October 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

‘The Old Ways’ by Robert Macfarlane – I imagine a number of you will have heard of and read this book. It has received much favourable press and knowledge of it has spread, as much as anything, via word of mouth. It is a stunning book, beautifully crafted. It is a book about walking; about landscape; about relationships with the land, with one’s community, with oneself; about ancient tracks and drove-roads, pilgrimages and sea-paths and the stories that they inspire. It is a book about the imagination. It is breath-taking in its scope and in its writing.

The Old Ways

One of the passages that has intrigued me is within one of the chapters titled ‘Gneiss’ (a type of rock), which has as its main character the artist Steve Dilworth. On one of Robert Macfarlane’s seafaring journeys, Steve Dilworth gives Macfarlane a ‘kist’ to throw into the sea in case of bad weather. ‘Kist’ is from Old Norse meaning chest but Dilworth’s object is much smaller and was being used as a ‘votive offering: a storm charm’ to placate stormy waters. It was made of a phial of seawater gathered some twenty-five years previously during a big storm, bound with bronze wire and capped with dolerite and some old ivory. ‘Steve’s kist was sacrificial in kind…a minor loss sustained in the present (the object lost to the sea) replacing a future greater loss (the boat lost to the sea).’ Fortunately, Macfarlane didn’t have need to use it.

One of the first kists, or hand-held objects, that Dilworth made was for a friend of his who was dying of cancer. He sealed inside a vial seawater collected on a day of absolute calm, which he then sealed in a polished, hollowed out piece of oak, bound with rope. The third layer or casing was the fingers of his friend.

Dilworth is shaman and imbues objects with power and symbolism. I don’t relate to objects in the same way but I get a real sense of the power of these two objects, they move me deeply. What moves me is the fact that these are gifts but they are gifts with no built-in reciprocal intention. They are given for the sake of giving, for the good of the other, with no sense of self. The objects are filled with compassion. The other significant factor is that they are made, not bought. They move from hand to hand: the hand of the giver to the hand of the receiver. I am reminded a little of Edmund de Waal writing about his Netsuke. There is a rare humanity to be found in these objects.


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