Sunday, March 11, 2018

On A Wild Island

March 5th, 2017

The first night we land in the deep dark, our thinking scraped away, the fortieth hour of travel. We leave the airport for a pell-mell taxi ride through cobbled streets, island breeze, falling into two hostel beds pushed together.

We wake to birds, traffic, passersby, light slanting in through broken clouds and the tall window. Smell of the sea, everything humid and damp to the touch.

At last we wrest ourselves from bed though we want to lie there inert forever. Step out onto the cobbled alley. Around us the white lime walls, lichen-eaten terracotta tile. Pigeons ducking and turning on the sway-back roof ridges. The older buildings have black lava rock for corners and pillars, porous and rough. This contrast everywhere, black stone, white lime.

We find a meal at an outdoor cafe: steak, egg, fries, coffee. British tourists off the cruise ship sift around us. Bells clang every half an hour. The island wind thick and blowing off the harbor, stealing our paper napkins.

Still moving as if in thick grease, not quite feeling the ground, not yet settled. Spoken language mostly inscrutable, the aftermath of our seemingly endless ethereal travel, the sense of being upside down on the other side of the world, all of this makes us feel foreign. At once there is the disjointed sense of familiarity, some genetic memory, if for no other reason than knowing my ancestors lived in this place, perhaps walked where I walk, sat where I now sit. For many people in the world, this must be a forgone conclusion, but this disjointed lack of ancestry in our quotidian movements is a condition of Americans in this age.

We board a bus and wend through the city’s thoroughfares. Rectangular modern architecture blends with the traditional, sometimes in the same structure. Then of a sudden we leap out into the country, deep green slopes of pasture segmented by black walls of piled stone or tall tan stands of cane. Cattle dot the fields.

We climb up to the crest of the island, look down the long slope to the north. The west wind makes white caps on the cobalt ocean. Haze obscures the horizon. Down by the cliffs is the village of Caledos, red tile roofs, blocky walls of black and white, clustered around the church tower.

We drop down, the bus squeezes through narrow lanes that barely allow it. A sharp turn at the worn steps of the church, bare pruned sycamores in the paving. Each town has its old church, the bell tower pillared in black lava, a plaque with the date carved in porous stone, two or three hundred years hence.

We wind through the seaside villages, surf hidden below the tall cliffs, come at last to Joao Bom scattered over a rise. Debark and wander down the lane to the house of our hosts. Bare black stone, blue door that scrapes the floor, windows with many small panes. Inside is cluttered with their life. Walls limed in salmon or eggshell, tile floor, bare beam ceiling, rough table and benches. In back, the wild garden, edible weeds on the margins and crops still small in this early season. Chickens in a pen beside an old stone wall cobbled out of cane and cast-off netting and twine. A small citrus tree. Scattered broken plastic toys from the boys. A view over pastures to the ocean, misted and wild.

In the following days we wander the garden and the tiny local market, eat beans and a big rind of cheese and home-baked bread thick with seeds. Try unsuccessfully to sleep at night and stay awake in the day. We have not yet acclimated to this new way of the sun, rising and setting when it does. Something fundamental has been reversed.

We walk a narrow trail over the cliffs that dive precipitous to the breakers. Iron-red lava slopes in sharp, angled flows, seabirds wheeling minuscule before them. Here on the steep cliffs and in narrow ravines, where land cannot be cleared for human use, is a jungle of vines and trees and broad-leaf plants. Songbirds and gulls. The steep track over vertiginous drops.

We make our way down to a flat plane by the surf, the town of Moisteros. Just up the hill from the pastures and little vineyards and potato fields, we clear a jungly patch of cane and ferns and four-foot green fronds like a mutant ginger. We are making space for vegetable beds and a camping spot, this dark soil.

When work is done, we wander the town of Moisteros. The wind is hard and chill from the west, the sun bright on the white walls with their shutters in green and blue. We sit by the shore where the waves break over tortured fingers of lava. The water a cold indigo, ice blue where it crashes to foam. Off shore, titanic spires jut out of the surf, great sharp clefts admitting waves that churn and gnaw through their hearts. Seabirds turn and settle on their heads. Hazed spume in the wind, our clothes snapping like pennants.

Tired from work and dragged down by jet-lag, we fall asleep early. But I wake in the middle of the night, mind churning with images, like surf on lava stone.

We came here by the most civilized of means, the aircraft. Traversing the world in hours, the incredible roar of its burning power, its hard metal sealed against the atmosphere at thousands of feet, flying through mist and cloud and darkness by glowing electronic instruments. By this we have deposited ourselves here, the shores of my ancestors. Few options exist to accomplish this journey. Lengthy time away from home is now a luxury. We couldn’t afford any sort of ship’s passage.

And here, on these islands inhabited for a mere five hundred years, nearly every usable bit of land has been converted to field or pasture, every slope below twelve degrees divided by stone walls, furred in grass, cinder cones incongruously inhabited by herds of milch cows, grazing land right to the edge of sudden drops to the sea. Human imprint everywhere.

At once there is this wildness, irrepressible, of the great Atlantic, her spume-topped wind waves, and the massive dikes of cold lava thrusting upward, clawing for life against the destruction of the relentless ocean. These great cliffs that deny all human purchase. And even these tumbled field walls made from stone so recently boiled from the molten heart of the earth, and the surly bulls that watch me as I pass on the road, and the shivering pelt of the long pasture grass on the hill, playing in waves under the sea wind. Irrefutable wildness close at hand, life boiling up and remaking itself and tearing itself apart. Tenuous human outposts a part of it, amidst it.

Silver needles of airlines leaving trails in the sky. The old stolid church with its bell ringing the hour for hundreds of years.

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