Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The blue of distance




 I came back from the islands full of sadness. A week in the Hebrides seems to contain all that is precious about life, distilled pure experience, amber-sweet and shot with light. Each day, we woke to the sound of the wind and the sea, hushing insistently at the edge of consciousness like a dream only half-remembered in the waking hours. Life seemed pared down to a litany of ascetic pleasure; we cycled, we walked, we swam, we ate. Beyond this, nothing mattered.
It is almost impossible to write of the Hebrides without slipping into familiar rhapsodic platitudes: the light, the blue sea, the sense of peace. And yet these are places that have produced more than their fair share of writers, thinkers, men and women of action. They are also places haunted by ghosts, by the absence of families who are now growing up in America and Canada, of the scars of old black houses and field systems showing through the thin, peaty soil like ribs beneath the skin. In 1830, the population of Tiree was 4,400. Today, it is a little over 700. The Hebridean diaspora impoverished the islands, but it also enriched those places of exile, their continuing generations of Macleans, Macleods, Campbells. .In some cases, the depopulation began a perpetual decline for the island; in others, it created a web of connections and associations which make the islanders more worldly than their mainland neighbours.
At home, hemmed by mountains and the half-hearted rains of late summer, I dream of blue; the transparent washed-cloth blue of the sky, the opaline gemstone-blue of the sea, and the transparent earth-soaked blue of islands as they shimmer on the horizon, always distant. I hear geese honking their homeward journeys in the early morning,and I know that summer is almost over. In a few weeks, arrivals from the north will be crowding the stubbled fields of the islands, the unbidden compass of their brains pulling them southwards to these places on the fringe of the insistent blue-grey ocean. And I think of the islands, their storm-tugged skies quickened by skeins of geese.

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