I almost died again two days ago -in my favourite place to almost-die. The last time was much more serious. The last time, misjudging the light and the tide, I found myself edging up a broken cliff-face of dirt and loose rock -worse than scree- visibility rapidly decreasing to the point that, as I reached the summit I was practically advancing by touch alone. As I strode along the cliff-top directly afterwards, I felt consciously reborn.
This time, a bit further north again from Bude, sleeping in the abandoned military shelter (probably) a little south along the coast-path from Hawker’s Hut, I took a day to scramble around the cliffs and beaches below, although it had only meant to be a few hours. On the other side of the ridge from Tidna Shute I descended a scree slope, full of boulders at precarious angles, sure that I knew what I was doing. It turned out to be a little tougher than it looked as, near the bottom, throwing my bag down before me, I had to skirt round some jagged boulders and grab on to loose gravelly dirt for half a second in order to swing me safely the final few yards to the solid boulder-scape which extended into the sea. These boulder-scapes are characteristic of the north Devon and Cornwall coastline.
Okay, so I didn’t ‘almost die’ this time but I was closer to death than I care to get on the average day. It then seemed to take me forever to jog and climb the boulders around the cliff-side -as well as some dragons-teeth sections of cliff in order to get to the beach on the other side of Tidna Shute, the objective of the whole exercise. I lay on the beach, exhausted from recent days of mental anguish, thinking that I would lie there right up until the tide retreated once more. I observed and heard some comical and stunning-looking birds, which I now know to be oystercatchers, and on a faraway rock mid-water a cormorant sunned itself. It was then that a darkness descended within me. Perhaps it was for lack of drinking water but I suddenly did not want to write or to study the books that I had brought. Suddenly I did not like the feeling of being isolated and trapped on the pebbles. Observing the cormorant which perched almost still for a few hours, did not help much. This was despite that I had come here to be less human, to be more of the wild. As the tide began to retreat and I began to edge back along the coastline, I realised I would not be able to return to my shelter via the scree slope. I would have to travel further back towards Bude, hoping or assuming that with the tide retreating there would be a clear passage to the place where I knew a stream cut a cleft in the cliff-side that could be walked up.
Early on on my way back round, before reaching the scree slope I risked a brave but safe climb to negotiate some lingering waters -a little higher than they had been on my outward journey- I was shaking afterwards. Then I found a clear path up a short face next to the outcome of Tidna Shute, filling my bottle from the waterfall. This easy traverse had been hidden ‘over the edge’ on my outward journey, forcing me to double-back earlier. So I reflected now, that when running and climbing rocks, what looks easy may be very dangerous and what looks impossible may actually be simple and safe. With a little thought, this lesson can be applied to life in general: only through taking risks can we develop our intuition and experiential learning about which situations require practice and study, which situations can be traversed easily with existing skills (although bravery may be needed) and which situations should be avoided entirely.
When I was sat on the beach before heading back, I wondered at the apparent default thinking patterns of my brain when facing a difficult situation. Thoughts of self-recrimination and even self-hate quickly gathered momentum. When I was a fair way past the scree slope and back towards Bude, as an oystercatcher circled my head, squeaking like a rat warning me off, the darkness suddenly gave way to light. This was not to do with my immediate predicament. It was that a new strategy of life, for the foreseeable future presented itself. This was the remedy to the mental anguish I had felt prior to taking the bus to Bude for this much needed break.
Knowing how clever the unconscious mind is, I now realise that I had engineered my strandedness on the beach, via that dangerous descent to reflect the urgency of this point in my life, a crisis in home (where shall I live?) and career (what should I spend my time on and how?). The wilderness of the coastline and the sure rhythm of the tide then became my comrades as, escaping immediate physical danger, their bareness and profound non-human beauty, along with my mindful jumping from rock to rock, were the perfect alert and blank canvas for sheer despondency to give way to sheer hope, like an inevitable wave, and then a pivotal plan for my near future emerged -I sat in the shade of a rock to scribble, oystercatcher circling aggressively.
It was apt that I still didn’t know whether I would safely reach the point where I could access the mainland, at least not without entering the water. I think at this point the danger was minimal. Apt because I didn’t know, because I don’t know, whether my new ‘life-plan’ will take me safely onto the main path of my life, which I have envisioned from behind and below, as if from a dangerous rocky beach, for so long now.
One of my writing jobs for this little wilderness retreat was to pen the next instalment of my genderwild mystic diary. I had thought to write of gratitude, including as related to the ‘first’ mystic practice of self-restraint. I also wanted to expand my explanation and exploration of my first practice to incorporate proactivity and the fresh directing of will-power, from moment to moment, seeking out the new, or the ‘solution’ in any given moment in a way that springs released, a shute through the side of old negative habits that are now being restrained. For instance, having been sex-obsessed and vulnerable to the obsession re-surfacing at times of stress and change, as I paced my way along the coast-path from Bude towards my temporary abode one day previously, just off the bus, I proclaimed of the wilderness around me that was teeming with insect-life and punctuated by birdsong and wild blooms of colour that also sung; ‘this is sex!’ I meant that the wild unfolding of life around me, the rugged coastline and my awareness of these, were a deep-felt and vibrant sensuality as satisfying as any orgasm.
The experience of despair and then breakthrough amidst the rocky coast are an affirmation of this mystic breaking free, moving forward with new solutions and new ways in the context of a Nature which will always be dangerous. Since that experience, it is easy once again to feel that gratitude which I periodically lose in the arrogance of my desire. Desire for sex or for achievement, desire that was righteously robbed from me by rocks and the ocean as I was forced to live moment by moment by quick wits and feet, desire ironically returned to me once I had paid Nature Her dues, once I had briefly sacrificed not just my selfishness but my existential security. ‘Here, so make your little plans’ She mocked, once my safety was assured.
The second practice of this genderwild mystic is gratitude. I have so much to be grateful for. I am grateful for this fit and healthy body that at nearly forty years old can run across boulders and free-climb cliffs. I am grateful for the clarity of this mind that can process the life with which it comes into contact daily, in such a fulfilling way. I am grateful to every member of my family -all have helped bring me to this place, however dark the means at times. I am very grateful to be alive at this extraordinary moment in human history, although I have sometimes wished it otherwise. This moment of Transition between two forms of global civilisation, this moment of sped-up Evolution due to ecological crises (much publicised, much ignored). Even though I know the bloodshed is likely to increase over the coming decades, I have great faith in what lies beyond, and gratitude that I am playing my small role in the beginnings of that beyond.
I hope and pray that whenever I lose this proper perspective, this gratitude, my unconscious mind and the sexy wilderness will collude once again to bring me closer to death, even if it must be uncomfortably close to rouse me from my arrogant spell and breathe my life.