Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Sea Room, by Adam Nicolson

My dear friend Mark is an Englishman who lived in Kuala Lumpur for 20+ years and has now shifted to Edinburgh. When he comes back to visit KL, we invariably spend a lot of time talking about books, but also about the nordic topography of his chosen home, Scotland, and my native place, Maine.  He insists that these harsh and beautiful places will always have a powerful emotional grip on us, no matter how far away from them we wander. Sea Room was one of three books he gave me for Christmas last year, saying that it's good "winter reading".  Even though January and July are indistinguishable in Malaysia, Mark maintains that we northerners have a deep-seated need to mark the passing of seasons, and if it's not snowing outside, we should evoke some snow and chill in our imaginations.

Adam Nicolson inherited the Shiants, three islands in the outer Hebrides off the Scottish coast, from his father, Nigel, who had bought them in 1937.  Adam spent his adult life cherishing visits to and studying the history -- natural and human -- of the islands.  He recorded all of it in Sea Room in preparation for deeding the islands over to his own son, Tom.

I love how he tries to appraise the value of this property, acknowledging that some real estate expands one's mind and soul much more than it expands one's net worth.
At times in the last two decades, these islands have been the most important thing in my life. They are a kind of heartland for me, a core place. My father bought them over sixty years ago for £1,400, he gave them to me when I was twenty-one, and I shall give them to my son Tom when he is twenty-one in four years' time. This is not, as cynics have sometimes said, for tax reasons. The Shiants seem scarcely to do with money and, anyway, they have been a catastrophic investment. For the same amount, at the same time, my father could have bought a Jacobean manor house in Sussex or a two hundred-acre farm of prime arable in Cambridgeshire. Each would be worth a million or more by now. As it is, if I sold the Shiants, I could perhaps buy a two-bedroom flat in Fulham.
This was never a question of financial riches. My father bought the islands and gave them to me because as a very young man he had felt enlarged and excited by the ownership of a place like this, by the experience of being there alone or with friends, by an engagement with a nature so unadorned and with a sea- and landscape so huge that it allowed an escape into what felt like another dimension. It was a way of leaving home, a step into a different world. 
The Maine coast is also dotted with islands, some inhabited, many not.  People who grow up and live on islands are different from mainlanders, and Nicolson, although he has never dwelt full-time on the Shiants, does a fine job of capturing the aspects of island life that change those who cross the water. Nicolson's account of his first solo sailing trip to the Shiants, complete with fears of navigational failures and foul weather, is a perfect illustration of the perils of choosing to live on islands:  Especially in cold, harsh climates, there's an inherent risk in simply getting there, and once there, the resources for survival may well be limited. That sense of isolation can be alarming, exhilarating or both in turn.
I have felt at times, and perhaps this is a kind of delirium, no gap between me and the place. I have absorbed it and been absorbed by it, as if I have had no existence apart from it. I have been shaped by those island times, and find it difficult now to achieve any kind of distance from them. The place has entered me. It has coloured my life like a stain. Almost everything else feels less dense and less intense than those moments of exposure. The social world, the political world, the world of getting on with work and a career -- all those have been cast in shadow by the scale and seriousness of my brief moments of island life.
Nicolson describes the Shiants'  flora and fauna,  predominantly birds (although his chapter on the island's rats is great fun to read. From a distance.)  His sense of solitude when there obviously fails to take account of the birds. The book actually has a subtitle:  "The story of one man, three islands, and half a million puffins."
Ludicrous and lovable puffins! Their sociability is as stiff and predicable as an evening in an Edwardian London. Gestures of deference are required for any newcomer, and a little accepting dance of stamping feet is made by those already settled with cigars around the fender...  They are more capable of looking embarrassed than any bird I have seen. So polite is this world, in fact, that most of its members seem struck dumb by their sense of propriety. Puffins remain monogamous... throughout their extraordinarily long and stable lives: up to forty years of politeness and tedium, the whirring of wings and the ritual stamping of little orange feet.
He also explores the islands' human history, bringing a team of archaeologists to excavate the earliest sites of human habitation and poring over what written history he can find. In the 18th century, there may have been as many as 40 families living on the isles, but by the early 1800s, only one family lived there to tend the sheep for the owner. Nicolson is quick to dispel any silly romantic notions about this life being anything but brutally harsh and crushingly lonely. In one haunting account, he tells of the husband who lowered his wife over the cliff's edge by a rope so that she might harvest the sea birds nesting there.  She had reached out and snapped the necks of a half dozen birds or so, securing the dead birds in her belt, when the rope broke.  She plunged into the water, but didn't drown -- the bodies of the dead birds acted as a life-buoy, keeping her afloat.  The current in the Minch, however, is fierce, and husband and wife could only look helplessly at each other as she was swept rapidly out to sea, never to be seen again.  At the same period, Nicolson points out, well-off aesthetes were coming by and remarking upon the stark beauty of the place. It's a jarring contrast, but it reminds me of my own travels to harsh and impoverished lands.  It's a lot harder to see the beauty in the place when one is totally consumed with struggling for survival there. Nicolson cites an English poet who waxed lyrical about the remote splendour of the islands and was then equally revolted when he saw the living conditions for the shepherd's family.
Life was arduous without friends or neighbours. The women and children had to struggle with the boat on the beach, with the spades in the ditches and ridges of the lazybeds, with anything going wrong and the limitations of their own company, with no contact or friendship outside the constrictions of the family circle. Life on the Shiants, which for centuries might have felt like a blessing, would now have been like a prison. It was like a cloud closing over the sun...  But the period is drenched in irony. Just as isolation and loneliness were making the Shiants a kind of hell, the first dreamy-eyed travellers from the south were coming to see the islands as a vision of earthly beauty. As the place became difficult and empty for the Hebrideans, it became beautiful and empty for outsiders.  
Adam Nicolson  reflected much on the responsibilities and joys of owning "his islands". He is careful to give local mainlanders the access to them that they've customarily enjoyed, whether for grazing sheep or fishing. He resisted the efforts of British conservation groups to take control of the islands figuring that no one would better limit access and protect the environment than he and his father had done.. He was a vigilant caretaker, a curator and a trustee of the Shiants. What a colossal gift to give a son:  three islands, and this book.  Fortunate Tom Nicolson!