thomas m wilson

The Brethren of the Shore – Welcome to Rottnest

June 22nd, 2015



Waking by the water. Shivers of wind crease the pelt of the sea. A black schooner floats in the sheltered arm of the bay, and upon the quarterdeck stands a lone figure. He is facing away but appears to be consulting a map. The morning is still. The wind has dropped and the smell of sea weed and salt fills the nostrils with a tang. The only sound is the liquid murmur of the waves collapsing on the sand, maintaining a calming rhythm. The limestone arm of bay out in front beyond the schooner and to my left is illuminated by a morning light that agrees with my still slightly tired and foggy headed state.

There is no schooner, there is only a novel, Master and Commander, on my bedside table. The eastern sun is tipping the sky’s freight of clouds with orange and gold. The encircling arm of craggy limestone wraps around the point to the left and protects myself and my friends from the wind and the waves. This soft, soughing sound has lulled me through one of my best night’s of sleep in recent times, until this morning where it has found me calm and collected. I thought of the Chinese poet Han Shan: I will sleep by the shore, and wash my spirit clean.

We arrived yesterday and swam at Fey’s Bay on the north side of the island. As I slipped into the shock of the blue, and kicked myself down into the sea I opened my eyes and saw the sun’s rays beaming in splendid columns down into the liquid, shifting and promising redemption. The future here is one of cutting one’s self free from the obligation and tension of Babylon back on the mainland. Of entering the swirl of the sea and letting go. Of falling backwards into no control and being held by the land and by one’s friends and by the massage table I packed, and by touch and music and sleep.

My mind is still and calm like the sea this morning. I love the still reverent atmosphere of the morning, washed clean from yesterday’s soiled emotions whatever they may have been. I dwell with the sea here, it sits almost under my balcony. It is my companion. It talks to me. It sits under my right arm. It eddies my consciousness with its weed wracks and its mutters of storms and warships and chaos and privateering. Of crabs and currents and horizons and mysteries. Of change and adventure and the unknown. It is a great swirling force to unthether me, morning after night, day after morning, evening after day. Untether me from the predicatble shapes and forms of landlubber life. Let me wade into its mummuring shallows, into its nomadic passages of captains and cutlasses and creaking timber.

To wake and look out of my window at the silver sea softly soughing on the beach below our house, a shoreline patched with brown weeds amongst which a sooty oyster catcher steps and wanders is good for my soul. It is quiet and the limestone ridge over the water is encircled with gliding birds. I am circled once again by elements and they keep infusing into my consciousness in ways I don’t entirely understand, but feel the better for.

Being on an island such as this one I feel outside the banality and the duty of the mainland. I am free of the morass of details of suburban life. And outside the geopolitical mainstream. Clear water flows into a limestone rock pool on the shore.  A chuckle.

I think of the Brethren of the Shore waking up on Tortuga in the 1660s. The sun burnished the platter of the sea gold, while still more gold glowed around the neck of a grizzled bucaneer. Brethren loitering in inter-imperial shadowlands.

An island is bounded, like a ship it has human sized boundaries and edges to which we can relate. The island is a haven in an inhuman and dangerous sea. My seafaring ancestors come from an island. I am drawn to them. I feel safe on this haven. It is a place outside of the mainstream and that means that here the future seems less predictable than in a country with a name and a culture. Small islands don’t seem tethered in or to history. Here you can write your own future, dance your own tomorrow, nominate your own meanings. Here I feel quiet, and free, and clear, and elevated.

I am on an island as I write, on Rottnest. Yes this island has its own history, some of it lamentable, but for now let me dream.  It is here and now, and this island’s romance keeps shifting away from the pen. I look out the window from my bed and heavy rain starts to fall. The sun is still shining though and the oyster catcher still wades through a world free of the human.

Patrick O’Brian’s novel Master and Commander sits on the balcony rail and calls me into the world of Menorca in 18th century maritime history. Menorca off the Spanish coast is another limestone island in a big blue sea. In O’Brian’s prose a close male friendship develops amongst sea farers while the world is painted with the colour and refinenment of a Georgian master stylist, deeply versed in eighteenth century literature and culture. At the same time I’ve also been reading George Meredith’s poetry. None of this can be taken too seriously.

“How often will those long links of foam

Cry to me in my English home,

To nerve me, whenever I hear them bellow,

Like the smack of the hand of a gallant


I look up. 

Down on the shore clear water chuckles in a rock pool.