How a Rocky, Inhospitable Place Became a Beacon of Calm

RETURNING LIGHT: Thirty Years on the Island of Skellig Michael, by Robert L. Harris

When he first comes upon the advertisement for a job opening on a remote island eight miles off the coast of western Ireland, Robert L. Harris is already primed for sublimity. Visiting a friend in the area in 1985, two years earlier, he and his wife had impulsively joined a small group of tourists heading to Skellig Michael. As the boat nears the island, seabirds wheel in the sky, and everything changes:

I was utterly aware of the light falling on us all, there at that exposed point on the sea: falling in the softest of caresses on the skin, the arms, the hair of my wife, aglow in the beaks of the revolving birds, stretching in little fingers even below the surface, so that the light-trails left by diving birds shimmered in running and electrical currents as we neared Skellig Michael.

This passage, which appears in the first chapter of “Returning Light,” does more than explain why Harris becomes a guide on a weather-wracked island a 90-minute boat ride and some 200 miles from his home, a job that will keep him from his young family for weeks at a time and for months on end. It also offers a good sense of what to expect from this memoir about Harris’s time on that steep, formidable rock in the North Atlantic during the decades he has spent his summers there.

A passage like that is fair warning: “Returning Light” is not aimed at armchair travelers and erstwhile historians. It’s meant for dreamers and wonderers, for readers who are also primed for sublimity, who will undoubtedly surrender to its spell. If you are in a hurry, if you are inclined to read in search of some version of a thesis statement, best move along. This is not a book for you.

When Harris takes the job on Skellig Michael, Ireland is suffering what Harris describes as a severe economic depression, and he is thrilled to have found work at all, let alone such interesting work. He expects to make the long journey home after two weeks, returning to the island again six days later in a pattern that will repeat, more or less reliably, from May to October. He does not yet understand how thoroughly the mercurial ocean will dictate the terms of his comings and goings or how difficult he will sometimes find it to get home and back again during breaks.

Harris also doesn’t know how difficult life on the island will be, though this fact quickly becomes obvious. His rudimentary accommodations are a bunk in a tiny hut shared with another guide. The hut, “a little cockpit suspended against the open sky and the endlessly unfolding drama of the North Atlantic,” is tied down to prevent it from being blown into the ocean. The true precarity of life in this place is made clear only after Harris leaves the island for the year and his hut is destroyed in a winter storm. He falls in love with his life there anyway.

As a part of the new guiding team on Skellig Michael, Harris is meant to help maintain what’s left of an ancient monastery, probably established sometime around the sixth or seventh century, and to answer questions from visitors who arrive by boat each day to tour the ruins or to get a close-up view of the many species of sea fowl that nest there during the summer months. Owing to dangerous seas, there might be no visitors for days on end; on those days Harris is left to his own thoughts, which he records in beautifully detailed journal entries.

Even on inclement days, Harris is never completely isolated on Skellig Michael, but as a writer he isn’t very interested in setting a scene peopled by human companions. He often visits the ruins alone, imagining the life of the monks who lived year-round in that treacherous place, apparently without external support or provisions, and he writes movingly about the love and commitment that would lead people to attempt such a life. But he gives far more pages over to pondering the life of the island’s birds — puffins, gannets, kittiwakes, razorbills and storm petrels, among many others — than to describing his interactions with other human beings.

“Returning Light” is aptly titled. Harris is most of all concerned with light: the moving light scattered by the open Atlantic, the light of the unobstructed sun and stars viewed from a remote island, the light of phosphorescent creatures living under the surface of the waves, the light reflected by the downy chicks of seabirds resting on rocky ledges and by their shining parents on the wing. “This light must be wound into the heart,” Harris writes, and then in memorable language he makes it so, for now the light of Skellig Michael is wound into my heart, too.

This is a memoir that unfolds partly as retrospective, partly as journal entries kept in real time and partly as poetry — literal poems that break up the meditative narrative into language that is even more heightened and lyrical. But there is hardly any reason for such distinctions. It is impossible to do justice to the beauty of “Returning Light.” The whole book is a poem.

Margaret Renkl is a weekly contributing opinion writer for The Times and the author of “Late Migrations” and “Graceland, at Last.” Her new book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.

RETURNING LIGHT: Thirty Years on the Island of Skellig Michael | By Robert L. Harris | 272 pp. | Mariner Books | $29.99

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