I have a thing for the far west of the land.
I’m in Portugal just now, a place called Salema on the western tip of the Algarve. It’s a good place to be. There are crocuses up. Spring starts soon, Christmas here is a time of wildflowers. It’s giving me hope at a time when I need it most.
Two years ago today, I was in County Clare, standing on Loop Head, where the wild Atlantic thrashes into the cliffs below the lighthouse. I was spending time writing at an eco-lodge on the Burren. It’s a place where sheds and caravans are held down by steel cables fixed to concrete slabs. On a dry day you can end up soaked from the salt spray thrown airborne for hundreds of meters from the rocks far below. I love every inch of that place.
Same with the southwest of the UK. I’m from Devon but my heart belongs to The Lizard. A southward slab of rock scrubbed bare by the weather. The kind of place where a harbour wall is no guarantee. Tiny hamlets clinging to coastal ledges at the foot of the cliffs. It’s not the pretty face of Cornwall. For me, it’s right up there with the best.
Here in the Vila da Bispo region of Portugal, the red earth resembles the coast in my part of south Devon, a cliff path crumbling to dust, an ill-marked meandering through rocky scrubland, then suddenly diving to another hidden cove, another stretch of golden sand and swooping gulls.
It seems I have do have a liking for the western fringe of things.
What is it about these edges, the wave worn spits of land thrust into an unforgiving ocean? The places where people gather to watch the last of the light leave Europe to sink into the vastness of the Atlantic night.
There’s certainly something spiritual about them all, they are places of standing stones and pilgrimage, and stuffed full of shrines and hermitages, and villages named for saints. They’re places of beginning and ending. Most of them bearing the name of Finnis Terre, Lands End. For thousands of years these places were the ends of the known earth, and beyond them only unmapped terrors.
These are the places where the light and dark of civilisations have always butted up against the wild, where the Churches of the Saints met the darkness of a pagan vastness. These were the stepping off spaces for great explorations, and for darker deeds. Later, these points became the last sightings of land that migrants took with them when they fled from famine, or boarded ships for new worlds when all hope was lost in this one.
Places of ending and beginnings, liminal spaces. Steps into darkness, with few guarantees and many reminders of our fragility in the face of a world bigger and fiercer than we mostly like to know.
And I think that’s why I love them, because in their liminality there lies all our hope.
At this moment where the world has met in Glasgow and has not quite managed to agree to save itself, it feels that this liminal spirit is what we need most. As we wonder how to go on from here, to create the kind of companies, governments and societies that we now need, the answer is clear on one point at least. It cannot be more of the same.
The “same” is what ground COP 26 to its limp conclusion, an outcome where a liveable world is still possible, but where that hope is on life support. The “same” is what kept the world agreeing that burning coal was still ok, so long as we promise to do burn a bit less tomorrow. It’s going to take a lot of imagination and ingenuity to get us to 1.5oc from here. And remember, COP 26 was only about climate. There’s a raft of wider systemic crisis that are connected, and bigger still than the COP agenda.
There has never been more need for exploration. Now is the moment to get very serious about not knowing. Time to become very curious about how we get better about finding stuff out together. Time to become serious about living like we are part of the living world, not a privileged bolt-on somehow insulated from the realities of our very ecosystem dying about us in shreds.
I think I love the western fringes of my world because here I am reminded at every step about boundaries and about fragility. They remind me that a lot of energy and creativity comes from the edges of things.
Edges are the place of the mythic trickster, the one who steals the light to bring it to where it is most needed. Lewis Hyde provides a masterful account in his book Trickster Makes this World. Trickster is the one who crosses the sacred boundary and dares to dance with the profane. It is the cunning and creative trickster we need today, more than ever.
The trickster, to be clear, is not to everyone’s liking. Whilst not corrupt, s/he will often appear blind to the normal rules of the game. The trickster is a mover between worlds. The trickster is the one who knows there is a field beyond the common notions of right-doing and wrongdoing. Meeting the trickster there has never been more necessary.
It’s going to take a lot of trickster energy to get us safely home from where we now are. We are going to need many boundary busting shifts. We are going to have to find new ways for citizens of nations to realise that our common interests outweigh our smaller concerns. We are going to need leaders who have the courage to tell us that they do not know the answer, and who invite us to be curious with them as a new way of living is sought.
Every time we see leaders in companies and government taking a step closer to honesty around a bigger agenda of exploring, we need to support them. Every stroke of work is good work if it is in support of more creativity, more collaboration, more connection, and more creative ways of reaching across to others. Every piece of work that supports diversity, no matter how difficult or how imperfect needs our nourishment.
We are all standing at the ends of the earth now, watching the sun sink into the vast uncaring darkness.
I stand at the cliff edge, looking west and I see the same endless sea that the ancients saw, when they called these places the end of the earth and felt the terror of the huge unknown. And I stand with them tonight.
In the terror I remember that these have always been places of embarkation, places for stepping off into explorations that have yielded the world in which I now live. These are not stories of untarnished glory. There were failures and many of the deeds were dark. But they were stories of hope and action, of reaching into the unknown. Stories with cracks, where the light seeps in.
And those are the stories I am sitting with mostly tonight. Stories of imperfect and cracked hope, of people trying, even at the ends of the earth, to light a beacon, to reach out for another world.
Perhaps we all need to stand closer to Finnis Terre, to the very ends of the earth, for movement towards a new world to become possible.
Blog written by: Chris Nichols
All images: Chris Nichols (except Trickster Makes this World, Lewis Hyde, 2008, Canongate Books Ltd)