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The Non-Secular Pilgrimage

Walking and Looking in Ken Cockburn and Alec Finlay’s The Road North

Alice Tarbuck and Simone Kotva

Abstract

In recent years, theologians have begun to interest themselves in the sacred yet avowedly non-confessional nature of much environmental writing, and the present article addresses this field of enquiry via a critical engagement with Ken Cockburn and Alex Finlay’s project The Road North (2010–2011). Appropriating Matsuo Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North to modern Scotland, Cockburn and Finlay distance their ‘pilgrimage’ from institutional religion yet engage with a tradition of contemplative practice, from the spirituality of the Desert Fathers to the manuals of Zen monasticism. In this article, we will draw on Finlay’s description of his work as ‘non-secular’ to develop a hermeneutic of the sacred in recent nature poetry. We will argue that while non-secular engagements with environment may educe forms of ‘ritual looking’ comparable to those practised by the religious mystic, a demurral of the ‘end’ and purpose of pilgrimage distinguishes this nonsecular from the theological ‘contemplation of nature’ to which it gestures.