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Bardsey Island Observational Research Project

Meditations on a Seal

Aug 9, 2010 I am writing this on the edge of the cliff while waiting for my previous post and hopefully photos are winging their way from my phone to the Internet.

I am sitting on the north west tip of the island on a large chunk of white quartz that is protruding from the grass. It is like a jewelled throne. Well almost.

Good company

The wind is blowing behind me and, despite pulling my collar up as high as it will go, it is threatening to blow off my hat. Once again I pull the string tight under my chin.

Good Company

Today is my third day on the island, but my first day of ‘proper’ observation. Today I have observed seals from this cliff. I have also watched the bars of charge left in my phone dwindle as I type this from 100% to now 31%. Batteries are going faster than expected. It is like the phone is working extra hard to send my data through the dense salty airwaves between here and the nearest transmitter on the mainland. This cliff is the only spot where I can get a phone signal from Orange (my carrier) unless I climb to the very top of the mountain. I can get a signal a little closer to the house but that is an O2 signal. And it’s coming from Ireland. That is going to land me with a big bill! So, here I must sit.

I am looking at the seals. They are looking at me. We are curious about each other.

They lie in the sea, their heads sticking out like fronds of seaweed. They dive occasionally but mostly they just stay where they are. They look at me. I sit here in my hat and look at them.

Watching me, watching you

Occasionally one or both of us yawns. It’s funny how mammals can make each other yawn. This is no barrier to species. I can now say I have caught a yawn from a seal. I can’t say whether it has caught any from me, as I had the advantage of a telephoto lens.

Oh do excuse me ..

.. I think I'm going to ..

.. Y A W N ..

Hehe, pardon!

My daughter has now taken over my camera and has taken many hundreds of photos of the seals while I sit and type my observations.  No semblance of story is showing up. The more I search for one, the further away and more elusive it seems to get. I am clearly trying too hard.

Some of the people here have caught on that I am a writer and are worried that I might cast the island and its islanders in a bad light. This pressure only adds to creative block. For now I am writing long emails of my observations to my husband, and my schoolfriend in New York, I am of course writing on my blog and I am coming up with lots of plot points for my book which is fleshing out quite nicely.

I think my short film might be about seals, although thirty minutes might be a little long.

Really? You think???

I am cold and tired and thirsty and I want to get this sent off before I can head home to the hearth and the kettle.

Tomorrow I will explore the chapel, the ruins of the thirteenth century monastery and maybe talk to some islanders. Perhaps. Or maybe I will sit and look at these seals again. They are so calm, so peaceful, so delightfully free of busy. They are the perfect meditation partners.

I remind myself once again that this is about observation, not meditation. But something on this island is calling me to meditate, pray even. Saint Cadfan came here over a thousand years ago and he must have felt the same compulsion. It is just that sort of place. Thoughts tend toward the holy. Even if you are not normally that way inclined it just happens. It is higher here.

A mysterious and magical place

In the night however, the twenty thousand ancient bards of Bardsey must have been terrified. Twenty thousand birds – Manx Sheerwaters to be exact – fly about in the dark moonless night calling their unique and eerie cries to find their mates who are each calling out with their own unique call. Their cries are odd. They are not unlike human voices and can easily be mistaken for speech that is just out of earshot. Some of them sound like screams and shouts and cries for help from some person – sometimes man, sometimes woman, sometimes elderly and sometimes newborn – that has befallen of some great horror just out there in the darkness and it is all that you can do to stop yourself charging out into the night to help them.

Still others sound like wheezing, breathless asthmatic chickens that have taken to the wing but are suddenly regretting it. When you hear one like that it’s hard not to laugh.

But to the ancients they must have sounded like tortured souls or demons. I had imagined that these birds would be roosting on a cliff on the other side of the mountain making this cacophony. It had not occurred to me that these birds would be flying around invisibly in the dark making these odd cries and getting surprisingly close to my head as they go past. It is an incredible sound and an equally incredible sensation. It is hard not to be afraid. It is hard not to feel like this is another world, another realm.

To the saints it must have seemed like hell. And if you can make hell into a holy place it must be very holy indeed.

And that’s the thing about Bardsey, whether it’s birds or bards, this IS a holy place.

Tea beckons. My daughter has gone ahead to put the kettle on. Dinner, dishes before dark, then bed. it’s amazing how quickly you adjust to the hours of the sun. I can’t believe day three is almost over.

The sun sets behind the mountains of Ireland

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