Thirty years ago, Roc Sandford moved to a small, bleak island in the Hebrides. They aimed to live there without mains services and manage the land for wildlife. But the place had a different destiny in store. Far from being an unspoilt haven, Gometra was in ecological crisis, caused by climate and nature breakdown. Sandford found themselves confronting the barest truths about humanity and the environmental costs of our actions. In spring 2019, the more-than-human voices of Gometra inspired them to travel to London and join the Extinction Rebellion protests, where they spent time locked-on under a lorry on Waterloo Bridge.
Remote lighthouses glimmering and dancing through drizzle. In bed, blowing out the hurricane lamp and seeing through the gable window a long, white beam under winter clouds, a growing, piercing pulse from over the horizon, bomb-like, before swinging away. Skerryvore, with its hyperbolic curves, ‘noblest of extant deep-sea lights.’
Why an island? Somewhere to protect, somewhere to be left alone. Shadowing the Trappistines, their economy with speech. Language hadn’t bedded in with them, it made them antsy and was to be escaped. Into the spare poetry of dogs, who can say everything, above all ‘I am,’ ‘I love,’ ‘I want.’ Perhaps it’s an inability to lie, coupled with a ridiculous degree of goodwill, which constitutes dogginess.
Escaping too from telephones, calendars, photos, let alone papers and telly. Calculated to stop us seeing people, landscapes, books. But is this the wrong end of the stick again? I’ve escaped all right, but what to? And could the truth be that language was devised in order to lie, and to ourselves as much as others?
There’s nothing lonelier than lying, so consider honesty. If you only knew what to think or feel.
First thing, lured out by red sky, sliding clouds, pink waves and graphite sea. Then drenched by a sudden flying spurt of spray. Standing with dripping fingers, mouth open and eyes closed. The wind screaming. Knocking me down and, when I want to go home, stopping me, lifting me, holding me back, so it’s like climbing a waterfall. In the night, above the noise of wind, the dull clunk of birds hitting the lighted window.
Sheeda, who was born here, said: ‘Bats, there are many of them up there on Gomedrach. We used to lay a sheet of newspaper on our heads, and they would come lie on it.’
Her face a lichened piece of pink granite.
The sea luminous, a sharp blue, and fading steadily into mist, so you can still see white horses a mile away, only greyed-out and smudged. Nearer shore its smeared with greasy racing surf, as if even the waves are scared.
Reading W. H. Auden’s New Year Letter amid the din. Huddled over the Rayburn with oven and firebox doors open, trying to get warm. But the wind’s sucking all heat up the flue.
It’s stopped! But there it goes again, whirring like a machine. Too wild to go out now. Caught walking, lie down and wait for it to die away, or else be whisked out to sea. Come home sodden and without your balaclava or one sock. But getting the Rayburn going brightly at last. Steaming all over, I’m warming up.
Later, standing in the kitchen with Iain Munro, Ulva’s shepherd, who’s battled in from Ulva. A surprise gasp of light and flurry of water. ‘There’s your window gone!’ he shouts. ‘Lucky you kept your waterproofs on,’ I shout back. Jets of water spraying in through cracks, and remaining windows and doors being shaken madly. And drawing him away from the opening just as a slate splashes down where he stands.
Trees rocking. I never knew trees could move like that. Even if you aren’t afraid, you’re inclined to turn and run from whatever wind and sea are running from. It’s already dusk. Iain’s braving the return journey to Ulva and I’m wedging the window shut with a curtain rail as, hissing like a cat, the wind jumps up at it and puffs green bulbs of smoke from the Rayburn’s firebox. Meanwhile a fly, woken by the warming room, drops into the flame of a paraffin-wax candle and burns off its wings.
Why did I need a candle for company? Wouldn’t a fly have done? I fished it out too late, already bubbling from its carapace.
After storms, broiling sun, making the cold roofs pop and waver. Music on the radio and a steel thermos of tea. Through the open door, watching sixty hazy miles of islands and not one house visible, only the minute silhouette of the abbey on Iona, twenty miles south.
R. has turned up on Gometra to survey its marine habitats. Normally, he wades up the dying rivers of Georgia, rescuing the distinct species of sturgeon in each. Toting them back alive – explain that to customs – he stashes them in vats in his institute’s warehouse. He’s having a recurrent dream he’s unable to shake off and asks me what it means. The dream is this – whenever he opens his mouth to say why he rescues sturgeon, only birdsong comes out.
It’s spring, with Mâesgeir slowly going see-through, like black jelly, and a low blue sky of clouds rushing me much too fast. The sea grey and bright brown, lit underneath. A need to go outside and canter about.
Seeing more clouds; the intense, smoky light; ranks on ranks of undulating cliffs coming in and out of focus and thinking: ‘I live here. I’ve just come out my front door.’ And whooping and screaming, scaring an immense herd of deer, almost invisible against dark grass, and dislodging some crows who tumble from branches before opening their wings and flapping with difficulty along a rim of yellow brightness low on the edge of the sky. A straggly heron looks down on me and emits a screech. Whooping, screeching too, jumping about, until I sprain my neck and make myself hoarse.
It is time to go south.
On the ferry to Oban, I see a sperm whale sticking its vast tail up from the sea and flipping it about. The ferry heels as everyone crowds to the side to take selfies. The captain with a forced and sober note in his voice, pained even, comes over the Tannoy to request that half his passengers, but no more, should back away because we’ve destabilised the ship. He reminds us of the location of the life-jackets and muster-stations, and the significance of six short blasts on the ship’s whistle followed by one long blast.
On Westminster Bridge, feeling horror and vertigo. The Palace of Westminster, Portcullis House with its Titanic-style funnels, Westminster Abbey, all had done a ‘drink-me.’ I was being pitched forward by the wind of their shrinking.
Greta Thunberg’s ‘blablabla’ sometimes goes for NGOs and protestors too. We can perform dissent and believe it’s enough, though nothing changes. It’s not enough for nothing to change. We can even take part in greenwashing extravaganzas like COP. Like much of the NGO-scape, like the RSPB or the National Trust, the COPs are mostly propaganda, in suggesting that what’s necessary is being done or at least considered, when it is not.
There’s a great movie about a ghost who doesn’t know they’re a ghost and thinks they’re changing things. With marches, meetings and MP-letter writing, presumably.
Wading into traffic on Waterloo Bridge in the spirit in which you might have waded into guns. We’ve taken Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Piccadilly Circus. You, meanwhile, would far rather I didn’t inconvenience you by sitting in the road, while you scurry about on the important business of poisoning my air and roasting my kids.
Now I’m locked-on under the lorry blocking the bridge. The police are throwing themselves into getting it back. Loads of them are walking up and down the south approach. They’re carrying protestors halfway to Waterloo Station, they’re crazy in this sort of sweaty heat. Six or eight police carrying each person they arrest. It looks like we’ll run out of people and lose the bridge.
I can hear others locked under the back, but I can’t see past the axle. All being well, the police won’t move the lorry with us under it. Picturing them lifting it with everyone dangling from their chains.
When it looks like it’s over, last-minute reinforcements come and the police just give up and back-off. The sun is blazing but under here it’s lovely and cool. There’s total serenity, as if it doesn’t matter what happens anymore, and out of all time and space this is forever the right place to be, locked onto the drive-train of a lorry.
It’s amazing to think river lies just underneath where we’re lying, like an immense and sacred underground lake. I could climb aboard a boat here and sail home.
It’s odd lying under a lorry with your arms chained so you can’t move them. I can see the feet of everyone dancing from where I lie, and that makes me appreciate dancing. The band are in the lorry above my head. They are the kind of band that’s into stomping, and their music is incredibly noisy, and you can’t block your ears when your hands are tied.
We dance in our chains.
Roc Sandford is a writer and protestor who lives part time in London and part time in Scotland. A member of the artists’ collective Ocean Rebellion, which uses art bombs to highlight institutions driving ocean degradation, Roc also delivers a message of emergency and the inadequacy of the policy response to those with their hands on the levers of power in government, finance and multilateral bodies.
Burnt Rain will be published on 12 July by Hazel Press and is available from https://hazelpress.co.uk/product/burnt-rain-by-roc-sandford/.
CALL TO ACTION: This is an emergency. So pull every lever you’ve got—your professional bodies, your work, your charities, your friendships, your spending, your disobedience—to undo the leaders who betray us and the organisations dancing us all to terror, agony and disgust. Choose your theory of change and hammer it. Join one of the many protest organisations which are moving the dial. Silence is complicity, for writers above all. We’re going to say it all and make it happen. This is it. Life deserves nothing less.