Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Falcon.

The following piece,"The Falcon," was begun last summer. I intended to submit it to a CBC Radio program called "This I believe". I planned to accomplish two objectives: by writing our sailing experience down, I would begin to understand what it meant to me and then by submitting it to the radio program I would be communicating a point of view I felt was missing in the usual human oriented perspective. Who would have thought that it would take me many months to bring nonverbal musings out into a coherent story. Only when the image of the falcon came to me did I have a core image around which to organize my fragmentary thoughts. The radio program was long over by the time this little piece felt complete.
At dawn the clouds beyond the bowsprit swirl aside and reveal faint but definitely hard jagged edges. Land! At last! After sixty six days at sea the mountain tops of Vancouver Island stretch before me. While our schooner sails herself steadily eastward I slip below to wake my wife, Heather, to take her turn on watch and I whisper the magic words "I see land!" I whisper, to avoid waking our daughter Anne, still asleep on the berth opposite. Over the past three years of our Pacific cruise we have passed this exciting message many times but this one catches at my throat. These are the hills of home and this last voyage from a coral island near the equator has been long and arduous. Even this long journey was only part of an even longer voyage from Australia. We have been sailing against contrary winds and currents for most of the way and have been ground and polished thin in mind and body.

Too excited to sleep during my own rest time below, I climb back into the cockpit when Heather calls softly .On deck there is now bright morning sunlight, sparkling wave tops and, perched just overhead on our furled mainsail, is a Peregrine Falcon ripping into the warm body of a small seabird. Just three feet away, his fierce eyes stare into ours. When he finally flies away towards the still distant land, we share a feeling of awe and say," A messenger! An omen!" and know it to be true. So close to rejoining the human race, we catch ourselves and glance thoughtfully around us and at the still half veiled land ahead. In the three years since we left home we seem to have been on an inner voyage of discovery as well.

Any journey is a stirrer up of lives, and these voyages of ours across some of the greatest watery wastes of our planet have been both a life struggle and a blessing. The ocean really is an elemental place; wind, sea ,sun and stars, served up in big impersonal portions. Big enough to swallow us up without a trace. At the beginning of our outward bound travels, as it was obvious that the ocean would not adapt to us, we began with difficulty to make our own adjustments.

Anne, our navy daughter, brought with her some basic rules of thumb. If she caught me whistling she would say, " No whistling, you will call up a wind!" The unspoken corollary being, "And it could be the gale that sinks us" Unspoken, because to name it would be bad luck too. I stop, but in a good natured smiling sort of way. I think,"Superstition!"
Away from busy shore- side thoughts, our imaginations worked overtime; flashing wave tops became distant sails and urgent imaginary voices woke us at night on our watch below. One moonlit night a big square rigged ship cut close across our bows and then dissolved into mist and shadow. We gritted our teeth and determinedly said, " Hallucinations!".

Slowly though, as we progressed through the weeks of our first long passage from Mexico to the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific we felt our awareness expand to the horizon and beyond. Those solitary night watches found us alone with the universe. The stars made us dizzy and pulled at us; our minds floated outwards. We held fast and focused on our guiding star, on Orion`s Belt perhaps, and kept it lined up with the dark edge of our big gaff foresail that pulled us along toward a dim, curved, ever receding horizon. Our minds slipped again and we were on the dark side of a stony planet on a craft that skimmed along on the interface between gas and liquid, both of which seemed to be stretched amazingly thin over the surface. We were lost in space.

One night though, a splash and a gasp startled us back to a more earthly and less celestial reality. The sea was alive with dolphins carving phosphorescent curves around and beneath the boat. Fellow creatures! Fellow mammals! Brothers!
That recognition was the beginning of the change that led us through the many long miles and months to the messenger, the Falcon.

We began our sea change where the ancients of the Mediterranean left off. Anne`s maritime superstitions were just a remnant of an old and comprehensive belief system that had served humanity for thousands of years. The Gods! That bright necklace of stars we were steering by and called Orion`s Belt was just one tiny bit of a complex of constellations that stranded the night sky with story and meaning. To have our Gods to mediate with the omnipotent powers of nature seemed the most natural thing in the world.

The next difficult transition was to finally let go of our sense of human superiority. Those Gods, Nature Spirits, Archetypes, however we liked to call them, were not ours, not beholden to us at all for their existence. They spoke, in their essence, as the voice of the whole natural world and were not merely our own human invention. Belatedly, we remembered that all the old myths told us that the Gods came first and we were the junior members. That was a hard one to swallow, even in the wilderness. We adapted though, like Odysseus before us. Once thoroughly humbled, we got the message and worked with it.
That ethos saw us as far as Australia. We did notice however, that even though we felt and worked with this truth, we did not talk about it to our fellow voyagers except in the most humorous and offhand way.

Only on that last long struggle home did we make the final transition that even here I find difficult to describe .Some things it seems, you have to experience to understand. Essentially though, it was heart, not head, that helped us into the next phase. Simple really, and yet such a major journey to step into the essence of the Gods themselves. Every morning the mighty sun sprang over the horizon and turned the morning mist to clouds, and every evening we saluted his passing in a blaze of glory. The pale moon did her monthly cycle in the heavens. How beautiful she was. That trade wind, how we were tuned to every changing note in the rigging. Our fellow creatures that swam around us, the albatross that almost brushed us with her wingtip as she ran up a breaking wave crest beside our stern, the whales that paused to greet us before diving beneath the boat, all had a special shine. I would guess that even in our tiredness we also had that shine. Relationships though, flow both ways: while we were learning to give our human love directly to this wild world, the ocean in turn, was passing a very nonhuman wildness to us; the sea was still just as dangerous, our survival still as tenuous but now in this larger perspective we accepted our fate calmly. Like the ocean itself, there were deeper currents involved in our lives, greater concerns than mere life or death. In finding a new way of being in the world we had rediscovered the most ancient one of all. We were an integral part of the mysterious and intricate web of all life and matter on the planet. Somehow we had stepped beyond a purely conventional human understanding of reality.

As with our own now fiercer eyes we watch the Falcon fly ahead of us toward the land, we definitely know we have been welcomed home. We feel a familiar but stronger, end of voyage sadness: this is the end of a Great Thing. Ahead lies our home, our familiar islands, a safe harbour, but also the terrible buzz of a self- absorbed human society that we will need to rejoin. All we can be sure of, is that we have touched ground somewhere out here long before we will reach the shore.

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