Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Islands in the stream

It is the light, at first, which startles. Sharpened by the hours spent in airports and hotels, it echoes off every surface; off the tarmac and white-painted buildings, off the baked earth and dried fields, off the pewter-coloured sea. It is both diffuse and intense, as though everywhere at once, ever-present, exposing.
The wind is everywhere, too; like many Atlantic islands, the wind is a restless presence, chasing along the narrow lanes of peeling stucco and flowered balconies, dragging clouds across the tops of the green mountains. The oldest buildings in the town seem inured to it; low, squat, chunky, they are built with their backs to the wind and the sea, that ancient indicator of places which existence depends on the sea, and depends upon them denying that fact. From the sea comes prosperity and death, threat and plenty; it is an uneasy relationship to be had with the ocean, as capricious and unpredicatable as the sea itself: beautiful and powerful, calm or violent.
This is a place that exists only because of the development of sea-going vessels, and more specifically, the development of carvel planking which, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, enabled the construction of strong, watertight and seaworthy boats to push the boundaries of Europe's known world that bit further. These islands, these green pebbles in the vastness of the Atlantic, are here as a stepping stone to the so-called New World: a safe harbour on the way to South or Central America, taking settlers and slaves, bringing plants and gold and whales. They are founded on the chance shiftings of the wind and tides, on the vagaries of navigation, on hope and faith. And blood.

There is a feeling of fading old-world colonialism about the old town of Ponta Delgada; plaster walls stained to the colour of tea, rusting balconies and road signs cast in neatly painted blue and white tiles. Most of the old buildings are white stucco, edged with a coarse, dark volcanic rock, rough to the touch, pebbled with shards of volcanic debris and pocked with the tiny pumice-like holes. All stone walls, all mullions and quoins, are built from the same rough stone, the only rock available on the islands. It is a gentle reminder of the relative impermanence of these islands, upstart youths in the age of the ocean, freshly minted from young volcanic rocks spilled from the mid-Atlantic Ridge. They are here, they are hospitable, by dint of geography and geology: the building of new islands in mid-ocean rifts, the warming, damp influence of the gulf stream. It is odd to think that the ocean current which swirls around these islands like a benign stream is the same one which keeps the west coast of the British Isles so mild in winter. It is, or has been, a dependable force in nature. Now, I am not so sure. I think of slabs of ice calving from glaciers two thousand miles away, melting into this stream, shifting its patterns and flow, thickening the mild, life-teeming waters of the gulf stream. We are too young, these islands are too young, to know what this might mean.

Yesterday, the day before I arrived in the A├žores, a hurricane tore across the islands, swift and destructive. Flights were cancelled, the weather forecast threatened torrential rain and catastrophic winds. Today, the wind has eased to a stiff breeze, the ocean is mostly grey, with only a thin spittle of white edging the waves, a memory of stronger winds out to sea. It seems to me another sign of the strange and unsettling summer we have experienced, another warning that the swirling mill of the world's oceans are shifting pace, trying to find new ways to adapt to the changes we bring, strange visitors in a new land, with our beads and baubles, our sailing boats and weapons, our greed for gold.