Being at home


I am pleased to be home. I have been back nearly four weeks now, although it feels much longer. It is good to be back with Elizabeth, to feel again the intimate contentment of body to body, skin against skin; and to be more directly present with the challenges presented as her mother recovers slowly from a fall – we have just spend nearly a week hopefully settling her back in her home. Our house and neighbourhood feel homely and welcoming. And it is wonderful to reacquaint myself with the garden and the orchard, to see the growth on the fruit trees, to harvest the late raspberries, plums and early apples.

I have plunged myself into jobs that have been waiting for my return. First, I tackled the meadow grass under the trees in the Orchard. It should have been cut in early August when it was still standing proud; the torrents brought by the storm Bertha knocked some of it flat, making it more difficult to cut. Three fine sunny days allowed me to scythe it and wheel the cuttings down to the lady who keeps horses in the field below the Crescent. Now that is done, I can turn my attention to the sash windows that need repair and painting before the winter sets in. In contrast to these physical jobs I work at my computer putting the final touches to a book chapter and some articles, while wondering whether I am getting clear about the shape of my next book.

Yet every now and then I feel a pang of nostalgia. No longer can I look out across the open sea to where the world curves away at the horizon, or to where the sea crashes against rocks or laps gently on a sandy shoreline; even living on top of a hill, my outlook is constrained by trees and houses. No longer am I mainly in the open, with the wind moving around me; the air indoors often feels unnaturally still, and even in the garden I am relatively sheltered. No longer am I responding to Coral’s continual movement on the waves as she aligns herself to wind and tide; the house at times feels unnervingly immobile; the car unnaturally smooth. I miss the immediacy of life on board, even my concerns about weather, sea state, whether the anchor will hold. I miss finding my way on the seaways, discovering new places to visit, experiencing the words in the sailing directions unfold into the reality of a sound or a loch, so that the passage quickly becomes familiar and so easier to navigate on a second visit. I miss the fundamental sense of self-reliance, knowing that there is no one else who will chose the right course between the rocks, gybe or reef the mainsail safely in strong winds, and make sure everything is in proper in order.

The everyday creeps up and covers over the primal experience of the world. Much of my experience becomes secondhand, protected from the wild and increasingly mediated by computer screens. The urgency of self-reliance in a wilder world fades into the soft comforts of my favourite armchair.

Settled back in that armchair I watched a TV programme about the puffins on the Shiant Islands. Full of the memories of my stay there, I was keen to see it. It was a well-crafted programme enthusiastically presented by the engaging Miranda Krestovnikoff. The pictures were beautiful, and on the screen I could see the puffins close up, much more clearly than when I visited. Yet as I watched, I felt myself having to cling onto my own original more visceral experience – entering the lagoon through the tidal rip between the islands; seeing the sea surface littered with puffins; hearing the unstoppable croaking and crooning from the nests; watching the birds, beaks full of sand eels, flying on their little wings, often seeming they might crash into Coral’s mast, only swerving past only at the last moment. Above all I want to hold onto the puffins particular appearance, smart and self-important, with their peculiar way of swimming away while looking back over their shoulders, as if to say, “Goodness me, why can’t people leave us alone”.

I stayed at the islands overnight. Even though the weather was quiet, in the open anchorage Coral moved around uneasily. The holding is said to be poor, shingle and loose boulders, so I set the anchor carefully and made sure I knew how to leave the anchorage in the dark should I need to. And I watched the light fade through the long Highland evening with a sense of being on an edge: I was quite safe, but that safety was delicate and fragile. The birds were still active when I turned into my bunk, and busy again as I awoke in the morning.

It is sometimes said that we humans have so thoroughly colonized the Earth that there are no truly wild places left. And yet unmediated experiences of the more-than-human world are still available if we are open to them. It is this naked sense of the world that takes us out of our little selves into the wider whole. As Nietzsche put it, “All the regulations of mankind are turned to the end that the intense sensation of life is lost in continual distraction”.

Puffins at the Shiant Islands

In Spindrift I tell of my first encounter with a puffin off Bolus Head, my childlike response calling out “it’s a puffin! It’s a puffin!” As I steered Coral through the tidal popple at the north entrance to the bay at the Shiant Islands, my response was similar: I could see dots of white everywhere, and those wonderful beaks: as I wrote in texts to several people, it was as if the sea surface was littered with puffins. Very soon after I realized that the air was full of puffins too. Most of those afloat seemed to be juveniles, pufflets (puffins live up to forty years but do not mate for the first five years) while those airborne were clearly adults, tirelessly flying too and from to the fishing grounds to bring sand-eels to feed their chicks. These adults seemed so intent on their business that they often seemed not to see Coral, flying toward the mast and only diverting at the last moment and passing within feet. If the sea was littered with puffins, the air was full as if with a cloud of mosquitoes (If you look very closely in the picture you can see the dots in the air; otherwise, please imagine).

It is very difficult not to anthropomorphise puffins. They do look like well turned out but rather insecure and yet self-important people. As I took Coral slowly toward the anchorage, steering through the floating flocks, the pufflets would swim energetically ahead, looking anxiously from side to side as if to say, “I am not really bothered by this great white creature”, until we get too close. They can then either dive underwater or take off. The former is the more elegant choice, a neat flip takes them underwater leaving a patterns of ripples behind. The latter is a bit of a mess, because puffins, with their wings more suited for flying underwater, have huge difficulty in taking off. so they usually splashing frantically along with water, wings and feet flapping away, until they crash inelegantly into a wave.

Once I had Coral safely anchored and looked around, I soon realized that there were nearly as many razorbills as puffins. These are a slightly bigger bird, an auk, distinguished by a black beak with a white line across it, joining a similar line across the face to the eye. The razorbills seem on the whole less nervous than the puffins: I saw one swimming quite happily within a couple of yards of Coral, it seemed quite unfazed as I moved about the deck. When it decided to dive I was able to watch it turn tail up and one underwater open its wings to fly down beneath Coral’s keel.

There are, of course, other birds: shags, various gulls, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, the odd gannet, and for me the most impressive, the skuas, big, heavily built seabirds, brown, with two white stripes on their wing. Again, my first encounter with a skua is recounted in Spindrift, when I watched one attack a gull and make it regurgitate its meal. Skuas are known as ‘kleptoparasites’ because of their habit is stealing food this way. I climbed the heights of Eilean an Tighe, and watched the skuas cruising above the flocks of puffins and razorbills looking for opportunities to pounce. I am sure they would quickly steal a puffin chick if given half a chance. I felt I could see a section of a food chain: sand-eels feeding baby birds and baby birds feeding skuas.

The Shiants are columnar basalt, the most northern remnants of the volcanic chain that stretches all the way south, through southern Skye, the Small Isles, Staffa, Mull to the Giants Causeway off northeast Ireland. These rocks, still looking as if recently thrust out of the earth, as so different from the ancient worn down gneiss of the Outer Hebrides and the Torridonean sandstone of the northwest mainland. The islands belong to the Nicholson family, and I enjoyed reading Adam Nicholson’s account of his life on the island in Sea Room: An Island Life. I spent almost two full days and one night at the Shiants, enjoying the spectacular scenery. But really just watching the puffins.


Sue Boyle Online

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I'm Franklin Ginn, a cultural geographer at the Unviersity of Bristol. My research interests are in multispecies landscapes, plant politics, environment-society relations, Anthroposcenes/ Chthulucenes and philosophical questions concerning the nonhuman.


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