Monday 7 June 2010

Sailing to Little Japan

I had wanted to go back there for as long as I can remember. The small cove had lingered in my imagination, beckoning me through the years. A strip of river sand with soughing wind-bent pine trees on the cliffedge and a stretch of shining water. Only accessible by boat.

And then last week I went back. Mark and I set out up the Alde River with our neighbour Philip in his gaff-rigged boat Snow Goose. Philip spent a childhood sailing on the Deben further down the coast and now we all live alongside the Blyth. To live happily in East Anglia is to be kin to the water and its relationship with the land – reedbed, estuary, broad, marsh, fen. Eastern rivers are slow-moving but tidal, tricky to navigate. The Alde is broad, so at high tide you can have a good sail if the wind is fair. I know this because I used to spend all my summers here with the friends of my youth. This place urged me to leave the city, my desk, to make a leap into freedom. For years I yearned for this scent of salt and reeds, of open water and sky and the haunting curlew’s cry.

We rounded the bend and there it was: the shoreline dotted with pied birds, a small breeze on the green water, the squiffed red pines still guarding the clifftop. Utterly beautiful in the way that East Anglia is beautiful for those of us who love the waterlands.

It was perfect, a perfect place for a picnic, as it had always been. I held the moment in my heart, and then I let it go. We couldn’t land because Snow Goose has a fixed keel and this is a shallow inlet, and so we went about and tacked upriver along Blackwater, where the rhododendrons shimmered along the bank. A swan took off and flew past us. The spell of the past broke inside.

What has this got to do with Transition – apart from the obvious fact that sailing is about as low-carbon a way of travel you can imagine, only using the dynamics of wind and tide and current and your own human ingenuity and skill? Apart from the realisation that Transition has made us socially bold and confident on almost any topic - economics to ecology - so that we could have a dynamic friendship with our neighbours that might not have happened otherwise?

It’s got to do with Transition because nostalgia, a yearning to go back to places and times in a possible future, prevents us from living in the now, where we now most urgently need to live.

Because if we don’t love where we are and who we are with we won’t make it. We’ll be looking to be someplace else all the time, wrapped up in ourselves and our great sadness. We won’t put the best of ourselves on the line. We won’t have a reason to be in this neighbourhood, with this group of people, happy to be holding this dish of humble vegetables in our hands.

My three posts this week are about loving where you are. Not escaping into a holiday Earth that requires vast amounts of fossil fuel, but making steps to belong wherever you find yourself. Getting together with people and doing things in the creative way that Helen was talking about last week, taking care of the physical world in the craftsmen’s way John was talking about, paying attention to small things and thinking of the bigger things the visionary way Mark was talking about Bolivia: what some people call hologrammic imagination. Tapping into the workings of the world.

You see, Little Japan was called Little Japan because the quirky-topped trees look like the stylised trees in Japanese paintings. Of course they are nothing to do with Japan; they’re Scot’s pine, our oldest native trees, guardians of burial grounds and often planted as windbreaks in the sandy soils of Suffolk and Norfolk . Now I know about trees I don’t need to cover the place up with cultural references. It is as it is. Just as the Alde is all rivers, The River, and we are all people, navigating with the tiller in our hands, listening to the sound of water running underneath the boat, feeling the wind on our faces, in tune with ancestral fabric of the place, with each other.

On a broad reach, coming home to who we really are.

Sailing upriver towards Snape; rigging the Snow Goose with Philip at Slaughden Quay; Mark at the tiller; approaching Little Japan.

1 comment:

  1. A magic place on a nice day. Who needs the med?

    Sometimes the wind can change and waves suddenly appear and then you are sitting in a boat that now seems very small and you are very much aware of the powerful forces around you that can't be tamed by puny humans.

    Nothing like being in small boat in a gale in the middle of the North Sea to teach us our true place in this world - and the value of a good crew!