essay by TUNG-HUI HU
Commanders of vehicles in distress are desired to make their usual signals.
Rooms and bed are provided for shipwrecked seamen.
Dead bodies cast on the shore are decently buried gratis.
The New Seaman’s Guide and Coaster’s Companion, 1809
In 1772, the twenty-six-year-old violinmaker Henry Whiteside began to build a lighthouse on a pile of rocks twenty miles off the coast of Pembrokeshire, Wales, called the Smalls. His design was unusual; the light perched on top of eight oak piers like the head of a stiff-legged octopus. Rather than making a solid base, Whiteside reasoned, he would let the force of the waves pass through the structure. But when the waves did so, the living quarters swayed violently; one visitor reported that a full bucket of water was half empty by the time he left. The force of the storm made each thing—bucket, glass, stove, table—resonant; it bent the lighthouse, shaping it into an instrument of music.
The violinmaker began by setting his compass point at 51°43′17″ N, 5°38′47″ W. Then he drew a circle, three miles out, the distance of cannon shot and therefore the distance of territorial waters. Another circle, four miles out, representing the reach of the Smalls “pellucid green” beacon: he drew this intermittent light as a series of green dashes. A third circle, twelve miles, thick line: a brighter white light to warn of rocks. A series of concentric circles to represent the ocean, with the lighthouse fixed at the center. But a final circle should be drawn forty feet out, representing a lighthouse keeper’s circuit around the gallery railing in winter. He is at the center of the center; the world comes to him, wrecks itself on his shores.
They are out of rations; they are still waiting for lime juice and pickled vegetables. The owners are cheap; the resupply ships late. Why, then, the rumor that lighthouse keepers “at the last stages of a decline … are prodigiously fat” when they leave their posts? A few years’ duty at the Smalls, so they say, wards off consumption, breaks fever, and reverses wasting disease. How can the meanest personalities turn into jolly, good-spirited fellows; how can scrofulous, emaciated men walk in, and corpulent doubles walk out?
As one keeper, formerly a watchmaker, writes, this work is “rusting a fellow’s life away.” The rotating prisms operate through a clockwork mechanism—he knows how to wind and fix them; the lighthouse is simply a large watch to maintain and repair. But what he belatedly realizes as he is oiling the surface of the gear work is that he is no longer working on a watch. He is the rusted mechanism standing at attention each hour, at twilight and at dawn; in the room full of whale oil and sperm candle, he is the one needing the grease. With no rations left, he eats the oil intended for the candles. Whale oil, rich as cod-liver oil, rich with vitamins, makes the keeper look almost healthy. Food for both stomach and eye. Stink of half-eaten light.
In a glass photograph taken in the village of Solva, where the keepers are based, the plate’s surface is pockmarked with white spots that mimic the keepers’ vision after repeated exposure to lantern light. These marks seem to float halfway between us and the men on the other side; they are like the translucent deposits that cast shadows as they pass through the eye’s vitreous humor. Three keepers gather around an uncomfortable wooden chair for the village photographer. The plate is old and the light unreliable, but none of the men seems particularly fat.
“The Smalls, it is said, belong to no parish, nor are they within any county; but they are nearest to the Welsh coast, and the inhabitants of the lighthouse are considered as parishioners of Whitchurch.”
A Topographical Dictionary of Wales, 1845
There is no plant life on Smalls reef, with the exception of a few edible algae: oarweed, channeled wrack, and thongweed. The clothes of the men bringing supplies to the Smalls may have reeked of mackerel and pollock, but the keepers instead smelled the roots of new potatoes growing in soil; they smelled flatness and fences and hips and the idea of territory. Money accumulated in bank accounts back home; as with everything else on the reef, it was difficult to see it grow.
This despite the fact that, for a time, the Smalls was the richest lighthouse in the world. Bringing in £10,510 a year in 1832 for the two widows who owned it, the Smalls charged light duties from any ship that passed within twelve miles of the rock, whether or not it ever saw its light. “The waters got crowded daily and hourly with ships of mighty tonnage, / and every ton had to pay.” So profitable were the abstract movements of ships on a map that the lighthouse’s light increasingly became an afterthought. By the time its lease was repurchased by the Crown in 1836, the Smalls lamp shone at just one-eighth the candlepower of public lighthouses.
The sea, once limitless, was getting crowded. As the need for reliable news grew, insurers at Lloyd’s commissioned a network of signaling stations in the Irish Channel. A telescope on the Smalls recorded flag semaphores from a passing ship and forwarded these messages to lookout stations on land. The messages ended their travels in London—first in a newsletter originally titled Ships Arrived at and Departed from several Ports of England, as I have Account of them in London and renamed Lloyd’s List, and later, in a wooden room containing a massive bell salvaged from the HMS Lutine. When a missing ship was found, the bellman would ring twice; when a ship was confirmed lost, the bellman would ring once, and the members of Lloyd’s, known as the Names, would count their losses.
Draw two compass lines south and southwest; draw a third to make the triangle connecting the busiest ports of the transatlantic trade, Liverpool–Lagos–Philadelphia, or Bristol–Falmouth (Jamaica)–New Orleans. At the vertex is the Smalls. One visitor, after seeing a Liverpool port grown rich from slaving ships, described the oak-timber Smalls lighthouse as a “strange wooden-legged Malay-looking barracoon of a building,” a barracoon being a type of slatted cage used to temporarily hold slaves who were to be shipped elsewhere. That cargo was sometimes restrained with the use of ropes interwoven with their hair, and typically insured by Lloyd’s from “Averages arising by Death and Insurrection.” The Names paid out as long as the ship had been properly hulled with copper to keep out tropical woodworms, and more than ten percent of cargo were killed.
In the winter of 1777, Whiteside was called back to reinforce the structure, which had heaved dangerously in the first months after its completion. Caught in a storm lasting two weeks, and with supplies running out, he sat down at his desk and wrote a letter, then made two more copies. He folded each letter inside a bottle and placed each bottle inside a cask with the words “Open this and you will find a letter” painted on the outside. The first cask washed ashore in Galway; the second was found by a fisherman in Saint David’s; but the third arrived in a creek almost directly below the lighthouse’s agent. It was not the first message in a bottle ever sent, but it was the first that received a response.
Smalls, February 1, 1777. Sir,—
Almost any weather
you would come to
seek us as promptly as possible
at some part of the tide-
house. In a most melancholy manner
I have no need to tell you more,
you will comprehend
Our distress, H. Whiteside.
Before the Smalls incident, tar-sealed flasks had once contained what one of Victor Hugo’s narrators described as “wills of men in despair, farewells cast to fatherland, revelations of falsified logs, bills of lading, and crimes committed at sea, legacies to the crown, etc. … the black cabinet of the ocean.” The ocean may have stood in for a higher power, but it was the power of a bureaucrat, one who inventories and silently files away each complaint into its drawers. The religious wrote to repent; the nationalists, to greet their country; the practical, to finalize business affairs.
We were surprised—
since that time we have not been able to keep
any temporary light
For want of oil and candles
make us murmur and think
we have been forgotten.
Ed. Edwards, G. Adams, J. Price.
The cask found in Galway washed ashore two months after it was sent. The mayor mailed a copy of the letter back to its sender, changing the cask into a time capsule. How did Whiteside react in March, after receiving a copy of his own plea for help? Given a chance to have such a conversation, what could you say to your older self? During a storm in 1830, the keepers again sent a cask into the ocean, asking for rescue, but the contents of that message are not recorded. Perhaps this was because, its having worked once, they had come to expect it would work again.
Whiteside’s party did not doubt that “whoever takes up this will be so merciful” as to rescue them. They did not doubt that the ocean currents would bring their words to the attention of a stranger any more than they doubted the presence of invisible ships passing by who must have seen them. For a few weeks, they had been overcome by a temporary feeling of limitlessness, of transcending the boundaries of the self—not just feeling a connection to all things but feeling that one is the center that connects each part of the map. Psychologist Romain Rolland could not have known of the Smalls when, describing these symptoms to Freud in 1927, he diagnosed its sufferers with “oceanic feeling.”
To prepare them for their first immersion in the ocean, upper-class women were instructed to dump buckets of water on their heads. There were also ways to protect a person from the sea, among them a thick woolen bathing dress or, when that became indecent, woolen trousers. The bathing machine, invented in 1735 and in wide use by the nineteenth century, would immerse a bather to a depth of twenty centimeters, just deep enough to get a feel for the ocean.
For the men and women who had graduated from the bathing machines on Saint Bride’s Bay, the Smalls seemed to offer a genuine sense of risk. Sir John Henry Scourfield, MP for Pembrokeshire, penned a ditty (sung to the tune of “Here’s to the Maiden of blushing sixteen”) about an expedition aboard a ship inauspiciously named the Quail:
Let us go out to sea, for its stupid to sail
In the limits of the harbour and river;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Off we must go on a cruise to the Smalls.
Seeking the limitlessness of the sea, the seafaring party’s faces quickly turned blue, yellow, and green as they heaved their lunches into the ocean and waited out the squall on nearby Grassholm Island. Finally the Quail’s crew admitted defeat: “people command / a far finer view of the sea from the land.”
The Smalls were good for another cheap thrill. In 1800, Thomas Griffiths, a keeper stationed on the lighthouse, died by accident. Unable to flag down a passing ship, the other keeper, Thomas Howell, worried he would be blamed for Griffiths’s death. Accordingly, he constructed a coffin from the wooden bulkhead of the living room and lashed it with rope to the outside of the gallery wall. With the passing ships noticing nothing wrong with the light, it was three months before he was relieved. As a result of the trauma Howell experienced while living with a corpse, British lighthouses have had three keepers stationed on them, a strict rule kept until automation in the 1980s.
Though Griffiths was real, his death continues to be told and retold until it becomes fiction, with each teller lingering over each gory detail: the coffin bursting open to reveal a partially decomposed arm waving in the wind; the bottle of rum that may have lured Griffiths to his lethal tumble over a metal railing; the arguments between Thomases younger and older in the public houses of Solva; the hair white with fright when Howell was finally relieved and sent to the madhouse. But these stories are ways of giving a frisson not unlike that of dipping one’s toe in cold water for a few seconds. In each story, there is always a beginning, middle, and end.
What is untellable is a sense of time that is monochrome in color: the flatness of the sky, the small rain that is starting but not yet rising to the level of a gale, the wind that opens onto more wind. Woodcocks, larks, starlings, and blackbirds. The pools left behind in the rock in a spring midafternoon, when tides are at their lowest. A sense that one’s vision is being tested when looking at the sea’s edges. On the horizon, ship and bird and fish and the idea of north are as interchangeable as the soft forms on the bottom of the optometrist’s chart. Difficult as it is to look at the horizon for long periods of time, a determined looker can catch that moment of pure chance known as a green flash. Shot/reverse shot: around sunset, for a fraction of a green second, the horizon looks back.
In October 1812, the ocean around the Smalls was a color known then as invisible green, a green so dark it is mistaken for black if not under direct light. Invisible green was also the recommended shade for painting garden fences so as to blend them into the surrounding landscape. As the poet William Mason wrote: “The limits, as it were, retire from the view, and use and beauty … are now indistinguishably united again.”
When the green waves reached thirty-two feet, the height of the lightroom, the men, frightened, broke the glass to have a way to swim out. (The light spilled out of the glass as they went; the light became an invisible layer of paint under the water.) Whiteside didn’t see the problem; he responded that the “house would have been somewhat leaky the windows being broken.” By then, age sixty-six and married to the daughter of the Old Ship Inn’s proprietor, his attention had turned toward his own house, the trees uprooted in his own garden.
The Fresnel lens that eventually replaced the old lamp gave off a hard light. As in a Barbara Stanwyck film, each crisp shadow on a keeper’s face became visible. A man disappeared behind a doorway; fragments emerging, the thick neck, the hands, the brass buttons on his double-breasted blazer. The rest engulfed by dark, as if under water. Rather than the “pellucid green” light of the original design, a beehive of glass draped around a glowing center. Three flashes of the Smalls like a flashbulb going off three times. The lantern room sparkling like a recently stolen necklace.
Today the invisible comes to us mostly in the form of cell phone reception and radar guns. The invisible green sea that historians speak of is not the green of now, just as we are unsure whether the wine-dark sea was black or more the color of clotted blood. We know only that it is dark, as the dark appears on a winter afternoon: a surprise.
“Milford, April 22—The brig London Packet, Poyntz, of Bristol, sailed from hence for Tortola on 16th inst; on the evening of the 17th, Captain Roberts, of the Freeling Post Office Packet, on his passage from this to Waterford, near the Smalls Light House, picked up a water cask and small scuttle, both marked ‘London Packet’; also a seaman’s check, and a box with books, but in taking up the box, the bottom and books dropped out. There was a signal flying on the Smalls Lighthouse, but as it was nearly dark, Captain Roberts could not communicate, nor has there been any communication with the Smalls and shore since the 4th instant, so that it is conjectured there may be some wrecked mariners on it.”
The estate at Llanunwas was notorious for setting false lights on its cliffs over Solva, a few miles from the reef. Land and sea, optically reversed: imitating a lighthouse was once the coast’s second industry, its unspoken economy. If a coal fire was too much effort, one could make do with rope yarn soaked in pitch and tar, even a lantern hung from the neck of a mule induced to move slowly. The wreckers waited to rescue the cargo of ships that came to grief. If questioned, they might explain the obvious: the ocean sometimes strips its victims clean, just as the desire for land sometimes exceeds land itself. And if pressed, they would express sympathy for “the wandering mariner, in order to benefit by his misfortunes; [ ] atrocious crimes, coupled [ ] the inhuman perpetrators.”
The cask and coal scuttle and the box that fell out of the London Packet were jetsam: the fee paid to escape the ship. Had the mariners intended to recover the books they had lost, the books would be termed lagan, that which lies at the bottom of an ocean; otherwise, derelict, that which is abandoned altogether. The woman currently in charge of determining what to do with the books is Alison Kentuck, whose first step toward a career in marine archaeology was excavating Victorian trash from an abandoned hospital at the age of sixteen. Kentuck is also responsible for disposing of any royal marine life stranded on British shores: whales, dolphins, porpoises, and sturgeon. During her work, she wears a bright-yellow safety vest with reflective tape and the words RECEIVER OF WRECK emblazoned on the back.
… 9 casks of white lead, the 112 cases of English China, the 341 pieces of cloth and also 20 casks of cudbear for dyeing it; 16 hatchets; 45 pipes of linseed oil;
For nearly a century, the most reliable signal in fog was a bird colony. The Skerries lighthouse kept a colony of terns as late as 1863; close to it, the South Stack light had gulls so tame they were considered pets by the keepers. Together, the two different birdcries allowed a ship to navigate between two rocks that, in fog, looked like perfect twins. The sounds from the Smalls light consisted of seals barking and gannets from nearby Skokholm Island. You could not navigate too well by these sounds, but at least your fog signals did not risk being eaten by escaped rats. “A cat has been tried / but she preferred birds to rats.”
So had explosives been tried, and whistles, gongs, bells, horns, sirens, reeds, and diaphones. Yet the signals continued to disappear. An explosion on land might be heard twenty-five miles away, on the Smalls, but not on a ship three miles away; it was as if the sounds had been swallowed by the ocean, only to reappear in another place entirely. Physicist John Tyndall studied the fog-signal problem on the lighthouse authority’s steamship Irene, concluding that sound waves were being deflected by “acoustic clouds.” His notes on July 3, 1873, read: “The echoes reached us, as if by magic, from the invisible acoustic clouds with which the optically transparent atmosphere was filled.” For Tyndall, we were surrounded by a sort of noble ghost “incessantly floating or flying through the air,” regally indifferent to our senses and palpable only in its reflection.
The acoustic clouds gave a plausible if ultimately inaccurate explanation for sounds lost at sea. At heart, though, they were less scientific theory than an expression of faith: that a listener could be found for every speaker, even if the ear of a ghost; that the invisible lines that connected Liverpool and Philadelphia also connected signs and events across two moments in history. That somewhere in the fog was an audience for the concert where the lighthouse was metronome, chamber, and orchestra.
Now, as a signaling station, the Smalls watches for news in the Irish Channel: shipwrecks, lost cargo. But its keepers also listen for fainter signals, such as the buzz of two bumblebees (Bombus sp.) recorded as traveling west on the unusually warm July 7, 1955. Or the quail that manages to escape from a hunt on the mainland and spends the month of May 1960 jumping into rock pools. After his shift is over, the keeper takes the quail home, thinking he will raise the lost bird with his chickens. Someone in the lighthouse counts this bird and remembers its call. A quail is lost, and a hundred miles away, as if by magic, it reappears as a chicken.
The oak timbers of Whiteside’s old structure are gone, but the sense of oak is still there: the new Smalls, a granite structure built in 1861, got its shape when an architect noticed that oaks in the English countryside almost never toppled over or were uprooted by a storm. He designed a granite structure for the Eddystone Rocks that flared at the base and tapered, like an oak trunk, to become a cylinder at the top. The new lighthouse on the Smalls is similarly rooted to the ocean, and when a harsh swell makes the whole structure sway, that movement is considered “the healthy elasticity of a living thing.” Ocean-oak. Even the stumps of Whiteside’s oak legs, now over two centuries old, are slowly turning to stone; the sea salt has petrified them. The only living thing that grows on the rock is itself made of rock.
The Smalls, the first lighthouse to be fitted with the luxury of a flushing toilet, now finds its prized toilet mostly unused; its keepers, like those at other rock lighthouses, are stationed on land, where they keep watch from computer screens. Solar and wind generators silently power a single thirty-five-watt bulb. Rock lighthouses have been automated, and increasingly send out electronic AIS signals instead of fog signals, for the one place a foghorn cannot be heard is the inside of a modern container ship, with its engines running and the captain surrounded by its superstructure. So the foghorns on the Smalls revert to what they have always been since the time of Whiteside: Reeds and winds. Pipe organs. Musical instruments.
It is said that Whiteside was fond of tuning his fiddle during a storm, that he would go out to the cliffs so that he could capture the wind’s pitch. It is also said that his beechwood violins, which had a sweet and mellow tone, could once be heard all over Solva. Though his violins are gone, one can still go to the cliffs. Below, a wind gusts through the shingle beach and dislodges a few pebbles at a time. The shingles skid against one another, giving off a series of hard clicks, some long, some short.
Sources and text used in “Invisible Green,” listed chronologically, include: British Statute, 18 Geo. III, cap. 42, “An Act to enable the Corporation of Trinity House of Deptford Strond to establish and maintain a Lighthouse on the Rocks called The Smalls, in Saint George’s Channel,” 1778; William Mason, The English Garden, 1783; Richard Fenton, A Historical Tour through Pembrokeshire, 1811; Lloyd’s List April 26, 1822; “Lighthouses,” Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, 1830; “Life among the Lighthouses,” Cornhill Magazine 1, 1860; Trinity House, Report on the Condition and Management of Lights, Buoys, and Beacons, 1861, and Report on Lighthouse Administration, 1908; J.H.S. [Sir John Henry Scourfield], Lyrics, 1864; Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, unknown translator, 1888, originally published as L’homme qui rit, 1869; John Tyndall, Sound, 1875; Thomas Williams, Life of Sir James Nicholas Douglass, 1900; William Meredith Morris, British Violin-Makers, 1904; R.M. Lockley, “The Outermost Rocks of Wales,” Nature in Wales 2, no. 2, summer 1956;Douglas Hague, Lighthouses of Wales, 1994; Christopher Nicholson, Rock Lighthouses of Britain, 1995; Thomas Lloyd et al., Pembrokeshire, 2004; Anita Rupprecht, “Excessive Memories: Slavery, Insurance and Resistance,” History Workshop Journal 61 no. 1, 2007; Harold Taylor, “The Light on Top,” World Lighthouse Society Newsletter 9 no. 1, 2011.