from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 25 February 2011

islands of the heart

What is it about islands? I can't imagine I'm alone in seeing them as significant places, in themselves, and also symbolically. In terms of human resonance, we could see them as units of consciousness both separated and connected by the same perpetually fluid sea (something here about relationship, and about qualia, and about the way energy coheres in matter for a short space of time – whether that's the single day of the mayfly, the season of the butterfly, the span of a human life or the long dreamtime of a rock – before the quanta recycle themselves into everything) (maybe).

You know how it is that there are significant events, times, people, places which/who mark a turning point in your life? So we might say: 'That was before/after I met X/got married/divorced/had children/moved house/wrote that play/took that job/went to Machu Picchu –', and so on, dividing our life up through moments of great significance. Sometimes these are also connected with peak experiences: those moments out of time in which we transcend the 'normal' limitations of human mundane consciousness with its constraints and tight boundaries, encounter something more enduring, maybe more numinous.

But that's not really what I was going to write about, except inasmuch as I'm going to speak of one of those major turning points in my own life.

Twenty-five years ago, at a really difficult and painful time in my life, a friend who has since died took me to the Scottish Hebrides for the first time. There are, of course, for most (all?) of us, I assume, places, like people, with whom we resonate. When we meet that place, or that person, something in us that might not even have registered an absence before suddenly and sometimes dramatically falls into place, feels complete, whole, reconnected. I experienced that on the northwest coast of the Isle of Mull, dramatically and completely. And then again, as so many thousands of people do, in a deeper, quieter and much more serene way when I stepped off the ferry onto the tiny Isle of Iona. And I am lucky enough to be able to make that inner shift as I make the outer journey, annually.

traigh ban nam manach - roselle angwin

Iona has been a sacred place, a site of pilgrimage, for thousands of years, and it is, I imagine, almost impossible not to feel that sense of the numinous, no matter whether or not you consider yourself religious, and no matter what you might call it as soon as you step ashore, despite the newish horrible digital display of the ferry times at the slipway. (It's harder perhaps if you come in high summer, accompanied by hundreds of others; nonetheless on this tiny isle – about three miles by one and a half ish – there are many places to hide yourself away, and simply be still with the island.)

Iona was a teaching isle of the druids long before Christianity; it seems that there would have been a great deal of interchange between here and other centres of learning abroad in the ancient world. There are the remains of a processional route, still partly marked by standing stones – certainly used to carry the royal dead of Scotland but probably truly ancient – from Grasspoint on the east coast of Mull near Duart Castle, home of the Macleans, across to Fionnphort, opposite Iona, 35 miles. 

The name, Iona, probably comes from the Gaelic name of the island, which was simply 'I'. This in Gaelic is the third person feminine pronoun: 'she', or 'her'. It is also the eighth letter of the Celtic tree alphabet, and the tree for this letter is the yew, a sacred tree to Celts and druids alike. So Iona may be 'isle of the yews' (incidentally the World Tree, Yggdrasil, normally denoted as World Ash, is actually, according to scholars, the World Yew).

And if you have read my post on Imbolc, it won't surprise you if I mention here that the isle (which incidentally, is composed largely of Lewissian gneiss, one of the oldest rocks on the planet) was, it seems, dedicated to and presided over by Bride/Brigid/Brigantia (later St Bride to the Christians), who was the daughter of Anu, mother goddess of the Tuatha de Danaan, the gods of Ireland. Bride was a fire goddess as well as the goddess of knowledge, inspiration and fertility.

There's much more to say on the spiritual, and also political, history of the island, but I shall restrain myself today.

For ten years, I think it was, I co-led a writing retreat on Iona every April with my friend Scottish poet and author Ken Steven. We called the retreat 'Into Blue Silence'. People came from all over the world, and we have grown a small but warm transient community with shifting frontiers as people come across the course and sense that there's something that pulls them here. Some come every year, without fail; some come occasionally; each year a few new people join us.

As of last year, I am running this retreat solo, and have called it 'Islands of the Heart'. It is focused on writing, but is about something much deeper, too, of which writing is an outward expression; here on this island through words, through silence, through poetry, through walking, through the close companionship of others who 'get' the spirit of the place (and helped by the voices of the sea and the air, and it has to be said the fine Argyll Hotel food), something in us is restored, transformed, set free. 

One of the highlights is a boat-trip on Davy Kirkpatrick's wooden Iolaire ('eagle') to Staffa, that astonishing columnar island that is part of the underwater basalt seam that emerges off Ireland as the Giant's Causeway. This was the inspiration for Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave, of course.

staffa, fingal's cave (roselle)

Davy the boatman knows everything there is to know about the island, the wildlife, the geology, the history. And last year, he landed us on Staffa after a natural history lesson on puffins, and several of us had the magical experience of an hour or so on top of the island, with puffins strolling about on the grass around our feet, close enough to touch.

On Staffa

At first they come singly, specks of dark spume
kited up from their rafting on the tranquil
green-glass sea; then in their twos and threes.

We hold our breath, let the slow
swell of the great Atlantic stretched to all
the directions breathe us.

On the western horizon a speck of dust
is a trawler; and below, the wooden boat rounds
the bows of the island and vanishes.

They crashland like parachutists with
their orange feet, webbed as penguins’,
asplay; rattle their wings in April air,

and one by one saunter closer, clumsy,
comic, their airborne elegance absent
here among the blond grasses.

On the cliffs, above the plaint of fulmars,
the puffins’ low chuckles creak like
antique hinges. They gaze at us

where we lie inches away, we who cannot
fly; they gaze from their strange exotic triangles
of eyes beneath gelled quiffs, black brows

crowning white cheeks; they with their stubby
rainbow beaks against our landbound drabs.
None of us moves. It’s in these moments

that we remember the truths behind
words; and recover an ancient longing;
and our kinship, our covenant, with wild.

– Roselle Angwin

This year's Islands of the Heart runs from 2nd-8th April. The course is filling but at the moment there are still places available. See my website ('Courses', hover until 'Course Details' appears). The course takes place at the wonderful Argyll Hotel on the water:; there are alternative options for accommodation.

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