In St Baldreds Land

It came to me as I marched towards North Berwick that I was heading for the wrong place. That NB orientations- topographical-historical-psychogeographical,  were not towards the Bass , but towards the May, and via that to Fife. And then I remembered that transport to both the monastery of the May, source of beer and literacy , and the pilgrim route towards Earlsferry and Fife – St Andrews, ultimately –  progressed medievally out of North Berwick harbour.

The May was a low flat presence in the distance, a three dimensional jigsaw piece, sufficiently remote to allow me to cogitate over the curvedness of the earth. The Bass loomed close – was the last in the row of jagged teeth that skirt NB – the canine or the incisor, I’m not sure.  But to look at the Bass from North Berwick as was, you’d have had to crick your neck to the right, or place your panoramic window at an angle to your façade, or walk and scramble out onto the headlands beyond the East Beach.

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And perhaps this is why I have always found North Berwick a pain in the neck..

So, for my purposes,  I needed to be further out.

I decided to approach from an assumed hinterland towards the East, via the farmed but currently lightly peopled space east of Whitekirk, from within the three parishes- Auldhame,Tyninghame and Prestonkirk which claimed St Baldred and his miracles.

I am demotivated. Worried again about my rumbling exhaust, and wondering if my quest is coming to an end – not over what I’ll find, but what I’ll do then. But as Basho says every day is a journey and the journey itself is home.

Scoughall. Parked beside a field of cabbages. The farm road slopes East from the pilgrim route defining the edge of the land of golf courses, steading conversions and chocolate labs ( ‘East Lothian – Easy Living’) , and leads towards a different one of football pitches filled with crops ( Arable-Arable-Fodder-Arable–Potatoes), Pheasants,  and PRIVATE signs at road ends.

Not an exact geographic split perhaps but a  significant psychic one. I can feel the difference – a release of social tension in the area above my stomach, replaced by ancestral anxiety in my gullet over the farmer and his gun.

A heavily built field mouse blunders out of the verge . I think of a surfacing camper at Glastonbury. It checks and retreats. Mid summer.

Up a concrete track between unfenced ( and lightly domesticated) fields the Bass presents – centre stage, lighthouse to the face, cut off from the putative orchestra stalls by a wall, damming a long reservoir of barley ,on which  the set floats – the string section drowning under grain.

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OK this is Tantallon, but you get the picture , eh?

The May has now changed sides, is out in the Firth seaward of Bass and Fife. The alignments are favourable..

Down Chapel Brae and ower a fence a faint track leads to the shore, across to another zone of ..

Oyster-catcher snicker. Red conglomerate sandstone. And the smell of weed (man..) – wet , foetid. The view south east. Man , dog, erratic (name?) . St Baldred’s cradle, Dunbar, Cement works. Torness, Barns Ness, round to Siccar Point, and a wart I don’t recognise at the end.

St Baldred’s Boat is my destination. A name on the map.

So what is the Boat? – the map is unclear. The  most prominent feature on my route is a separated sandstone calf ascending outwards and making a col along the shore path between it and it’s roan-cow mother cliff. Prow-shaped its strata ascend outwards.

It is accessible only from its nose, broken and smoothed by tides immemorial. As I climb it narrows to a turf-ridged butt only a foot wide in places snaking back forty feet above the shore. Between it and the Bass – rocks, pools, a harbour, a skerry topped by a stone memorial and the channel.

My mount deserves a name, I feel. It has a mythic proportion and is, from the east, an obvious landmark, an edge. If it was St B’s Boat we could imagine it has moored him to the coast ,rather than being in the aeon-slow process of separating from it. But it turns out it’s not – maybe it should be his pulpit. It would have been a place for him to proclaim from ,to prophesize to the sea, to the East, to the theatre of May and Bass, to the cells and coracles of the other anchorites.

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Bass and promontory from Seacliffe

The other contenders to be the Boat are a small isolated but prominent skerry – crest lined with cormorants and GBBGs,  faces decorated with guano – and, athwart midships, a long rocky promontory  leading via a narrow tidal isthmus to a headland topped by a concrete concave tower and cross.

I head there, picking up speed as I note the advancing tide.

Then there is a moment – the water to the outsides of the rocks I am crossing looks higher than in the pools at my feet. An instinct about the wisdom of heading out into an approaching tide in an unfamiliar place kicks in , and resounds loudly in my gullet.  I reason with it  –  I have at least two feet of tide to spare. I cross the isthmus onto the first eroded sandstone promontory.

Then I see others between me and the cross – I am suddenly aware of my folly, as I am of theirs, and I wonder if I should warn them about the oncoming tide. Instead I speed back across the isthmus.

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I observe them from the safety of the beach. They are a middle aged couple. In cagoules, I note disparagingly. They are determined to remain on the rocks, but within reach of an escape route, until the very last moment. I imagine they have sought the mild peril of potential drowning as a replacement for the swingers circuit they have outgrown. Unlikely to thank me for my concern.

…And yet I feel that the prospect of being rescued from drowning by the coastguard,whilst clinging to a memorial to the drowned,  ( however slight) would erode my dignity fatally. Here comes middle age..

Instead, as consolation, I explore Seacliffe beach , which is smattered with diligent holiday makers.

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The Boat

I find out that the Boat is in fact the gull clad skerry. It was moved there by St Baldred, as part of his hundred year residency on the Bass.  The rock used to be a hazard to boats on way to and from the Bass, then at least partially inhabited . After a particular tragedy, St B asked to be placed on the skerry, which he then steered to its current location, reverse parking neatly beyond the promontory.

 Much research leaves me with only an apocryphal account of  the origin of the cross-capped tower. ‘They say’ this is a memorial to a drowned Edwardian daughter marooned by the tide, and as a future  refuge for the unwary who might end up there.. Not any more though,  as some authority has removed the lower rungs so it is not climbable – more grist to my mid aged discretion..

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 At the other end of the beach a tiny harbour is cut into the headland like a Bedrock jacuzzi . It is in use – two prawn boats are unloading.

Two other middle aged guys are poking around the headland with cameras and light summer slacks. They take pictures from many angles – they mean business. I am reminded of the pontificating lunching lady, ‘ Men don’t make friends like women do, and then they don’t contact them when they need to’.. Still we are happy in our small corners on the giant lump of sandstone.

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I feel I am in the right place. The sprawling derelict Place of Seacliff , atop its woody banks, ivy indiscriminately dragging down the sycamore trunks and walls . The Gothicky archway leading the road down to the shore, the hermit’s cave- a little shelter with a view, the sight lines lead towards the gannets wheeling round the Bass like flecks of shampoo going down the sink drain.

I was niggardly to this place on previous visits. The entrance charge for the road offended my sense of common ownership, but I know now the problem was because I d come the wrong way.

Just to confirm my surmises I find a sandstone outcrop that from certain angles appears like a moai from Easter Island, or as near as I will find in East Lothian.

The true creative overturning of religious illumination does not reside in narcotics . It resides in a profane illumination’, is written in the sand, by a departed meanderer.

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Lichenography

 

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Lichens, or lichens if you prefer are strange dual things . Easily overlooked , except in long neglected woodland where their profuseness belies a slow accretional lifestyle, or on top of mountains, where their very survival impresses , they are , close up , unheimlichkeit..

 

There is an awkwardness to the touch of lichen which needs to be fully experienced. It doesnt feel like vegetation, and certainly doesn’t taste so. Hard stringy stuff – leathery at best. If I were an anthroposophist, I might surmise it somehow foments out of the rocks and bark it sits on.WP_20160423_17_44_32_Pro

Would I be right? It seems not .. Like most questions about lichen the answer is not simple.. Lichen use the substrate – rock, bark, seaweed, sand or rubber as a base – I saw some growing on the window webbing of a Vauxhall Astra in Lancaster last month. They weather this base and it appears create soil or sand, but they do not, according to my sources, use it as a nutrient supply  – which instead comes from the air.

Yet  also, it could .

A lichen is two things (at least ) not one.This raises many problems – although for us, not for the lichen. Lichen are named after their fungal partner, which as a saprophyte, can draw nutrients from it substrate . However the fungi is changed in its form and function by its alliance with either an algae or cyanobacteria – basic plants dependent on moist, stable environments but, importantly, photosynthesising organisms which bring in sugars ( and in the case of cyanobacteria  fix nitrogen) which provide food for the fungi. The British lichen website speaks dismissively of the theory of ‘slave partners’, but doesn’t really explain how the alliance benefits the green stuff.  Other sources suggest protection and durability are these benefits – but all this sees the situation in human terms..

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fruticose at pressmannan wood

More complications appear – sometimes fungi will pair with both algae and cyanobacteria , or variable species of either. Lichen can reproduce vegetatively or sexually – but if they do the latter only the fungi is carried in the resulting spores which then need to find another suitable algal partner to colonise to create more lichen. As a result growth and spread are localized and slow, which is why lichen are used as biological indicator species – estimating age and perturbation of woodland habitats ( and increasingly archeological ones) .

This is known as lichenometry and is part of the curious glossary of lichens -bituncate, clavaroid, phycobiont, soredia and soralia, and an equally rich and improbable set of recently invented ( usually ) common names replace all the cod Latin as lichenology  undergoes a Nature Watch makeover – golden edged specklebelly, goblin lights (renamed by committee), orange sea star..

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There is more of this – pages of it on the internet. The more I read  the more tangled it all becomes.

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This is a thing, or things, which have a slipperiness , and at a basic level insubstantialness which belies the substantial quiddity of its appearance.  A plant – but not a plant.

Clearly it/they exist , although ‘They’ may not be the same – ‘They ‘may not for example be  a species. ‘They’ may take different forms depending on what is inside them ( algal partner or cyano) and ‘They’ may (re)produce different versions of themselves.IMG_0280

 

We can apply adjectives and metaphors of strength, durability, fragility, purity, initiation, exploitation, depravity , communality  – and still we will not understand.

The Being we see dissociates under the handlens and the microscope.

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Not surprisingly lichenology is a fairly specialised field – whether or not the participants are tortured by questions of epistemology is something I hope to discover by going undercover on field courses.  Oliver Gilbert , author of the New naturalist guide and SNH’s popular glossy (Lichen – Naturally Scottish) seemed an untroubled enthusiast for discovery – but  then he did make his reputation in the unmuddied days before Wikipedia ( ‘The River Jelly Lichen Steering Group at work by the River Eden’ runs his byline for one of the illustrations in the NN guide, and  a jolly bunch of coves they do look)

Serendipity gave me the chance to check out an exhibition called Lichenology at the Botanics in Edinburgh..There is some jewellery which is conceptual and interesting, and I cant really imagine anyone wearing (not that I’ve ever taken that plunge).

(My mum did once buy a brooch in the shape of a fossil fish , which I kind of approved of in a boffinish way , and which she thought might be a talking point at dinner parties – which was probably true , but usually after she d left, and not in the way she would have wished. Since it was made of silver it is likely to have as long a life as the fossil  -unless we have the guts to melt it down.)

The artist and curators of Lichenology are both keen to foreground the relevance of lichen to our lives. Various societies have found out what medicinal and technical uses can be squeezed out of the things in their closed environments. For example Hebrideans found you could make dyes out of the lichen they call crottal, therefore managing to draw blood from their stones. ( they now use chemicals instead , although the exhib doesn’t mention this – scraping rocks in a force seven is not something pragmatic people do willingly).

The jewellery and explanatory boards reference these kind of things  extensively. I too like the connection that using stuff gives us to our concrete environment , but am struck by its limitations. With a certain heaviness I accept that we need to integrate into a social world not a physical environment . From that perspective it is the otherness of stuff and how to talk about it that pushes my buttons.

For example I notice the concept of holobiont floating through the popular ( well.less unpopular) literature of lichen biology. This postulates that the basic unit of evolution might not be a species, but a symbiotic or associative ecological community which is at some level adaptive and flexible to natural selection .

This concept was developed by marine biologists looking at corals, makes some sense to the difficult definitions of lichens I discussed above, and also has been applied, ambitiously,  to the evolution of mammalian ( and of course human ) diversity, giving prominence to the role of gut and intercellular flora slushing around our bodies in creating the biochemistry for hormonal regulation.

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Many biologists were avid science fiction readers as junior geeks, and also need a sense of evolutionary purpose of their own as they toil onwards in the dark formaldehyde smelling labs of knowledge. Squaring the circle and linking science and fiction is The Concept.. as such a junior geek, my own favourite sci fi concept ( and it was often these that stuck in the memory rather than the stories themselves) was about a morel fungus planting itself in a large ape with mutual benefit, in this case of the growth of consciousness.

 

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And it is weirdly echoed in the holobiont (and indeed in the natural world).

Holobiontism is also a concept that allows us to understand ourselves like lichen – at least from a phenomenological point of view. Of course there are some philosophical and political implications if it becomes generally accepted – imagine if our sense of humanity was actually a response to what’s cooking in our stomachs . A new kind of humility would have to be acquired , an acceptance of randomness , impermanence and a concern with apparently incidental detail.. ( others I imagine might choose to  build a religion around Giving Up Dairy except for Probiotic Yoghurt ).

Which takes us a long way from Lichenology at the Botanics.

Go along soon though – it is worth it to see a script lichen through a hand len , and to find the bare azalea bushes outside in the gardens where fluffy outcrops of knobbed isidia wave gently in the breeze in apparent dissent to the bare winter dark.

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I thought the lichen seemed to grow brighter through those wet dark days of February. Mason Hale told me that the algae are most active then, and the water content of the thallus is also bulging.

It felt like a display , appropriately since I was in a floral land at the Botanics, but the next day there is also a beautiful shade of bluegreen tinging the treetrunks along the Esk . Was I right or was I just looking at them for the first time?

And it may just be another of those coincidences which push us along our wanders through the world, which make us, subject or holobiont, what we are.

 

 

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