A battered copy of David Abrams book 'The Spell of the Sensuous' sits on a rock overlooking the Adriatic

Mljet: Life-worlds

Every green shoot of now, just the latest thread from roots that stretch back forever.
August 17, 2023

This whole trip has been amazing as we travel around and I look for a place in the world that does not involve destroying it, or making it a system that will kill us both. That may seem high-falutin, but I do most of my falutin when writing and especially when deep in thought and need philosophical disemboguing. I have long thought nature was the answer, the deep-time spaces of evolved worlds and ways of being that resist the ugly commercial hardness of cities and towns, of people when crushed together.

Sometimes I think my whole life has been about this, the searching for calm and beauty, depth beneath those surface rushes everywhere to turn everything into cash or profit, status or power. Not in any great way have I done this, a life of crushed spirit and joyous revival when I find things are not all bad. Often these concerns involve theories and quests to find the people and thinking that make the world better. Most often they come to nothing, although finding other questors often feels enough in itself. Mostly, I find the closest to perfection comes in moments far from any cultural or written evocations and is found when shattered but immersed in a world too complex to imagine, but that awareness of being within it is felt, not thought.

Trail signs fr Ropa and Jezera in Montenegro

There is a zone of being that is beyond thought but feels like the most enlightened thinking possible. That came for a few days in a little place called Ropa, on an island called Mljet, off the coast of Croatia and part of that country of islands. Beyond thought here came through walking and sweating, and mostly by accident. I had been fired by imaginings in Lake Skadar, reading about lost places and pathways in the mountains of Montenegro and Albania. These thoughts and looking upwards at this gigantic remoteness had opened new neural pathways and soul channels. We were not going up there, as Alex reminded me she only brought her sandals. That is another trip, for another time. But the seed was embedded and the roots were already looking inward for some sustenance.

Mljet was a bus, a border crossing and a ferry away. It hosted a national park and the accommodation I found was in a town that had a population of 37 (not thousand, just 37). We booked, we went, it was magical. We had no car and the journey was a task, the supermarket a half day visit but the new home welcome was warm and enthusiastic. People make places, the first encounter is the smile, or lack of one, the attitude and the voice. Regardless of how perfect the surrounding landscape, we are fine tuned to these small signals from our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom. Other people. This other person knew the names of the winds that either caressed or battered, brought coolness of warmth on this wide horizon on the open Adriatic facing side of the island. They told us where to get food, when to swim and when not, what to watch for and what the bird we could hear but not see in the dark skies was.

This was a secluded spot, with a rocky pirate's cove down a steep ravine that was the beach. Shared with maybe six other people at various points of the first few hours we spent in our new place on earth.

Mljet's Pirate Cove - and the sparkling Adriatic
Mljet's Pirate Cove - and the sparkling Adriatic

David Abrams and his book 'The Spell of the Sensuous' has been my main reading on this trip, and a few previous ones. It is pretty battered, the front cover looks half eaten but not sure where the chewed bits went - and the back cover is a handy bookmark as it has also come entirely loose. I have bought new versions and given them away, but this original copy has stayed with me. It is a magical book and deals quite literally with magic, of the ways in which we came to language and how that is embedded in our ways of thinking and being on the earth. On one level it is about things we all know but have largely forgotten. On another, it asks us to keep trying to remember, because our survival depends on it. I could read this book for the next twenty years as I have the last twenty and still find new things in it. What resonates this trip is lebenswelt (translated as life world) which is the world of immediately lived experience. The ways we live our lives and act and move through the world and are part of it before we analyse it, theorise and scientifically compartmentalise it.  

It is an idea that David Abrams takes from an earlier phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl. Husserl saw that the binary between the worlds we live and the science/ theories that describe it had to be considered together. They could not be separated out as separate things. The importance is not whether we know who Husserl is, or what phenomenology is, or even what philosophy includes. The importance is that we know that how we live and feel the world and that this must be part of what it is and how it is defined. The discussion I was reading as I was sat in the forest and feeling the world was that the scientific world sees an ‘objective matter’ while we experience something else, a ‘transcendental consciousness’.  Separating them out means what science says means a lot, what we feel is left as base, primitive and only accessible to the skilled poets and artists to help us fathom. I thought of the distinction as science telling us the Latin name for a kingfisher, or its weight or its genus. Lifeworld/ lebenswelt being what we feel when that flash of electric blue shocks into view amongst the green foliage down the Leeds Liverpool canal.

If so, it ended back in the woods, where other thoughts come rushing through. The perfume of the trees transformed the hot air, making it strange, whispering into the nose and soothing even as the heart pumped with effort climbing steep rocks and crunchy pine leaved carpets. I wondered if the forest itself was telling me things, making me think of ways to keep it safe and letting it live this perfect balance. That’s how I thought, not scientific, I neither knew nor cared the names of the trees or the spiders, but felt them and looked for them. Walking back at dusk, these giant spiders took to stringing webs across the paths. Not for us, but we were the main prey they caught. We altered our own movements, Alex took to releasing the biggest thread from the left to let the web collapse to the side, letting us pass. The action from behind was of a weird rustic scene of an imagined princess performing an elaborate gate-opening action in slow motion, invisible barriers found and opened. A grown-up world of make believe, its necessity only remembered when the gate was missed and a grape-sized spider ran across the face causing a shriek and a wilder waving of arms than the genteel gate opening.  

A tortoise makes its way along wooded Montenegrin tracks
Tortoise Resplendent

We saw a tortoise picking its way along the path, slow and noisy, a scene millennia old. This was something else, the lifeworld must be always and every second, but certain seconds hold more in them than others. These seemed hours long, and maybe they were, tortoises take their time doing even the basics. The noise still there, of crickets adding another track to the base of cicada racket, the melody of tortoise feet on crackly dead pine needles, the internal beating of heart and breath, the smoothness of spider web removal methods. The music and the dance, the feeling of being in this forest, apart for anywhere or anyone we know, but feeling a deep belonging. This must certainly be lifeworld, the knowledge of being there as it feels, not as it is described. But also being closer to the reality of these living entities, those sharing breath either plant or animal, those that made that scene of which we also played a part.

I wondered about the ways in which nowness, this focus on the present moment is always there but often lost to other times of past and future that we never really know but that we half remember or create in imagined tomorrows or next years.

I was sat trying to think all this when inspiration came. Sat idle in the shade, pad and pen deadweight on the table, stillness caught everything in its velvet paws. A sudden movement to the left and down the grapevined terrace came a small child maybe thirty cicadas in height, barefooted and the colour of sunshine and play. “Are you a writer?”, despite the tiny frame and brief life the English was perfect and highlighted more my own lack of any Balkan phrase beyond an uncertain ‘thank you’. This was more in my mind than the question asked, we held a gaze as I marvelled the linguistic skill and they waited for their curiosity to be rewarded. I responded to the silent insistence and replied, "I am not, but I am just writing myself in the world" They looked at their feet a second, squirming one foot over other, then in squiggly circles over the tiled floor. I thought maybe a physical representation of the mind turning over that response, an insight they would build on. Maybe their own view of writing was fundamentally different, considering now whether I may have offended with my emergent karmic consideration of my craft. I found myself anticipating their reply despite the unsupportable premise behind what I had said. “Have you been to the beach?” they said, then “I have, I jumped from rocks”, turned and with every limb spinning, was gone. Only now, a few hours later when the pad and pen and me are put to some work, I realised that I had just had the most insightful talk on myself as writer to date. Maybe it will never be surpassed. I had been to the beach, I did not jump from the rocks but I had wanted to.

The Adriatic Coast

Mljet, and Ropa, were outstanding places to visit. When we left, we went to another port north of the island. This one had hotels, and people drinking mojitos at 10am and paddle boarding and fridge magnets. It had a reception desk to sell ferry tickets that made us feel a bit dirty and sweaty as the cool air and the crisp white shirts reached out from the shiny wood and reached inside us and made us too humble and glad to leave. Another lifeworld, just as real, of not belonging. The shock was there too, of somehow leaving a Robinson Crusoe existence and finding Billy Butlin on a banana boat, hard smiles and welcoming only the right sorts. The nowness of that moment stopped the writing there. But lifeworld played about my head some more, on buses and ferries and in bed, and walking, and being lost and finding new hosts to stay with. I returned to finish this in a suburb of Split, sometime later and with a weird twist of suburbia proving a key to unlock how to finish these thoughts.

Sat here, on a terrace by a pool, watching silhouetted lads playing football on a hardcore pitch against a pale blue and orange sky, I know this was me every night but it’s not me now. Writing and walking have replaced all that once came as free play, almost thoughtless in agile runs and leaps and some of the greatest goals ever scored and never televised. No less life now, but a different life, other forms of expression that are quieter and with longer roots. The memories of those games, the memory of runs made and headers and shots, of tackles and scraps, leadership, worship and falling out. All came back in this middle-aged wondering moment. Of physical exertion that felt not exerting at all and light summer evenings and all played out up there in another language and every second of this foreign fixture so familiar. This was deep inside remembering and the body remembers first, not the brain. The sound of ball against wire fence, the ting of it, and the thud of ball on gravely surface, of running feet, dragged dusty turns and shouts. On those pitches, the best trainers or boots on grass did not matter. For years, I wore one Dalglish Silver on one foot and Adidas Santiago on the other as both made a one footed appearance in school lost property. We had a goalkeeper that wore those black school pumps with elasticated half-moon fronts and grey school socks. We, the Bryn Road collective, were perhaps the scruffiest team, the terraced house team, but we won most games. We beat the school team.

The Author

As I wrote that, the pride tingled through me, legs upward. I can see Andy on the wing and me and Damien up front, our kid in midfield and the sounds we made and the style we had. All of this floods through me now for the first time in years, decades maybe. All of it sparked by a game in near darkness up above in a Croatian place I have never heard of with lads shouting and I cannot understand a word. I think lebenswelt must be reflective of this. That our immediate experiences are always bound in others from the past, ones we do not remember as memories or stories. Ones that are triggered by what we see or feel in the present and that reveal moments still lingering there from our pasts. It is why we do not envy the players up there in the silhouettes, we still have all our own games being played out somewhere deep in the fibres and gnarled old threads of our limbs and neurons. We are complex, what begins as cicadas and muses and forests and sweet aromas of pine and juniper is swiftly consumed by the bodily response to St Oswald’s pitch and a lob of a keeper from twenty yards, in the summer of 1983. All travel becomes time travel. Every green shoot of now just the latest thread from roots that stretch back forever.