The deep bass of a wave smashing into granite is something that you feel in your guts. The most body-shattering techno in a Berlin nightclub has no resonating chamber like the cliffs of Ouessant. Eight times a minute, a sparkling wall of angry water slams against militant rock. The moment of impact is not so much a sound, as a visceral lurch inside you. As I type this with the ocean all around me, yesterday’s wind that rattled my tower all night, is still echoed in the raging sea. The waves exploding on the rocks below me beat out a super-slow, super-heavy dub-track from the deep. A score that shuns the time signatures of human-made music and slows it right down to ocean-time: 8bpm. This is the soundtrack of a liquid planet. It turns out that the celestial music of the spheres doesn’t tinkle like harpsichords, it grinds and pounds with a sub-audible bass that resonates in spaces deep inside you.
My home for the next month is a block of granite that lies 20km off the tip of Brittany – in the far west of France. The island of Ouessant juts out from the swell of the Atlantic – confusing its currents and forcing them to churn around its jagged edges. A residency in a ‘Semaphore’ next to the ‘Creac’h Lighthouse’ – perched on the edge of Europe, in the wild ocean. Finis Terræ: ‘End of Earth’. The Semaphore was built by the navy on the cliffs of the Atlantic side of the island. It was created to look out on the ships that still roll past on the ocean swell, and to signal to them with the flags and pulleys that are now corroding on its roof. The technology of a global power looking after its trade ships and its naval muscle.
My temporary home feels something like an airport control-tower, or better still the bridge of a container ship. The top floor where I work has a semi-circle of windows that are tilted forward at 45° to look down over the ocean that surrounds me on three sides. The centre of this array looks directly west – in the direction of the setting sun and the approaching clouds. Weather-fronts appear over the liquid horizon and curtains of rain sweep towards me across an empty stage – hurtling over the waves until they splatter across the glass. Then faint marks of silver, scratched along the dark horizon, slip slowly nearer to become pools of sunlight that glitter across the grey water. In their turn, these islands of light then accelerate towards me across the swell. A theatre of weather that is always arriving. Passing moments that are hurrying on their cue, across the thousands of kilometres of open water.
Staring out from my ship’s bridge, hypnotised by the waves and the passing light, it feels as if the Semaphore, and in fact Ouessant itself, is ploughing forwards against this constant movement of arriving weather and water. A granite ship pushing out into the ocean. But, in fact, we are the only things that are static. Everything else seems to be in yearning motion. Oscillations of energy from forgotten storms – pulsing towards me through the planet’s liquid skin. Winds, maybe somewhere in the Azores or the Bahamas, torment the quivering hide of an immense liquid entity. Resonating frequencies, troughs and peaks, carried around the planet until they meet the granite of Ouessant. Monotonous rhythms transform themselves into rearing white stacks of water that smack into the first immovable object since the coast of America.
If a body dives from a rock at the water’s edge, it slips liquidly inside the wobbling blue – the water’s cold lips closing over its vanishing heels. But if a body falls from above 30 meters high, then the speed of impact transforms the surface to be like falling onto a concrete carpark. Eight times a minute an accelerating body of water meets static rock.
And a slower, invisible wave is also arriving. The moon sucks a bulge of ocean towards itself, and our spinning liquid-world squishes out an opposing mound on the opposite side of the globe as well. We are revolving once a day inside these two swellings, and so twice a day a heaving of water expands up into the island’s rocky inlets. In Ouessant today the waters rose 7 meters. If at 1pm I stood on a rock at the water’s edge, at 7pm my head would have been more than 5 meters beneath the ocean’s surface. The fierce currents around this island writhe over boulders and squeeze their way through gaps – rushing to fill bays and float small boats once again.
This edge of the island is populated mostly by rocks, lighthouses and sheep. Ouessant’s settlements cluster together in the steep, sheltered bays on the other side of the island – looking out towards the hidden mainland and the little ferry that appears three times a day. The low, stone farmhouses are scattered further across the treeless terrain, but they too crouch in low clefts amongst the wandering sheep.
My only direct neighbours are the black-and-white-striped lighthouse, and the chaotic stacks of granite that rise out of the spongey mats of tussock-grass and purple heather. At the water’s edge the stacks march out into the violent waves in jagged rows of teeth. In the twilight the granite needles loom out over the close-cropped landscaped, twisted into alien forms by weather and waves. As the sky darkens, the lighthouse’s beams begin to turn. As I lean out on the balcony of my tower, the eight shafts of light strike out above my head into the ocean-darkness – scanning the horizon. The revolving crown of light-beams radiates out through the drizzle and lights up 8 slices of swirling sea-mist and rain. A silent disco-for-one. As I sleep, I can feel my neighbour behind the curtains – keeping an eye (or four) on me throughout the dark night.
Anything made of stone on this island is slowly being covered in fur. The lichens that millimetre their way across the curves of the boulders and stacks, are also creeping across the stone lintels of windows and the statues in the island’s churchyard. One of Jesus’ upturned eyes is slowly being closed beneath green welts and mutant fronds. The menagerie of ancient organisms creates a velvet flocking of deep-orange, delicate-greens, or spreading bruises of grey and black. Rockfaces and boulders start to sprout hair from crevices like teenagers – the fur slowly creeping out to cover their curves.
I climb up to an abandoned foghorn, built by the lighthouse into the tip of one of the high granite stacks. Its rusting, empty portholes look down onto the ocean that is smashing itself into the stone below me. The queasy views feel something like the windows of the space-station in Stanislav Lem’s: ‘Solaris’. A corroding version of Lem’s spacelab that is looking down onto the surface of an alien liquid-world – a sentient ocean that is struggling to understand the timescale and the small mind of the human fidgeting above it. The ocean is grinding rock and corroding this alien tower back into its salty, ferrous elements. The smell of crumbling rust and sticky salt.
Although these rocks are made of sharp igneous granite from the deep insides of our planet, around my tower they have taken on strange and sensual forms – softened by time and their velvet skins of lichen. In the drifting spray and mist of the ocean they seem like massive stone bodies that breathe through the rhythms of millennia. The undulating folds of some of these rock-faces feel like stone brains, thinking slow, deep thoughts in geological time – while an annoying fruit fly scampers across them.
The wind claws at me as I climb down. My eyes are watering – rivulets wandering across my cheeks. The salt of my tears is a memory of the ocean out of which all of us land-creatures once crawled.
In a secluded inlet, protected from the waves, a dark shape bobs in the swell. A seal’s head. Indistinguishable from a fishermen’s buoy, until it dips back beneath waves. Another head nearer, or maybe the same seal scoping me out. She throws her head back and yawns a long, bored yawn. She is buoyant enough (I guess with all her blubber) that she seems to be floating effortlessly. Her head high out of the water – her nose pointing and twitching upwards.
Clambering awkwardly across the rocks, I attempt to merge myself into this medium. I win the argument with my lower, reptile brain – overcoming its resistance to the cold and to the unknown. I flop myself through a flickering mirror and into an alternate reality. The water wraps my torso in 15 degrees of coldness and shock. Systems within me scramble to respond to my screaming skin. My diaphragm jerks inwards, drawing a deep slug of air into my lungs. Autonomic reflexes reroute my blood away from the surface – smuggling its heat deep within my core. But gradually the body’s subconscious systems accept the water’s embrace – relax into the new floating world. My breathing slows. I slip through, and down into a silent garden of billowing weeds. The emergency pain becomes fireworks of tingles that glitter through my skin, as I dive amongst a weightless forest.
There is a controversial theory which speculates that humans are descended from semi-aquatic apes. Hairless monkeys that made their living wading through the fertile waters of ancient bays – slowly becoming upright as they strained to hold their heads above water. The theory reasons that our babies arrive with a waxy covering like seal-pups, because our ancestors were once born into saltwater. That the reason we can intentionally hold our breath (unlike most mammals), and that our kidneys can efficiently expel salt, is because the ocean was once the medium we called home.
Her dark, liquid eyes blink at me from off across the waves. I wonder to myself why seals returned to the water. Why they left our adventure of crawling out across the dry land. Why they abandoned our battle with gravity and slipped their bodies back into the supporting water. Discarding their limbs, resting their necks. Maybe they decided enough is enough – that they never wanted a dry throat, or dry eyes again. Never wanted to feel the emergency of thirst. Seals and whales decided to go back to the fish. To return to the amniotic fluid of the ocean. But too late. The bear-like thing that flopped itself back into the sea had already lost its ability to breathe water. Seals can only impersonate fish (beautifully) for the length of one long breath. But eventually they must rise to the surface to fill their lungs, or to give birth to their pups. Whales have refined their drag act still further – mastering the art of raising their air-breathing babies entirely within the ocean. Mammalian milk swirling out into the salty waters, as their calves suckle in the deep.
Her head disappears back beneath the surface again.
From space, the Earth looks as smooth and quiet as a glass ball hanging in infinite blackness – an arc of sunlight glinting off its blue surface. But down amongst the seething seaweed it’s hard to imagine the stillness of space. Amid the complexity and noise, amongst the writhing and sticky confusion of life, it’s hard to remember the finite limits of this soft bubble. I’ve been intoxicated by the ocean, infatuated by hairy stones and realigned with the deep tides of our world. I think I may want to be a seal. To give in. To stop this adventure with dry land and slip back under these waves.