You are the Story

Beyond active and passive travelling.

A Tree changed my life. I told you that before. I’ve visited several great trees in my travels but the Fortingall Yew is special. It’s like a pivot, or a gate, that my life is hinged on. They speak of a “world tree” or an “axis mundi” – a central channel that holds all things together. The Yew is like that, in my life.

Last month we were discussing active and passive travel, and I spoke of how just going to this place brought me into contact with people who became friends for life. I’m going to explain how it all comes ‘round again, but first I have to correct and clarify something I said in my last article. I suggested active and passive travelling were entirely different things, and I implied the former was better than the latter. It’s not really like that. They are actually entangled.

I previously implied that passive travel is all about place, and active travel is all about people, but in truth, people are places and places are people. The division is artificial. If you overemphasize the “people factor” things can go as astray as if you overemphasize “place”. Heck, you can get imprisoned in another person’s world if you travel there and end up depending on them for transportation, for example. You might only experience a private world. This is not ideal.

Local knowledge is often very specialized: alleys, pubs, clubs – a very specific “bottom up” understanding. Locals often do not go to see the “sights”, so to speak. Tourism is super general: you hit “must sees” and then go on your way. It is “top down”. I think the ideal travel experience brings both elements together; it is both active and passive, and this is what transforms you. When people and place become one, you find something extraordinary: You become part of time, having a journey through itself.

A magician, as I understand it,  is a living story:  a time traveler. Wherever such a person goes they intuit the stories behind and between places and people. A magician can leap past the barriers that usually keep all these things separate, and sometimes they find themselves being mysteriously written into a larger story. Magic changes everything.

Here are some stories, stacked on top of stories…

In 2004 the first of two great Venus Transits occurred. This means that the planet Venus could be seen to visibly cross the disk of the Sun. Myself and a gaggle of circus performers from the Wonderbolt Circus Show went up to Signal Hill to watch it. A curiosity, for sure. Actually, it is one of the more extraordinary “semi-regular” events in our cosmos. Because Venus and Earth have a mutual resonance, cycles that mesh every eight years (13 Venus years of 224.7 days, total to eight Earth years), the position of the planets finds itself in the same place quite regularly. However, at a rather longer cycle, the sun is also on the same horizontal plane, and this means we can actually see Venus cross the solar disk without magnification (but with suitable eye protection). Every 121 years this will happen twice, eight years apart, in June. Then there’s a gap of 105 years, and it will happen again, twice, eight years apart, in December. A 224-year cycle.

Venus Transit.
The Sun during a Venus Transit. Photo by Nick Pernot (who leads excursions on Olkhon;

In 2004 I unicycled up Signal Hill Road to the first of the two Transits that we would be lucky enough to have a chance to see in our lifetime. Needless to say, while wheeling back down, I was already thinking about the next one, in 2012. I imagined that these two moments (which were also configurations of space) were like the two prongs of a tuning fork, somehow connecting the whole period within them, making it sing. I had to see the next one. Trouble was, it wasn’t really fully visible from North America. So Evelyn, my wife (who I met shortly after the initial transit) and I hatched a plan. We were going to go to the place where it was most visible, in 2012. This ended up being Siberia.

In June of 2012, Evelyn and I found ourselves on Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal in Eastern Russia. Evelyn and I made a sort of amateur astronomer’s pilgrimage to this place (home of the famous “Shaman Rock”, one of the five Pillars of Buryat Shamanism), and we brought with us the tools to see this unique event. In the span of four days, which I will never forget, I learned to play the Churchbells, planted a rose-garden, did a magic show for a mixed crowd of Russians, Kazakhs, Fins, Koreans, Germans, and Frenchmen. We also facilitated perhaps 40 people seeing (safely) this event. Olkhon is such an extraordinary place: the lake is said to give off alpha waves, and to soothe the soul. Cows wander wild, everywhere. There is an aura of relaxation, and a deep, profound beauty here. People, Place, Time.

"The Old Man of Hoy", a sea stack on the Island of Hoy.
“The Old Man of Hoy”, a sea stack on the Island of Hoy. Photo by Peter Duchemin.

Skip ahead to August. I am halfway around the world, again. This time I am taking a boat from Shetland, in the waters of Northern Scotland, down to the Orkney Islands. As it happens, I meet a fellow traveler on the boat – a Czech guy who has done some of the most amazing and intense travel I have ever heard about. We became friends and walked the trails of the magical island of Hoy. We smoked roll-your-owns on a derelict, rotting fishing boat up on the beach, until we were ordered to leave.

Skip ahead to January: Up Helly Aa. Europe’s largest fire festival involves a procession of 800 torches, locals dressed as Vikings, and a great wooden Longboat built specifically to be set on fire. I had been home in Newfoundland for five months before making my way back across the pond to study at the Memorial University Campus in Harlow. The Czech fellow put me in contact with a lovely woman, an herbalist, up in the Shetland, and I went up to see the longboat burn. Things became complicated. The woman I was staying with was hosted by another woman, also cool. The host’s boyfriend seemed quite cool, too – by day. The night of the Up Helly Aa, however, he became insanely, ragingly drunk. We were all in the house with him, and he began to viciously berate his partner. I did not know what to do. We all went uneasily to bed, and then shortly afterwards heard a huge a violent thumping. I got my clothes on and went out. It was the worse case scenario. I intervened, shouted at him to stop, and he attacked me. He was a larger man than me, a raging walrus. After a few terrifying moments of dodging his fists, we talked him down, and he went upstairs and passed out. The police were called, he was arrested, and a restraining order was put on him. What kind of timing was this?

Coming full circle

Something strange came out of it, though. My friend, who was also staying at this place, turned out to be from somewhere very close to Fortingall and knew the people I had met there. Out of left field, it came full circle.

Skip ahead to Late February. I am back at the Fortingall Yew with my local friend Rowan. We have known each other for three years. The night before, myself, the friend from Shetland, and Rowan had met up for drinks. So many strange accidents, swirling around, just because I went to a tree. Magic has a funny way of meeting you half-way. And when you go out with that spirit of play, of make-believe even, the strangest things happen.

Chance events set into motion chain reactions. People meet people, events that are wonderful, events that are terrible… everything comes into play. And we are the story. Our actions, our words, our intentions play a role in opening it all up, shaping what it becomes. I have said it before: Do that which you wish to remember yourself as having done. It’s a key to travel, a key to time, and a key to life.

Next month I will tell you a hitchhiking story about revenge, guns, violence, and accidental moments of grace that shift everything from one track to another.

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