Coming from Australia, I am accustomed to the idea of beauty being dangerous. Many of our animals are not only dangerous but deadly, and many of our plants are poisonous. The heat can kill you as can the sea and I grew up swimming on beaches with rips and roaring surf that would suck you in, push you down, hurl you out and ‘dump’ you, winded, on the shore. Even the rock pools in my childhood weren’t safe: you had to keep a lookout for blue ringed octopus that could kill, paralyze or blind you (as well as other horrible things besides). To me beauty should be scary. It has a sharp, piercing quality that catches us ‘with an unseen hook and an invisible line’ which is long enough to let us ‘wander to the ends of the world’ and still bring us back ‘with a twitch upon the thread[1]’.

 

Utö is the ‘farthest out’[2] in the Stockholm archipelago, the ‘southernmost inhabited island in Finland’[3] and the ‘gateway’[4] to a ‘gateway from Finland to the outer world’[5]. In Swedish Utö means ‘outer island’ and there are two: one in Sweden and one in Finland. They are on opposite sides of the Baltic Sea with 106.38 nautical miles and an international border between them – the Utö exist at the edges.

 

Outer, inner, near and far are all questions of perspective. I came from an island. An island off a bigger island, where the inhabitants distance themselves from ‘the mainland’ by referring to it as such. Our island is here - their island is there: distance separates and makes difference.

 

Outside an island. Outside a country. Outside an ocean. Outside a hemisphere. There is always something outside, begging the question: where do they, where do we, where does he or she or you or I draw the line?

 

                                                                                         A man walks past the window pulling a sled.

 

Today most of the small farms on the islands are closed and the fishing industry has almost disappeared.

 

If distance makes difference, does proximity make homogeneity? I imagine Utö, when the fishing was thriving, involved a lot of repetition: a lot of fish. Today you can by coconut milk at the local shop but it, like most things in the shop, is expensive. Utö is an outer island and everything that comes and goes, comes and goes at a cost.     

 

                                                                                               The man walks past the window (again).

 

If cosmopolitan means to be at ease in different cultures, does that not require proximity to those cultures? And what happens to those cultures once the outside gets inside them?

 

The houses on the island are built close together to provide each other with shelter.

 

I watch a tractor go back and forth in front of the window: relocating the rubbish. Most of it will be shipped off the island, back to the mainland by boat - the metal, the glass bottles. I wonder where the water in the tap comes from? Is it desalinated sea water? I could ask a local. They seem friendly but remarkably good at not looking in windows. No. I will not ask.

 

I used to live in a hamlet on the East coast of an island where you were not considered a local until you had been there for several generations: any less than three and you were considered a ‘blow in’. Blow in, drifter – the wind, which is currently running rings around the old telegraph station, carries some people like the sea.

 

Electrical telegraphy was a disembodied form of communication. It was symbolic and travelled long distances. It was not a physical exchange - it could not convey objects or sound. The telegraph station (in which I am sitting) when it still functioned, transmitted almost instantly, messages across the sea.

 

                                                                                    The man walks past the window anti-clockwise.

 

Electrical currents flow. Fast and sometimes in circuits. Sound, a physical object (resistant to the disembodiment of the electric telegraph) oscillates. It is neither here nor there but moving. It relies on distance for existence and it travels on radio waves.

 

The wind outside whips around the house, encircling it like the sea encircles the island. It threatens to suck the old telegraph station up into its centre and carry it off like Aunt Em’s house in the Wizard of Oz.

 

                                                         The man walks past the window, going in the opposite direction.

 

When I was a baby, so my mother tells me, we were standing on a cliff overlooking the sea and I went crazy. A cyclone was approaching and she said it was as though I were drunk on wind.

 

In Finland there are lake people and there are archipelago people. Most people live in cities but they can still be divided into lake people and archipelago people, depending on where they spend their Summers. Traditionally, anyway. Increasingly they fly overseas. I’ve heard lake people say that the Baltic Sea is a ‘poisoned pond’. But by the same token the lakes could be seen as stifling.

 

                                                   The man travels from left to right and reappears in the East window.

 

I was working the night before I left for Utö. Working my part-time job in a hotel. The guests in the hotel often want to know what brought me to Finland and I find myself answering the same questions, having the same conversations. The night before I left, I was asked why I wanted to go to Utö. The man who asked the question was a lake person who spent his summers on lake Päijänne. The allure of Utö was lost on him. To him, Utö was ‘too rough’.

 

                                                                                                              The man runs past the window.

 

Coming from Australia, you get used to the idea of beauty being dangerous. Coming from Australia, you get used to the idea of remoteness. Antipodean means ‘diametrically opposed’ and you are taught to believe that you are opposite. But outside and opposite what, is always a matter of perspective. Whether it is Europe or Finland or Sweden – it is usually the bigger that directs the point of view. But the concept of bigger is also relative: Australia is big - the population is small.

 

                      The man is on a bicycle. Is there more than one circle? He describes a figure of eight.

 

Polarities are not much use to the places in the middle. Maybe that’s why they have lighthouses. To delimit their own spheres, to mark their own poles with quick steady strokes: ONE, TWO, one, two.

 

I once saw a chicken, tied to a string, attached to a steak that was driven into the ground. The chicken, having no other option than to go round and round, drew a perfect circle in the sand.

 

The lighthouse endlessly chases its circumference. Unable to reach beyond the radius, it traces the same path, over and over again. In the distance, where its beam cannot penetrate the darkness, the light of another lighthouse can be seen. It faintly demarcates its own territory, the edge of its circle butts up against our circle. They touch each other’s outsides but remain contained, separate; one does not penetrate the other.

 

To the American painter, Matt Connors: ‘island life seems to have been one of privation[6]’. But as the Irish artist Isabel Nolan, writes, there are problems with defining things by what they lack:

 

Creatures without the same auditory apparatus as ours, for instance snakes, insects or fish, are commonly regarded as deaf. Animals with limited vision, moles and bats, we characterize as blind. The ways animals have evolved to negotiate the world is fascinating. Their strangeness is something that collectively we marvel at, appreciate and also disregard. At the heart of this ability to both take astonishing variety for granted and to wonder at it, is the powerful, intuitive sense of our normality[7].

 

I wonder what the lighthouse makes of it all. We must look very small from up there. It occurs to me that the lighthouse has been standing there for over two hundred years. Two hundred years, counted out, in two white flashes every twelve seconds - ‘the thing is made that endures[8]’. Virginia Woolf compared her lighthouse to hands, hands that travelled around a face and pointed at things: ‘we are in the hands of the lord’[9]. Her lighthouse had pale fingers and touched things; it bent across the bed and stroked the floor. 

 

                                                                                             The man cycles past the second window.

 

Elizabeth Bishop’s lighthouse was a man

 

who lives on his nerves, thinks he knows better. 
He thinks that hell rages below his iron feet, 
that that is why the shallow water is so warm, 
and he knows that heaven is not like this…
but has something to do with blackness and a strong glare 
and when it gets dark he will remember something 
strongly worded to say on the subject
[10]

 

The Utö lighthouse is not masculine. It is wearing candy stripes. It is too plump to be phallic and looks pregnant; it is mother to the islanders, that are borne upon the sea.

 

The beam of the lighthouse sweeps in and out. ONE, TWO, one, two. The motion is mirrored in the sound of the radar tower next to the lighthouse. The rotating dishes, attached to antennas, buffet the air and make a back and forth, up and down, high pitch sound. They test the air with their fingers and go up at the end like a question. There is something uncertain about the sound that they make. A maybe this, maybe that, maybe no, maybe yes. They send and receive, reflect and return. A spiral staircase twists up toward them.  

 

Before icebreakers existed, the lighthouse was extinguished during winter; ice covered the sea. The winters would have been, what now seems, almost unimaginably dark. But now the lighthouse is lit and the glass is round and bright. It turns ONE, TWO, then sparkles like sunlight on the sea. It appears to be going in two different directions at once. Then one, two it returns the other way. The telegraph station is under the beam of the lighthouse, which sets its sights beyond us.

 

 

 

 

 

I am sitting on the boat retracing the route that took me to Utö. I am heading back to a centre, to the capital of a country on the outskirts of Europe. The boat rocks back and forth. I spill coffee on the table which runs back and forth. I have a missed call from my friend in Melbourne.

 

It took twelve hours to get from the telegraph station to our flat. It involved a boat, a bus, a train, a metro and five short walks. We didn’t get in until after midnight and I woke in the early morning, not knowing where I was. I saw the beam of the lighthouse briefly, in the delayed after image of a half-dream state, before my bleary eyes focused themselves and I realised I was back in Helsinki.

 

 

[1] Waugh, Evelyn (1945) Brideshead Revisited, Penguin, London.

[2] Utö Website < http://www.uto.se/en/> viewed 28/01/2017

[3] Mitts, Håkan (2015) Utö Lighthouse Island – At the Edge of the Archipelago. Sail in Finland Website <https://sail-in-finland.info/2015/10/uto-lighthouse-island/>

[4] Utö Website <http://www.uto.fi/2.0/history.php?lang=en> created 2007.

[5] Bergbom, Gunnevi (2008) The History of Utö, Utö Hotel Website < http://www.utohotel.fi/index.php/en/utoe-history>

[6] Connors, Matt (2017) in Failed States, Issue #1: Island

[7] Nolan, Elizabeth (2016) Garrett Phelan Has Seen Some Remarkable Things. The Hide Project Website <http://www.thehideproject.com/>

[8] Woolf, Virginia (1996) To the Lighthouse, Penguin Popular Classics, London, first published in 1927. p. 158

[9] Woolf, Virginia (1996) To the Lighthouse, Penguin Popular Classics, London, first published in 1927. p. 97

[10] Bishop Elizabeth (1941) Seascape published in North and South (1946)

Outsides