Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I am on a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland with a full-grown ram between my legs — not the way I usually spend a summer Saturday. This began as a simple errand, to fetch a fleece for dyeing from John Finlay, a crofter and neighbor of my hosts. It’s shearing day, and I am wearing big, padded coveralls with an incongruously saucy leopard-print chiffon scarf around my neck, lent to me by John Finlay’s mother to keep the chilly June winds from snaking down my front.
Fifty sheep are jostling one another indifferently within the confines of the fank, a roofless dry-stone enclosure where the shearing takes place. John Finlay, shy with people but sure-handed with his animals, selects one sheep at a time, flips it neatly onto its back, and shears it with old-fashioned steel hand clippers. My job is to mark each sheep across its shoulders with a can of red spray paint once he’s done so it will be identifiable next year. Right now, though, I’ve been asked to hold on to this ram so he won’t melt off into the crowd while waiting his turn to be sheared. And this is how one hangs on to a ram: straddling him, holding his horns like a jockey.
It’s a long way from home for a Caribbean girl to have come.
I was fifteen when my auntie Lucy told me, as we sat together on her red-and-green-plaid couch one humid afternoon in Trinidad, that I had a Mackenzie as a three- or maybe four-times great-grandfather. Mackenzie, or MacCoinnich in Gaelic, is a Highland clan whose homelands look west from the Scottish mainland toward the Isle of Skye. Wealthy and powerful in the fifteenth century, the Mackenzies fell on hard times in the wake of the Reformation and endured decades of disastrous and expensive battles with the English. By the late 1700s many impoverished Mackenzies had emigrated, leaving the British Isles for America, Canada, Australia, and the West Indies.
Trinidad has only a tiny European population mixed in with its mainly African and East Indian peoples, and this small pool includes descendants of British, French, German, and Dutch colonials. Yet the Scottish influence, even as distinct from the larger British one, is surprisingly evident. The first delegates to govern Trinidad when the island became a British colony in 1797 were Scots, and they’ve left Scottish place names, from Pembroke to Culloden, across the nation. Saint Andrew, Scotland’s patron saint, gives his name to one of our eight counties. There are outposts of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland all along the sweltering Eastern Main Road, their sober gray and blue signs dissonant against the breezy frivolity of lacy openwork concrete blocks and languid churchyard breadfruit trees. My mother lives across the road from a Mrs. MacPherson and a block from a Mrs. Gaskin; boys named Finbar, Errol, and Kester play on the sports ground a few streets away. My own father’s name is Kenneth, the root name in Mackenzie. Aunt Lucy, his sister, didn’t speculate to me about whether his ancestor was a laborer, a sailor, a merchant, or, far more likely, a sugar-plantation owner who passed his name on to us, who became a part of us, through slavery.
The conversation on the couch with my aunt was remarkable only for its arbitrariness. I seldom talked at any length with her; she was one of those aunts who thought that asking you about church attendance and examination results was making conversation. Why she chose to relay that bit of family lore to me that day, I don’t know. I do know I didn’t dwell for more than a moment on the Mackenzies; I simply tucked the scrap of information like a bright bit of foil into the hoard at the back of my mind. It was hard to tell if it was even true, since both sides of my family can be maddeningly offhand about genealogical detail. My mother’s maiden name is Guerra, which means “war” in Spanish, and it’s received wisdom on her side of the family that a little Spanish blood mingles in our veins with the African. But when I would ask if “Spanish” meant from Spain, or Venezuela seven miles away, or Cuba, or the Dominican Republic, or any of a half dozen other Spanish-speaking countries in the region, I would get a shrug, a patient look (as though I were dim but trying hard), and a “You know, Spanish.” Asking about the African blood yielded even less joy.
My sophomore year in college I took Swahili, the only African language offered in my school’s curriculum. At the time I was wallowing in angst over my “identity” in that intense, tiresome way people in their early twenties often do. I needed specificity, and the heedless diaspora had robbed me of it. I didn’t want to eenie-meenie-miney-mo from Ibo to Yoruba to Hausa to Ashanti. I wanted to know my people came from that village, on that obscure spit of West African land, spoke that Niger-Congo language, wove those patterns into their cloth. I wanted to go there, stand on the soil, learn the language, and weave those patterns myself. But, Alex Haley’s research for his novel Roots notwithstanding, there was no way for me to do this — or, at least, none that I could imagine undertaking as a work-study-funded, ramen-eating undergraduate. I was morose, even angry: at Smith, my archetypically anonymous surname; at the middle passage; at fate.
I lamented as much to my Swahili instructor, Professor Shariff, a diminutive, dapper Tanzanian with curly salt-and-pepper hair. Avuncular and generous, he responded, “All of Africa is yours.” (He himself was Mswahili, not just a speaker of the language but an actual member of that East African tribe.) And I remember thinking, as I smiled and nodded in agreement, The second-largest continent on earth, with more than 700 million inhabitants and some eight hundred languages, is mine? What the hell does that mean? Would you tell an amnesiac from Iceland that all Europe was hers: Manet, lederhosen, the Volga, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, fish and chips?
I kept this churlish reaction to myself, thanked him for his kind words, and slouched off to my next class.
Years later I found out that I share a birthday with Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland. This means that on my birthday every year, transplanted Scots and plaid-wearing wannabes from Aberdeen to Antarctica are swilling Scotch of widely varying quality and mistily crooning, “Oh, my love’s like a red, red rose / that’s newly sprung in June.” I’m not sure if it was discovering this that brought my aunt’s story back, but suddenly one of the ironies of colonial history came home to me: almost all of my family and cultural story died down to a whisper at the port towns of Trinidad, but because of the clannish, stubborn, and exceptionally tenacious nature of the Scottish Highlanders (and their comparative good fortune at the hands of recent centuries), a sliver of me had a tartan, a crest, a motto, a place.
This was far more temptation than I had the strength to resist. These ragged threads of connection — Burns, my birthday, my aunt’s words, the erasing middle passage, the winking pinpoint of that surname — might come together as, if not whole cloth, then at least a surreal and not unpleasing patchwork of my ancestry. My sidelong, tongue-in-cheek, orphan’s relationship with Scotland was on.
A tiny ad caught my eye one day as I flipped through a textile magazine: Margaret Mackay, a woman on the Isle of Harris, was offering a weeklong class in the traditional plant-based dyes used for Hebridean tweeds before the advent of manufactured colors. I contacted her right away and sent an international money order to cover the fee.
I don’t have an abiding interest in dyeing, and there was no particular reason to go to this island of Scotland’s hundreds of islands, or, for that matter, to go to an island at all; the Mackenzies had been mostly mainland folk. But it was Scotland, and in the fifteen years or more since Auntie Lucy had first told me the tale, an interest had taken root almost without my noticing. I had become a knitter, spinner, and sometime weaver, and Scotland’s history of sheep and textiles, from tartans to the Clearances, had tangled into what I read and what I made with my hands. I sang Scottish folk songs in community choirs, plaintive and minor key to a one, my low alto suited to “Loch Lomond” and “My Love’s in Germany” and Burns’s own “Rose.” I visited friends in England and Wales and found myself looking north and wondering.
In England I’d felt, as I took in my surroundings, the bemused familiarity of someone raised in a recent British colony: the red postboxes; the newscasters’ pronunciation of “schedule” and “lieutenant”; the steering wheels on the right; the shapes of door handles and bathroom faucets and policemen’s hats. Trinidad gained independence six years before I was born, and at this remove there can be a certain coziness to my feelings about Britain: I’m reminded of my mother jokingly admonishing us to keep the house tidy because “what if the queen comes?” My idea of the U.K. was a bit abstract, though, fed as much by Masterpiece Theatre as by any experience I’d actually had. I wanted to see if I’d feel anything more in the wild expanses of the Scottish northwest, whether it would resonate, would say “home” to me.
But why should I want Scotland to feel like home, Mackenzie ancestor or no? I have a home I can go to, a beautiful island of wide, sunny sugar-cane fields and roadside stands piled with guava and tamarind, where, as the Trinidadian saying goes, my navel string is buried. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t it just colonialism in the bones, this desire to identify with any part of Britain? Maybe. But blood-deep as Trinidad is in me, undeniable and strong, it is so brief: only a few lifetimes old. I envy Professor Shariff, who has a thread of language and legend and history to guide him safe through the labyrinth of the New World. Tenuous or no, Mackenzie is my one specific tie to something older. Even if it is through slavery. Even if one part of me once owned another. It makes as much, or as little, sense as studying Swahili, a language spoken over two thousand miles from any place my ancestors likely lived. The story-songs we transplants croon to ourselves at night are as fanciful and ridiculous as they are taut and melodic and filled with yearning.
Two months after coming across Margaret’s ad, I find myself in Glasgow at six in the morning, humping my shapeless army-surplus backpack to the bus station. The night attendant at my bed-and-breakfast, the first Scotsman I ever had a conversation with, kindly got me Sanka and toast even though the kitchen wasn’t open yet. Now the sky is just going peach as I sleepily board a red and blue bus headed north. It’s an eight-hour ride to the little port of Uig, where the ferry waits. Onboard I buy a small brick of cheese and sit on deck in the sun, watching Harris slowly rise and sharpen across the water.
The island I come to is a gale-scoured place of low, rough land and huge sky, part of an archipelago that reaches south to Berneray. Bare knuckles of granite muscle through its thin soil, and few trees manage to grow over four feet tall. The islanders largely practice stern Free Church Protestantism and cobble together a living raising sheep, fishing, working at the local salmon farm, or maybe running a bed-and-breakfast and weaving the renowned Harris tweed in a shop next to the house. Most of the roads are single lane and snake queasily over the rough land: God help you if you have a delicate stomach and sit toward the rear of the bus. The island is closer to Oslo than to London, and in winter the force of the gales can cave in the windshield of a car. No hibiscus here. No avocado trees or hot green lizards skittering along the walls at noon. But the pale sugar-sand and turquoise water of the western beaches tickle a familiar spot in my brain.
Margaret’s first lesson: Ramalina and Urceolaria lichens dye wool rust or dark pink, and lady’s bedstraw, whose roots hold the sand against erosion, makes red. We dip and simmer hanks of yarn in broths of clover, privet, stinging nettle, and silverweed, foraging in the dooryard of Margaret’s cottage, digging tough dock roots in the car park, pillaging Annie’s hedge trimmings next door. We tramp up the hill behind the house for tansy, ragwort, and wild iris, which give shades of green-gold and tawny-gold to the skeins.
Squatting with a plastic bucket to pick heather, I am almost surprised that my grandmother Tannicia, with whom I lived in Trinidad as a girl, is not squatting beside me. She made wine out of pigeon-pea pods and chest rubs from grated nutmeg and soft candle wax. Her house — she ran a lumberyard just out back — smelled of cedar and mahogany in the rainy season. When I was sick, she would take her cutlass and hack off fistfuls of vervain or fever grass or soursop leaves to boil into acrid medicine for me, commanding me in patois to drink it down and leave none in the glass “at all, at all, at all.” She added no sugar, didn’t believe in sweetening what’s bitter. This work of gathering I’m doing now would give her a flinty satisfaction, as would the sight of the finished skeins hanging damp on the cottage’s green fence palings, glowing bright blue and aubergine and deep teal from logwood and indigo.
But it’s the “crottle,” as the islanders call it, the Parmelia lichen we pried yesterday from boulders along a serpentine Harris road, that’s the grande dame of dyes and my immediate favorite. It will color not just a few skeins but the whole of John Finlay’s fleece, which we dye in a huge iron cauldron over a peat fire in front of the cottage. The water in the cauldron must simmer but not boil, or the fleece will felt into one giant, unworkable dreadlock. It’s my job to keep the fire going in the drizzle by fanning the flames with a battered aluminum pot lid. The wool, straight off the ewe and neither washed nor combed, smells pleasingly of lanolin and manure.
Baby-sitting the fire isn’t hard work, and I have time to breathe the fragrant peat smoke and look out — first wiping the fine rain off my glasses — at the little boats with their pink-orange floats tugging at their moorings in the gentle motion of the sea loch, as if they longed to go west to the fishing grounds. Marie across the road has let her beloved terrier Inky into the yard to stretch his short legs. Cathy next door to her is pulling in her washing in a green cardigan, neat plaid skirt, and big Wellington boots. The neighbor ladies, all in their seventies, have the soft, almost Scandinavian lilt in their voices that speaks of Gaelic learned in the cradle, so different from the daunting Scots’ burr of Glasgow. Little boat is bata beag in Gaelic, they’ve taught me. I wave to Cathy and bend to the fire again.
I know birthdays are an accident, and my auntie Lucy might just as easily have said Gordon or Fitzgerald as Mackenzie, or for that matter Maraj or Voisin or Van Bergeyk, all names you’ll find in the Trinidad and Tobago telephone book. But she didn’t, and it’s January 25, Burns Day. Sometimes the mirrors you get are in shards, but they can still reflect something true. Maybe sometimes you need to venture to a treeless, Calvinist little island in the North Atlantic, if you happen to be from a rain-forest-graced, Catholic outpost near the equator, and experience the tingle of unlikely similarity to really feel part of the weft of the world. When I sat in Cathy’s tidy kitchen yesterday with the sea loch just outside and heard her say she doesn’t touch whisky “at all, at all, at all,” I felt an amazed and gratified pleasure shiver down to my marrow.
The water in the cauldron is steaming around the fleece and giving off a good earth smell. Scraps and flakes of Parmelia rise to the surface, and the wool is already taking on a strong brown color. The local bus trundles up the road that winds through the village, past the post office, the gun club, and the quarry, toward the lone palm on the island, a Dr. Seuss-ish pompom of a tree planted by a Hebridean man with a longing for my region of the world.