“The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out. But God knows I have tried.” – Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
I wish I could subtitle this: “It Can’t Always be Paris,” because as a rule, my love of travel takes me to cities, ones that I’ve fantasized about my whole life. To museums, churches, cafes, and copious amounts of people watching, opera going, and pastry eating. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that, more and more I find myself drawn to places off the beaten track, looking for something you can’t find at the end of a subway ride. More and more I go in search of a different kind of church, a different type of watching.
Last week marked my third stay on Skomer, an island off the coast of southwest Wales. It is a place of pronounced beauty and mystery, wild in locale – it can be reached only by boat – and demeanour, if an island can be said to have such a thing. While humans have lived on Skomer for thousands of years – remnants of an Iron Age community are still strewn about the island, and it was home to a working farm until the 1950s – today Skomer is uninhabited half the year. The other half, from late March until early October, sees a strictly limited number of overnight visitors (15 or fewer) and a small, hardy group of volunteers and researchers.
Overnight guests stay in a hostel that is only just comfortable: you must bring your own food, sheets, and towels, and there is one main electrical outlet on each of two floors for all to share. You did not come here to binge watch “The Walking Dead.” You came here to rough it and pay for the privilege, for the mystically wild scenery and millions of birds native and migrating. It does not disappoint.
Hundreds of thousands of Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Guillemots, and Fulmar live on the sheer face and in the craggy pockets of the coastal cliffs. The sound is tremendous and difficult to describe: their cries that come off that cliff face and the fields inland join up with the crashing surf all around and the wind that roars as it blows you down a hill even as you try to keep from being blown off it and together they create an unlikely kind of silence, the kind Annie Dillard described when she wrote, “You feel the world’s words as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence…The birds and insects, the meadows and swamps and rivers and stones and mountains and clouds: they all do it; they all don’t do it…The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings.”
The largest population of Manx Shearwaters in the world live here in underground burrows created by the thousands of rabbits who emerge at dawn and dusk to graze then disappear as if they had never been. (Rabbits? What rabbits?) Shearwaters are awkward on land making them easy prey for the Greater Black Back Gulls that inhabit the island scrub, forcing them to return to their burrows under cover of dark. Between 11:00 p.m. and early morning, hundreds of thousands of pairs rush through the sky and dive into a small hole on the side of a hillock. How they manage to know instinctively which hole is home and enter it like a bullet in the total blackout darkness is mind blowing. Also, something of a liability for their human fans carrying a flashlight covered with red paper to diffuse the light that would expose them to the gulls, but if the gulls can’t see them neither can you. As they swarm past in the blackness it is a wild flock of millions of phantom wings coming in for a landing with an unholy cry and you feel them rather than see them, this vast horde of tiny ghosts hurtling by. The whine of wings, indeed. On a less romantic note, it is normal to get clocked by one of these aviary spectres who can no more see you than you can see them. You are, after all, in their way. They are just trying to get home uneaten. What the heck are you doing there at one in the morning with a red-tissue-covered torch?
The next morning, paths around the island are strewn with the occasional but regular remains of those who did not make it, in the form of a pair of wings (and occasional bit of sinew), that look nothing so much like a very small angel who decided for some unknown reason to divest himself of his feathers in a hurry. Stepping over them I think, I don’t know what the deal is with these wingless angels, but whatever the story is, it must be a doozy.
(To see a gallery of more of these wings, go to http://torchsongtango.com/food-travel/memento-mori-the-shearwater-ghosts-of-skomer/)
At the end of the day – who are we kidding – it is the puffins who steal the show, and how could it be otherwise? The sheer extent of their cuteness is a thing of mystery. And they are strange. Also fearless. If you sit quietly enough they will walk over your shoelaces to get to the other side of the path with the Laurel-and-Hardy gait of a wind-up toy. It’s as if pieces of magic candy had come to life, that is, if pieces of magic candy regularly flew into a burrow with a mouthful of sand eels for their chicks.
If you are patient and follow the trail of Gannets fishing off the coast, you have a good chance of seeing dolphins and porpoise. If there is any sun to speak of, you sit on a rock at low tide and see seals who have pulled themselves up onto rocks in the nearby water. These are Grey Seals. Unlike the adorable seals found in wildlife films and plush animals, these are some badass seals, easily the size of a car.
They are a reminder and a formidable one, but so is all of Skomer. A reminder that the sea is full of wild swimming mammals the size of cars. That the midnight sky is filled with a million wings that weren’t there ten minutes ago. That hidden in plain sight are thousands of rabbits that are invisible until they aren’t. That if you are sitting quietly enough, something will walk over your shoelaces that looks something like a toy candy bird on acid, in itself a reminder that God was having a really good day when He came up with this one. A reminder, and a good one, that it can’t always be Paris.
For information on Skomer go to http://www.welshwildlife.org/skomer-skokholm/skomer/