Vala Publishing, 2014, hbk 192pp
Reviewed by Rupesh Shah
This is a book about a journey to find a different way of responding purposefully to the ecological issues of the present time. Peter Reason – husband, grandfather, former academic and sailor – sets out to sail around the West Coast of Ireland looking to encounter wilderness and thereby find a ‘right’ relationship with that which is not human.
Before you go further with this review, I’ll admit that I cannot offer you an objective account of this book: I know Peter well and have sailed on his boat, Coral, a couple of times over the last few years. But this recognition of my subjectivity resonates with one of the central themes of the book about the participatory nature of the universe and its resulting implications for our human relations.
I enjoyed reading this book. There are some good characters with curious motivations and a rich seam of emotional engagement; I delighted in Peter’s uncontrolled glee at seeing a tiny puffin amidst huge swells and even huger cliffs near Bolus Head. There is uncertainty and several moments of adventure, such as the dramatic confrontation with the towering Skellig Rocks and the hard return crossing from Kinsale to the Scillies bashing into the high seas. The book also offers a light and regular spray of interesting information both about the experience of sailing on a small boat in big seas and small harbours and about a range of contemporary ecological issues with geological, environmental and historical insights. But this is less of a book that seeks to provide information as to find a different way of looking.
Peter uses a range of worldviews – including literary theory, Buddhist philosophy and practice, systems thinking, games and game playing, panpsychism, Gaian science and deep ecology – to engage in his inquiry into our relationship with the wild. Underlying much of this is a questioning of the general value and Peter’s specific history with conscious and professionalised attempts at ‘solving’ environmental problems through the field of corporate responsibility and academic learning. At times I felt this aspect of the pilgrimage dropped out of focus as the tale of the physical journey took over. And then it would come back in again. In some ways this seems to have paralleled the experience that Peter had along the way; the work of sailing Coral would absorb his full attention only for some new perception of emotion, sudden internal shift or unexpected encounter to bring the question about wilderness back into front of his mind.
There were parts of the book with which I did struggle. I lost the narrative horizon when reading some of the passages detailing the practice of sailing. Peter does try to describe and explain some of the objects, actions and experiences of being on a boat, but despite my clear privilege in having actually been aboard and sailed on Coral, I sometimes felt just a bit unfooted and queasy. I wonder whether a few well placed sketches or images might have just helped me along the way here.
But this speaks to the challenge that I feel runs throughout this whole book – the koan that was perhaps at the heart of both writing it. How can we better relate to the wild through the means of our various human technologies? How are we to use our human experiences – whether of sailing on a boat in uncontrollable winds (amazingly themselves being influenced by modern human life) or from writing and reading about the wild – to transform our current ways of being to restore some sense of ecological balance?
Peter has consciously chosen to write this book from the cockpit of Coral and his appreciation, intimate knowledge and love for this small but elegantly formed boat comes through sweetly. I really enjoyed the parts where he took me right down into the details of being on the boat, where he was on his own getting on with things and working with Coral. His trusty vahana pulls him forth through the calm and turbulent seas that he wishes to meet and through her sailing he is able to ask some deeply searching questions of himself and the world. Peter uses his relationship of journeying with Coral and his meetings with various beings – the meeting with dolphins on a sacred morning, a search for an elusive peregrine, sailing alongside rocks in high seas and absent wind – as a way to help us into this experience of wilderness through writing. I found the ideas, images and emotions to be rich enough that during the period when I was reading the book I widened my attention to notice the qualities of wilderness in my life. If you find occasion on land or at sea to read this book then do so for it’s a fair sail. But if you don’t, then perhaps you could seek simply to find wild in your everyday world.