The Real Thing

Stepping on to the boat, I think how fragile, how ephemeral, is autonomy. The regular ferry off Canna was cancelled (wind), but then my host wrangled a private boat, so I’ll get back to mainland, Maillag, on schedule. I pass a small gift—an authentic shot glass emblazoned with a covered bridge, and the word “Vermont”—to Gordon, the island coast guard/toilet-cleaner/bird-guide. He has a positive way about him. His term for the dog barking at 4AM in the resonant tin shed next to my caravan: “a Canna lullaby.”

Between tune-swapping with other isle folk at Canna Cafe, Gordon told me about the birds of Canna. He once sighted “amateur” [Scot for immature] Golden Eagles talon-grappling in the north sky. Talon-grappling is normally a courtship dance, and Gordon was surprised that amateurs were doing it. Two eagles join, talon-to-talon, drop hundreds of feet, swiveling with abandon, then catch the air again, un-folding their wings to save their lives. Teenagers.

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With an inscrutable twinkle, Gordon conveyed a bird-guide’s power: “At the end of a tour, if we haven’t seen any Golden Eagles, and someone’s especially determined to see one, I’ll point to a buzzard and say ‘There’s one, a Golden!’ and they’ll believe me.” Such a betrayal! Does he lie to his birdwatchers out of kindness, or to be thought of as the best bird-guide ever? You can’t tell if he’s kidding—perhaps neither can he. It’s now an experimentally demonstrable fact that, as Lord Acton said, power corrupts, weakens our empathy, our scruples; I guess that’s as true of bird-guides as it is of the rest of us.

In Izmir, Turkey, I once had the temerity, or the innocence, to ask a merchant whether a stone he was selling was really the kind of gem he said it was. “What does it matter?” he responded. “If you like the stone, you can call it whatever you want.” What did I really want, he seemed to say, value that I recognized for myself, or that others recommended? Was I so dependent on social currency that I would deny my own senses? I remember my father’s enthusiasm when he took me bird-watching—“Oh look!” he said, pointing. How I strained to see what he saw.

The boat landed us in Maillag, where I found the Steamer Bar and B&B. At the bar, another customer approached me. “Aycheldach” I think he said, with an expectant look. I’m just off the boat, scruffy jeans, bristled, toting a guitar; must look like the real thing. Others at the bar look on with curiosity. “Aycheldach” he repeated a few more times before figuring out I don’t get Gaelic. “Sorry, I don’t get it.” “Not many people do” he consoled me.

Soon they’re slapping me on the back, asking me if I’m good enough to play a song. I tell them I am. Right now I’m neither Scottish nor American, and don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations. The barman turns down the disco, and as I start singing, about 20 people in the adjoining restaurant attend. They applaud, they like the songs. I tell them I’ve been to a Headache Meeting. They all want to buy me a pint. I wrap up—I’ve got an early train to catch.

Back in 6th grade, I learned from my dad one of the wonders of the world, that a writer could make up his own name. His friend Whittaker was “E.L. Frimbo” when he wrote about trains for The New Yorker, and I’m sure Frimbo wrote about the Scottish West Highlands train, the one I’m on now.

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Through its magical windows you can see stags run over the heath, sunny glacier-carved mountain tops crest over fog horizons, lochs, sheep. This line was used to film Harry Potter movies, so there are usually one or two Harry Potter aficionados riding it. I’ve heard they’re quite willing to scold the innkeepers in towns like Crianlach and Glenfinnan if they’re not up on their Harry Potter trivia.

The passenger across the table from me, a young scientist from Oxford, has a remote look. He’s been hiking, hoping to find some remote places in the highlands, but there were always other hikers. I found a place though: up on Canna’s high hillsides; I kept my eyes on the sky, looking for eagles. Oh look—two eagles, square dancing at 300 feet. Just as they come together, they sail behind the mountain top. Or were they buzzards? I look down at what seem like a million little cow-paths, evidence of cow-autonomy printed on the angelic sedge. I meander back to my caravan; so many beautiful ways to get back home.

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