The whalebone box following me through lockdown

A box made of whale bone, was washed up on a remote beach in the Outer Hebrides. Once touched the box can change lives. The box was given to Iain Sinclair almost thirty years ago by Steve Dilworth, a sculptor based on the Island of Harris. It was always intended to be an active thing, kill or cure. Three men undertake a journey to return a box made of whalebone to the place where the whale was beached.

When Iain Sinclair describes the box, he suggests ‘the treasure is nothing actual, it’s that strange state of consciousness that you can only achieve out of your own confusions’. There is no answer to what the box holds except our own questioning of what it holds…an existence predicated on the questioning of its possibility. The realization of this is embodied in movement (of perception/experience/language/place /and physicality) that distrusts any answer, binary or stability, but continues – and in the words of Sinclair, ‘dissolve into something grander, rather than being put into a box and nailed down in a particular spot. It’s much better to be on the move, to be flowing and floating.’

A notebook wasn’t the only thing I always carried with me in the underworld. When I began work on the book, I was given a strange and beautiful gift. 

That gift was an owl cut from a disc of whalebone. The whale had washed up dead on the shoreline of the Isle of Harris in north-west Scotland. One of its rib bones had been sliced into oval cross-sections, and one of those cross-sections had then been cut into the form of an owl – a snowy owl, as I saw it– with four bold strokes of a blade: two for the eyes, and two for the wing-lines. It was an exceptional object, which possessed an Ice Age simplicity of making. It could have been fashioned at any point in the past 20,000 years, but it was made only recently. The artist who gave it to me knew I was about to go underground – and he gave me the bone owl, he said, to help me see in the dark.

From The stories behind the notebooks that documented Rob MacFarlane’s travels underground

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