Returning Light: Thirty Years on the Island of Skellig Michael
By Robert L. Harris
Mariner Books; hardcover, 272 pages; $29.99
Returning Light is the first book by Robert Harris, and it is a Top 10 Irish Times bestseller. It is a meditative nature memoir from the lighthouse keeper of Skellig Michael, one of Ireland's most remote locations. He spends May to October there when it's accessible, and in winter months, he lives at home in County Leitrim with his wife, Maigread.
Harris has been managing the guiding system and monitoring the island for over 30 years, as he was appointed to the warden service on Skellig Michael, County Kerry, in 1987. He has lived most of his life near the sea and on islands, and he has a great interest in both monastic and natural history.
Skellig Michael gained international fame and became a popular tourist spot after being prominently featured in two Star Wars movies, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. During filming, director JJ Abrams described the island as "sort of a miracle, this place, while actor Mark Hamill called it "just indescribably beautiful."
Harris evocatively describes this otherwordly island, while also looking at the human relationship with place, nature, and solitude. This is a place teeming with natural life, including curious puffins that like to visit his hut. The island has a 6th century Gaelic monastery atop a dramatically steep cliff, and it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1996.
The coastline of Skellig Michael is relatively unchanged for the last last thousand years, a beacon of equilibrium in a world that's constantly changing. The island can be fierce, as solitude can quickly turn into isolation when bad weather rolls in to create a veil between Skellig Michael, which can only be inhabited for five months of the year, and the rest of the world.
In addition to it being a travelogue, complete with a 16-page color insert of this majestic place, it is a personal diary of Harris' experiences there.
In this excerpt, Harris writes of the inhabitants of the island: "On Skellig Michael, thousands of birds appear and disappear, coming together in wings of movement that build and unravel over the empty sea. They pull me away from my established frames of reference. Often, no one else is there to stand beside me on the island, and the skies and surrounding rock edges are empty. The mind wanders; links with the past are easily made; ancient ways of viewing things come alive.
Lack of human contact, the diminution of human society, contributes to a full engagement with these fluid lines of flight, superimposed as they are upon the endlessness beyond. We know that people long ago came to engage with this endlessness permanently, came to ride within these curves and spirals of evanescent bird flight on the edge of apparent nothingness. Ancient monks came to spend their lives on bare rock. To us, looking back, there was no real need for these men to come here, no reason for the journey to make a home at such a bleak place. Perhaps, though, they too were intrigued by the natural profusion and the exuberance of light, glimpsed just beyond the last bit of land, the last standing place to be seen on a horizon. Perhaps they were entranced by movements overhead. A deep desire remains, crossing creed and time and hidden within the human heart, to explore, to become a part of, such realms of the border. Inner springs, by which the soul stretches along and above the curvature of the earth, tighten at the edges of all things, so that the soul is suspended beyond the lines of beach or rocky shore and is carried and released by bird flight, whale song, shark and dolphin fin - beyond the realms of normal sight, normal apprehension."