Shimmering twilight, popadum, azalea essence, lavvus, Neolithic axes, supine sheep, Henry Beston, lighthouses, singing seals & the haunt of bonxies and skylarks.
I wonder if there’s a way to cheat time. The whaler said he went to South Georgia Island. It was a free trip. They gathered the boys who wanted to escape the Shetland winter and took them there. They were whalers already. His cheek was cut by a scar that went from his chin to his forehead; half his face must have been hanging off. Sliced through. He said he lived in summer those years, north and south.
You’re on a boat here, suspended above the water. If you want to, you can spend the rest of your life at the window. In the bright-red room. A polished terra cotta with the deep blue of twilight shimmering. This is nothing like the insides of a dictionary, but that’s where most of us dwell. Encased in the words. I’m telling the truth. You can ask anybody who lives here. Simmer Dim. The witness of seals and waves, salt and grit.
The seal was only a baby, found on the beach, premature. She was in this world, her mother gone; they can shoot seals here. And then in a bathtub and then in Peter’s arms, where we saw her, one flipper resting on his hand. She made it a week fed by a tube, fighting; she was a fighter, Jan said. But then she got an infection, umbilical cord, a high fever. How can you know she was beautiful—gray fur, round eyes, trusting the arms holding her close would take care of her? Peter was bereft when it happened. They’d lost several over the years, but that didn’t make it any easier.
To see this, you need to climb up to the top of Ronas Hill in mist or cloud, the water from many continents blue in glimpses and the pattern of several small lakes all feeding into the waterfall a man I meet tells me I won’t be able to find. I know he’s wrong and tell him so.
The lighthouse keeper is in the café with his son, who grew up in the lighthouse, and his granddaughter. She spills her trucks and Legos on the floor and looks at me with a frown. Everyone laughs. The lighthouse keeper’s son has helped reconstruct the weaving shed where I sit now typing. We’ve been to the lighthouse. It sits above the cliffs where stones were spewed out of a volcano centuries ago. Kittiwakes and fulmars fly above the deep slashes in the cliffs. Keeper of lighthouses, keeper of cliffs, the ocean bashing against the ness. If you walk along the cliffs through the fields, where lambs nose their mothers, butting their heads against her side to drink milk, there’s a place where the force of the sea piled boulders into an amphitheater, stacked up in red chunks. I haven’t been here, but I know it’s as grand as everything else we’ve seen around here. Just about in the Arctic, suspended between the North Sea and the Atlantic, haunt of bonxies and skylarks.
Aurore looks into my eyes and smiles; she’s interested in languages and knows the lighthouse keeper. She’s married to Superman, she says. She delivers the mail here. She loves trees. I think I love the seals singing more than I love trees, though I could be coaxed to ardor by the Arctic azalea. Flowers as small as a caper, or smaller. Color condensed into something not resembling color at all. The essence of azalea. To see this, you need to climb up to the top of Ronas Hill in mist or cloud, the water from many continents blue in glimpses and the pattern of several small lakes all feeding into the waterfall a man I meet tells me I won’t be able to find. I know he’s wrong and tell him so. There are more ways than one to find the most beautiful waterfall on the island.
Peter has the keys. This annoys Scott, who wants the keys to Geoff’s so he can watch the soccer game. I want the keys, but not really those keys. I’ve been dreaming about keys to hotel rooms from decades ago. I’ve stolen the keys to two hotel rooms and haven’t committed a murder, but am afraid someone will complain I have. No one is paying attention. Everyone is paying attention. The keys are the way to produce goods. The keys to the castle, though in Scalloway it stands open, with carefully raked sand all through. Is this a garden too? If I’m found with the keys to the hotel rooms, I may be arrested for the murder I didn’t commit.
The café flourished for about a week, Pam tells me. She presides over a table laden with the most delicious food: popadum, curry, lentils and tomatoes, salad from Susan’s garden. If I look out the window, which I do, I can see the ocean on the beach, the lambs cropping the grass, the iris about to bloom, the graveyard with the two young men killed in the First World War from measles and not their ship sinking.
Kittiwakes and fulmars fly above the deep slashes in the cliffs. Keeper of lighthouses, keeper of cliffs, the ocean bashing against the ness.
I think it was Edith Wharton who said she was happy if she wrote four pages a day. So little, yet so much. As I watch, the puffin moves one stone and then another. Clearing out the burrow for his mate to lay her egg, someone tells me. He seems industrious, capable, even though I like to think of him as an entertainer, funny, compassionate, brightly colored. He’s getting work done while his mate breezes around the cliffs, flapping her wings with her friends.
I want to say something about the light. It comes up under everything, but I’m so old now and nothing has the edge it once had when I first saw this northern light. Glows, polished under ocean and rock and boat. Under the gravel and on the waves, in the nooks and crannies of the stones that built the house next door. Sometimes my head feels perfectly empty and sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes the effort of holding each thought is nothing more than eating—swallow it and it’s gone into some subterranean cavern. Hard to call up, unnecessary, expendable.
Is this really wilderness? It may be, I think as we climb to the top of Ronas Hill. In a few days there’ll be hundreds of people celebrating midsummer. I’m afraid of the mist for a second, but we have a GPS that plots our route back down. Later, a man hanging pictures in the gallery tells me it’s easy to get lost here. How many times have I heard that? You’ll get lost, didn’t you get lost, aren’t you afraid you’ll get lost? But the hare and the rabbit and the lamb with the wide chocolate face and his mother with her hide hanging loose, the tiniest flowers on the Earth, the wind, the mist, skuas guarding their nests don’t think about “lost,” they only think “here.” Here is where the world is.
We watch a guy on a three-wheeled motorcycle race down the beach, attach a buoy to an anchor and then haul the anchor into the water. A day later, the little fishing boat has moved to the new buoy, bright orange, and there are two more buoys bobbing in the waves.
Sometimes my head feels perfectly empty and sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes the effort of holding each thought is nothing more than eating—swallow it and it’s gone into some subterranean cavern.
In the old store, she told us, there was a man hiding behind the cash register with an axe, sharpened, shiny, Neolithic. He had long, tangled hair and walked with a limp. He threatened the children with a grin, and then there were the mice who sang, flowers that had tails, the murmur of the waves, the singing of the seals on their rocks, shiny and cold, their curious eyes, their stolen kisses. We didn’t go into the store, but we stood on the shingle and the rocks touched our feet gently as the waves wet the shore.
We think the otter climbed up the steps and slept in the shed next door. Usually he’s close to the water, near the old battery propped up against a piece of board. I knew someone had come down the stairs as I sat in the kitchen writing, but wasn’t sure who.
I don’t want to list the deaths, but there it is. Some a relief, some not. The ones we mourn are the baby seal, too late to save, even with a tube down her throat. The lamb on the beach. We won’t ever find out about the sheep on her back, two lambs and their mother watching as she twitched on the clipped grass. A certain kind of buttercup found only on St. Ninian’s island crushed under her head. But we told the woman in the store not far from the island and she promised to call the owner. A farmer we think we passed driving his tractor on the way out of town. You just turn them over, the woman said.
Snipe, lapwing, Arctic tern, black-backed gull, common tern, kittiwake, tufted merganser all make an appearance this morning as we sit with the door open. On the walls around me are photographs along with Jeannette’s work. Otters and seals and birds. Mostly captured by people who came from somewhere else. Stone carvings of seals sit on the tables, and little containers for coins to help the sanctuary. I’ve been promised a look at the baby otter, Ranger, who squeaks for his mother and she’s nowhere to be seen.
But the hare and the rabbit and the lamb with the wide chocolate face and his mother with her hide hanging loose, the tiniest flowers on the Earth, the wind, the mist, skuas guarding their nests don’t think about “lost,” they only think “here.” Here is where the world is.
Danish painter Emilie Demant Hatt travelled here on her way home from Greenland in 1932. She watched her husband, Gudmund, excavate the settlements at Jarlshof, buried for hundreds of years under sand. She painted. She’d fallen in love with the north. There’s a painting of her wearing her Sami dress. She sewed it those dark nights in the lavvu living near the sea. Her husband might have been a traitor, but doesn’t seem to have been. She lost two children. She would have loved children; she mourned those children forever. She was beautiful, or not; she liked the deep blues of twilight. Simmer Dim. There’s no way to understand her, is there, cut off by time?
We go with Geoff to feed the wild ponies carrots. He hands me three, and first the white pony takes the carrot from my hand and chomps down. The carrot wobbles out of her mouth until it’s gone and then the other pony comes across the road and we give her a carrot too. Geoff throws more carrots down on the rough ground. He fed the ponies for years with Jeannette.
The stairs at Eshaness are brand new for elderly tourists on the buses from the cruise ships, the newspaper tells me. The tour buses race up the road from Lerwick to the lighthouse, but the tourists have a hard time stepping off the turf and onto the pavement. So the operator has installed concrete steps to the lay-by near the turnaround, complete with new wooden railings. Everyone’s up in arms; he’s ignored all the rules, hasn’t gotten any permits and made a mess of things. What if every Tom, Dick and Harry decided to put up steps all over the island for elderly tourists, rushing north on the buses too big for the roads, disregarding sheep and birds and sky?
The food chain on the illustration at the lighthouse includes fishing boats. This is the problem, as far as I see it. Pieces of nets entwined with the seaweed on the beach, mixed in with the jewel-like shells in my pocket now. The sun’s warm and I’m thinking of the waves, the sand, the days Henry Beston spent at the outermost house on the Cape. I’d been hoping there’d be no plastic here, but you know the answer. When the sand eels were scooped up by the trawlers, the bird population crashed. Puffins couldn’t get enough nutrients for their offspring. No one knows why; once the fishery was closed down, the numbers didn’t shoot back up. But that’s the thing: the waters are warming; the sand eels haven’t rebounded. Nothing works the way we think it should and no one wants to do enough. We don’t recycle here because we don’t have to yet.
He threatened the children with a grin, and then there were the mice who sang, flowers that had tails, the murmur of the waves, the singing of the seals on their rocks, shiny and cold, their curious eyes, their stolen kisses.
We’re behind the toilets. Which doesn’t look like a bathroom building at all. In the community garden. A rockery pattered with mandalas, and Alex and her two kids are there too, and Scott is there and we’re all eating ice cream as the sun blazes at seven in the sky over the Atlantic. The beach is just over there, and the red cliffs. I’m sitting on the end of a driftwood bench. Alex’s son sits next to me, eating his ice cream quickly, and her daughter has finished hers and is rolling down the little hills. Later she makes a nest. I’ve seen the sheep do this on the moor, snuggle into the cuts where people have harvested peat. We’ve been watching them cutting with a special tool. A tusker. The tool makes wedges of chocolate peat, and they line them up on the bank of the cut to dry. Some years they never dry at all. Alex tells me about her project with grains of sand. Each one is as different as snowflakes are from each other. It’s that William Blake line—to see the world in a grain of sand, she says. She’s made a movie of a sand worm—microscopic, but in the film huge, from another planet. Amazing, miraculous almost.
What to make of the mostly guys, old guys with their huge camera lenses like machine guns, shooting away at otters and seals and tiny birds? They drive around in vans and rented cars. Kicking gravel up, tromping the tiny orchids, sometimes not leaving their car at all to get a shot. Aggressive, sullen, retired. They’ve made money somewhere else and come here. An invasion of males, just at breeding time.
The dead seal has disappeared. Carted off in a body bag. Ferry to Kirkwood, truck to Inverness. We watch them here sleeping on rocks identical to their fur, or alone in the voes, taking a look at us. Turning this way and that. Their silky fur, their shining eyes, their whiskers.
It leaves the mark of the water, waves written on glass.
Geoff points out an otter in the bay near the beach. The Arctic terns are doing their dance, dipping and muttering and then diving straight into the water, and the otter is tumbling in the water, almost on the beach. Flipping this way and that, her head’s smaller than the seal’s. And slick, I imagine, since I can’t see her clearly as she plays. The seal we’ve seen is much more curious, looking toward shore, pacing back and forth in the little waves.
Two lace collars knitted and displayed in the gallery: “the chaos of the tide line after a storm” (witch) and “the gentle patterns created by the natural ebb and flow of the tide” (angel). Esme tells me sea glass can be certified—tumbled in a machine, polished by the sea. It leaves the mark of the water, waves written on glass. Some sea glass is from the 1800s.
The pasture looks so calm, unperturbed by wind. I know, though, that place is absolutely wicked with sound, the call of the skylark, a constant whirring tweet, the flapping of the lapwing, the rattle of curlew wings, oystercatchers calling out alarms, the constant hum of sparrows and wrens nesting. The screech of bonxies, guarding their nests. Scott swatted at one as it swooped above us, like an axe.
Tim says it took them eight months to finish the weaving shed, and then it was just bits and bobs to finish. There were four of them and Al had the vision; he was young. And then, of course, there were the two on the roof; you had to have a roof before you could have anything at all. There was an unbelievable amount of trash in the shed; you’d think you’d gotten it all out and then you’d find the chassis of a car underneath another board.
Sharon White’s book Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. Boiling Lake (On Voyage), a collection of short fiction, is her most recent work. She is also the author of two collections of poetry, Eve & Her Apple and Bone House. Her memoir, Field Notes: A Geography of Mourning, received the Julia Ward Howe Prize, Honorable Mention, from the Boston Authors Club. Some of her other awards include the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction from Philadelphia Stories, Neil Shepard Prize from Green Mountains Review, Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, the Leeway Foundation Award for Achievement, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.
Lead image: Paul Carroll