Knoydart in April 2010. A rocky finger of western Scotland, stretching across to the Isle of Skye. A grey, damp evening.
The lodge at Doune, named for the prehistoric hill fort a couple of hundred yards away. Twelve of us. Sitting around the candles in the centre of the floor we form a circle.
We’re briefed about tomorrow. Before dawn we’ll each go out onto the land and choose the place we will stay until dusk. No wandering off, we will remain in those few square yards all day. We will return in silence, dine in silence and hold that silence until the next day. The silence starts now and we head for bed.
I wake in the dark, pack some food in my rucksack. I join the others in the veranda. The tail end of the night is cold, damp, dark, dark grey.
As my turn comes I step of the verandah across the grass and into the circle of stones we placed yesterday. I compose myself. What am I doing? What weird ritual is this? I look into the eyes of the two facilitators, and step through the threshold formed by our stones.
The grey is less heavy now. I head up the steep, muddy slope behind Doune as the drizzle falls silently. I top the rise, the sky is low and damp, last year’s grass burnt brown by the wind. My way is through a miniature patchwork of bog, tussocks of grass, heather, moss, heather and rocks.
I set off toward to the high ground, but I can’t ignore the familiar, insistent, pull of the sea. Changing direction I walk a couple of miles across the treeless, lumpy land to the deserted coast.
The land ends; tumbles down to the sea. I follow, over boulders, down gullies, to find a ledge a few feet above the tide line. I know this is my spot. I’ve never been here before.
I spread my groundsheet and lie down. The rain has stopped. The sky is still grey.
I’m tired. Close my eyes, open my ears.
The sea laps on the beach just below me, rustling sand and pebbles.
In… and the wave sighs on the sand as it turns and dies.
Out… a rattle as the very last of the water draws back, just as a next wave comes in…
The ocean’s breaths are longer than mine. In… and… out… Sigh… and… rattle… Again… and again…
I half wake and press deeper into the hollow out of the rising wind. I hear the waves touch the rock now the tide is higher. Slap… sigh… and rattle…. Slap… sigh… and rattle….
Ever since water first appeared on the earth the waves have rolled. Eroding rocks before life existed, making the sand to form rocks that are now old.
Did the waves then sigh, slap, rattle and roar if no creature was there to hear them?
Still I lie there, neither sleeping nor awake.
The waves now crash onto the rocks, throwing spray, wetting my face. The sea gurgles back between the rocks. The next wave crashes, salt on my lips, and gurgle. And again… and again…
Drizzle turns to rain and still the waves throw themselves at the shore. I’m cold; I have no watch, eat my sandwiches: are they lunch or a morning snack?
Hunched against the weather I watch the waves now. Still they come, gathering speed and height as each nears the shore. And another… another… another.
How far has that wave come? Was it born in a storm in the Atlantic? Did it run on between the islands, bouncing off cliffs, refracting around headlands?
If I could follow that wave back across the ocean, along the surface where air and water meet, how far would I travel — in distance, in time?
Did the first hunter gatherer in this land sit here too, listening to the sea, watching the endless procession of waves? How many countless people — girl, boy, man, woman — have heard the same sounds, seen the same patterns on the face of the waters?
The wind calms, the clouds pass and the evening sun sets the sea a-glisten. I feel the warmth on my body.
After I’m gone, still the waves will come, slap… sigh… rattle… And again… and again…
From my shelter among the rocks I gaze at the future stretching out across the sea. Generations upon generations will hear the same sounds, see the same waves. And when the time of the humans comes to end… still the waves will come. Slap… sigh… rattle… And again… and again…
In the dusk I retrace my steps, across the moor, down the track and back across the threshold, smiling and making eye contact with the facilitators and my companions.
I’ve spent a day in eternity.
I’m at ease.