The wild sea and me
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Last Sunday (13th) I went in the sea. I can’t remember it being a particularly warm day or what inspired it. I jogged down the beach at Nouster to the waters edge where Alex was already knee deep. As soon as the water hits my feet and floods my shoes my legs lock and I can no longer bend my knees to walk. I shuffle forward with straight legs. It doesn’t get any easier, as the water reaches my groin, belly, breasts, then last push to get the shoulders under. I’m definitely not one of those people who can just dive right in to get it over and done with, it’s a slow process. But once I’m in, legs and arms flailing under water to keep myself afloat, or bobbing up and down kicking the bottom, it is bliss. My head and vision goes all spacey, a bit like the moment before it goes dark when you start to faint. Seals poke their heads out the water, then disappear with a splash when they catch your eye.
That night, while lying in bed, exhausted from being so cold and taking forever to warm up at home, I thought to myself “I’d like to do that every day, for as many days as possible”.
A bit of dyke had fallen down at Westness so on Monday I was joined by Laura and Sara from the Bird Obs to rebuild it. That part of the coast it is very sandy, and as the sheep like to run alongside the dyke it erodes away the foundations, causing the section to fall. We’d had a bit of stormy weather over the weekend, and I suspect that was the straw that broke the camels back, but it wasn’t a huge section. With the 3 of us one side was quickly built up, leaving a gap for a gate.
After lunch I was joined by Anna who was on holiday from Stromness. We finished the top and made the other side sheep dyke, before going down to Westness “pool” for a dip. The pool is formed when the tide goes out, leaving water sheltered on the seaward side by rocks. Later that day I revealed my desire for a daily swim to Alex, who was also keen to continue with the daily foray into the sea.
And so the week continued with a swim each day. Getting in didn’t seem much easier, but we were getting better at warming up after. Evening swims, before dinner, hit a sweet spot. As long as dinner was prepared in advance, I could get home, fill my belly with a warm meal and curl up by the fire.
We were all sleeping better. If I was having a bad day, going in the water would instantly clear my head, I would be quickly laughing and chatting to Alex, having washed away my black cloud.
On Wednesday afternoon Olly and I flew to Mainland. We had a lovely time exploring Deerness, which is East of Kirkwall. We walked along Dingieshowe beach, through the sand dunes on a boardwalk. Sand dunes are such a fragile ecosystem and it was so nice to visit them again. Then onto Mull Head, where we visited the Gloop and Brough of Deerness. On the sea stack there is a tiny 11th Century Norse stone chapel. Around the site of the chapel there are remnants of more than 30 dwellings and outbuildings, including a defensive stone wall dating to 600BC-400AD. It was a magical pace, where we hunkered down to watch the sea and have a snack.
The walk continued to Mull head through boggy grassland, studded with the purple pom poms of Devil’s-bit scabious. Their density blew me away, I had never seen so many! It has been a really long time since I have walked so far, my legs were quite tired. It was so refreshing to have a change of scenery, walking along the cliff tops was a welcome change in perspective. North Ronaldsay is so flat, you are always surveying the landscape at close to sea level.
After scanning the map I spotted a place that might do us for the night camping in the car. We pootled up the West side of Deerness, the spot was perfect! A wee grassy pull in to park the car next to a beautiful sandy beach, just in time for sunset. We had come prepared with homemade dried pasta and a mascarpone and tomato sauce with sausage meatballs - such a posh camping meal! We were in bed early, one of the things I love about camping is that your body is able to become in tune with the sun’s rhythm. For our ancestors were active during the day, and they rested as soon as it got dark. But now electricity has extended the day with artificial light, practically no one goes to bed right after the sun goes down, unless you’re camping and artificial light is at a premium!
It was a clear night, and I lay under my sleeping bag watching the stars.
On Thursday Olly was working in the college and I went into Kirkwall to stock up in Tesco. I spent the afternoon reading under a tree outside the Earl’s Palaces. I have been fervently reading Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones. It looks at why we need nature, and what benefits being connected with nature brings to individuals and wider society. The author collates evidence that a connection to nature improves physical and mental health, reduces crime rates and stress, and increases resilience. Case studies include: outdoor nurseries, forest schools, horticultural therapy in mental health secure units, nature imagery in prisons.
It was fitting that I was reading a chapter on the benefits of trees and forests. I couldn’t get enough of the trees I was sitting under. We have a primal attraction to trees, for millennia they have given us shelter, food, materials and medicine. Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term meaning forest bathing. `this practise is linked yo lower levels of stress, higher feelings of positivity and wellbeing. Forests also boost the immune system. Trees emit phytoncides which increase one’s white blood cells and destroy cells that might cause damage. The effect on the immune system from forest bathing last for a whole month! We don’t have any trees on North Ronaldsay, but I think it’s a good idea for me to visit some on Mainland regularly.
My week of swims culminated with an eerie swim in the dark off of the old pier. It was a really low tide and we could walk down its entirety. Unfortunately it was very shallow for a long way out to we stood barely waist deep and I squatted to get my shoulders under, to “make it count”. It was a misty night so there weren’t any stars, but the beams from the Lighthouse waved at us.