In the summer of 2016, the stars aligned and I was lucky enough to stay on Eilean Shona for two and a half months. As anyone who has visited Shona could imagine, my time during holidays and study periods that I had spent on the island while growing up, seeped into my soul and the magical ‘look out’ isle stole my heart.
Spending time on Shona as the daughter of the temporary guardians in the long line of eccentrics that have taken helm of the island, has been the greatest joy of my life. My love of nature lead me to write my masters thesis on environmental philosophy and I developed a strong sense that the island could help humanity during this period of alienation and reconnect with the earth. Her gentle wilderness seemed to speak through me and say, ‘I can help here'.
With this sense reverberating through me, I headed to Schumacher College, a center of ecological studies in Devon to learn with indigenous teachers from around the world. I felt the responsibility of being a guardian of wilderness and wanted to learn from cultures that lived symbiotically with Nature for countless generations. During my time at the college, I learnt some of the magic ways of living with the natural cycles.
My North American teachers told of a culture where the women on their period sleep in circles, with head touching head, and their collective dreams inform the future of the community. Where the grandmas decide when they go to war, as only they are wise enough to know. My Botswanan Bone throwing teacher sent us out in the forest for a night alone, with our spirit animals, the woods and the stars, to listen the forest and hear our vulnerability. I learnt the way of ceremony from Ecuadorian teachers, to communicate gratitude and thanksgiving for the abundance of life. I listened and listen to these ways of humans showing their humbleness to the land that sustains them and heard, ‘the land speak slowly. Before making changes, ask for permission. Show your commitment and listen deeply.’
So it was clear what I was to do! I set my intention and was lucky enough to find a friend, Maria, a Brazilian activist , to join me on this adventure of asking questions and listening to Eilean Shona. And yes, in case your wondering, my siblings and friends thought I had gone loopy, and still to this day it’s hard to put words to the mystery of what happened on the island, but right now, I will try and share some with you.
Maria and I set off on our adventure on May the 1st, Beltane, the first day of summer. We arrived to the island as the sun was setting and had our first fire in the woods and pissing rain. As the wind and water wiped about us and we sat under the mighty pines, I suddenly thought, ‘what the bleeding hell are we doing here?’ I felt overwhelmed with the majesty of Shona and very small and foolish saying out loud to the dark, ‘I am here to listen.’ Could I, a gal born in the middle of the metropolis London really hear the sounds of this mighty wilderness? But Maria kept her hands pressed to the earth and we made our prayers and I knew that I was in for the ride.
The next morning when we woke, the island was pregnant with summer, the green shoots not yet fully unraveled and you could feel the hard lick of winter that had spread itself across the island the previous months. Every morning we would walk to the east of the island, down by the water side and welcome in the new day. I introduced Maria to my favorite nooks and crannies of the island and we got busy making our art and counting our blessings to be there.
Our first guest was Eve, a fellow student on our course at Schumacher. Eve was our elder, a gentle yet strong community builder from South Africa, who has the gift of hearing the river beneath the river and laughing when we got overwhelmed with ‘nature just showing off now!’ Eve stayed with us for a magical 10 golden May days, with the sun hot and shinning, calling the buds forth and heating up the chilly loch and peaty earth. Each morning we would wake at 6, sit in the kitchen of the main house with a candle burning and tell each other our dreams. Many of our indigenous teachers had spoken of the importance of dreams and how you can receive messages from the land, so we paid attention and each morning we wove a communal cloth of the night workings around a single flickering flame.
As the weeks passed Maria and I moved from cottage to cottage, experiencing the different tones of the island. It clouded over while we were in Sawmill and we snugged next to the fire and read stories to one another and carried on with our art making. We were finding our special spots on the island, where the veil felt thin and the silence of Shona thickened around us in mystical blankets. I was drawn to Beach trees, with their vibrant summer leaves and stoic presences. I found place for mediation amongst the silver birch and explored the island with a freedom I had never experienced before.
While staying in the blissful spot by the water and old sawmill, Big Change, a charity group came onto the island and we got involved with their workshops on social change for disadvantaged young people in the UK. The sun came out and enjoyed the social activity that mingled with the trees. Another friend came to help us with our mission; Azul dropped onto the island and we moved to the newly renovated Old School House. This is a spot that I had been visiting all my life, in its old and dilapidated guise. My brothers and I had always spooked each other with stories of the old teacher haunting the rooms and I have to say, these old tales whispered in my ears and the darkness of North side of the island brought with it harder times.
Azul introduced us to an old North American Indian teaching of taking three days of silence a month over each new moon. Each month there was a different teaching to focus on and while you could cook, paint, sing and express yourself, you were not to read, talk or consume any information. I was lucky enough to do two of these ‘retreats’ while on the island and I loved what the lack of words did for my art and engagement with the land.
Over the months we got to know John and Lynn, a couple that had been living on the island for three years, in the remote yet romantic West End spot of Shepherds Cottage. Their isolated location looks directly out over the small isles and every clear night you can see the sun setting behind Eigg and Rhum. On our walks we would drop in for tea and Lynn would have the most delicious cake on the go and John would tell us tales of his climbing adventures. They taught us their ways of knowing the island and seeing the West end being so well taken care of gives me warmth and seeing their beautiful life, a dream for the future!
For our final few weeks we were nestled amongst the larches in Red cottage, looking out over the northeast channel, and could watch the sun rise over the molten loch each morning out of the window of our cabin. Another wave of people hit the island for my younger brothers festival, Island Festival. It was amazing to see the island pulsing with a new sound and once again the tempo changed. And then they were gone. And Maria and I had our last few weeks together with the island. By this point we were full of ideas of projects that could happen, but the strongest message from the island was to take things slow. The overwhelming gravitas of such a place requires a patience to work with and I was left feeling humbled and yet empowered by my time there.
On the last day I circumnavigated the island alone, visiting my special spots. I ripped pieces of canvas in half, half to take home and half to burry in the ground. Now these cloths rest next to my bed in London.
Shona taught me many lessons, with a warm and gentle strength. I left proud of what my parents have achieved there and with a more intimate knowledge of the workings on the island. Projects are developing, but slowly! I feel deeply that she can help heal and inspire and I hope to share the joy she has given to me with those who need it. I so deeply want to spread the love, but have been given the most precious gift of all; wherever I am when I close my eyes I am on the top of the mountain at sunset. I sit on our craggily elegant Shona, her breasts facing out over the Atlantic, taking any winds it might hurl and look out at the inky small Isles and feel the whole world in my heart.