Thursday, 9 November 2017

Novena for the Fallen Through ~ our fifth prayer for our wild kin

Here is the fifth of our November Novenas for the Fallen Through, which for this month are devoted to Saint Cuthbert and to a call for protection for our wild kinfolk. If you would like to read more about this month’s novena you can read our first prayer here.

We have already lifted prayers for our badgers, our hedgehogs, and for the street trees of Sheffield,. Yesterday we turned to otter, cormorant, and seal, all of whom have been unjustly blamed for dwindling fish numbers and a decline in the fortunes of industrial fisheries and angling clubs. Today we again turn to the sea, this time to offer prayer to orca and shark.

As I mentioned yesterday, I hadn’t even considered sharks when thinking about which of our wild kin might be included in this cycle of prayer until I came across a small toy shark on the road in front of me when I went walking on Sunday. Seeing it there looking so lost and vulnerable I felt chastened that I hadn’t included them before. Whilst researching sharks in our waters, I came across reports of the last remaining pod of orcas in British waters. They are in the most desperately sad state and so in many ways this fifth novena will be a grieving prayer, and it does matter so much that we allow ourselves to grieve. If you feel that too you might wish to learn more about the Remembrance Day for Lost Species which will be taking place on November 30th. You can find out more about it here.

I have already written about St Cuthbert’s intimate relationship with the sea and shared some stories of that wild love. You can read more about that in our fourth prayer here. Today, I will share another story about Cuddy and the sea. Bede’s ‘The Life and Miracles of St Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne’, written in 721CE, tells us that, when Cuddy was building his tiny monastery on Inner Farne, he found that he needed to put some support across a hollow on one side that had been scooped out by the movement of the sea. He asked members of his community to bring a beam of wood about 12ft long with them the next time that they visited him so that he could use it to support his intended building. Having received his blessing they promised to do as he had asked. However, by the time they had returned home they had forgotten all about it. The next time they came Cuthbert asked them for the wood but they were empty handed. They were deeply ashamed but he soothed them and asked them to stay there overnight, as he didn’t believe that God would leave him in need. The next morning they found that the tide had placed a piece of wood of exactly the size required in the hollow where it was needed. The very foundations of Cuddy’s spirituality came from the sea.

Ten years ago I visited Orkney, which I know had a profound effect on my own journey with Spirit. Whilst I was there I met Malcolm Handoll of ‘Five Senses’, who took us on several tours of the Main Island. He told us that he had recently found his own lintel (this time, one of stone) washed in from the sea. I wrote this poem for him. Reading it now, it reminds me of St Cuthbert and his gift from the waves.

Fire-Maker (for Malcolm Handoll)

Heather-bound, barefoot and dancing,
Soul fire held in dreaming tension,
Smiles the sky and sings the hollows,
Combs the beach and walks its beauty.
All potential held within him,
lintel stone and sea-soft tinder,
Connection found and joy uncovered,
Fire-maker, the land has called you.

Pulled by tides and scoured by sea spray,
Cradled by the sandstone hills,
Strata formed from life’s deep journey,
Weathered by the winter storm.
Prays the flame and nurtures brightness,
Fire sparks from the bow that sings you,
Cotton grass brushes your fingers,
Fire-maker, the land has found you.

Small-spotted Catshark egg and embryo, Alice Weigand

And so, to the ancient sea-salt beauty of our much maligned sharks. Most of us who have walked on British beaches are only familiar with the sharks in our waters through the empty ‘mermaid’s purse’ egg cases that we are sometimes lucky enough to find on the shoreline. I never have, although I would love to! These are evidence of the presence of small-spotted catsharks, confusingly also known as lesser-spotted dogfish, or of the greater-spotted dogfish, also known as nursehounds. The little catsharks, no more than 3.3ft long, abundant in waters from Norway to Senegal and the Mediterranean, are considered of ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as, luckily for them, they are of low commercial value. Nursehounds are also faring well, although they are vulnerable to fishing and are sold in our fish and ship shops under the names ‘huss’, ‘rock eel’, or ‘rock salmon’. Their skin was also once used to smooth arrows and barrels, and to raise the hairs on beaver hats!

In fact, although we rarely see them, there are 21 species of shark living in our waters all year round. These include the angelshark, common skate, and white skate, all of which are listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the Red List. Thankfully, the Shark Trust were able to secure domestic protection for the angelshark, which is now one of the most heavily protected sharks in the Northeast Atlantic. The common skate, the world’s largest at up to 9.4 ft in length and 6.6 ft in width, remains seriously under threat due to deliberate targetting and as bycatch (being caught by accident by the profitable trawl fishing industry). One of its great strongholds is off the coast of Western Scotland. But, of course, all are suffering from a decline in their habitats and food sources.

Basking Shark; cearban, muldoan, hoe-mother, brigdie

We also have several species of shark who visit us seasonally. These include the world’s second largest fish, the basking shark, which can typically reach up to between 20 and 26 ft in length. How splendid! These filter-feeding beings can sometimes be seen basking in the sun and feeding on plankton between May and September. Other seasonal visitors are the blue shark, which can travel up to 5,700 miles in a single trip, and the shortfin mako, the world’s fastest recorded fish, which can reach speeds of up to 30mph! We are also lucky enough to have occasional visits from smooth hammerhead and frilled sharks and the quest is on to spot a great white shark in our seas, as the warming climate and declining availability of food may mean that they travel further afield. And, of course, as they do so our media, addicted to sensationalism in ever more desperate attempts to make money, publishes increasingly hysterical reports of the ‘shark threat’ off our coast.

I notice that sharks are always described as ‘lurking’ and, as ever, seals are being blamed for luring predators into our midst by being far too successful at breeding! It matters to remember that there hasn’t been a documented shark attack in British waters since 1847, although in June 2017 a surfer did sustain a nasty cut on his thumb fighting off a 3-ft long small houndshark which had taking a liking to his thigh.

Surprisingly perhaps, The Sun has spoken out against shark-related hysteria on several occasions, pointing out that there are no more than around 70 shark attacks reported worldwide each year and that only a handful of these are fatal. However, they have also been guilty of describing great white sharks as ‘patrolling’ our waters! This Wildlife Online article; ‘Great White Sharks in British Waters?” sums up the attitude of the media to our shark kin very well and this BBC article suggests where the fear of shark attacks in our quiet seas may have come from. It is more the case that sharks desperately need protection from us, rather than the other way round. South Africa’s great white sharks are currently threatened with extinction after a steep decline in their numbers due to trophy hunting, shark nets, and pollution. Winghead sharks and whalesharks, the planet’s largest living fish, have recently been redefined on the IUCN Red List as ‘Endangered’ due to increased pressure from human activity, the world population of whalesharks halving in the last 75 years.

It is estimated that around 100 million sharks are killed by humankind every year, through both commercial and recreational fishing. Many die by ‘shark finning’ which involves the sharks being caught and their fins removed with a hot metal blade. The now finless creature is then returned to the water where it soon dies from suffocation or predation. And all of this without even mentioning threats to the shark people from habitat loss, pollution, and the impact of fisheries. A study by the IUCN found that one quarter of all known species of shark are threatened with extinction and that 25 species are critically endangered.

Sharks have been here for 450 million years. It would be horrible to think that there are people being born now who, if we don’t take care, will see a planet without them. Thank goodness then for the tiny catshark, so abundant in our waters. Perhaps the next time we are blessed by finding one of her empty egg cases at the tide’s edge we might think of her pups making their first wild journeys and resolve to become better mothers to our seas.

Orcas via The Daily Mail

And mothering brings us to the plight of our orcas. In 2016 it was reported that there was only one remaining matrilineal family group, or pod, of orcas in British waters and that this family was ‘doomed to extinction’. New research findings had revealed that western European seas are a global hotspot for lingering concentrations of PCB pollution. These chemicals, found in electrical equipment until banned in the 1980s, are long-lasting and continue to leech into the oceans from stockpiles on land that have not been properly disposed of. European dolphins, whose numbers are also in decline, have been found to contain extremely high levels of PCBs. High levels are known to harm both fertility and immune systems. Orcas were present in the North Seas until the 1960s when PCB levels were at their highest but our only remaining residents are this little pod, now reduced to only eight members, off the north-west coast of Scotland. They have been studied for the last twenty years and have not produced a calf in that time. Even were a calf to be born the PCBs in the fat in their mother’s body would pass onto them through her milk. My heart breaks.

Whales and dolphins are also beleaguered by noise emanating from passing ships, which is believed to hamper their ability to communicate and to find prey. Studies are taking place to reduce noise pollution based on methods used by military shipping. Again, around 600 cetaceans are beached on our shores each year, most of them porpoises and dolphins. In 2014, 60 bigger whales were also stranded. The reason for these strandings is not known, although it is suspected that they are straying into unfamiliar waters in search of food. Early one February morning in 2016, a 30-tonne sperm whale died on the beach in Hunstanton in Norfolk, despite desperate attempts to save him. Over 100 people gathered through the night to keep vigil. It was not so very long ago that we were a nation of whale hunters, Now I truly believe that many of us see them as family. There is hope in that.

'Cuddy's Choir' by Colin Smithson

Novena for the Fallen Through

Protection, justice, and shining health for our wild kin.

This is a prayer of wild mothering, for orca and shark.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

Thank you for the presence in our waters of the shark people,
oldest of the old,
one time companions of our distant ancestors
before we were lost to the land.

Apex predator, wolf of the sea, 

maintaining the balance in a web
that we can barely see.
We stand in awe that life on this planet has always
been in held in your dark gaze,
what sights you must have seen,
have held within the memory of cells.

We pray with fervent hearts for the continuation
of your ancient line, for fear to turn to fascination,
loathing to love, for us to see in your dark eyes
wild skies of endless possibility to swim in,
how different you are, beyond our imagining.

Angel, catshark, nursehound, common skate, and white,
Portugese dogfish, black dogfish, kitefin, and gulper,
blue shark and shortfin mako, frilled and hammerhead,
rough and bramble, smoothhound and bluntnose,
lanternshark and velvet, greenland and leafscale,
porbeagle, velvet belly, thresher and tope,
starry smoothhound and knifetooth.

We name you kin,
and in naming, bless you,
and in blessing, love you,
and in loving, vow to speak up for you,
and in speaking up, name you.

Basking Grandmother, gentle sea-glider,
cearban, muldoan, hoe-mother,
brigdie, teach us tranquility,
how to be sun-seen yet remain a mystery,
held in our own secret sea.
No one has ever seen the intimacy of your birthing.
In holding your secrets may you find safety.

Nursehound, catshark, slender shallow water skimmer-swimmers,
may your pups be blessed on their first wild journeys,
gift us with your egg case purses,
reminding us to be mindful mothers to our seas.

We ask that our waters become a safe haven
as so much around us is changing.
Let us offer wild welcome to the new,
mourn the old, learn our lessons,
walk in grace with grief and gratitude.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

Help us to sing a song of grieving
with, and for, the orca mothers,
for a mother line broken,
love songs unspoken,
wombs left barren,
milk turned to poison.

For 13.8 billion years Creation has been birthing
and we have taken the birth-prayer of orca,
through carelessness, ignorance, indifference.
We have poisoned our own seas.

Mada-chuain, Lleiddiad,
help us to learn again an older tongue,
once spoken by those who walked in awe 
and right relationship with life.
We grieve with you for the empty sea
where your calves should be,
for fathers with no family,
the crumbling of your community.

We pray for the cleaning of your blood,
for the healing of your wounds,
for the quickening of your wombs,
for the sweetness of your milk,
for the birthing of your young,
for the soul~song of your voices to become a choir
to sing your blessingway.

And if you end, let us mourn your passing,
keen your leaving,
hold your memory as a promise to mending.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

Heart-song of the sea, forgive us for what we have done,
knowingly and unknowingly.
Help us to feel what must be felt,
cry what must be cried,
mourn what must be mourned,
grieve what must be grieved,
and on the other side of grief, 
find wild hope to sustain us in the journey.
And may the spirit-calves of orca
remind us that we have responsibility.

And we thank Life for every person
who is working to improve the lives
of the whale people and all beings of the sea.
May their labours be supported, successful, and strong.

We ask this in the name of badger and water vole,
hen harrier and natterjack toad,
red fox and red deer,
dotterel and dormouse,
red squirrel and seal.

Of starling and sparrow,

sand lizard and slow worm,
hedgehog and hare,
corn marigold and marsh cleaver.

Of great crested newt and small fleabane,

ringed plover and oystercatcher,
pasque flower and mountain ringlet butterfly,
wildcat and skylark.

Of marsh fritillary butterfly and shrill carder bee,

blue ground beetle and white-clawed crayfish,
freshwater pearl mussel, cormorant, and crow.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

May all beings of the sea that you so loved,

where you sang Pslam songs to time and tide,
be bountifully blessed and wild with mothering,
hallowed with fathering,
and may we, in the name of salt and sea,
walk in grace with grief and gratitude
until justice comes for all beings of land, sea, and sky.

The first is for badger.

The second is for hedgehog.
The third is for Sheffield’s street trees.
The fourth is for otter, cormorant, and seal,
for salmon, and elver, and eel.
The fifth is for shark and orca.
May our string of prayer beads,
formed in the starry sea where all things are one,
gathered on the shore of meeting,
be filled with life, love, and wild justice
for all beings on this earth we share.

For this we pray.

Aho mitake oyasin, amen, blessed be. Inshallah.

'Small-spotted catshark egg cases, Erwin Timmerman on Flickr

References and Information:

On sharks ~

On orcas and other cetaceans ~

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