Amiel Gervers Photography 347-512-4307
Sark : An Island Journal
Sark is a small feudal island in the English Channel. I found it first at thirty and spent a life-altering six months there. At sixty I returned to the island intending to stay a month. I stayed a year. What follows is taken from the first few months of the journal I kept during that year.
I want to give you Sark but I can’t do it in words. I can’t tell you what the island is in itself, elementally—a table of rock thrust up from the floor of the Atlantic, a knuckle poking out of the Channel’s sleeve; a fragment of Normandy whittled away by wind and rain, hollowed out by hungry waves and tides, its tableland riddled with sinkholes, its cliffs sliding into the sea, its isthmus narrowing to a knife edge that will finally break in two. And the extravagant flowering that surges from all this erosion—sea pinks and white campion blooming from bare granite, bluebells pooling like water in the low places, gorse catching fire on the steep cotils—who can explain it?
I only know I came back here at sixty to immerse myself in all that wearing down and springing forth, all that crumbling away and blossoming, the two joined as if they were one gesture. I want to fit my body into the battered rocks of the Gouliot headland and sit there in the wind and rain until my atoms enter the wedding dance of granite and campion. I want my own cliffs to be flowering when they fall into the sea.
I am a newcomer, a stranger in Sark, and there is nothing I can do about it. I can’t reach through it and I can’t shake it off.
I felt it the first time I stood in the checkout line at the Island Stores with my meager collection of canned soup, crackers and cheese. The woman at the till poured a little warmth into each cupped palm along with the change, chatting brightly about the weather or asking after the children, but when my turn came she went blank. The current had been turned off. “Two pounds ninety-three pence, please,” she said coolly, looking right through me. I smiled at her but there was no one there. I made a comment about the weather myself while I counted out the unfamiliar coins. She did not answer. A little chill crept down my spine. I picked up my plastic sack and pushed out the door but the thin sunshine did not warm me.
I felt it again when I went to open a bank account. The manager asked me how I wanted to be known, as Miss or Mrs. Farley. I didn’t want to be known as either.
“That isn’t possible,” he explained gently. “I’m afraid you’ll have to choose one or the other.”
“Not even Ms?” I asked, though I don’t like Ms. either.
He hesitated long enough for me to understand that I was making it awkward, that a title like Ms. would only separate me further from the welcome I was hoping for in Sark.
“Well,” I said, “I was married for years and I have a daughter, so Miss doesn’t fit. I’m divorced, but I guess I’ll have to be Mrs.”
And Mrs. Farley I am, like it or not. I have turned into my mother.
Only once has anyone used my first name and then I hardly recognized it. I was MOH-gun, the long O held, the R omitted, the ending dropped an octave. I had morphed into some mid-Atlantic life form.
Well, MOH-gun, what did you expect? You moved to a tiny island with fewer than six hundred people, people who depend on each other, who run into each other in the lanes and shops every day of their lives. What do you want, a brass band?
No. I want in. That’s all. The one thing I cannot have.
Make them like me, I beg the gods of this place, make them let me in. I want the current that connects them to pass through me. It is warm as the Gulf Stream, wide and soft—a lilt in the voice, a muffled laughter behind it that says, We love it here, don’t we, in spite of this dreadful weather and the cancelled boat. Our bicycles lean together in the lane. Our children play the games we played. There will be no papers today, and no bread, but we’re used to that, we can always make do. And it’s a comfort, isn’t it, that we’re in this together. I would help you in a minute, just as you would help me. We don’t have to like each other or call ourselves friends. You know my secrets. I took your measure long ago. Life will throw us together like pebbles on the shore until we have rubbed each other smooth. There’s no getting around it if you want to live here. And we do. So hello, hello, what a gale this is! Worse than the last one, wouldn’t you say? They promise there will be a boat tomorrow, but I wonder . . .
I can’t capture it, the fragrance of belonging that perfumes these exchanges, warm bread and wet dog and daffodils all mingled together. It makes my mouth water.
I have been searching for a place that is true all the way through. Where what you see is what you get. Where the ground is solid under your feet and you don’t fall through.
Granite is good, I thought when I came here. Granite holds.
But in fact the island is crisscrossed with fault lines, vaginal fissures the sea swarms into, tonguing out the naked rock. These massive headlands are hollow, riddled with caves that reach in hundreds of feet, eating away the substance of the island. I watched a man in a red jacket go into a black cave mouth at Derrible Bay and, though I stayed there for the rest of the afternoon, I didn’t see him come out again. That’s how deep they are.
The caves have a dank beauty, their walls streaked black and rose with feldspar and gneiss and dotted with shining jewel anemones, ruby and topaz and pearl. People travel great distances to see them. But they are treacherous too, sucked by strong tides that rise so swiftly they can erase a beach in an hour. You wouldn’t want to be trapped in one.
And even here, where the cliffs stand like ramparts 300 feet above the sea, you can fall through. At Derrible the high cotil has a gaping hole in it where the ground caved in. From the beach you can follow the winding tunnels far back, look up and see the sky. The house I lived in years ago was called Blanc Creux, the white hole, because it perched on the lip of a cave-in. I’m glad I didn’t know that then. Even here, the ice is thin.
I’m looking for bedrock but it’s not to be found.
Nothing is fixed, nothing is immovable. I saw that in the Grand Canyon, the solid walls a map of flux so violent and massive it was hard to give credence to the facts. There rock was ocean—sandstone, limestone, shale—pressed sediment from tepid inland seas. And it was fire, subducted and melted down and spewed out as ash, then seized by such relentless pressures it foliated or fused. Whole chunks of time were missing from that record, a third of earth’s history, as if time too were malleable and evanescent, a friable material like any other.
There is no safety, no home to go into and shut the door after you. I’m saying that to myself because it’s true, and the truth of how it is here is the only home there is. It was never safe, and it never will be.
That’s my Gloria for today: Glory be to the void, the mother of all uncertainty, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, abyss without end.
Everybody on the island is sick, except for the lucky ones who could afford to get away and left in droves for sunny places like Tenerife and Madeira. It’s been round after round of flu, like a boxing match. I am sick too, of course, frighteningly sick—fever, chills, days of vomiting. I get back on my feet, struggle up to St. Peter’s in the mud and try to sing with the few hardy souls still standing in the choir, and on the way home it knocks me down again.
The fog is thick this morning, outside this house at the end of the world. Brick chimneystack, ghostly trees, and then nothing. White emptiness outside and inside. I am hollow as a bell, unstruck, a cup around silence. Weak-kneed, I stand at the window and look out, though there is nothing to see. This nothing is more to me than all the islands in the world. It is a medium I can move in, unbodied, quick, my soul a white mist. I am so porous I hardly exist.
Illness does this to me. Burned up by fever, I am left light as ash. The crisis has passed, nothing can trouble me now. I am gone, but I am still here. It’s quiet inside, no voices chattering, no disagreements. This is the stillness I want to live in. This is what is left when everything is emptied out, the self and the world robbed of the illusion of solidness, revealed as air, as light. It’s a state I love, closer to the real. My molecules and atoms fly apart like stars, opening up great stretches of space between them. The world disperses too, into a softness I can penetrate by a thought. I can walk through walls, float through the closed window into the fog and become part of it, no barrier, no membrane even, keeping us apart. And then I am the world and I am home at last, inside the heart of creation.
I have spent long stretches of time in this state. Pneumonia is so debilitating it requires a long careful convalescence, and I have had pneumonia so many times I have lost count, close to a dozen. I draw them out, the quiet days in bed, watching the light change at the window. The breath that comes back to me when my lungs heal is billowy and white. I fill like a sail. I ride the great waves of my breath up and down, lifted and cradled by turns. I sail without boat or rudder, without anyone to steer. Maybe that’s the secret of this stillness.
If I could live here, I would. It seems to me a blessed state, released from the busy enterprise of self and all its attendant cares and anxieties. But as I recover, it fades. I take on solidness and edges. I become someone, someone who has things to do. The whole gizmo starts up again, little engines kick in, wheels turn, and before I know it I’m back in business, Morgan Farley Incorporated, with a logo and a tax number. I can manage it, but I’ve never really liked it. It’s not where I live.
I live in the between, in the gap between sickness and health, self and world, proton and electron. I live at the feathered edge of the fog, where the world ends and the void beckons, where nothing and everything are one.
This is a confession. I’m not boasting—far from it. I’m saying that I can’t help being this way, though it makes it so hard to live here. I am constantly being yanked back into form by the knock at the door, the telephone, the tax deadline. I have to pat myself down to make myself solid, grit my teeth, and do what needs to be done.
I’m just seeing it—why I always feel like I’m in exile. The country I’m exiled from is the between. This porousness is my natural state. This foggy stillness is my atmosphere. I know how to live here, how to move back and forth between the visible and the invisible like a shuttle, weaving them together.
I came to Sark because Sark was nowhere. Sark was the between for me, a place to stop the world and get off. That’s what I tell myself, anyway, in the fog of this February morning, with the self and the world well lost.
It seems you can’t catch fire and live with vigor and panache when your default setting is to break out the chocolate and the Jane Austen whenever anything gets hard. And Sark is hard for me this time. I have landed in the human world here and cannot find my way out of it. I don’t know if I could bundle up on dark nights and set out into the wind as I did before. I only know I don’t want to. I am sixty, not thirty. But neither do I want to sit stupefied before the cold blue light of the telly, as they call it, at two o’clock in the morning, and that is where I find myself more times than I want to admit. I am lonely, yes. But watching “What Not To Wear” is not going to cure that; Trinny and Susannah are not my friends.
My grand adventure has turned into an ordeal. The gray misery of this winter is like a virus sweeping through the island. The old ones succumb and die off one by one, as if dying were the only way to see the sun again. I too am defenseless, out of my element. I wither like a transplanted desert flower. Deprived of light, I wilt and sag. And all the things I could do to get me through—meditating, cooking, making fires in my oak-paneled fireplace—none of these things do I do. I start to, I lift the fire screen from the hearth and hunt for matches, but if on my way to the matches I pass the telly, that’s the end of that day for me.
I don’t own a TV and haven’t watched one in years. Suddenly, alone in Sark, I have 300 channels. It’s disastrous. I watch Al Jazeera and Dubai, Bollywood movies and Welsh sitcoms, though I can’t understand a word. I watch the BBC coverage of the Winter Olympics, a dismal affair because the British teams always lose. Their best hope for a medal is in curling, to which they devote days of airtime, till in the end the curlers lose too. I even watch cricket, a soporific and baffling game, baseball on Valium. This proves to me how far gone I am and I decide to pull the plug out of the wall and limit myself to one program a week. After serious deliberation I decide on one, though I can’t admit it without cringing: Dancing with the Stars.
When that doesn’t work, I take to putting the remote out in the woodshed, thinking the gales will deter me from going out to get it. That little gap between the impulse to escape what I am feeling and the click of the remote gives me a chance to choose something else. But there are few alternatives. I play Scrabble, pretending I am playing with my best friend, and just because I miss her I even let her win a few times, something I never do in real life.
One roaring night I try to make fudge the way my father used to do it, without a recipe, plunking everything into a heavy pot and boiling it up. With the rich Sark cream and butter, how can I go wrong? Within minutes the cottage fills with black smoke and a sickly sweet smell permeates everything. I forgot that chocolate burns.
When the weather worsens my inner climate takes a nosedive with it. Night after night I pick up the remote, point it straight-armed at the TV and click it as if I were shooting someone. And who am I shooting but myself? I have not come back to Sark to watch TV. I am not spending my precious savings to watch TV. Yet someone in me channel surfs hungrily, tapping the remote like a junkie searching for a good vein. It doesn’t help to remind myself that the telly is on in every other cottage on the island. They aren’t trying to save their lives.
Sunday morning, after a TV binge that has kept me up half the night, I take the remote to church with me. Stuffed into a deep pocket of my parka, it knocks against my thigh with every step. It’s the start of Lent and I don’t have to ask myself what to give up. All through the service I ponder where to hide it. It’s not easy, with almost every pew bearing the coat of arms of the family that owns it. My only hope is the vestry.
After the recessional I linger at the back of the church, trying not to look too conspicuous in my robes while I wait for the rest of the choir to finish changing in the tiny vestry. When the coast is finally clear I seize my chance. I close the vestry door, spot a good hiding place behind a stack of tattered green hymnals on a high shelf, and thrust the remote into it.
Relief lifts my feet an inch above the ground. This at last will free me. It is a long uphill slog to St. Peter’s in the wet, and even I am not desperate enough to put myself through that misery, just to retrieve the remote. It can stay there until I leave the island. But I haven’t counted on the sheer bloody-minded stubbornness of that other self, the evil twin, who quickly detects a recessed panel on the TV that conceals the manual controls.
It is then I know I am no match for this adversary. She does not want to feel with me, or play games with me, or companion me in my loneliness. She just wants out. She wants to check out of Sark altogether, see how the Vicar of Dibley is getting on this week, or the Italian soccer teams, anything, and eat a whole box of Quality Street chocolates while she’s at it.
How do I win this battle? She is me. And if I don’t, can I hold out here till spring?
Here I sit on my granite throne and I am queen of the world, with gulls for courtiers. I claim this for my kingdom: the blazing gorse, the granite with its fur of lichen, the long snout of the Bec du Nez nosing into the sea. I claim the April sun falling on my back like a warm hand and the north wind that makes me tuck my fleece collar close around my bare throat. I claim the cry of a distant gull, doubled and doubled again. I claim the outlying islands wrapped in mist and the sea between traversed by dark and light currents. It is mine because I love it, and because I am here at the tip of the Gouliot headland for no other reason than to take it in.
This is food, holier than the host at Communion, this yellow and gray and blue, this curve of coast scalloped by time and weather, carved into bays and stony beaches difficult of access. Everything worth having is difficult of access—every deep harbor, every heart. The air is alive here as nowhere else I have been, threaded with gulls and telling of steppes and snowfields. It carries with it everywhere it has been, bringing news from elsewhere. I listen, enthralled, staring into the ten thousand yellow flames of the gorse, warming my soul at its fire. The whole headland before me is blazing, from the top of the cotil all the way down to the sea.
Yellow against blue makes a new color of both, intensified by the meeting. And that’s why I’m here, if there’s a reason at all: to be intensified by the meeting, to have my own colors come on strong to match what greets me here. I would say it was worth the journey for just this moment, though the journey has been long, with many wrong turnings. I would say some great good fortune had brought me to this place, but I think, truly, it was only my longing. I remember a line from Kabir: “When the Guest is being sought, it is the intensity of the longing that does all the work.”
Say it never happened, this moment of cold wind and warm sun on a tiny island. Say that. Say I never came back here, or if I did, it was nothing to me now—spoiled, useless. Suppose I never found a meeting commensurate with my longing, which is deeper than this sea. Then what?
The chook of a pheasant stops my hand and I find him where the gorse gives way to bluebells, standing in water as it were, a cock pheasant walking unhurriedly across a slope thick with flowers. When he disappears into the gorse, a tiny movement catches my eye: two people slowly ascending the cliff above the Havre Gosselin, so small I can’t make out any detail but the white of a shirt. From here they are no bigger than the pheasant, and not so gorgeously attired. The narrow path they climb is merely a wrinkle in the folded cliffs and they are specks of brightness, nothing more.
Not a soul has come out here today, though it feels like midsummer. I have the place to myself, which is how I like it. But I like it best when there is no one here at all, when the granite I lean against is my own back, sturdy and crumbling into time.
The island knows something its people do not know. Something blue and yellow and still. Something gray and fierce and relentless. Something true. It’s the island itself I came back for, the island in winter and the island in spring. In fact, it’s the moment when spring erupts out of winter, when beauty explodes out of barrenness, that I came back for. To steep myself in it, in the tincture of fertility, so I can put forth new shoots before I die.
And here it is, in spades as they say, not cultivated, not possessed, a profligate beauty bestowed on the undeserving, among whose number I count myself. Such loveliness burgeoning from a thin layer of topsoil, soil so poor that tenants for centuries gathered seaweed from the beaches and winched it up the cliffs. And yet on the wild cotils the grass is starred with tiny yellow celandines and springy underfoot. Drifts of primroses and bluebells cover it so thickly you can’t take a step without flattening a dozen flowers. I stumble through it like a drunkard, trying not to crush the flowers, but it’s impossible.
It’s spring I’m after, spring here in Sark where I first discovered it, where it had its way with me once a long time ago. And what is spring? Ah, if I could answer that I would burst into bloom. Better to sit right here in the splurge and spangle, breathing in the coconut scent of gorse, and under it, faint as hope, the bluebells’ frugal perfume.