Between a rock and a hard place

So, the time has come. We've named a date and everything. In just over six week's time we're going to be leaving Rum and the Castle; Mel's contract is ending, the hostel is closing, and our time is up.

It doesn't seem long ago - and then again it's like a lifetime ago - that I first took my tentative, wobbling steps from the Calmac ferry on to this island, like a toddler learning to walk. And I could easily continue the metaphor by saying that like a toddler, I was learning to walk - to stand on my own two feet and realise that no-one else can take those steps for me. A lesson I hadn't quite learned before.

But although the metaphor is true, it's not the whole truth. In other ways, I sometimes feel as if we're the ones who could walk and coming to Rum was like having to slow down, almost cripple ourselves, to hold ourselves back to adapt to a place that in many ways hasn't learned to walk yet at all. A place (and this is both metaphorical and actual reality) where getting anywhere is hard, roads are non-existent and one can scale the heights or plunge into the depths but rarely relax into walking on the level with no obstacles in one's way. Or if you do, you'll soon find that rain has washed away the surface of the track. Which has been really happening - our proud new road-surfaces to Kilmory and Harris have been getting turned to mud in the torrential, icy rain that has been falling throughout May, with hail thundering on the hostel roof on more than one occasion while the sky grows dark outside and frustrated visitors huddle in the brightly-lit lounge with tartan blankets as they valiantly gather together to play a dog-eared game of Trivial Pursuits or watch a film on their laptops. Anyone hoping for a carefree, sunlit holiday on Rum was not in luck this year.

It's oppressive, all this cloud. I feel it weighing on me; but it's also like a silent farewell. The island is already withdrawing from us, back into the mists that it emerged from for just a short while. As if for two years it had gradually come out of the clouds to meet us, generously and reluctantly revealing its secrets: the green, mossy, cushiony hill that is Fionchra; the thousands of shearwater burrows up on the steep, exposed flanks of dangerous Askival; the sheer drop at the edge of Bloodstone Hill and the dizzying view down Glen Shellesder to Canna and the dim Outer Hebrides beyond; the smooth sinuous black arch of a minke whale moving slowly up out of the waves and back down into them as we watch mesmerised from the boat; the endless trudging across boggy, brackeny moorland, each step a wager I used to be sure I would always lose but which I now simply accept. The way the winter can drag you into its endless night yet within just a few days, it seems, turn to a spring loud with life and bright with hope. The intensity of the silence as you stand alone in the blazing sun in the bowl of the mountains with nothing to be heard but the wind. The clouds of shearwaters flying out of the island across the sea and back again. And then the eagles.

But now it feels as though not we, but Rum is moving away, withdrawing back into itself, into its mystery and silence, with not another word to say to us. Soon we'll be strangers to the island again. And who will we be to ourselves?

Last time I wrote about Rum I was struck by its cyclical nature and the way each year repeats itself. This time I'm not so sure. In fact, everything feels different this year. And this isn't just a human thing. It's not just our dwindling population or the decline in energy that means we now have too few directors on our community trust and not enough people to run the tea-shop, though these things are difficult in themselves. It's not just that I know how much work I need to do before I leave on the archive and trying to persuade people to help our castle, and the fear of running out of time. Or the fact that our electrical wiring needs redoing so some of the castle tour now has to take place by torchlight, adding to the feeling of urgency. It's a more general state of affairs.

Usually at this time of year we are already on midge alert, checking the signs each morning (breezy = good; sunny and still = not so good; grey, still and clammy = I'm staying indoors) and taking a midge jacket out with us just in case; standing outside the shop becomes a risky business and the sight of tourists doing the "midge dance" a regular entertainment. But this year there are no midges. You might think this would cheer us up, but instead it's just strange: bats are flying about in the daytime because they're so desperate for food, swallow numbers seem to be far lower than usual and it is worrying to know, rather than just feel, that it's too cold for the time of year. Wild flowers have only just starting blooming in our meadow; last year the fields around the castle were filled with wild orchids, but now they're home only to grasses and a few buttercups. Some migrant birds (notably the chiff-chaffs) arrived much later than usual, while it seems to me that there are fewer cuckoos, or maybe we just hear them less. This time last year, we'd already seen several whales; this year I've seen none so far, though that may only be because the sea has been so rough that it's impossible to see anything (Calmac reports the most ferries cancelled ever this year). And because of the stormy weather, the eagles have scarcely been seen.

It's still beautiful of course; the trees have turned to those hundreds of shades of green, the lush pasture in front of the castle is once again attracting stags with velvety, half-grown antlers and nervous hinds who leap elegantly over the fence as soon as they see us (the stags don't bother) and the sea and the mountains change their colour and mood from hour to hour, as stunning and strange as ever, while the tens of thousands of shearwaters seem to dance across the waves far out on the horizon, before the night sky gradually turns a deep blue, never black at this time of year. Part of me wants to keep a hold on it all, but it's already departing from me. If last year I felt I had stepped through a door into being a person I never thought I could become, with a part to play in the community that I never expected to play and a sense of personal agency that was entirely new to me, now I know I am gradually leaving this behind too. And although this is partly inevitable - I can't be both here and elsewhere - it isn't entirely so.

I know that it isn't just because of us leaving, but also because there are people here on Rum who have already given up thinking of us as part of the community; people who perhaps never really thought of us as really here at all. Strange when to us, these two years have been among the most momentous in our lives. At a recent community meeting, a suggestion was made that people who are only here 'temporarily' should have no say in island-wide decisions. But as Mel said, how do you know if people will be temporary? What does temporary even mean? There was a time when we would have contemplated staying here permanently, but now we wouldn't. We haven't held back while we've been here; this has been our life, not some kind of a make-shift substitute. And in many ways we've been repaid a thousand times for it, with friendships, affection, fun and the amazingness of life on Rum generally. But we've been hurt too. The depth of resentment against SNH is too damaging and sad, even though it's felt by only a tiny part of the population here; the inability to actively reach out to newcomers is even more damaging and even more entrenched, meaning that energy gets lost in defensiveness, or is held back by unnecessary blocking of suggestions, or merely a lack of interest in other people's lives, if it involves engaging with people who don't come from the 'right' places.

But Rum itself is not a 'right' place, or a wrong one. No-one is permanent on Rum. It's a place that has constantly seen people come and go; it's a place that is billions of years older than any people at all. Perhaps my original feeling that the landscape would never want me wasn't so far off the mark. But 'want' was the wrong word. People might or might not want me, they might even like me, but the island neither wants nor rejects. It is simply what it is. Dealing with something that refuses to adapt to me in any way, whether I love it or hate it, fear it or embrace it, has made me stronger and given me a sense of sheer, rock-like and unmoveable reality. Of thereness, irrespective of what I feel or don't feel. And this is something all of us on Rum have to deal with: it can shatter you, break you to bits, or also build you; let you realise you're a part of this world too, with your own unique reality, even if unlike Rum, you won't be here for billions of years. Instead you have to keep on being human. You can't change into a bit of rock or a sea eagle. You have to keep dealing with your own human-ness. And other people's.

I know when Mel and I leave things will continue to be different every year. People will change, the 'feel' of the island will change...the community will never simply be one thing, and even things that seem most fixed (even the landscape) will eventually change too. And I can't hold on to it. I know that writing about it won't let me hold onto it; it will make Rum even more elusive, even more distant. But I want to try, because I want other people to see it, to see something of what this intransigent reality does to humans. In cities maybe we really do construct our own reality to a great extent; we can analyse anything away, find an alternative reality for the one we don't like. Here I've experienced what it's like to be constructed: to be something that is changed by something that's more powerful than myself, but that's not human, is not made by humans, has no care for humans. Writing about it isn't a way of controlling it. You can't control it. Writing about it is just a tiny way of saying: thank you.

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