Saturday, 2 July 2016

A few thoughts and colour photos inspired by Jesus, Tolstoy and John Muir taken this morning in Unst, Shetland

Scraefieled Cottage
A lovely sunny morning here on Unst in the Shetland Isles so I made a cup of tea, picked up my copy of Tolstoy’s “Gospel in Brief”, and walked the hundred yards or so to sit in the graveyard of the ruined kirk which lies hard by the cottage where we’re staying.

I sat with my back to the warming sun and, after quietly taking in the landscape around me, read some of Tolstoy’s précis of chapter eleven, all of which seemed appropriate to my morning meditations. However these two sentences stood out:

The derelict croft across the track
“My [i.e. Jesus’] teaching reveals the unity of life and imagines life not as separate branches, but as one single tree, upon which all of the different branches grow. Whoever wants to live according to their own will, like a branch torn off, will die” (p. 136).

The unity of life and the need to work with reality as a whole (rather than imagining we can live completely out of our own individual will to power) is ever present in a place such as this. As many of the island stories we have heard have eloquently revealed, if you don’t stick together and pay attention to the wind, sun and tide’s ever uncontrollable movements you can easily find yourself actually dead. It is a reminder that the death of which Tolstoy/Jesus speaks is not only spiritual (as is the main focus in this passage) but, at times, physical too.

Looking across to the Ward of Houlland from the cottage
Sitting there I was prompted to think about a writer whose work I have only recently begun properly to explore, John Muir (1838–1914), the Scottish/American naturalist, author and philosopher — he certainly understood the unity of life. Here’s how Linnie Marsh Wolfe summed up Muir’s attitude in her book, “Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir”:

“Man must be made conscious of his origin as a child of Nature. Brought into right relationship with the wilderness he would see that he was not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue his fellow creatures and destroy the common heritage, but rather an integral part of a harmonious whole. He would see that his appropriation of earth’s resources beyond his personal needs would only bring imbalance and beget ultimate loss and poverty for all” (p. 188).

Stone walls around Scraefiled Cottage 
When I finally got up to take a few photos — for photography is for me very much an activity of mindful meditation — I decided, unusually for me, to take some colour photos. Given that Muir had come strongly to mind it seemed appropriate to use Hipstamatic’s evocative Yosemite combination, one inspired by Muir’s love of Yosemite, so much so that they called their film “Sequoia” and their lens “Muir”. This combination greatly appeals to me because, as someone who grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s, the film process Hipstamatic pay homage to reminds me of the kinds of photos my grandparent and parents took on our holidays. This is no coincidence as Hipstamatic’s own description reveals:    

Two chickens come to visit
“We’re feeling a bit nostalgic this fall [October 2014], looking at photos of childhood vacations in the wilderness where our parents dressed us in flannel and bucket hats. Those old school photos with warm imperfections inspired this month’s First Friday. The Yosemite HipstaPak will give you reason to take a walk outside, and snap a few shots in hopes of bringing back those characteristics of old lenses.”

So, in homage to Muir and with a nod to my own childhood holidays in the wilderness of Britain, here are a few photos of the cottage, the kirk and the landscape immediately around us. Enjoy! As always, just click on a photo to enlarge it.

The view looking north
The kirk
The kirkyard
The west door of the kirk
The west door of the kirk from the inside
Looking south from inside the kirk
Looking south from the kirkyard
Looking north at the south wall of the kirk
Looking west across to the Ward of Houlland from the kirkyard
Memorial to the Norwegian crew of the S/S Hop from Bergen (1940)
The lower plaque reads (in English):

In memory of the crew of the S/S "Hop" from Bergen. Torpedoed 4.2.1940 when the ship was en route from Bergen to Middlesborough. The lifeboat was wrecked at Muness, Unst 7.2.1940.

Buried at Baliasta [i.e. in this graveyard] 8
Lunna 1
Easting, Unst 3
Not found 2
Fetlar 3

The Memory Plaque has been funded by the Norwegian Captains' Association and the Norwegian Mates' Association.


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