In the heat of Indian summer, I dream of an island in the far north. And here I am, en route to Kökar, a remote island in an obscure archipelago, the Åland Islands, in the Baltic Sea. I am here to do a “residency”: make a start at writing a novel, with the peace and solitude presumably necessary for artistic creation. And it is a relief to be away from who you are. As Bill Holm once said: “Islands seduce us because sometimes the universe seems too big… we want to shrink it a little so we can examine it, see what it is made from, and what is our just place in it.”
Long before I set eyes on the island, I see the map, which might belong to a fantasy tome like Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea. A reckless scattering of islands, as if someone threw a fistful of rice on the empty sea. The archipelago, which belongs to Finland, has over 6,500 islands, some laden heavy with cattle and people; some wave-washed rocks barely holding their heads above water; some ship-smashing chunks of granite marked with lighthouses; while a few are filled with orchards and churches.
I reach Stockholm after a long flight. A succession of small ferries takes me to the island. The first sight confirms everything I had dreamt of, giving the landscape an almost hallucinatory quality. It is late sunset: the light skips off the surface when the deep throb of the engines ceases and the ferry glides the final few yards to the pier.
The local people, immunised to the beauty, wait to drive their cars out while I desperately try to capture it with my smartphone. The co-ordinator, Johanna, picks me up and we drive the 16 kilometres across the waist of the island to my home for the next two weeks. The first thing I learn is that it is spelt Kökar but pronounced a soft “che-ka”.
The residency is in an imposing, white-framed house, with its own sauna, boathouse, and pier. It was once used as an asylum, before making the transition to a home for artists. Johanna bids me goodbye—I will see her once a week when she checks in on me and brings supplies. It is the tourist off-season; all the restaurants and hotels are closed, and the brief summer pulse of life has stilled.
Soon I slip into the rhythm of this life, into this landscape of autumnal solitude. A routine imposes itself. The day is formed around the long walks I undertake every day, on red roads tessellated with fallen leaves, exploring the island.
Falling into a routine
A walk in the morning. Write, make coffee. Another long walk in the evening. Once a week, I make the long trek to the department store in the “town centre” of Karlby and pick up my frugal supplies of muesli and bread. A sign proudly proclaims the island’s population of 234 people and over 2,000 sheep.
I send a postcard on philatelic grounds to my uncle—he would appreciate the Åland postmarked stamp. The post office is also the bank and also the gym. With so few people, everyone has to do a little bit of everything.
As I walk along the coast, its fractal nature asserts itself and I soon find myself exploring every inlet, every cove.
- Kökar is a remote island in the Baltic Sea.
- The beauty of this sparsely populated island is breathtaking.
- The silence on Kökar is not the usual kind. It is a living silence: not the absence of sound but the presence of something.
The landscape is speckled with humps of grey gneiss like sleeping animals, furry with moss, veined with lichens. The porphyritic granite here is unique, with its greenish red hue, dotted with the green of quartz, and riven with foliations that trap light in a maze.
Carved on a rock face, there is an ancient stone compass—a cross marking north. A fixed spot in this turning world.
“ The post office is also the bank and also the gym. With so few people, everyone has to do a little bit of everything.”
I walk on the road that passes along the spine of the island. I follow protocol—a short wave as a car approaches and get a wave back in return. More often than not, motorists slow down and offer a lift. The islanders are reserved but unfailingly courteous.
I soon find my favourite spot in my part of the island: a pier where I sit reading in the long twilight. The water is filled with translucent forms, great tides of jellyfish migrating to the command of hidden rhythms.
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The silence on Kökar is not the usual kind. It is a living silence: not the absence of sound but the presence of something. Something inside of us as much as outside.
After a while you can parse the silence, decode its meaning.
The wind through trees, the distant whup-whup of a windmill, the slow rise of the land, and the absolute knowledge the earth has of life after man is gone.
Jaideep Unudurti is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.