Well, I was about 100 miles wrong last week, because the living image of the marsh and conical hills wasn’t in Sutherland. Instead, it was the first thing I saw when I opened the blind of the sleeper train cabin this morning. I will begin by sharing a bleakly beautiful snapshot taken through the train window. I thought of titling this piece ‘Iain McGilchrist’s cats ate my homework’, but actually the essay will only be a day or two later than my usually strict self-imposed 7am Monday morning deadline. So to tide you over until my essay arrives in your inbox shortly, here is a glimpse of my travels over the mountains and seas. You can follow our progress at D’s Substack. (Here I will write just a few of my own words on each day. No audio version as this is just a wee travelogue interlude.)
Thursday 9th February. Today is the publication day of At Work in the Ruins by, and we are heading west by train, ferry and then an hour by hire car to see Dr Iain McGilchrist on the Isle of Skye so that I can introduce them and record their conversation. Lugging my huge backpack full of natural ink and paint making equipment from teaching the MA Illustration students at Falmouth University on Wednesday, I am carrying more than I would like, but there was no way to go home from Falmouth and still meet Dougald in time. D was reminded of this poem, when I described my day’s journey to Fort William by way of Cornwall.
Friday 10th. Knowing a day of filming and recording lay ahead, I made us all porridge and brought clotted cream to add to the oats and jam, as the combination of west country richness and Scots thrift forms a perfect intersection in the breakfast Venn. Now I am sitting at Iain’s breakfast table, across from Dougald who is writing emails, sharing a glimpse of my breakfast of champions. Capturing the deep currents and fractal flows of our spontaneous conversations using cameras and microphones is never easy, but I think you will get a feel for things from the videos I will post next week, and that Dougald will share soon. Both will eventually be available on Channel McGilchrist. After filming, D and I duck out during a break in the rain to venture down to the sea before circling back via a carpet of snowdrops, the first I have seen this year. I cook us venison for supper on the Aga, a huge treat for me, as someone with a galley kitchen the size of a large dinner table.
Saturday 11th. We are rolling through the Highlands, just passing Corrour, which was the setting for the formative experience of my step into middle age. The succession of striking landscapes, long denuded of trees, could not be more appropriate a re-entry for us as we head towards tonight’s book event at GalGael.
Sunday 12th. The book reading and talk Dougald, Alastair MacIntosh and Dougie Strang gave last night was received by the 100 strong audience so well, and so deeply, it was an honour to be part of the ‘band’ on stage. At one point I was asked to speak a little of wu wei. Ha! Well, talking about the thing you can’t talk about, making the implicit explicit, but then somehow returning it to the implicit again, is trajectory of the joke, the pulse of meaning landing as knowing, the outcome of all heart-to-heart meetings, the subject of much of The Master and His Emissary… and also incredibly hard and fun to attempt off-the-cuff as improv in a huge room full of people. Lord knows how well it sounded, but you can watch and hear it all for yourself soon as the Centre for Human Ecology filmed it. I’ll post the link when I get one. I seem to remember talking about being pushed by big burly T’ai Chi guys wearing lots of aftershave. There may even have been a few laughs in between the discussion of doing things ‘without a forceful mind’, (my teacher’s current favourite rendition of wu wei). It’s something Dougald’s book does beautifully: talking about hard things, and proposing possible responses, all without a forceful mind.
I have just bid farewell to D and his box of books at Glasgow Central station and am on another train to see family in Scotland before heading home to the south of England tomorrow. I shall write your next ‘proper’ Uncivil Savant instalment en route on Monday. This journey has been life-enhancing, and so many things have arisen from being in connection with land, water and people in Cornwall and Scotland this week. Now these experiences will dissolve into writing here over the next month, so that it may benefit from the peaty goodness in the soil and the soulsof the remarkable landforms and folk I am lucky enough to hang out with lately.
I shall return shortly. Iain’s cats may not have eaten my essay, but his excellent company and conversation did. It’s not my fault at all.
(and the whisky)
So much goodness, in all of this, not least anticipation of more to come :) I only discovered Dougald very recently, despite having had a solitary copy of a Dark Mountain book in my possession for quite a few years now: I have been listening to The Great Humbling, episode after episode speaking through my days, which has been enriching and comforting in equal measure. And he talks of you in that podcast with the frequency of a good friend, so I imagine your journey has been quite wonderful, despite that heavy bag! Love to you both, and thank you for your words and thoughts x