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Cormorants, paintbrushes and the healing power of water

A time of year to reflect, heal and prepare for the coming winter.
We caught up with Ambassador Easkey Britton, surfer and scientist, to see what she has been up to as the seasons change.

"I'll admit I have an unusual and lovely resistance building in me to stay put & not move beyond the wiggly waggley contours of my own coastline for the rest of this year..." EB.

My body has been a little broken this last year. Dogged by a knee injury that left me struggling to connect with my body and for the first time feeling like I couldn’t heal myself. I kept going, managing 8 to 12 weeks before it would flare again. And then it started happening every 4-6 weeks. Still, it didn’t seem to be affecting my surfing too badly so I pushed on. At the end of the year I felt a sharp pain when being tossed and tumbled during a wipeout in the surf. That was the final straw. I needed to learn more about what my body was telling me. I needed to ask for help, ask more questions and try to unravel the symptoms.

This led me to connect with really interesting people who work with the body in different ways. All of them are passionate about movement. How we move our bodies with and through our environment. How our patterns of movement (or increasing lack of movement with the rise of sedentary lifestyles) shape our environment. And how our movement is shaped by our environment. I have awakened a growing fascination for the body and its link to the mind and nature. 

Some of the key elements for my recovery have been: first, beginning to appreciate what I call the ‘spaces in between’ by slowing my pace down a touch. And finding my creativity and imagination sparked in these moments of stillness, most often in nature.

The injury brought on enforced moments of stillness that allowed time to reflect on my own patterns. I had thought the injury was beyond my control. It seemed to flare for no reason, no matter what exercises I tried or what physical therapist I saw. But then I noticed that it would flare up usually after intense periods of travel or stress. I gave my body little chance of recovery before jumping into the next big adventure. In the first 3 - 4 months of 2016 I’d flown from Ireland to Papua New Guinea, to New Zealand, to Hawaii, to the United States, to mainland Europe and on to Iran and back again to Ireland…never spending more than a month in each place. Air travel has made the ability to travel vast distances in no time at all. We fly so we can get to places quicker, waste less time. Yet we often don’t honour the passage of that time or respect the other costs of that rapid transition from one environment to the next. I didn’t allow time to ‘unpack’ the tension and stress my body must have carried as a result of the travel.

Easkey Britton | Finisterre | Cliff topThe spaces in between really matter. The spaces in between one wave and the next. One job and the next, one adventure and the next. That’s where the good stuff happens, if you allow it. I realised so much of my life was driven by a ‘make happen’ attitude. That belief that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. And yet, as my Dad constantly reminds me, ‘you can do anything you want. But you can’t do everything.’ There is a cost. It takes energy. Be that fossil fuels, or calories, or our soul-connection.

I realised I did have a choice. I needed to better understand and listen to my body. To allow myself deeper moments of feeling and being and less doing and making. My decision to spend more time at home this year is allowing me to be more here, more present. This feeling of groundedness is allowing me to be more in myself and my body too. And I’m noticing the changes in my near-environment. The cycles and seasons. The subtle changes in sea surface temperature. The mating season for various seabirds, including the cormorant.

My life is still something of a whirlwind, with beautiful still points. Being immersed in ‘wild’ places (this can be as ‘wild’ as the hill behind my house watching a storm front pass or Galway Bay for a swim after a day’s work at the university, or a remote off-shore island shaped like a sleeping dragon). What these places all have in common is that they allow me to drop roles and break negative thought patterns. They reconnect me with my own sense of aliveness.

The painting of the cormorants taking flight is the culmination of this initial process of recovery, of coming back home to myself.

The painting flew out of me in three days while tucked away in my friend’s studio, Irish artist Pauline Bewick, in County Kerry. A place where I make at least one annual pilgrimage to do nothing else but paint. Pauline is a lifelong mentor and friend since I first met her at an art class when I was aged 10. At 82 she’s full of an incredible sense of aliveness and creativity and we share passionate conversations about nature and the human condition. She is especially open and wise when it comes to how we love.

My paintings often capture elements of both the real and the imagined. In this, there is an explosion of energy perfectly contained. It was inspired by a moment of spontaneity when, on my usual route home to Donegal from Galway, I turned left at the crossroads and headed out to a corner of the coast I’d recently fallen in love with. A quiet place with shimmering, crystal clear water. Diving into the Atlantic ocean allowed me to feel my body in a new way. As soon as I felt the first sharp sting of cold water on bare skin, like liquid fire enveloping me, any feeling of exhaustion I carried was gone. Tension and tightness dissolved. Over-coming my fear of dark watery places, swimming through sea caves and into hidden parts of the coast with only a family of nesting cormorants for company. Pauline commented how unlike a lot of my other paintings it is, which capture an element of aloneness or perhaps even longing. In this, she sees an incredible sense of contentment and presence. The woman so completely in the moment. Content with herself, just as she is. At home in nature. It is full of a sense of belonging and nowness. Or as Bedouine sings on her new album, 

“I’m not an island, I’m a body of water.”

For me, there is something about the empathic journey in it too. How we move from head to heart has a lot to do with how we face ourselves in fear. Powerful experiences leave impressions on the heart. I suspect the sea has left mighty impressions on my heart.

Finisterre ambassador and founder of Like Water, Easkey Britton Ph.D., is a pioneering big-wave surfer and marine social scientist specialising in ocean and human health. Her work explores the relationship between people and the sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. Currently a research fellow at Galway’s National University of Ireland researching 'blue space', or how water environments are good for our for health and wellbeing.

Words and painting by Easkey Britton | Photographs by Chris McClean (wetsuit), Tomas Hein (cliff top nap), Jesse Lenihan (Easkey and boat)

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