On Islands. #2 Skomer in Wild Wales

Skomer Island
Camping at the ruin in Skomer, 1968

To return to a beloved place after an absence of 20, 40 and especially 50 years is to risk battle between nostalgia and disappointment. Never can that place be the same again, not scene nor smell nor sound. The gap between then and now erases the gloss on an icon and spoils a holy memory.

With three other freshmen equally keen on wildlife we decided to spend a few days on the island of Skomer, a tiny island orphaned from the Pembrokeshire coast by under a mile of choppy Atlantic.  The prospect of teeming numbers of seabirds and marine mammals was irresistible.

We had to take provisions for the duration because the last resident abandoned his farm in 1950 and the nature warden, David Saunders, was away.

Foul weather prevented our boatman from taking us across the channel so we mooched along the cliffs to Marloes Sand where a battle was in progress. In the opening shots of the movie The Lion in Winter we hoped to see King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his queen (Katherine Hepburn) but we only saw a horde of Welshmen dressed in medieval garb wielding wooden swords  and a few knights trampling surf on horseback.  The director’s loudspeaker blasted the extras: “Don’t be pussy-footed! Get your feet wet.” The icy Atlantic looked uninviting so we didn’t sign up as extras and were heartened by news the following day would be calm.

We hadn’t booked mainland accommodation and had threadbare pockets, so what to do? One of my pals had roamed around Africa whereas I never ventured much further than the Green Belt that girdles London. Bowing to his greater wisdom, we followed him a few miles to Haverfordwest where he heard we could doss the night for nothing.

Arriving at the police station he asked the jolly sergeant if he had beds for four. I doubt you would today but, like most things, the past operated by different rules. He offered hospitality if he had no other customers by the time the pubs closed. I haven’t forgotten the cell to myself and before flopping on the rude mattress pushing the iron bar door closed with a clink (no key). The next morning I rose early with maddening itches in private parts.

Some experiences of youth stay. One is the magnetic pull to island seabird colonies and the other is to prisons where I spent a lot of time. In case that got your eyebrows I hasten to add not as a guest of Her Majesty but as an official prison visitor and author of a prison reform report for Scotland.

We camped under the stars or more often under dense cloud and sheets of rain. The sun on a green landscape and silver ocean more than compensated for any hardship from a damp sleeping bag. We made the ruined farmhouse our base. Since then it has been given a roof again and furnished for volunteers and visitors.

My friend persuaded us to travel light, though we didn’t know then it was to help him diet. As days rolled by and our provisions ran out a storm marooned us for longer than planned. Always lean-bodied,  I was first to feel my belly crying to be filled and it made me aware of how real hunger steals thoughts. My friend had an answer. We combed the beach for whelks which he said would make a dainty meal in the bell of a daffodil. After that, and learning all parts of the plant are poisonous, I began to grow up and start to build my own wisdom.

The visit was an otherwise glorious time immersed in the constant cacophony and fishy odour of seabirds.  We counted guillemots and choughs on the cliffs, watched shearwaters coming to roost after dark (see post about the Island of Rum), laughed after tripped over rabbit holes that pock-marked the island with safe nesting for shearwaters and puffins from marauding black-backed gulls.

The puffins arrived on our second day, tentative after journeying from far-flung oceans. Each day more abundant, they were bobbing mats in the bays. They needed time to gain confidence before setting feet on land after an absence of almost a year. Drifted in one at a time, so tame you could touch.

The joy of sights unknown in our human habitats was enriched by the peace of wildness and vacancy of time. It made me think of monks dwelling on storm-lashed islands on the edge of the ocean. The Irish poet and mystic captures this in his works and in conversation with Krista Tippett:

(The Celtic imagination of a landscape that is) actually alive … recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence, where you can truly receive time.

The  website for the Welsh naturalist trust that manages Skomer today provides information on getting there and the maximum size of day parties (250). I urge you to go. But I will never return to a place that superficially looks the same but likely to feel different, tamer and visited by tourists in haste for the sights before catching the ferry home. Better not to injure a precious memory.

Next Post: Hummingbirds

On Islands. #1. Home Rum

Isle of Rum
Isle of Rum, Inner Hebrides

You don’t have to be born on one to love islands, though I have a double reason, born on an island off another island.

A BBC article about a young couple settling on the Isle of Rum brought back fond memories of staying there for a couple of nights some years ago with a family member. It is the largest of the Small Isles in the Inner Hebrides with a northerly view of Skye’s Cuillin Hills.

Alex and Buffy were chosen from a list of applicants to join the community of about 30 residents. They sought a change in life, and what a change from Bristol, England! Roaming for days in wind and rain over 40 square miles you may never meet another soul, though plenty of wildlife. Red deer and feral goats on the boggy land; white-tailed and golden eagles overhead; otters, dolphins and whales from the shoreline.  

Life isn’t so hard as for crofters in the past, who lived in ‘black houses’ until 19th Century landowners turfed them out  for more profitable sheep and deer (so-called Highland Clearances). Not even Rum is off the Net nowadays, though off the Grid. There are compensations for leaving conventional jobs, pubs and supermarkets. Fresh air, exercise, no crime and something new and interesting on every hike. Creature comforts can be enjoyed, nestled in a new ‘eco-house’ with scrumptious home baking according to their Instagram blog.

George Orwell chose a hermit life on the island of Jura to the south for writing his novel 1984, but you don’t need to be a self-employed writer or artist to live on Rum. Paid and voluntary work are available for the tiny community and nature conservation.

My first sight of the island was from camp near Arisaig in 1971. We saw a mountain dome 30 miles out to sea in one of those glorious but rare Highland sunsets. Decades later I stayed on Rum at Kinloch Castle, perhaps the most eccentric stately home I ever visited.

Built by an English industrialist who bought the island for recreation, he rests in a mausoleum modelled on a Greek temple, planted incongruously in wilderness overlooking the ocean . His son built the castle in 1900, creating an opulence he couldn’t afford after the 1929 Crash. It had golf and tennis courts, grew hothouse fruit, and had heated ponds for turtles and alligators. Extensive gardens were cultivated by a gang of men said to be paid to wear kilts. I remember the walls of the dark wainscoted hall where majestic heads of deer hung among portraits of the less handsome Bullough family. Painful to see skins of big cats spread on the floor.

After the folly, the island was sold to the Nature Conservancy around 1957 and is now owned and managed by NatureScot to protect internationally important habitats. Among the natural treasures is the Manx Shearwater colony nesting in holes atop a mountain. Perhaps the largest in the world at 100,000 pairs they are at sea most of the year, and in the breeding season only venture back from fishing to their burrows after dark because they are vulnerable to predators.

I climbed to their redoubt, arriving around 11 pm, an hour before complete darkness at that latitude in midsummer. Nothing stirred until midnight when weird croaks from their catacombs alerted me. Then ghostly birds flapped around silently, even in arm’s reach. With an LED headlight I could get inches away before they flew, fearless as they hadn’t seen humans all year.

Some memories never fade, like the first sight of an isle bathed at sunset or the last sight of a Manxie at midnight.

Next post: Black Vulture

Tribute to Sunderlal Bahuguna

Annapurna range
Photo: Annapurna range (Giacomo Berardi, Unsplash)

I confess to be an inveterate obituary hawk. The ‘vet’ bit in inveterate is telling as my compulsion comes with the territory of the latter half of life.

I don’t scour obituary columns for names I know or like or love, or even for people whose behavior I despise, for (the bell) “it tolls for thee”. Obituaries pack the history of a whole life into a tiny capsule and occasionally one captures my attention so vividly I hunger to know more and feel sad to miss the subject’s acquaintance.

I never met Sunderlal Bahuguna and didn’t even know his name until he died from covid-19 on May 21, 2021, at the age of 94. What drew me to his story by Hridayesh Joshi, a Mongabay journalist who knew him, was the transparent goodness of a life dedicated to caring for an environment that his people in the Himalayan foothills loved and needed to thrive.

As a bright and educated Indian, he gave up a potential career in parliamentary politics to serve his home district. As an early environmentalist he had a great impact nationally, even internationally, yet acclaim didn’t go to his head. He remained modest and credited much of his achievement to his wife.

As a young man he became a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, which says much about his character and lifestyle. He went on long marches, fasted to make public protest, fought against ‘untouchability’, and practiced non-violent activism against political and commercial oppressors of his people and the forest.

For many years he led the Chipko movement against logging companies whose depredations threatened fragile ecosystems around local communities. He organized protests against the Tehri Dam project (largest in India) for displacing of thousands of people from homes and affecting a watershed feeding the sacred Ganges.

The Chipko movement began in the 1970s in the hills of Uttarakhand, a famous destination for Hindu pilgrims and site of the 1968 Beatles Ashram. It started when local women opposed loggers by literally hugging trees (Chipko=hugging). The expression tree-hugger is often pejorative in the West, but only ignorance of its solemn history covers that shame.

Three centuries ago, hundreds of Bishnoi people, most of them women, obstinately resisted the felling of trees in their district to clear land for a new palace. They were massacred. In the end, the maharaja relented and canceled the project. The martyrs helped to inspire a modern movement of forest guardians that wins more sympathy by the year.

In his later years, Bahuguna-ji looked like a brown Santa Claus, a genial figure of gentle temperament. He practiced what he preached by living simply and sustainably, even giving up a rice diet because paddy fields use a lot of water.

We may wonder how a modest exterior with little worldly ambition can make a difference today, though he didn’t achieve all his goals (the Tehri Dam). But he had a facility for mingling care for human welfare with respect for what science knows, driven by a great fire of determination in his heart.

A life for rich pickings by an obituary hawk.

Next Post: American Goldfinch