t take any excuses. She asked me of the tales I knew of her. To my great embarrassment, I couldn’t tell her. I knew they involved Cuchullain, and she only figured in them in relation to him, but I started to tell her–and couldn’t finish. I’d read the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi repeatedly, but hadn’t even thought to reread how Scathach trained Cuchullain.

She laughed at me. She did a lot of that and who could blame her? I was sent back to bardic preschool. Learn the tales known of her, and make her a song based on them. Come back, sing it, and come inside, and then we’ll see about other stories.

In the end I had to leave. I needed to get to Armadale while I could, and the rain wasn’t letting up, nor the wind. The waterproofing on my boots failed on the way back through the field. I was sloshing by the time I got to the road, but the rest of me was fairly dry and I was warm from the walking and confident I would remain so. Sleat was beautiful, almost Otherworldly. Birches, hazels and rowans lined the side of the one lane road, the beach and the wild ocean on the other. I stopped often to take pictures, and as the road wound up and down the hills I clipped the flashing light to the back of my sou’wester and pushed the earflaps off my ears. If there was a car coming I wanted to know it!

I was a couple of miles down the road when I came across the road crew. I was wet and swearing by now. The rain and the walk I could deal with cheerfully, but the wind was too much. I could stay warm, but my skirt was soaked to the thighs and my boots were wet inside as well because the duster only snapped to the knees. Walking in the wind of course made it ride up considerably. I couldn’t see the mirror of the first truck, and so I knew he couldn’t see me. He was cleaning out the turnouts with a streetcleaning brush off the side of the truck. I maneuvered myself to where he could see me and waved my arms till he stopped and let me by, quite sweetly, actually. I asked him how far it was to Armadale and his jaw dropped. The second truck drove up to me. I’ll bet there was a radio involved. A beefy black-haired guy cranked down the window, smiled at me and asked me if I had a screw loose. I gave him a big smile back and said yes, I did! And how far was it to Armadale?

He told me to go up to the bend in the road, he’d turn around and give me a ride! It was a *lot* farther to Armadale than I thought. Along the way I learned a lot about the bus system, which only runs as far as it does during the season. It’s there for visitors, not locals. I also learned about the road work on the island, and a thumbnail view of the daily life of the area, things I never would have learned anything about otherwise. Not once was the word “tourist” used, and all of his information was just that, his point of view, delivered with wit and a complete lack of malice. I wanted to buy him the regulation pint, I would have loved to have sat in a pub and continued the conversation, but his crew was shorthanded and it was the middle of the afternoon. He had apologized for the state of te lorry–it wasn’t his and he’d had a time getting the side of it down when he’d picked me up. We shared a smile as he reached over the side and pulled out the same rock he’d persuaded the latch with back on the road.

I know I smelled of sheep shit on the ferry, and people looked at me as if I were from Mars, but I didn’t care. Yes, I failed to make the salmon leap, but I felt as if I hadn’t come off half bad. I’d had quite an adventure, and Scathach had invited me back, after all.

Crows and ravens went back to being their old selves from then on. I don’t know why, neither do I need to.