Silence and stillness on the Isle of Skye

Dunes, north Devon

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland explores the cultural history of silence and retreat while seeking to create more room for silence within her own life. It's a fascinating book, leading through myth, religion, philosophy, sociology, natural history and literature to a place of stillness at the center of them all. "In Silence there is eloquence," wrote the great Persian poet Jalāl ad-DīnRumi. "Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves."

Dog, waves, sand, north Devon

Early on in her quest for silence, Maitland arranged to spend forty days alone at Allt Dearg, a remote cottage on the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides, noting the changes in her psyche and imagination as the weeks went by and her silence and solitude deepened.

Describing the last days of her time on Skye, she says: "Part of me had already moved on from Allt Dearg, and another part of me never wanted to leave. The weather became appalling so that I could not go out for a final walk or round off the time with any satisfying sense of closure. I had to clean the house and then drive a long way. I had felt quite depressed for about forty-eight hours...

Dog at play, north Devon

"...and then, the very final evening, I suddenly was seized with an overwhelming moment of jouissance. I wrote:

'They say it is not over till the fat lady sings. Well, she is singing now. She is singing in a wild fierce wind -- and I am in here, just. Now I am full of joy and thankfulness and a sort of solemn and bubbling hilarity. And gratitude. Exultant -- that is what I feel -- and excited, and that now, here, right at the very edge of the end, I have been given back my joy.'

"For several hours I enjoyed an extraordinary rhythmical sequence of emotions -- great waves of delight, gratitude, and peace; a realization of how much I had done in the last six weeks, how far I had traveled; a powerful surge of hope and possibility for myself and my future; and above all a sense of privilege. But also a nakedness or openness that needed to be honored somehow.

Light, north Devon

Beast on the prowl, north Devon

"I experienced a fierce joyful ... joyful what? ... neither pride nor triumph felt like the right word. Near the end of Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (the third part of The Earthsea Trilogy), Arren, the young prince-hero, who has with an intrepid courage born of love rescued the magician Sparrowhawk, and by implication the whole of society, from destruction, wakes along on the western shore of the island of Selidor. 'He smiled then, a smile both somber and joyous, knowing for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised and at the end of the world, victory.'

"That was what I felt like, alone on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, The Winged Isle. I felt an enormous victorious YES to the world and to myself. For a short while I was absorbed in joy. I was dancing my joy, dancing, and flowing with energy. At one point I grabbed my jacket, plunged out into the wind and the storm. It was physically impossible to stay out for more than about a minute because the wind and rain were so strong and I came back in soaked even from that brief moment; but I came back in energized and laughing and exulting as well. I was both excited and contented. This is a rare and precious pairing. I knew, and wrote in my journal, that this would not last, but it did not matter. It was NOW. At the moment that now, and the enormous wind, felt like enough. Felt more than enough.

Stillness, north Devon

"And once again," she concludes, "I am not alone. Repeatedly, in every historical period, from every imaginable terrain, in innumerable different languages and forms, people who go freely into silence come out with slightly garbled messages of intense jouissance, of some kind of encounter with nature, their self, their God, or some indescribable source of power."

Gazing out to sea, north Devon

Dune grass, north Devon

It was interesting reading Maitland's fine book while I was confined to bed with health problems. With Tilly snuggled close beside me, I was not entirely alone -- but the quiet and stillness of recovering from an illness can be another form of retreat from the rapid rhythms of the noisy modern world. There were long hours when the only sounds were Tilly's snores, the rustle of a book's turning page, rain or bird song outside the window glass. Like a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage, illness takes us deep inside ourselves, shaking away all other concerns except those of the body, those of the soul. Afterwards, I always return to life changed. The world is restored to me piece by piece, with each step noted and celebrated: the first hour out of bed; the first morning outdoors, tucked up in a blanket on the garden bench; the first slow climb to my studio on the hill; the first shaky walk in the woods with Tilly. There's a joy in all this that we rarely speak about, as if to admit that there's any pleasure or value in illness might be to dismiss its overwhelming difficulties. We'd all prefer, of course, to plan our times of retreat, not to have them forced upon us by physical collapse, not to have them come at the most disruptive of times, not to have them overshadowed by pain and fear. But there is a gift in the journey of illness: the gift of long hours of quiet and stillness. A gift that's increasingly precious and rare in our fast-paced society.

And, if we are prepared to except them, there are these further gifts as well: jouissance, wonder, and fresh gratitude for our fragile bodies, our fleeting lives, and the exquisite beauty of the world we return to.

Tilly and the magic quilt

Pictures: Tilly on our Devon coast (not so wild as Skye, but just as beautiful),  and at the bedroom window. The magical "Healing Quilt" is by Karen Meisner. Words: The passage above is from A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland (Granta, 2009); all rights reserved by the author. 


Writers and islands

Barnhill

Having lost my heart to the Hebridean islands off Scotland's west coast, I'm fascinated by the archipelago's natural and cultural history. If you are too, I recommend David Brown's essay "Orwell's Last Neighborhood": a discussion of George Orwell's time on the remote island of Jura, where he wrote his most famous book. "The conventional wisdom," says Brown, "is that Orwell’s years on Jura killed him, nearly robbing the world of 1984. None of his biographers or friends seemed to consider that Jura, despite or because of its harshness, might have extended his life and given him the psychic space to imagine a place utterly unlike it."

I also recommend "Island Mentality" by Madeleine Bunting, a short piece on Orwell and other writers drawn to the Hebrides -- along with her book-length survey of the islands: Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey.

And finally, I recommend three good novels set in the Hebrides: Anna Mazzola's darkly folkloric The Story Keeper, Sarah Moss' darkly comic Night Waking, and Andrew Miller's gripping early-19th-century saga Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

What are some of your favorite novels set on islands, real or imaginary? Mine include Margot Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island (a selkie novel), Elizabeth Knox's Billie's Kiss, Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree, and the Earthsea books of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Isle of Skyle

Hebridean fiction


Tunes for a Monday Morning

On the coast of South Iceland

On a snowy morning here on Dartmoor, my thoughts have turned northward to the beautiful "Island Songs" created by Icelandic musician and composer Ólafur Arnalds. Arnalds travelled for seven weeks to seven locations, creating seven new works in collaboration with a range of other musicians, each performance documented by Icelandic film director Bladvin Zophoníasson.

Island SongsAbove, Week One: Árbakkinn, a collaboration with poet Einar Georg, filmed in Hvammstangi.

"Colorful fishing vessels are often moored in the tiny harbour of Hvammstangi," says Arnalds, "a town that sits in the eastern shore of the Miðfjörður. The name is derived from hvammur, which means 'a green space in a mountain.' The town is home to Einar, a poet and professor of Icelandic language and literature."

Below, Week Two: 1995, a collaboration with organist Dagný Arnalds, filmed in Önundarfjörður.

"The shores of Önundarfjörður are surrounded by picturesque valleys and mountains -- but in winter this can be a harsh and treacherous landscape. In October 1995, a devastating avalanche struck the village of Flateyri, and now, next to the church, sits a memorial stone bearing the names of all the people whose lives were lost. Dagný is a music teacher who lives in this remote place and plays the organ and harmonium in the local churches of Flateyri and Holt."

Above, Week Three: Raddir, a collaboration with conductor Hilmar Örn Agnarsson and composer Georg Kári Hilmarsson in Selvogur.

"A small, wooden stave church, known as The Church of Sailors, sits in a solitary landscape, with views of the ocean from a lonely beach. Hilmar and Georg, father and son, gather here with a chamber choir made up of people from the local area."

Below, Week Six: Particles, a collaboration with vocalist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir (Of Monsters & Men), filmed in Garður.

"Nanna is from the tiny, scattered community of Garður on the Reykjanes peninsula. Two lighthouses sit on the wind-battered seafront, and one of them is the setting for Particles."

Below, Week Seven: Doria, filmed in Reykjavik.

"Reykjavík is my home," says Arnalds. "For this final week I wanted to concentrate on the people around me, because ultimately it is people, even more than places, who inspire my music and art. Doria was filmed at Iðnó Concert Hall, where I gathered my closest friends, family and the Island Songs contributors for the project's final recording session."

Seals in Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today, music from the members of Salt House, a Scottish folk trio consisting of Ewan MacPherson (from Shooglenifty), Lauren MacColl (from the all-women fiddle group Rant), and Jenny Sturgeon (whose project Northern Flyaway, about the music, folklore, and ecology of birds, we discussed a few weeks ago). They've just released a beautiful new album, Undersong, which I highly recommend. The album was recorded in an old Telford church (converted into an arts studio) on the Isle of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides.

Above: "Staring at Stars," written by Ewan MacPherson, with a video of the making of Undersong in the church by the sea on Bernaray.

Below: "Charmer," written by Jenny Sturgeon, inspired by Robert Burns' "Now Westlin' Winds."

West Beach, Isle of Berneray, by Ruth Fairbrother

Above: "Ruisgarry," composed by Lauren MacColl, named for a crofting township on Bernaray -- performed here with Ewan MacPherson in a cottage in the Trossachs in 2015.

Below: "Turn Ye to Me," a mournful song of the sea by Highland poet John Wilson (1785-1854), with music composed by Jenny Sturgeon -- performed here by the Salt House trio for the Cabin Sessions last November.

A seal on the nearby island of Mingulay

Above: "The Selkie Song" by Jenny Sturgeon, a gorgeous rendition of Scottish selkie lore -- performed here with Jonny Hardie (from Old Blind Dogs) on the Isle of May (a nature reserve in the Outer Firth of Forth) in 2014. Backing vocals are by the Isle of May staff. The song can be found on Sturgeon's second solo album, From the Skein.

Below, to end with: "Old Shoes," Sturgeon's lovely paean to walkers and wanderers -- beautifully performed by Salt House in Aberdeenshire two years ago.

Causeway to Bernaray by Nick Corbett

Photographs: West Beach on Bernaray by Ruth Fairbrother. A seal on the nearby island of Mingulay (from The National Trust for Scotland). The causeway to Bernaray from North Uist by Nick Corbett. All rights reserved by the photographers.


On a dark day in Devon

Oak 1

"This far north, the changes from winter to spring and from summer to autumn are rapid," wrote Sharon Blackie in 2012, when she was living on a croft in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. "In spring, a sudden clatter of light announces that winter is over; then one day around the beginning of September you wake up to find that summer slipped away while you weren't paying attention. There is none of the drawn out descent that characterizes the long sleepy slide into autumn in more southerly places.

"And so now here we are, entering that Long Darkness....In places like this, at this time of year, there are no distractions from being. And so we are now becoming engaged in our own responses to this lengthening darkness, to the more vivid reality of simply being. The process reminds me of the work I used to do as a narrative therapist, using personal storytelling and mythmaking with people undergoing life crisis or transitions. That descent into the underworld which underpins our most compelling myths and fairy stories is a real phenomenon for everyone -- whether or not we choose to heed the 'call to adventure.' For me, such descents have always been a time of deep excitement mixed with a little apprehension at whatever I might be allowing to enter next into my life. Though now, of course, I'm describing a different kind of descent, a seasonal -- annual --  descent into another mode of being as the year closes in and headspace opens up."

Oak 2

"This Outer Hebridean darkness is one of the inextricable links between place, weather and seasons which play a major role in our imaginative lives. Because weather and seasons are the foundations of our sense of belonging to a place. Curiously, perhaps, weather is rarely mentioned in writing about the sense of place. And yet, it is weather that largely shapes a place and its landscape.

"The islands of the Outer Hebrides, for example, are as they are precisely because of centuries of wind and driving rain. The land is boggy, treeless, hard, pared to the bones -- and possessed of a vivid, uncluttered clarity precisely for that reason. It's always surprising that so many people who come to live in these islands begin to long for periods of hot dry wind-free sunshine and to complain bitterly about the weather, as though the weather could somehow be extracted and then you'd be left with a place that was so much more reasonable to live in. But hot dry sunshine isn't the Outer Hebrides, it's Provence or Tenerif...or so many other places, but not this place."

Oak 3

"Weather is what you walk in, along with landscape, when you walk in a place. It isn't something accidental that happens to you as you walk on the surface of the earth: it's intrinsic. Anthropologist Tim Ingold writes about this in his book, Being Alive:

" 'To inhabit the open is not, then, to be stranded on a closed surface but to be immersed in the incessant movements of wind and weather, in a zone wherein substances and medium are brought together in the constitution of beings that, by way of their activity, participate in stitching the textures of the land....Sea and land are engulfed in a wider sphere of forces and relations comprise the weather-world. To perceive and to act in the weather-world is to align one's own conduct to the celestial movements of sun, moon and stars, to the rhythmic alterations of night and day and the seasons, to rain and shine, sunlight and shade.' "

Tree in rain

Village in rain

Mossy branches

"All over the world," wrote Gretel Erhlich in Orion Magazine in 2004, "the life of rocks, ice, mountains, snow, oceans, islands, albatross, sooty gulls, whales, crabs, limpets, and guanaco once flowed up into the bodies of the people who lived in small hunting groups and villages, and out came killer-whale prayers, condor chants, crab feasts, and guanaco songs. Life went where there was food. Food occurred in places of great beauty, and the act of living directly fueled people’s movements, thoughts, and lives.

"Everything spoke. Everything made a sound -- birds, ghosts, animals, oceans, bogs, rocks, humans, trees, flowers, and rivers -- and when they passed each other a third sound occurred. That’s why weather, mountains, and each passing season were so noisy. Song and dance, sex and gratitude, were the season-sensitive ceremonies linking the human psyche to the larger, wild, weather-ridden world....

"When did we begin thinking that weather was something to be rescued from?"

Oak dog

Books by Gretel Ehrlich

EarthLines Magazine  November 2012

 The passage by Sharon Blackie is from the Editorial page in EarthLines Magazine, November 2012. The passage by Gretel Ehrlich is from "Chronicles of Ice" in Orion Magazine, November 2004. The poem in the picture captions is from The Wrong Music by Olive Fraser (Canongate, 1989).  All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.