I seem to have been picked up by a dog – and it is not clear if I am responsible for him, or he for me. As he is lopes ahead through the knee-high tawny grass two magpies chatter and gripe, swooping low over his back. He seems indifferent.
We are on our annual family holiday to Ynys Enlli, a scrap of land off the north–west coast of Wales. I have set off towards the sea at the north end of the island and it is hot, dry and dusty – more like Galicia than Gwynedd. The world seems slow and amiable. On a pond an absent bird has swum some Jackson Pollock patterns though the algae and duckweed, leaving a casual unsigned art work for all to admire. Slender thistles are bristling burnt-out candles, bar a last flicker of soft purple on each tip. A meadow pipit lifts out of the grass peeping feebly as I approach.
I keep doing this (naming things) as I go along; it is an old indelible habit, both pleasure and compulsion. But I would prefer not to think that way this afternoon. I know how complex it is to keep this island running smoothly but right now I don’t want to evaluate or problem solve – just let the place permeate me.
There is a slight but priceless northerly breeze that keeps me from being fried. The dog and I settle on some flowery turf (centaury, hawkbit, milkwort, burnet saxifrage…….!) just above the rocky shore and overlooking the blue-green of the sea which shades to steel at the horizon, as sharp as a knife cut. All I can hear are gently lapping waves and the softly panting dog. I remember an old friend, long gone now, who used to like this spot; when he could no longer get to the island, he asked me to come and sit here for him. Enlli gets you like that.
At the north-west tip of the island I can’t resist lying down on the soft quilt of heather and dwarf willow which over the last 20 years has, thanks to careful management, arisen from near dead, over-grazed contortions into thriving maritime heathland. Favouring lolling over listing I marvel at the delicacy of a miniature world studded with yellow tormentil flowers and the palest pink cups of bog pimpernel. Yet this headland is often exposed to weather that would kill me in a few unprotected hours. The stone-faced earth banks (cloddiau in Welsh) that divide the fields in this part of the island are peppered with guano-splattered holes. There are thirty thousand (30,000!) pairs of Manx shearwaters nesting on Bardsey, in holes like these. In the hot of the afternoon the birds are either underground incubating their single egg or feeding out at sea. But at night, once it is properly dark, thousands of them will fly in, weaving a cat’s cradle of flight traced by their demonic howls and chatter – thus inverting the daytime world so that all of life appears to be in the sky.
Picking myself up from my reverie I realise the dog has gone – frustrated by the lack of progress I suppose. Pity, I liked him. Now I am completely alone with the glittering sea and lichen-black rocks; the only sounds are indolent waves and the music-hall moans of seals hauled out on the rocks at Honwy. I have nowhere to go, nothing to do – and yet somehow everything to experience: thistledown tumbling across the grass, the stink of sheep on the breeze, the clank of a closing gate, the steady gaze of brown–eyed cattle. In a tight black inlet bootlace seaweed sways laconically in the slack of the tide, further out patches of sea are that gorgeous azure-blue beloved of travel agents. But this is here, now – not some other longed for place accessible only by credit card.
Later on I make my way to a favourite place on the side of the ‘mountain’: a platform of white rock that juts out like a box at the opera above the steep slope of the cliffs to the swirling sea 200 feet below. This is where the gulls nest and there is constant movement of birds making slow elegant patterns in the airspace in front and below me. Several hundred herring and lesser black-backed gulls nest here – species that cannot be taken for granted anymore. Provoked by my intrusion many more take to the air yelping and chuntering – sounds more evocative of spilt chips than wild places these days. Purposeful groups of guillemots, razorbills and puffins speed across the view just above the sea – it is hard to identify them from up here, but I can just pick out the pale-faced puffins. As I stand up to leave the sound from the gulls rises to a crescendo of fear or indignation – either way I don’t linger.
Late that night after the moon has set I go out into the pitch black and listen to the shearwaters that have come ashore in their thousands. Pointing a torch upwards their ghostly, blinded forms criss-cross the beam uttering ghoulish cries. It is a wild, thrilling spectacle. Equally abundant and even more heartening are the number of moths, pale as x-rays, fluttering and darting above the grass. This is something like Michael McCarthy’s ‘moth snowstorm’, which was a common sight sixty years ago. I am awed by so much life.
After a while this ‘bum in the dirt’ sort of island softens and spreads you out like dough set to rise. Light and dark, high and low tide, wind speed and direction – those sorts of things start to become a rhythm in you. You don’t have to want to find out or even be interested, it just begins to happen. Seeing millions of stars in the night sky; breathing in the scent of sun-dried grass or watching the red sun become an anvil or a puddle just before it slips below the sea-line takes you there. Your animal body knows the way home -the trick is learning to get out of the way.