place of one’s childhood; spiritual home
by Jen Hadfield
‘The shuddering beauty of this biosphere is bristling with thorns,’ David Abrams
Buzz Aldrin suffered from depression after he came back from the Moon. Mike Collins, by his own account, felt fine. On his mantelpiece, he set a framed photograph of the crescent Earth taken from Apollo 11, and was tickled when visitors cried out, “oh, the Moon!” Every so often his new perspective on home helped him to see some minor irritation in a different way. He recommended rocketting world leaders into space, so that they could see international conflicts in their global, even galactic, context. He had little desire to go back, though, turning down an opportunity to moon-walk, himself, on NASA’s next Moon-mission. With every hour that passed in Space, voyaging to the Moon, orbiting the Moon, getting everything ready for Aldrin and Armstrong’s return, he spoke less about where he was, and more about Home. He became disparaging about the Moon, calling it ‘the smallpox below’, a ‘withered, sun-seared peach-pit’ of a place. After their successful take-off and reunion, they fired up the ignition sequence that would break them clear of the Moon’s atmosphere. They ‘burnt for Home.’ Collins had plenty more he wanted to do here on Earth below, and ‘I am also planning to leave a lot of things undone,’ he said. But, by and large, he felt unchanged, except that he’d lost the habit of saying “the sun comes up” or “the sun goes down”. The Earth turns before the Sun, he reminds us. We move into the Sun’s light and we move into our own shadow.
On his first space mission, he and Frank Young orbited the Earth at eighteen thousand miles an hour. But because they were travelling at the same speed as the Earth, they felt no sensation of speed whatsoever. Collins went outside. He stuck his head and shoulders out of Agena’s hatch, and gazed at Space, as if looking at a garden from a porch. ‘My God,’ he exclaimed ‘the stars are everywhere [..] this is the best view of the Universe that a human has ever had.’ Has anyone ever been more ootadaeks?
Today, I am experiencing the best view of the Universe that I have ever had. It is the Sabbath, for some, and I am propped at zero velocity relative to the Earth, in the porch of an old Shetland crofthouse on the isle of Papa Stour, waiting, while the Earth rolls me towards the sun.
Despite the wind, and gloom, a wren is singing its heart out on the tarry roof of the byre in the garden. Jon Dunn – the writer and naturalist – says the wren is his favourite Shetland bird. It sings, he says, in the heart of winter. In the traditional style, the byre is roofed with an old upside-down sixareen, caulked and tarred. It looks like an ark, and it is full of peats and pallets to cut up and burn.
While I wait, the wren sings. I drink tea from an Alcatraz mug, and munch digestives down into waning crescents until they are narrow enough to dunk, and I play with a trick of perspective. I look out and say to myself, what if this, this old, Shetland garden, dim in the pre-dawn, this whirling epicentre, of Hilde’s colourful mosaics of broken pottery, of wind-bleached, wind-tousled grass, with this wren, flitting from boat-byre, to broken bowl of rainwater, to gate-post, is actually Heaven?
The Celts believed that Heaven and Earth were only three feet apart and, in the frequently referenced ‘thin places’, even closer. I too believe in a proximate Heaven, as subjective to each of us as our ideas of ‘remote’ or ‘centre’ or ‘edge’. What if Heaven has been right under our noses, all along? What if this is it? Heaven on our doorstep, Heaven under the kitchen sink. When we imagine some kind of membrane between us and Heaven, I think we might be it – sometimes a barrier, sometimes a portal. It might be ourselves that stand between us and Heaven.
I know I’m not proposing anything new, here. I am just, like Collins, trying to see things from a different perspective. I am just trying to wake up. It is late November. At 8.38am, on the porch of North Banks, I spin into the light.
For the last couple of days, we’ve been weathering a Northerly gale. I have had trouble keeping warm. The unfamiliar Raeburn chugged like a steam engine, filling the house with savoury, eye-stinging smoke. In that wild wind, I shut and open dampers, experimenting with the gas and electric heaters, opening all the doors and windows to let out the smoke. It is still heavenly.
I think Hilde and Pete know that, because they do something very uncommon with their house. They open its doors to people they know even just a little, which is how I come to be working on my book, here, this week. Everywhere are little love letters of welcome and thoughtfulness, urging guests to keep warm, to use as much coal and peat and wood as they like, and not to worry about broken dishes.
Visiting bairns are encouraged to draw on the wall in the narrow passage that leads from the kitchen to the sitting room. “Dear Boys and Girls, when you visit, you are welcome to write your name here or draw a small picture … NO pictures of poo, or monsters or scribbles or crossing out of other people’s names allowed. By order of Granny and Grandad.’
These, then, are the bylaws in Heaven. They seem reasonable and attainable, but by my reckoning there were plenty of monsters and poo in Heaven.
And there – I’ve drifted into the past tense. I think I’m imagining looking back from the not-too-distant future. What if we recognise too late the location and sensations of Heaven, once the wild places have been so fragmented and suppressed and polluted as to exist only in reserves, preserves and reservations? And what will we say, when the bairns ask us, what was it like, in Heaven?
First of all, Heaven, like Foula or Fair Isle, was a place went in to, not out to. It was not ‘remote’. What it was was red and rotten, like a cheese left to ripen in a cave. This made it stunning. It was riddled with the caves and tunnels that kayakkers love: you could paddle right into its core, through caves and tunnels. From the top, burns drained into inland sink-holes, hissing into the choppy, turquoise sea below. A dead neesik lay on a beach on the North coast and itself provided Heaven for several other species, which pecked and munched at its ruined crang. What I’m saying is, it wasn’t ‘perfect’. We had been around too long for that, and anyway, perfection wasn't the point. On Heaven’s beaches, sheltered from that biting Northerly, were silvery pups so fat on seal-milk that they lay almost immobile, wringing their hind-flippers in agonies of comfort. In its flooded sedges, horse-goks were in their own soggy Heaven. An otter slipped onto a rock and masticated some struggling, pink catch – perhaps an octopus – noisily, and its kit played with a mat of floating bu-wrack. It swam up underwater and broke the surface, to wear it like a hat. Heaven was perhaps more visible around animals in the sea: each surfaced, silk-silently, or with a snoring gasp, at the hub of their own swirling, bubbling Heaven.
It was unrecognisable as the Heaven I skinny-dipped with my sister, just a couple months before, when we went into Papa for the day. We made neat piles of our clothes on a greyish beach between cliffs, and we went in. Oh, it’s a sort of transgression to be naked in the North. Our skin crimping, we stood side by side at the sea’s edge, which was frosty-blue-clear, like the taste of toothpaste. Side-by-side, eyes strictly and primly front, we walked into the sea. All summer, we’d been swimming in new wetsuits, and, thus insulated, had forgotten how the cold wrings your bones and punches the air out of your lungs: how you mouth like a goldfish, too stunned to even swear. Then, there was a kind of admittance: some bouncer in my brain stepped aside, and we slipped back into the present tense, which is our only home –
the pale selkie of my body looks unfamiliar as I shape-shift into my sea-skin; as I peer down at my breast, belly, legs through the clear and smoky turquoise water. The water is something I dote on now, all the different ways it is at once. Close in to the cliff, bubbles laced with froth cover its surface, and the swell is lovely, it comes on in gentle contractions, it sweeps us towards the shore. We are very brave. We tell each other so – not just skinny-dipping in this freezing sea, on the Isle of Papa where anybody could see us, but also letting the swell carry us towards a half-submerged tunnel in the cliff that is thick with kelp to the surface, so that its rubbery stalks stretch up on the swell, and submerge on the fall. We can’t see the reassuring sand through the water, but we can see the golden tangles. We let it carry us towards that frightening tunnel – we love this swell – we let it sweep us closer. Cilia sweep eggs down the Fallopian tubes like this – eye-to-eye with the limpets where the water laps the cliff now – the so-called Edge is busy with cleeks and anemones. Don’t let the water brush you up against them; the sea wants to usher us into the arch and its channel, it wants to sweep us in. Now our naked fronts are grazing the taffy ropes of kelp stalks, our bellies palmed by their stroking fingers, it gets shallower and shallower; the kelp sweeps backwards and tickles, and my knee knocks against a rock, we get tangled in kelp like sea otters, we anchor ourselves there, by wrapping kelp around our arms. We’ll be too cold soon, we are already too cold, but we always stay in too long, because – well, Heaven.
Those smooth contractions sweep us out and towards the beach. Then, beyond the chop and bulge of the next wave, a raingös; its burgundy throat patch dapper. It is very intimate to swim with this wild beauty, its feathers perfect as painted. What does it make of us? We try and creep up to it, paddling quietly behind the smooth humps of the waves; it appears, disappears on the swell that rises and falls between us. And then it is gone, although we don’t see it dive. White hands and feet, hard as bone; we have to get out. We stumble to dry our hard, cold bodies on my shirt. It’s hard to get those numb, sticky feet that seem to belong to someone else into leggings; I wipe my sandy feet on the grass, we can hardly move, but Tasha says we need to keep moving so we press the feet we can’t feel up the hill into the wind, and climb up onto the cliff, and for a long time it feels like we can’t breathe properly; my fingers are pink and yellow and the blue of bruises. In half an hour, Tash comments that her feet have thawed out enough to feel the sand inside her socks.
We follow the spectacular coast. We peer down into one red gyö, whose shadowed beach of offal-coloured cobbles can be reached by descending a luge of red scree. We slide down the scree, setting off little rockslides, bigger rocks rumbling by our feet. It is an echoing place, with cathedral acoustics. The sea is amplified, and the sea is a noisy eater, dragging its pebbles with the backsuck, making loud belly-gurgles and echoing slaps when it slops into caves at the cliff’s foot. Then the incoming wave fizzes up through the pebbles. Heaven is littered with bruck: resin fishing buoys, battered sheets of marine ply and old-style floats of the kind that are still used on some herring nets. Tar and plastic and rough balls of pumice from submarine volcanoes roll up on the beach, tangled in the wrack. I zigzag the beach, filling my pockets with souvenirs from Heaven.
Tasha perches on a rock in front of a cliff. One end has been eroded into a towering arch. Her binoculars are trained on a niche with a low ceiling. The rock below it is meteor-streaked with white birdlime. She’s watching two fat scarf chicks, fat-bellied and woolly in grey feather onesies, which are tucked up together at the back of the little cave. The vigilant parents perch nearby, glossy and greenish-black. One fixes us with its gaze and hisses, rhythmically, and it weaves and bobs its narrow, crested head from side to side. It is the scarfs’ echoing, private, musty-smelling Heaven. The sea rushes in. A buoy rattles up onto the rocks. In a rock hollow, the sea makes a noise like a finger pop. I sit, a disciple on a weed-glazed stone, gazing up at the scarfs. Heaven has the wild, stuffy reek of a teenager’s bedroom.
The Papa Stour ferry is called Snolda. She puts into Papa Stour a few times a week. I watch her appear, dock, depart. She puts a thought in the forefront of my mind: the life of islands depends on connection, and the thriving of folk everywhere depends on connection. Papa used to be a prosperous, busy place, which produced some weel-kent and much-loved storytellers and writers and was famous, Magnie says, for the quality of their kye. The men were sought after by the Merchant Navy, and the women, back at home, did everything until the men came home. These days, the nine or ten folk who still stay in Papa full-time, once a busy, prosperous place, fight to keep the ferry sailing.
On Friday, the ferry is cancelled due to that fierce Northerly, and suddenly, in my present, raddled, laddered Heaven, littered with arches that tumble into the sea, I am dependent on several things: the folk on this island, on Hilde and Pete’s generosity, and on the running of that boat. As long as it lies tied up at West Burrafirth, I am marooned here in Heaven. There is no shop. When the milk runs out, there will be no more cups of milky tea in the porch. If I ran out of food, I would have to beg from one of my six neighbours. But I feel ok about that, because Pete and Hilde are prepared for these unpredictabilities and because I know that what’s at fault here, if anything, are my expectations, and not Heaven itself.
My engineer hopes that I’m warm enough and he asks if the wind is noisy. He’s on a boat moored in Uig, Skye and it’s windy there, too. He’s not anxious but he is vigilant, wondering if they might break a line; ‘but’, he says ‘we have loads of ropes’. He proposes another date: when he gets home, he plans to kayak here, across St Magnus Bay. I look out at that wild body of water, that is now bright, and now dark, and I don’t even know if it’s possible.
He’s washed his sweater and sends me a video of it drip-drying, swaying with the movement of the boat. I tell him that here, it’s an admirable, stout and solid wind, but that the old house is equally admirable and solid. I go out into the wind to greet it. It’s a frogmarching wind. As the path turns, it either chivvies me ahead or knocks me off balance, or forces me down into the ditch, making snipe explode from shelter in their scores. When I get back and strip off my soaked cords, my thighs are a slapped pink. It’s nice to get to know each wind that visits us. Besides, it brings snow and hail, which I now watch advancing from the porch, in towering golden drifts from thunderheads over the North Sea, which is now too bright to look at, like the sun. The wind comes on steady, and without fatigue, from the North, over the waves and over the black, still-shadowed isles. In a week’s time, though we don’t know it yet, it will bring an Arctic visitor. The vagrant walrus, Freya – a ‘horse of the sea’, according to the Norse, a ‘tusk-walker’ according to the Inuit – will haul up on the walkway of a salmon farm in the Westside.
My friend Jenny will describe her as a beautiful sweet potato. She will be gorgeously russet, in a fine, plush coat that creases opulently between her spare tyres of belly-flab. One flipper shall be scarred with concentric rings of pink and white. Her tusks will be short, thin, yellowed and blunt. Her fat snout, a pincushion of short bristles. Her flippers, almost unbearably expressive. Sometimes, she will lift a wide paw over her head and wag it as if she’s waving. She will fold it over her eye, whose lids form a fat, closed purse. She will crimp up and kipper in the cool air, and wring her velvet hind-flippers, which are a little more chocolate than cinnamon-coloured, against each other. She. She. Aphrodite, come over the sea. She will be a pin-up; for a few days, everybody’s darling. And she is not here yet, but on her way, but I praise her now, because in 2022, she’ll be euthanised, in Bergen, by order of the Norwegian authorities, because they can’t persuade her hundreds of human visitors to keep a safe and respectful distance.
If you took a meid, perhaps between a walrus and a sea-arch, between a dear neighbour and Fish and Chips night in the local hall, where you might find yourself centred, was Heaven. Its primary natural law, stronger than gravity, was cohabitation. Transactions of attention and care, between people, creatures and place, was how we knew where we were. The moment you left your house, something ticklish and unexpected always happened. Magnie, in his Paisley dressing gown, might bring over a plate of fried herring, disparaging it, as always; he might show me the scar from his knee op, and I might offer to collect his messages from the store.
We were in relation to home, we were as related to otters and sea-monsters and birds as we were to each other. The bigger the flocks of wintering widgeon and plover, that wheeled up from the beach as you platched down through the burns, the closer we knew we were to Heaven. And sometimes they even outnumbered us.
On the towering banks of Noss, at least before bird flu, thirty thousand gannets nested, like saints in a cathedral’s niches. The cliff was loud and echoing with their football chants. We watched them from a seabird tour boat. Black painted wingtips, old-pub-nicotine-stained hoods. With their thick necks and flat feet they had a Booby waddle on the low, flat rocks at the bottom of Da Noup. Gannet poo, in white showers, was constantly raining loudly into the black water; lost feathers slowly sashaying down a hundred metres. A scorie delicately picked at a dead gannet chick floating in the water.
As we motored away they began to follow us. When Phil started to feed herring down a pipe into the water, they thrummed into the sea at steep angles, like throwing knives. You could look right down over the stern into the water and see the pale streaks of their bodies lancing into the depths. We looked down on them and their green vapour trails, but they were firing into the sea all around us, splashing us, in their hundreds. We looked down into the waves at emerald birds flying underwater. We gazed up, perilously, into a deafening kaleidoscope of wheeling, chattering gannets. When they popped up, they floated around for a moment, dipping their heads under and peering down their long beaks with a sort of secretarial air. Great frogspawny bubbles boiled up around them: the air that was trapped in their flight feathers. They dove at sixty miles an hour and to a depth of twenty-five metres. They actually fly, Phil told us, underwater. They had a special protective lens over their eyes, and something like bubble-wrap in their skulls and chests, that cushioned their brains and internal organs from the impact; and when they folded their long wings just before impact, it locked their spines into place.
They were sharpened at both ends, like pencils. When they were about to dive, their perfect soar faltered: they splayed their white tail-feathers, stuck out their flippers, wobbling from side to side in the slipstream like a plane landing at Sumburgh in a gale. The best thing about a gannet-dive was the heart-stopping moment at the crest of the rollercoaster – after they’d climbed steadily up through the air –and they tilted, in what seems like slow motion. A moment of weightlessness – of entropy, as Robin said in the Outpost the other day – then they tipped, clenched into darts, and fired into the waves all around us.
“I do like a gannet,” Robin mused, his eyes alight: “And, fuck me, when those fuckers hit da fuckin watter …”
When Pete hears on his radio that a minke whale was nearby, feeding on mackerel; we all stand, as if an important person has walked into the room. Phil has been fishing here recently: it was mackerel, he says, ‘from top to bottom – great balls of it.’ He leaves the wheel and lets the boat drift, bringing his big camera to the stern.
The sea is smooth and grey, the muscles around our eyes tighten. We wait and watch, scanning the slight swell. Suddenly the long head, and the small fin, like a neat claw, bursts silently into the air, and Natasha’s eyes are big with tears.
Then it dives. We stand on the back deck, feet apart; rolling with the boat. There’s no wind – the diesel exhaust wreathes around us – the whale is gone for what seems like forever. The sea is all smooth and glossy textures.
When the whale surfaces again, it makes us cry, like singing does when you haven’t sung for a long time.
I love the nothings we say in a state of rapture. I love the way words fail us, the naked things we say, our uncoolness. ‘Oh my goodness’ – as dolphins sound and make towards the boat. Then they surface to breathe; a queue of quiet exhalations, close, courtly sneezes of great dignity. Pete says, quietly, wowsers, his professional patter fallen by the wayside. He gives an odd little giggle to himself, a gentle dolphin-like snort of wonder.
I like the becalmed silence now, just the puttering of the idling engine as we stand in our shared church, hushed as we wait, watching, sweeping our gaze over the sea, watching.
There is the release of some shared hunger, or the lapsing of individual pain. In old Shetland, there used to be a practice of divination called ‘castin o da hert’. You poured molten lead through the open jaws of a pair of scissors into water, and when the metal hit the water, hissing, you studied the shapes it hardened into. Heartache cannot float on salt-water: it sinks, in shattered globules of dull silver, down to the seabed.
We motor back. It’s mid-afternoon, and a short hop to the Victoria Pier, but almost all the passengers are sleeping, as if a spell has been cast: this sometimes happens when we reach beyond ourselves, when we go ootadaeks. The exception is the mum who sits by the boat’s step and eats up the green headlands of the North end of Bressay with her eyes; you can tell she is hardly ever alone, and after a few moments she comes back from herself to her family, as if she had been a long way away for a long time, as if she feels guilty, taking the seat next to her daughter and gathering her into her side.
Now I am seeing things from this particular perspective, I can hardly sit still. At night, in North Banks, under all the blankets I can find, I can hardly sleep. I cannot leave Heaven alone. In the morning, I bolt out at the passing of a blizzard. The next is in the offing: a towering machine of shadow and ice and light. I meet two islanders as I drive to the airstrip. We pull up alongside each other and wind down our windows and talk about the weather. I don’t yet know their names, but they invite me for tea. One of them is bleeding lightly from his nose. Have a good Sunday, they say, God bless – and I will take any blessing I can get, regardless of denomination.
I run to the top of the hill above the airstrip, its windsock a couple tatters streaming from a tattered, swinging hoop. I am getting fitter, hike further, despite the weather. The stiffness in my lower back, from weeks of Zoom teaching, is beginning to ease. I’m becoming a better animal, if not a better person. The crown of Ronas Hill, in the distance, is a gleaming white.
‘Prayer, in its most ancient and elemental sense, consists simply in speaking to things’, says David Abrams.
Ronas, I blurt, you’re looking fucking stunning. I am my own swearing jar.
And what I’m doing, by Abrams account, is praying.↑