Pharos: Tunnel Gauntlet & Horizon Keep
"The light-house looked lovely as hope, that star on life's tremulous ocean." —Thomas Moore
When he was about four years old, my brother became obsessed with lighthouses. It started, as best either one of us can recall all these decades later, with a book about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that my parents read to him at bedtime. He quickly memorized the names and stories behind each of the “wonders,” among them the Lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt.
“The picture of that tower at Alexandria still fascinates me,” my brother, now in his mid-40s, told me recently.
Built during the reign of the pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus (280–247 BCE), Alexandria’s lighthouse was 330 feet tall– for centuries the tallest man-made structure in the world—and despite at least three major earthquakes, it remained standing for more than a thousand years, well into the 14th century.
His fascination with the Pharos of Alexandria, as it also was known, led my only sibling, three years my junior, to want to learn about other lighthouses, which led to a lavishly illustrated Big Book of Lighthouses joining his nightly stories regime. Soon, he knew the names of every lighthouse in North America, more than a few of which stood within driving distance of our home in southern New England.
There were 23 lighthouses in our native Connecticut, the closest of which was the Stratford Point Lighthouse, just one town over from coastal Milford, where we lived in the mid-to-late 1970s. We were frequent visitors to the 40-foot-tall, brick-lined, white cast-iron tower with its distinctive brownish-red band. Built in the 1880s, it stands on a promontory overlooking the waters where the Housatonic River estuary empties into the Long Island Sound.
When we were kids, adjacent to the lighthouse there was a gun club famous for its annual skeet shooting competition, but despite the occasional racket (and 4.8 million pounds of lead from the skeet shot that had to be removed during an environmental remediation in the early 2000s), the point also was an excellent spot for year-round birdwatching and migrating monarch butterflies in the early autumn. Our parents were avid birders (they spent part of their honeymoon in 1963 at an Audubon Society center on Cape Cod), so there was always something for them to spot (besides the lighthouse) on our regular visits. I was less enthusiastic and vividly recall pouting in the family station wagon with a book, flinching at the occasional rifle blasts, while the rest of my family explored the “wonders” outside.
A few weeks ago, I asked my brother, who is characteristically lean of expression, what it was about lighthouses that so enthralled him as a child: “Locations—they’re usually in interesting places—they’re solitary and last a long time. Unusual structures, but functional.”
Over time, as it sometimes does, childish annoyance gave way to an enduring fondness, and lighthouses became something of a sigil for our entire family. For my brother’s sixth or seventh birthday, our clever father built a five-foot-tall scale model of what was his favorite lighthouse (and the site of an annual pilgrimage each summer): Montauk Point Light at the eastern-most point of Long Island’s East End. The model, which stood in our den for years, even had a working light in its tower.
When my parents were still alive, there were lighthouses on pillows, in drawings, paintings, photographs, and books throughout their homes. Now that they’re both gone, my brother and I keep more than a few lighthouses in ours. In fact, from the desk where I am writing this, I can see a cast-resin replica of the famed Chicago Harbor Lighthouse atop a tall, slender bookcase that holds books about Ireland and by Irish authors.
Whenever I see a lighthouse, I first think of my brother, then of our parents and fond memories from early childhood. I also think about what the lighthouse symbolizes, as a global archetype and in my personal semiotics, where it’s inextricably linked to a sense of hope and safety, and also as a gauntlet thrown to live what I say I believe.
“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world,” Jesus tells his followers in the account recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew (4:14–16, MSG). “If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives.”
In other words, when I see a lighthouse, it reminds me to live my life in such a way that I am for others a safe harbor when storms are raging, generosity in a time of want and insecurity, and a light—especially when the world feels so very dark. That’s the goal, at least. Sometimes I get there or near enough to make a difference. In this endless 2020, a year for which descriptors such as “dark” and “stormy” feel like sweet euphemisms, I hope I’m getting there with more regularity or grace than in times past.
A few weeks ago, in the first of my "Light Rafts for Flagging Spirits” Friday dispatches, you might recall I mentioned the documentary film, The Cloud of Unknowing, a short about Rodney Thompson, who lived alone in a tiny hermitage in Ireland’s wild Connemara region for 30 years. If you haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, please do. It’s gorgeous.
As I was doing a little background research about that film and its maker, Mike Hannon, I fell down a digital rabbit hole where I discovered one of Hannon’s earlier films: A 28-minute black-and-white documentary called An Illustrated Guide to Lighthouse Spotting.
For all the obvious reasons, I clicked the link, not knowing what to expect. Just … lighthouses, so, yes. I’ve watched the film (and please hear that word in the lovely way only the Irish pronounce it, with two syllables— “fill-um”) numerous times now, always mesmerized by the narrator-less journey of a small group of lighthouse enthusiasts on a week-long holiday tour of some of Ireland’s most picturesque lighthouses.
It sounds like it might be dry or boring. I promise you, it’s not.
AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO LIGHTHOUSE SPOTTING
“It’s a film that’s about uncertainty,” Hannon, the filmmaker, told me during a conversation via Zoom from his home in County Cork. “It thrives on uncertainty, it celebrates it. It induces it in the viewer, it draws on it as a power and it revels in it.”
There are about 70 lighthouses throughout Ireland, all of them automated since the late 1990s. While some function as accommodations for travelers, none is “manned” for its original purposes, and many have been decommissioned or will be in the coming years.
“The romance and beauty [of lighthouses] are the things that we all relate to,” Hannon said. “Everybody likes lighthouses. Some people love them, but everybody genuinely really does at least like lighthouses.”
What it is about lighthouses that make them universally appealing?
“They’ve been around long enough to mean something to us in the culture—in stories, in paintings—long enough to be archetypal. And that’s why I thought it made for such a compelling idea for a documentary,” Hannon said. “It’s like we’re going to switch off the archetypes within the next three years because we don’t need them anymore, because you can just see where you are on your phone. I mean, WTF, they’re just gone? What next? Are you going to switch off the moon and the sun and birdsong?
The film has a vaguely wistful, mystical air to it. Hannon shot it in color, but decided in post-production to make it into a contrasty, broody black-and-white affair instead, to reflect how he was feeling at the time. (He made the film—a thesis project for his master of arts degree—six summers ago, whilst processing some grief and personal losses from years earlier.)
Using a stationary camera, characters in the film move in and out of the frame, sometimes seemingly unaware of its presence. We hear snippets of conversation that float in on the breeze, mixed with organic sound—field recordings of a kind—that give the audience a deep sense of place. We’re walking along a jetty, standing on the narrow circular walkway surrounding a beacon as it turns, wind gusting off the sea, or trying to get our footing amidst the jagged, moonscape-ish surface of an ancient skellig while the Atlantic roars around its knees.
The film feels meditative, in part by design. Hannon is a fan of the “slow cinema”—sometimes called “contemplative cinema”—art film genre that is typically minimalist and observational, with long takes and little or no narrative. The late Persian poet and filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (whose Koker Trilogy I mentioned in my Nov. 7 Light Rafts dispatch) was one of slow cinema’s celebrated proponents.
The “aesthetic of slowness” allows the audience to relax and revel in each frame. We have time to look around the frame, to notice things we might not otherwise if there were a narrator or a lot of action. If ever there were a time to embrace the space that slow cinema can create in our brain, 2020 is it.
Conveniently, the mood and languid rhythm of An Illustrated Guide to Lighthouse Spotting also reflects how some of us also are feeling as we hurdle toward the end of this annus horribilis, wanting desperately to exhale out fear, but worried that yet another shoe could drop and things might get worse. Again.
The film “doesn’t allow anything to become certain,” Hannon said. “As soon as something looks like it’s about to become certain, it’s swept away and kind of forgotten about as things shift and change.”
An emblematic scene comes late in the film, when Hannon’s camera focuses tightly on the rotations of a large beacon atop one of the lighthouses. The effect is mesmerizing and meditative—a three-minute reverie of resting wakefulness that is jarringly interrupted when, as the scene abruptly changes, scores of squawking, flapping guillemots (he pronounces it “gilly-matts”) descend on one of the Skellig islands off of County Kerry.
“It’s like, what the f*ck just happened!” Hannon said, laughing. “It’s a film that evokes some of the weirdness that we’re all experiencing now, in the sense of things happening to us that are beyond our control.”
“It’s totally unsettled,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with kind of disillusionment or a kind of opening your eyes—something to do with if you had an illusion about the world, for example that lighthouses are these beautiful symbols that are going to last forever, and then suddenly, the lighthouses are gone and, oh my God, who are we?”
The evening I first sat down to write this, our house was juddering pleasantly, buffeted by gale-force winds that were blowing in southeast (if the owl weathervane atop my writing shack was correct) from the Pacific just down the hill.
It’s unusual for this time of the year in Southern California to have such broody, downright Celtic weather. A fortnight or so ago, it was warm Santa Ana zephyrs that menacingly rattled the windows of our house, stoking brush fires that raged a few towns to our north.
Remarking on what he deemed “spectacular” weather—wild gusts of rain that interrupted otherwise crystal-blue skies—that happened to arrive the Sunday morning after the presidential election was called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, a Twitter friend exclaimed, “The wind is cleaning us!”
His words reminded me of these ecstatic lines from Rumi:
Lord, the air smells good today,
straight from the mysteries
within the inner courts of God.
A grace like new clothes thrown
across the garden, free medicine for everybody.
In the last week or so, it’s felt as if more than a few of us have rediscovered the ability to breathe deeper, see light and color more clearly, touch and taste what is good and joyful, and contemplate slowly, without stillness or reason needing overcome our baser instincts to fight or flee.
My, how things have changed in a few weeks. I am a big fan of such divine reversals, but their gale-force grace can knock us off our feet before we achieve a new equilibrium. Even so, after a quadrennial of grinding anxiety and despair that felt as if it might be interminable, a familiar feeling has returned as if borne by the wind: Hope.
It means once in a lifetime /That justice can rise up /And hope and history rhyme.
Those lines and others from Seamus Heaney’s poem, “The Cure at Troy,” have been making the rounds on high rotation thanks to an affecting late-in-the-race campaign ad in which President-elect Biden reads the poem aloud while black-and-white still images of 2020’s symbol of suffering, resolve, and hope—people wearing masks— slowly, meditatively pan across the screen.
It’s a beautiful sentiment and a powerful poem, long a favourite from my most favourite poet’s rich oeuvre. And yet, perhaps because of lighthouses on the brain, a different Heaney poem has surfaced again and again in my consciousness.
Heaney’s “Electric Light” is, to my ear, a poem about change, unexpected and otherwise. It's about the long and short perspective on who we think we are, who we are becoming, and what passes away along the journey of transformation.
In part of the poem, the poet is on a train, watching scenes unfold on the other side of the window.
…an allotment scarecrow among patted rigs,
then a town-edge soccer pitch, the groin of distance,
fields of grain like the Field of the Cloth of Gold,
tunnel gauntlet and horizon keep. To Southwark,
too, I came, from tube mouth into sunlight,
Moyola-breath by Thames's "straunge strond."
If I stood on the bow-backed chair, I could reach
the light switch. They let me and they watched me,
A touch of the little pip would work the magic.
A turn of their wireless knob and light came on
in the dial. They let me and they watched me
as I roamed at will the stations of the world.
We’ve been surrounded by darkness—whether it’s a storm, pall, tunnel or tapestry of lies—for so long, yes. But we will emerge into the light of a new day. The horizon exists even when we cannot locate it, and the sun continues to rise.
Towers may fall, but the light remains.