Yaquina Head Lighthouse. Brick tower painted white, 93 feet high. Original Fresnel lens, visible at 18.5 nautical miles. Blink pattern, two seconds on, two seconds off, two seconds on, fourteen seconds off.
As a child, even before I ever saw a lighthouse, I dreamed of one; it was abandoned, far from the coast. At the foot of the structure was a garden and the house where my parents lived. In the dream, I asked my father what he had found during his exploration of the dilapidated rooms. Just the skeleton of a bat, he said. I insistently asked for reassurance that the animal was dead, but he only muttered to himself, like a trailer for a horror movie, “dead, but alive.” The tip of the tower was visible: a dark garret where the bony hands of the bat’s skeleton stirred a cauldron containing a potion. The camera then closed in on the skull that said, in a shrill voice, “I’m brewing my vengeance on the person who killed me.”
Robert Louis Stevenson said that to make a tour of lighthouses is “to visit past centuries,” which is exactly what he does in his book Records of a Family of Engineers. With the help of letters and diaries, he unearths the stories of his father, Thomas; his grandfather, Robert; and the latter’s stepfather, Thomas Smith: all engineers and inventors, pioneers in the creation of lighthouses.
The Scottish coast is one of rough seas, stormy skies, bleak headlands, “savage islands and desolate moors.” It was the year 1786, and along the whole coastline, only a single point shone out: the Isle of May, with a tower dating from 1635 atop which was a grate with a coal fire. In 1791 the beacon was the cause of a fire in which the guardian of the lighthouse and five of his children died. The sole survivor was a girl, who was found three days later, permanently altered by having seen the flames reflected in the sea.
The Isle of May was the only light on that coastline of shipwrecks and pirates: a single, inadequate light. For this reason, that same year the authorities decided to construct four more lighthouses. This task required engineers—not yet known by that name—whose responsibility it was to build the towers, light the fires, organize, rethink, and recruit from thin air the members of a new profession: the lighthouse keeper. Stevenson’s grandfather and Thomas Smith teamed up with the Board of Northern Lights to illuminate certain strategic points of the coast.
The engineer as artist. Stevenson describes the profession of his father and grandfather as if he were talking about Romantic poets. The engineer, as a Wordsworth or Coleridge, makes his plans with an eye on the natural world. His task does not involve language, but nature itself. For this he needs the ingenuity (the word engineer is derived from the Medieval Latin ingeniator to denote someone who creates or who uses an engine) and intuition that Stevenson calls a “sentiment of physical laws and of the scale of nature.” His “feelings” must capture the slightest detail. To calculate the height of the waves, for instance, the engineer had to take into account the slope of the ground, the configuration of the coastline, the depth of the water near the shore and the types of plants and shellfish on the site. His observations and instinct stood in for the instruments that would later appear with the Industrial Revolution. Stevenson recounts that he often saw his grandfather watching the waves for hours on end, counting them, noting when they ebbed and when they broke. His task was to predict the unpredictable: how the structure would affect the tides, increase the strength of the waves, hold back rainwater or attract lightning. And all this done in the open air, sailing angry, inhospitable seas or, back on land, with nothing but a tent in which to sleep.
The villagers also constituted a threat. Superstitious, accustomed to the notion that war and violence came from the sea (the Vikings had arrived in ships), they believed that a man saved from the waters would be the ruin of his rescuer. On one occasion, a missionary who had arrived unnoticed on a Scottish island was mistaken for a Pict—“the dark and dwarfish aboriginal people of the land”—due to his swarthy complexion, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that grandfather Stevenson came to his aid, his life might have hung in the balance. Robert himself was suspected of being a spy; when, in one village, he happened to ask about the state of the lighthouse, they were on the point of executing him.
In 1814, Sir Walter Scott travelled to Scotland with Robert Stevenson on board the lightship Pharos as members of a team of lighthouse inspectors. During the voyage Scott wrote a diary in which he mentions Bessie Millie, an old woman who lived in Stromness and earned a living selling favorable winds to the seamen. No one ventured to set sail without first visiting Bessie Millie, who prayed for the winds to accompany the sailors on their way. In order to reach her house, which Scott describes as “the abode of Eolus himself,” he had to walk along a series of dangerous, steep, uneven paths. Bessie was close to ninety, skinny and wizened as a mommy, and had a kerchief the same color as her cadaveric body tied around her head. Her blue eyes shone with the gleam of madness. “A nose and chin that almost met together, and a ghastly expression of cunning,” that, according to Scott, gave the impression she was Hecate, the Greek goddess of the night and ghosts.
The family of Stevenson’s grandfather was replete with pious women and moribund children, but neither poverty nor illness quenched his thirst for knowledge. In the winter months, when voyages were impossible, he sought shelter in the University of Edinburgh, where he studied math, chemistry, natural history, agriculture, moral philosophy and logic within the stone walls that also gave refuge to Charles Darwin and David Hume during those same years.
He was the first person to construct a lighthouse on a marine rock, far from the coast. Bell Rock had been the cause of many a shipwreck, and it was said to have been haunted by the ghost of a pirate. Years later, Stevenson’s father also contributed to the development of lighthouses when he transformed the Fresnel lens, combining it with metal to increase its strength.
“Perhaps it is by inheritance of blood,” says Robert Louis Stevenson in relation to Cape Wrath, “but I know few things more inspiriting than this location of a lighthouse in a designated space of heather and air, through which the sea-birds are still flying.”
Impossible to think of a lighthouse without the sea. Because they are a single entity, but also opposites.
The sea stretches out to the horizon, the lighthouse points to the sky.
The sea is in constant motion; the lighthouse is a static watchtower.
The sea is changeful, a battleground of the emotions. The lighthouse is stoical, immovable.
The sea attracts one by its sound from afar, beyond the dunes. The rays of the lighthouse call out through the mist and high tides.
The sea, the sea is a primeval liquid. The lighthouse is solidity incarnate.
The sea, is a biological, mythological metonym for the feminine. The lighthouse is masculine, phallic.
The sea is the empire of nature. The lighthouse is the artifice that, in its dignified smallness, opposes nature.
The word binnacle, derived from the French bitacle, meaning a small dwelling, refers to a sort of cabinet fixed to the deck of a boat, near the helm, and which acts as a housing for the compass. In Spanish bitácora has also come to refer to the logbook, protected from storms and other disasters inside the binnacle, in which the mariners noted daily events. Just as with the black box of an airplane, the logbook could be consulted to determine responsibility for the vicissitudes of the voyage, and to prevent future errors.
Like its marine equivalent, the logbook of a lighthouse is organized chronologically, and the lighthouse keeper uses it to record technical and climatological information, any faults and the ways in which they are repaired. Its principal function is to note the lighting-up time as proof that this did in fact occur.
Robert Stevenson also kept a travel diary, although it was more a list of occurrences than a compendium of stories and opinions. It did, however, contain a great deal more personal information than would be found in a lighthouse keeper’s logbook. This diary was written on lined paper and had an index, as if he foresaw his grandson consulting it, or was conscious of the pioneering nature of his task and wished to preserve the details of the story. There is a great deal in that diary that is “useful and curious,” wrote his grandson, and much that is “merely otiose”; and much that is “an attempt to impart that which cannot be imparted in words.” Robert Stevenson’s son would become bored when his father gave lengthy explanations of his work, how to measure, how to know, to foresee, when in fact he was guided by instinct more than instruments. Stevenson, in contrast, found in his grandfather’s diary “the whole biography of an enthusiastic engineer.”
Otiosity, boredom: the logbook of a sailor, of an engineer, of a lighthouse keeper is a monotonous list of observations and figures. It would seem as if all the days were the same, give or take a storm. As repetitive as the movements of the lighthouse’s beam. In the words of the Spanish writer Menchú Gutiérrez, “the unvaried rhythm of the light—it’s flashes and moments of darkness—placates memory and dissolves like ink in the well of the mind.” Anesthesia in the memory of lighthouse days. When time is indefinite, the calendar and the clock become indispensible if paralysis is to be avoided. And for that reason the logbook is a constant point of reference, the only tool for combatting boredom: each day less, one more cross on the page. For want of an interlocutor, it is possible to construct narrative time in the diary.
A couple of years ago I went to an exhibition of James Turrell’s light sculptures in the New York Guggenheim. The second piece was a column of white light, a line shining on an equally white wall. All the visitors gravitated toward it. Light, according to Turrell, occupies space, it has mass and is sensed through sight, but also through touch. Anne Carson says light is neither observed nor breathed, it is just a pressure that is felt. She describes it as “being in the same room as a man you love.” Both the artist and poet agree on that sense of pressure, on an interaction with the flesh. John Berger also says that light is ubiquitous and felt, it “places a hand on your back. You don’t turn round because from a long, long time ago, you recognize its touch.”
Humans absorb light through their skin, they feed on light. But even so, they persist in trapping it. Light can be found at the root of the lust for gold, the fascination for cinema and photography. In the same way ships are attracted to lighthouses, like insects toward lantern. Because a lantern, a torch, a flare, a candle, a match are all small lighthouses whose light also demands, summons, brings together.
There are experiences that are lived in a historical present for as long as their memory is evoked, with the full knowledge that the memory will be recalled in the future. I had travelled from Portland Oregon to Newport with my mother, my aunt and her partner, Willey. From there it was a twenty-minute drive to the Yaquina Head Light, followed by a ten-minute walk from the parking lot. The building, formerly known as the Cape Foulweather Lighthouse, is a ninety-three foot white tower with a black top.
The lighthouse comes slowly into view between hills blanketed in patches of green, yellow and white flowers, and those grasses that sway in the wind, and which Virginia Woolf would say are always on the point of fleeing “into some moon country, uninhabited of men.” It grows, moves closer, and shows first its tip, then the lens with its copper belly, followed by the observation deck, the tower, and the door of the house beneath. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf describes hers as “distant, austere”. And she goes on to write, “So much depends… upon distance,” From afar, a lighthouse is a ghost, or rather a myth, a symbol. At close quarters it is a beautiful building. Once you are inside a lighthouse, it ceases to be that, because the lighthouse is direction and never a point of arrival. Even inside, I continued moving, up the iron spiral staircase leading to the tip, where the Fresnel lens whose light is visible at a distance of eighteen-and-a-half nautical miles is located.
The Pharos, the faro, the phare, the farol, the far: the house that not only is home to and protects the light, but also transforms it into language. Its light speaks. It gives warning of points of danger, sandbanks, reefs; it signals a nearby port, tells how far away it is, and identifies itself by its blink pattern. The Yaquina Head Light flashes two seconds on, two seconds off, two seconds on, fourteen seconds off. The lighthouse Mrs. Ramsay sees in Woolf’s novel has two short flashes followed by a single long one.
We spent only a few minutes inside the lighthouse. When we came out, we stopped by a sign saying: “Look for Whales!” And scarcely a minute had gone by before we saw two (or were there three or four?) humpbacks. Gray on gray: the whales in the waves. I’ve read that no one knows for certain why they leap from the water, and I would like that to always remain the case.
We then went down onto a small beach replete with perfectly smooth black pebbles and strings of green seaweed. There are two photographs of me sitting on a large rock on that beach. My face is not visible; I’m gazing out toward a horizon located outside the frame of the photo. I wonder, now, what was there. Clouds? Ships? I seem to recall some black birds hopping about nearby on the rocks.
What I do remember is turning to look at the lighthouse and having the sensation that it was very distant. As if it had never been there. Because even when you reach the observation deck with its view over the whole sea to the horizon, there by the light source itself, one never reaches the lighthouse. And neither did Mrs. Ramsay’s son James, who was disillusioned to find that the one he finally visited so many years later did not match his childhood image. Memory never attains the heights of the experience. The memory of this trip to Yaquina Head, my words telling what I remember, will always be insufficient for what it was. The preposition in the title of Woolf’s novel contains the whole of its story, always approaching the lighthouse, which is above all an ideal, memory, promise: the inaccessible. What moves us.
Translated by Christina MacSweeney
Selected extracts from Cuaderno de faros by Jazmina Barrera (Tierra Adentro, 2017)