Of Walrus and Cistercians
The Walrus news this week has been that a young male briefly hauled out on South Ronaldsay island in Orkney. So rare is this occurrence that Radio 3 dedicated San-Saen's 'Dance of the Elephants' to it the morning the report hit the headlines; evidently they couldn't find a musical rendition of 'Galumphing of the Walrus'. One article pointed out that there are medieval accounts of hunting walrus from ports in northern Scotland and the Faeroes so that a thousand years ago, perhaps walrus populations were not as rare as they are now; the article suggested that perhaps they were hunted to near-extinction and the relict populations driven back above the Arctic Circle.
That sounds plausible enough depending on how far south the ice reached in the Middle Ages. Walrus don't normally like hauling out on land. They like ice floes. They tend to stampede at the slightest provocation and if they are on land this means that the young ones tend to be trampled and killed. Ice floes are unstable enough that several tons of fleeing walrus will often tip them over so that none are worse for wear for a rapid dunk in the cold ocean where they were headed in the first place. And walrus don't like hunters: they will use their tusks to try to tip over any small boat, skin kayak or aluminium skiff.
There are a lot of reports of increasing sightings of wildlife in urban areas—black bears in Los Angeles, for example; coyotes trotting across the Columbia Univeristy campus in broad daylight; foxes sneaking through open windows to attack babies in London. Perhaps sea mammals are beginning to move into more populated areas. For myself, I frankly find it alarming that a walrus came this far south; it says something about the fragility of ice in northern Norway and other areas where they normally occur; perhaps this walrus was a sign of last-ditch efforts of a population seeking ways to adapt to the rapidly changing climate. It's unlikely polar bears could swim as far south as South Ronaldsay, but they are facing the same problem as the walrus.
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Yesterday I travelled north to visit another vanishing species at the meeting of the Cistercian-Trappists' Region of the Isles hosted by the monks who have a stronghold at Mt St Bernard Abbey near Loughborough. It is a beautiful property and the friendly monks milk about a hundred cows, among other agricultural pursuits. I haven't seen yellow milk like that on the table since a neighbour in my distant past used to share excess milk and cream from her registered Jersey. I managed to control myself and not bring butter home, though I was sorely tempted.
In any event, some of you will know that my Cistercian-Trappist connexions go way back; in fact, the house at Berryville sponsored me for profession, passed a resolution that as far as possible I was of their house, and gave me a cowl—a thoroughly humbling and wonderful lifelong cluster of gifts, spiritual and material. My most recent Cistercian forays have been to the new foundation at Tautra in Norway. Some of the sisters were coming to Mt St Bernard for the meeting and I was able to obtain permission to go to visit them.
It was a blessed twenty-four hours, amazing to hear a full choir—just as amazing for the monks and nuns, as someone wryly remarked; for the men's houses, particularly some of those in Ireland, are facing a bleak future and difficult decisions. When I wasn't talking with my Tautra friends, or milling around the guest dining room with the others—the only non-habited occupant in a sea of black and white—or standing in the freezing cold guest section of the austerely beautiful Pugin church, I simply sat in my room and listened to the silence. I didn't read, I didn't write, I didn't think.
There is a peculiar quality to monastic silence which I've mentioned before; each monastic order has a particular 'flavour' to its silence. I once walked into a monastery church in the Middle East—there was no sign indicating even that it was a monastery church—and instantly identified it as Cistercian-Trappist. Carmelite churches 'feel' different to Cistercian ones; Poor Clare chapels have yet another 'flavour'. Ditto Benedictine churches. Perhaps it was the solidity of the stone building, but yesterday and today the silence simply soaked in and I just sat there. It was such a blessing. And now that I am home something of that silence has, thank God, stayed with me; I need to pay attention to it even as I pick up the threads of my life again.