From Portraits, by John Berger, which was published last month by Verso. A contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, Berger is the author of numerous books, including Ways of Seeing (1972).
There is no question that the living crowd the dead. And where the density of the living population is high, the dead cede ground. By contrast, there are other areas in the world, very thinly populated, where the dead assemble. Often these places are arid or poor. The deserts or the polar regions are the most extreme examples.
Many such areas prompted — indeed insisted on — a nomadic way of life. Further, as any shepherd or hunter will tell you, when you are wandering through certain lands, the paths themselves come toward you. You do not cross such a land like a railway line; you pursue, or are pursued by, its own paths. The land goes on and on. There are obstacles but no final barriers.
The Western Highlands of Scotland is an area like this. Everything is in transit, because there is nowhere to stop. The crofters’ cottages crouch like animals sheltering on the ground for the night. There are encampments but no permanent assemblies. Everything advances — the larches, the bracken, the Caledonian pines, the heather, the juniper bushes, the scrub grass. Moving into the land is the water: the rivers going to the sea, the sea with its tides coming into the lochs. And, across both land and water, the wind. Sometimes there are wild geese, and their honking, as they fly, is like a fleeting measure, a counting in another algebra of all the land’s movement.
This movement no more respects boundaries than did the fighting clans who once lived here; it mixes and confuses all. This is why herring can be fished from water surrounded by brackened hills. This is why on some days the sky appears to have more flesh on it, to be more hospitable, than the earth.
When you cross the Highlands going westward, you arrive at the Hebrides. Among the very first islands is a small one, no more than seven miles long, called Gigha. The straits around Gigha are treacherous. Five hundred years ago, near the island’s southern tip, the islanders built a chapel. It stood for three centuries, then fell into ruin. But around the chapel was a cemetery, and in this cemetery, after the collapse of the chapel, the dead continued to be buried, as they are still buried today.
The tombstones here record the deaths of several generations, including the name, the year of birth, the day of death, and the place of death, if it was not on the island. The only cause of death cited is drowning at sea.
A name and two dates, the last one precise to the very day. About what happened between, apart from the bare fact of survival, not a word. For that, no imaginable stone would be large enough, even for the shortest life; the largest quarry face would be too small to record the existence of a one-year-old child.
Then why any writing at all? Salt, rain, lichen, and wind efface the deepest-cut letters within a century or two.
The question might be asked in any cemetery where names are inscribed. But on Gigha the answer is more evident. The inscriptions are not for the living. (Those who will remember the dead have no need of a reminder.) The inscriptions are addressed to those whom the mourned one has now joined.
Into the ears of the rain the cut letters and numerals whisper; before the eyes of the wind they make signs.
From Gigha you look across to the straits, to the sea, to the sky above the sea, or in the opposite direction, to the brackened mountains beginning their next migration eastward. The sparsely inhabited coast of the continent here is shaped like the passage for a birth outward, a uterus leading toward the western horizon. And to this birthplace the nomadic dead have traveled. They are now within speaking distance in the cemetery.
Yet we did not know how to speak to them. We had to use the carved stones as go-betweens, supplying the names of those who had left us. Like this the dead did not have to be renamed, and like this we were a little reassured.