November 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
Yūgen is a Japanese word pertaining to a profound awareness of the universe which evokes feelings that are inexplicably deep and too mysterious for words.
The word itself is like an extension of awareness, the aesthetic perception which allows us to conceive of the vastness of the universe but carries it beyond into an inconceivably mysterious realm. The feeling of Awareness is induced by confrontation to the brevity of life, and yugen is initiated from the awareness that even ‘aware’ itself is an ephemeral thing.
Zeami Motokiyo’s description portrays a medium through which one may experience the unspeakably deep, stirring, feeling of yugen:
“To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.”
October 9, 2012 § 1 Comment
I’m not a rich man and know now I never will be, there’s no trust fund or money made on property booms to play with. Only graft, turning what few skills I have into resources and remittances for all the work rendered. But I relish the challenge and the hard work, because the gains are truly my own and noone elses.
Such is crofting.
“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal – that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods
October 8, 2012 § 5 Comments
We (the dog and I) got back to the croft as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon. That perfect time of day when the northern latitudinal Lewis light, so beloved by photographers and artists, takes hold, casting high contrast shadows across croft land, fence posts turning to sundial arms, streaking the golden grasses of Ness.
The fridge was full, so after Mac was fed the menu options were multiple thanks to the butchers of Cross stores, the local emporium that supplies everything from a needle to an anchor as well as good meat. There were lamb shanks and liver, local eggs and marag dubh but I had a big bag of mussels to use so that was to be devoured.
Olive oil, garlic, white wine, pepper, parsley and slosh of cream and they were done in minutes. The rest of the wine washed it all down. And as a case of decent red had been delivered earlier another bottle was cracked. It would be rude not to.
I built a fire in grate. Rolled and knotted pages from the Stornoway Gazette, kindling chopped from old wood found in the byre by a Finnish axe, a pair of split logs and a little coal to maintain the burn. The lit paper flared and the rest of the little pyre takes care of itself.
Weasels the cat arrives, popping in through the slightly ajar kitchen window looking for food and an armchair in which to spend the evening. He and the dog have been really wary of each other but seem to have found an uneasy truce based on non-interference of each other’s dinner arrangements. He gets fed a packet of cat food I keep in for when he shows his ginger face and then settles himself into the chair opposite mine.
I stream music from Spotify on the iMac next door, loudly so it carries through to the living room and over the crackle of the open fire. Alan Lomax stuff, old Americana and folk tunes. I catch up with old friends on the iPad, by email, Facebook and and a Twitter, happy to be connected to two old friends in particular, one in New Zealand and another heading for India.
I can handle solitude. I was slightly obsessed about Thoreau’s Walden and this move has proved interesting in many similar respects, despite the stigma associated with loners and hermits it doesn’t phase me in the slightest to go a day or few without socialising. After 15 years of non-stop big city hedonism, part and parcel of working in the music industry and licensed trade, this peace and quiet feels like a relief. But I’d struggle without an Internet connection. Thankfully, the world doesn’t feel too far away despite the remoteness. I can live without the usual male banter about football, birds and techno but lack of female company is rapidly becoming a drag…
The bedroom is lit by candlelight, warmed further by 13.5 duck down togs and a Harris Tweed blanket. There’s a book pile beside the bed and I dip in and out of a few on charcuterie, guga, sea fishing and a little Steinbeck until drifting off.
As the day draws to a close I can see the flash of the lighthouse nearby through the uncurtained window, intermittently, and I reflect on just how simple a day it was. Nothing of particular note happened, there was no drama or big event, no endeavour to brag about, no great achievement to speak of. Nothing but a profound happiness, a series of humble occurrences that added up to a perfect day.
Perhaps the bar is set low on my satisfaction scale?
But there was no pressure to do or be anything, life unfolded at its own pace and in doing so revealed a great many truths, beautiful things whispered so discretely they are seldom heard, so untuned to them our ears usually are.
It was a good day, I went to sleep glad and grateful to be here, looking forward to whatever tomorrow might bring, aware this might not last but willing to take it while I can.
October 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
The long arc of beach at Eoropie is probably my favourite place in the world.
I’ve been here a thousand times, at all times of year, in all weather and seasons and it always feels a very vital place. Once upon a time Viking longboats were hauled ashore here and it takes very little to stretch the imagination far enough to picture the sight today.
Legend has it the Vikings liked the islands so much they tried to drag them home to Norway from here, the loops of their rope fastened through what we call The Eye, a natural arch in the rock to the far north of the beach, seen easily from the sands, a peephole of light through dark Gneiss to the Atlantic beyond.
I feel a profound connection to this place.
My great, great Grandfather drowned in these fierce waters aiming for this very shore in the Cunndal drownings along with other relations and men of the community. In more recent times I have buried hopes and dreams with an old flame in the machair land nearby, a wee time capsule lost and buried after a special holiday a long decade ago. The family croft is but a stones throw from here.
Tonight, as Mac and I took an evening walk, the place was as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it. So hard to put into words really. The sea was a tumult of incoming tide, breakers nine or ten deep, cresting prematurely far out to sea, rolling and roaring in wave after wave on to the sands. The beach faces directly west and the sun was beginning to set and as it did so it fought through clouds of such epic size and scale, cumulonimbus’ of fat, deep, greys all pregnant with rain, beginning to glow pink with sunbeams.
And the sun beamed through, great swathes of rays, ramroddings of light piercing their sky, stitching air to sea. It was just glorious.
I’m not a religious man but sometimes it’s hard not to feel in the presence of God. Or at least a higher power, a bigger picture, the great tapestry of LIFE.
As we walked towards the beach across rabbit hewn green grass the whole scene just revealed itself. A fresh wind blew every cobweb and the salt sea air cured the soul with every breath. The beach was empty save for a lone photographer, wrapped to the nines, a fancy camera on a tripod and a second DLSR stuck to his eye.
As we passed, we both grinned, nothing needed to be said, just an exchange of looks to say “fucking wow!!”
I threw stone after stone for the dog and just soaked it all in. The sun had cut through a huge rain cloud in the bizarrest manner, for all intents and purposes there was a mile high and wide Acid Smiley Face leering over us, as if a tripped out God was grinning at his own handiwork, eyes all ablaze at his creative madness.
As we turned for home the horizon filled with two shadowy clouds, shifting shape and moving erratically, far too quickly to be wind borne. As the disparate patterns in the air drew closer we saw geese, Grelyags most likely, fighting their own currents as the sea below them ripped. A duplicate pair of V-shaped formations converged right over our heads in a cacophonous crash of birds that emerged from the collision in an even bigger arrangement of black silhouettes, squawking loudly heading for who knows where.
The camera guy had spun 180 to capture the fly past and I just craned my neck and laughed in guilt free joy.
The dog, oblivious, padded towards home, a stone still clutched in his broken toothed maw, sandy, salty and as happy as I, despite missing the point completely.
October 6, 2012 § 5 Comments
Apart from weaving, I do a bunch of other work to earn a wage, mostly to do with writing words for people. Which is pretty much a perfect paying pastime for me.
Broadband here is surprisingly good, I get 8mb speeds easily which is a huge relief as my previous abode in another part of the island was a super-slow 1.5mb which is barely enough to surf but impossible to download large files, stream film or music or do anything that most of UK takes for granted.
Some villages on the island struggle even to get those speeds, having to rely on a sort of wireless broadband which costs a lot and generally has a bad reputation. The importance of getting good broadband here should be the number one priority for any and all campaigns. Never mind wind farm and Sunday sailing debates, connecting to the rest of the world at decent speeds is vital if the islands are to have any chance of thriving in the future.
With good broadband you can do good work, young, creative folk can return home and set up shop, design, make music, do everything they can do in a city but from a far nicer place to live.
I digress. All this is for another post on another day…
The rest of the afternoon was spent at the desk, a huge plinth of beautiful wood on trestles in the window of the front room, a view overlooking fertile croft land and three big Highland Coos grazing dolefully. A nice shiny iMac sits there among fairly neat piles of random paperwork and a wall of books.
I write a couple of blogposts for the Harris Tweed Authority website and line them up to go live at set times. Some time is spent, as usual, exploring what waves Harris Tweed is making on various blogs and websites, Twitter and Google searches being plundered for anything of note. And anything that looks good is posted to the Harris Tweed folks’ social media, part of my monthly remit to keep their online presence active and interesting.
A few emails are batted back and forth with colleagues in Glasgow helping to organise this year’s Harris Tweed Ride event, enquiries from this blog are responded to, visits from documentary makers and a brand collaboration’s director booked into the diary for later on in the week. Since setting up here ne’er a week goes by without someone planning a visit to observe life in the back of beyond. I’m happy to share even though it does cut into weaving time, it’s great to have visitors and their enthusiasm always leaves me happy when they arrive and lingers after they leave.
I log time spent on various things in a notebook to keep track of hours to be billed to clients at the end of the month, usually erring on the conservative side, none of this feels like work but I have to top up the bank account despite enjoying the graft.
And then that’s it…working day done…
It’s around tea-time I think, I don’t have a watch these days and the only clock in the house is on the computer. Mac the Collie, my parents old dog who I’m looking after while they swan off sunbathing in warmer climes sits looking at me in his “I’m a good boy” pose, head cocked to one side, eyes implying he wants either walked or fed, preferably both and in that particular order.
The sun is much lower in the sky now, starting to crack the clouds which don’t look like releasing their rain so we head for Traigh Shanndaigh a long, wild, windswept beach just a five minute drive from here and probably my favourite place in world.
October 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
The mornings are darker for longer but sunrise is still before 8am. I’m dog-sitting my folks’ old collie at the moment and he’s used to a walk at 6.30 am which is a bit of a stretch for me, never been a morning person but I’m working on it. So today’s alarm call was the belt and braces combo of the cockerel next door and some slabbery dog breath at 7am. On rising, I dress in the splendourous outfit of:
First order of the day is coffee, brewed on the stove in a 6 cup Bialetti Moka, the kitchen radio switched on and the dulcet tones of the presenter of Radio Nan Gaidheal (I have no clue what she is saying) reading what I assume to be the mornings news. Something about golf and Alex Salmond I discern so my incomprehension is of no great loss. I like the gaelic radio in the morning, the music is good and the voices remind me of mornings in my grandparent’s house, their radio always tuned to that same station.
The coffee pot puffles and plops on the hob as I open the back door and take in the view over the croft to Port of Ness, the sea and further on the low cliffs of Skigersta. It’s a view I will never tire of looking at. There’s a ship out there, I look it up on the Ship AIS website and see it’s a Norwegian vessel and heading for Loch Roag. The three Hebridean ewes are grazing happily and look up when they hear the door open. Calan the Ram is standing at the gate looking at me expectantly. For what I’m not sure. Maybe he thinks today’s the day he gets let loose on the ladies on the other side of the fence. He’s going to be disappointed today anyway. About a dozen Greylag geese have landed and are busy pecking away at whatever they peck away at.
Half of the coffee pot is poured into a mug and sweetened before being returned to the hob. Mac The Collie wanders out the door, nose in the air, sniffing something in the wind and I check the days emails on the iPad, waiting for mind and body to caffeinate and wake up. The mug is drained, I follow Mac outside, pulling on rubber boots as I go and we walk to the road and towards the harbour nearby.
The sun is climbing but behind broken cloud, brightly dappled, it’s windy too. The tide is coming in, little fishing boats, bobbing behind the safety of the concrete breakwater walls, clunk when they get too close to one other. We don’t see a soul on the road to the harbour although the light is on in a weaver’s shed at number 12 but no clatter of a loom yet. There’s a little beach at Port, getting smaller as the tide pulls in, and we manage to get halfway along it before executing a swift volte face to avoid getting cut off from the only steps on and off the sands. Enough time for the dog to get wet and gritty however.
Walking back to the croft the air is full of starling chatter, a huge group of them sitting on a weird old house I can’t work out is long abandoned or still inhabited. A car passes, a wave from the driver, I don’t recognise him but we all wave at each other here as we pass, on foot, in tractors, on bikes. It’s friendly, a recognition of an implied connection, even between strangers, something that never happened in Glasgow.
Two thick slices of Ness marag, topped with two fried eggs from a local croft for me. And the remainder of the coffee, still hot on the stove. The dog gets his usual food. The sheep get a few handfuls of Clover Crunch. The six week old hens now out in their run get theirs. Everyone fed and watered? Then the day can begin, it’s around 8am.
January 5, 2012 § 8 Comments
Harris Tweed weaving is the art of perfection.
No hyperbole or hubris here, honestly, it is literally the case. The product of your work, to pass muster at the inspection table and earn the mark of the Harris Tweed Orb, must be near flawless. Which is challenging given the multitude of things that one can do, with the greatest of ease (especially a new weaver), to flaw a tweed.
There are of course some highly skilled old ladies at the mill, sharp of eye and darning needle who will spot and and correct your errors, but they have their limits. After a point you pay for your mistakes or even worse, the tweed can be failed and you’re not paid at all.
So if anyone ever questions the high price of this island cloth, or doubts its value and worth, please tell them they are paying for perfection and direct disbelievers to this tale….
There is an old Japanese proverb that says “When you aim for perfection, you find it is a moving target”
A wise buddhist also said. “Even monkeys fall out of trees“
And so began my day of Zen And The Art Of Loom Maintenance.
It’s been a while since I read Pirsig’s book (to which this blog very vaguely riffs upon), but it sprung to mind today as my loom went awry. From memory, his classic 1974 novel tackled the meaning and concept of quality, the disparity of form and function and the ideas of rationality and romance.
When the loom started to play merry hell today, these various dichotomies presented themselves and as obliquely as usual, provided another unintended extrapolation into a wider, more personal context.
Hey, it happens.
There is a region of the Bonas-Griffiths loom that always plagues me problematically. If looms had chakras, here is my blocked one. It takes up an imaginary box shaped area of space of approximately 12 cubic inches and encompasses the right hand Cutter, Leno, Shed, Alarm and Rapier Release. Within this vortice my weaving prana seems to get beautifully throttled and everything basically goes tantrically tits up. The cutter wouldn’t cut, the leno wouldn’t weave, the alarm was ringing for no reason, the shed was shutting incorrectly…
So after hours of applying rationality and reason I gave up and made a phone call to The Loom Whisperer, an experienced weaver who had taught me many things. But obviously not enough.
To watch someone working, who knows their object of desire inside out, is an amazing thing. It might be a musician or a car mechanic, a horse trainer or sculptor, it’s all the same. They understand the focus of their attention on both a practical and intuitive level, embracing both the rational and romantic, applying both knowledge and feeling simultaneously, using creativity and intuition alongside deduction and reason.
There were things needing done that only someone with decades of experience and a love of their craft could have succeeded in. An anomaly in the split second timing of mechanisms, perceived by an inclined ear or the error in a fractional height difference felt by running a hand over a part. Of course there were skills, long since learned but over the course of three hours there were things being done to the machine that could never be taught.
Long pauses for thought took place as ideas were contemplated, human being discerning mood of machine, looks through squinted eyes.
I did bugger all apart from what I was asked to do and at the end up was instructed…”Try that…”
And the loom sung again.
He packed his bag and left and I began to weave once more and while I wove I thought about Romance and Rationality had how well both can, or at least should, co-exist harmoniously, and result in…balance.
It might take me a few more years to master but I’ll get there.
(With apologies to Phaedrus)
February 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
February 1, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Thought for the end of the day.
Our minds, like our bodies, are in continual flux; something is hourly lost, and something acquired. To lose much at once is inconvenient to either, but while the vital power remains uninjured, nature will find the means of reparation. Distance has the same effect on the mind as on the eye; and while we glide along the stream of time, whatever we leave behind us is always lessening, and that which we approach increasing in magnitude. Do not suffer life to stagnate: it will grow muddy for want of motion; commit yourself again to the current of the world …
Samuel Johnson, Rasselas.