From Ushant to Earth Day ‘tis thirty-five leagues

A pub sing is held at the Somerville Armory second Thursdays and fourth Tuesdays.  Any song is welcome as long as it has a chorus that all may join in on.  On a Thursday, the songs ranged from Tom Paxton to songs of courtship and rum (wouldn’t do us any harm).  A woman led us through a version of the sea shanty Spanish Ladies.  It had explicit instructions for sailing up the English Channel between Brittany. France and Cornwall, United Kingdom from across the Atlantic.  Here is the chorus.

“We’ll rant and we’ll roar, like true British sailors,

We’ll range and we’ll roam all on the salt seas,

Until we strike soundings

In the Channel of old England.

From Ushant to Scilly ‘tis thirty-five leagues.

The distance from Ushant to Scilly is actually thirty-three leagues but it is more fun and sounds better to sing “five” not “three.”  Those leagues were experienced first hand, when I had the opportunity to sail the route aboard Grayhound, a three-masted lugger (no booms).  We sailed the other way from Plymouth to Brittany, stopping at the Isles of Scilly with a cargo of French Bordeaux and Muscadet, coffee and tea, chocolate and honey.

Greyhound anchored Ushant, France

Ushant is the western most part of France, an island off of  Brittany. The rocky island marks the tooth in the jaws of the English Channel.

Chart of Cornwall onboard Greyhound.

The Isles of Scilly are off the southwestern tip of Cornwall, the most southerly and westerly point in the United Kingdom.  The isles look like giant granite dice, coarse-grained with porphyritic crystals of feldspar, tossed from Lizard Point.

Sailors, having been at sea for months or years, must have belted out this penultimate homeward-bound ballad as each landmark hove into sight.

“So the first land we made, it is called the Deadman,

Next Rame Head, off Plymouth, Start, Portland, and the Wight,

We sailed by Beachy,

By Fairlight and Dungeness,

And then bore away for the South Foreland light.

The Deadman, or Deadman’s Point, is today known as Dodman Point, the highest headland on the south Cornwall coast. For a weary sailor, this is the first landfall looming out of the horizon.  South Foreland Lighthouse is at the other end of the Channel, beyond Dover, alerting ships to beware of the Goodwin Sands.

A league is three nautical miles. A nautical mile is 1.15 statute miles. From Ushant to Scilly is actually 112 miles or 97 nautical miles or about 32 ½ leagues.  For the sailor longing for home, thirty-five leagues may be more correct due to adverse wind and contrary tides.

Sailors use nautical miles because it is one minute of latitude.  Sixty nautical miles or twenty leagues is one degree of latitude.  Most fists held aloft at arm’s length span ten degrees or two hundred leagues.  Each of four knuckles represent 2.5 degrees.  When the north star appears one knuckle higher in the sky, a northward-bound sailor knows fifty leagues has been traveled.  Northward bound in the Atlantic Ocean, when the pole star, around which all others turn, is 49 degrees high, put the rudder hard over to turn the ship to the  right, starboard.  Steer due East by the compass in the binnacle.  This course will take one between Ushant at 48.46 N and the Isles of Scilly at 49.56 N.

“Let go your shank painter, Let go your cat stopper, Haul all your clew garnets, let tack and sheet fly.”  This is how a sailing ship prepares the anchor line, lets the anchor swing, furls the sails, and lashes them up against the spars.

Nowadays, with our eyes tacked down, we fist cellphones to navigate city blocks and country miles. Channels are on the TV and increasingly on cellphones.  Leagues play sports. When Earth Day comes around each April 22, most people are mindless to where we’ve come from, care not where we are, and are clueless to where we are going.  We moan about the latest perturbation to our daily domestic chores of tending our needs and homes, our routines and recreations.

Earth Day is not kept alive in song.  Tending earth stewardship, when we go astray or bump into an obstacle, we wring our hands, blame and curse.  We need to recognize the channel markers and navigational aids for conservation and restoration to get back on track. Stay the course, and persevere just to see the day through.  The way forward is slow, incremental.  You can not rush a democracy. We take the time that is needed. Let go one line, spars take time to swing round. Only when in position, take up on the other line. Take in, sweat the line, and make fast.  Our future depends on knowing the right course. Pull together and handle the lines deftly in the full recognition that  if we attempt to sail straight into the winds the sails will luff, back, and we won’t get there.

Earth Day 1970, to quote Barry Commoner, “was irrefutable evidence that the American people understood the environmental threat and wanted action to resolve it.”  That we remember once a year. Commoner was a biologist who upset the applecart of academia by jumping disciplines and going into social science.  With his Baby Tooth Study in the late 1950s, he demonstrated that the presence of Strontium 90 in children’s teeth was a direct result of nuclear fallout. He put it succinctly: “The greatest single cause of environmental contamination of this planet is radioactivity from test explosions of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.”  As the result of speaking irrefutable truth to government, above-ground nuclear testing ceased.

Our work was just beginning. “Environmental pollution is an incurable disease.  It can only be prevented.”  Commoner debated those focused on overpopulation as the source of environmental problems.  He observed that poverty “initiates the rise in population,” not the other way around. Rapid population growth of the developing world is the result of not having adequate living standards.  He postulated that capitalist technologies were chiefly responsible for environmental degradation, as opposed to population pressures.  For example, the child labor using hand tools in Congo cobalt mines to keep rechargeable lithium-ion batteries cheap is wrong on so many levels.

In his 1971 bestselling book The Closing Circle, Commoner introduced the idea of sustainability.  He argued that polluting products should be replaced with natural products.  He believed in technology.  But, above all, he believed that it would take social developments to achieve a natural decrease in both population and environmental damage.

“If you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you are looking the wrong way.”

The fog of excess pollution and too much global greenhouse gasses has dimmed the light.  The distance that we need travel is vast.  From the first Earth Day windward to the lee shores of sustainability and no poverty.  Yet, no matter whether you are caring for your car or pet, your home, your place, or your community, there will always be work to do. Steady on and be prepared to shorten sail.

We must steadfastly stay the course of compassionate stewardship and not pollute.  Along the voyage, look up and with fist held high, remember to count the digits as the leagues go by.  If you care to raise  your voice, please join us in the chorus.  We’ll rant and we’ll roar together in song while sailing on for a healthier planet.

Photographs by Rob Moir

3 thoughts on “From Ushant to Earth Day ‘tis thirty-five leagues

  1. Rob has a great post here! check out the lyrics commentary 🙂 some fun… AND … read on re: environmental info…. how above ground nuclear tests were affecting us… how they got stopped…. and how that relates to how change gets made…. ‘if you can see the light at the end of the tunnel you are looking the wrong way’ … it will make sense if you read the posting.

  2. Thank you for the beautiful and true reading of the old ballad, Spanish Ladies. Not only do we need guardians for the whales and the reefs, we need guardians for these songs and the way of composing that preserved such precious information with such beauty and accessibility.

  3. I never knew that was why they stopped doing nuclear tests!
    Thank goodness we’ve known how to reduce, reuse, and recycle for 50 years yet we still get plastic bags at the grocery store.

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