The Collection and What Remains

by Laura Espósto



On our first morning on Grand Manan a bridge of Cirrostratus trail in from the south east. I ask Eshani if I can use her bedroom window to gauge whether the gauze sheet of clouds is above or below 25,000 feet. This is the point of separation between the low hanging Altostratus and the much higher Cirrostratus. You can tell the difference by looking at the sun. Does it break through? Does it bleed out? Right now, the clouds form a sheer cover across the light. Searching straight from the left side of her bed, out through the window above the Compass Rose Inn, I accidentally stare into the sun a bit too long. In the name of science, of course. Eshani laughs from the other window at me when I tell her; she doesn’t mind these lengths I’m going to for cloud watching because it helps me feel less unmoored and she is kind. It is 8:45 AST in the morning. The sky, as I look from the north side of the house, is otherwise clear.

Cloud identification is a newly acquired interest. See, I’ve been traveling a lot. I’ve been missing my home in Tucson, in San Francisco. Before this I spent the last month or so in rural Ohio helping my grandfather wrap up pieces which needed wrapping up as he ages. We stood together in the white barn in the back field taking stock of all the equipment he thought should be included in the living trust and eventually the post-mortem trust. Someone will be inheriting a heap of old saws, a riding mower from the eighties, six bee supers, and a barn cat. Piles and piles of metal and wood rise in front of us. It is awe inducing to witness how much stuff an 80-year-old life can heap together. Since leaving him, the odd pit of necessary accumulation has settled in me. I keep a running count of the material, such as the clouds, because it helps me feel grounded in a place where everything else around is in constant flux. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is this: to have a grasp on myself I need to have a grasp on the way the world works and my place in it. In order to do that, I will it to remain static by collecting everything I can into memory.


On the second day we tour Swallowtail Lighthouse. We climb steadily to the crown’s swaying top and look down at the incoming tide, at a porpoise swimming quick between the schools of herring caught in the eddy-like weir. From there we cannot observe the obvious origins of the island but are informed by our wonderful tour guide Lore that about two-thirds of it sprang from thick lava flows deep beneath the sea bed and began cooling around 200 million years ago. Looking over the light blue harbor water, I decide that if the earth creates an island anywhere this is not too bad of a place for it. After the tour I try to learn more about the natural geography out of sheer admiration.  

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one definition of the word accumulation (v.) is “Of Geology: The growth of a landmass by the accretion of material on its exterior, typically as a result of volcanic activity.” This slow building shift from the inside to the out amazes me. As of yet, I have never accomplished it myself, and by that I mean I still struggle matching my internal feelings with the external around me. I’m attempting to be present in this place as I take stock of the wind drafts that go straight through the bone with cold. I get lost in thought and feel far away too easily. Maybe it is happening more often here because of the displacement from my home, and all of the political turmoil there is rushing ahead without me. It is hard to appreciate the exact detailed beauty of Grand Manan when just miles away, across the Bay of Fundy, there is a mainland where life is pushing past a different meaningless line, is being cut at the edges by men with paper scissors hacking along the lines of those they don’t think belong in the country. It’s a joke but not a funny one. This country, built by systematic removal and erasure of people, wants to be defined by concrete walls. Governments across North America still jump at the chance to decide when the accumulation of people has become too much, too heavy for the people who look like them to bear. Just because I can’t see that land from the top of the lighthouse does not mean I am in any way separate from how it may define me as one of the disposable, eventually, same as everyone else. I was not raised to feel disposable on the inside, but there are so many outside of me who refuse to believe it.


Hiking back out through the heath blanketed cliffs, I only have to inch my head left to make eye contact with the Grey Zone. This maritime expanse of disputed waters speaks to the ineffectiveness of trying to render the immaterial into something solid. Is it possible to mark a hard line through water which will have slid away the moment you draw it out? A few days after arriving on Grand Manan, I read a New York Times article about the increased confrontation between fishing boats and their respective border patrols. Concerning the intermingled waters, Matthew Haag writes: “To get to the gray zone, fishermen in the United States depart from a port like Cutler, and those in Canada take off from Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. But once they are in the same waters, it becomes nearly impossible to determine at a glance whether the fishing boats are Canadian or American.” It reminds me of how silly all my attempted studies of accumulation will come to be when in essence everything moves on eventually.

Two nations arguing over an invisible line, protecting it and coveting it, as if the sea were a thing which could be owned. I don’t mean to say these definitions aren’t tangled and complex. Within my family, the history of the border has crossed us more times than truly knowable: The Miwok’s Lúppuh ‘ójjih village begot Mexico’s Alta California begot the United State’s California. I understand what it means to be brought under a fold and characterized by external forces, whether or not it is asked for. Back in Tucson, a friend and I will discuss how the accumulation of identity into one solid being cannot contain all that it does, and yet somehow, we remain whole. There is something to be said for sovereignty, and maybe something else to be said for mergence. I can’t come up with anything definitive. It wouldn’t be true anyway. Everything will continue shifting, but that doesn’t mean it has to make sense. I’m truly sorry; I don’t have more answers for you.


All I know is the clouds are gathering once again above us once we reach the vacant herring houses on our drive back to North Head. Stray cats dip between the dark cedar buildings, slip in between the traveling shadows thrown from above us. I’m reminded again of the alternative forms of time the island demands. Later in the day the clouds tread higher, melt together into the Altostratus, then the Nimbostratus. They are accumulating into large bellied beasts slung low across the tree line. In the driver’s seat I look back in the mirror at Emi. I come to the understanding that our collision in this place was dictated long ago by ancestors under skies we will never know.

Smoke shed in Seal Cove

In her poem I Have A Time Machine, Brenda Shaughnessy remarks on this particular predestined accumulation: “Me exploding at my mother who explodes at me/because the explosion/of some dark star all the way back struck hard/at mother’s mother’s mother.” Being able to look forward, to deal with what comes next once we are off the island, is just as much about gathering as it is allowing the emptying of space. I’m trying to get better at leaving things behind without grabbing fistfuls.


But let me be present, at least for one of our last hikes along Southern Head. We come across the “Flock of Sheep” settled on the sea cliff edge. The white stones, which look like the clumping herds they are named for, were deposited by the last ice-age, left on this precipice between the grassy meadow and the sea. Emi wanders down the basalt slopes, down to the tide pools to gather their sounds onto a recording device. Later the recording will play back the white noise of waves and a distant fishing boat moving away from us. The tides move in and the tides move out; we admire the collections and what remains tangled beneath the seaweed lid. This feels like a good kind of accumulation.

Here, we are accumulating the experiences of one another and the stories we used to tell ourselves as children. It is easy to appreciate my friends when I’m not trying to account for the fact that soon we will no longer be together here, and soon all pelagic birds nesting on the island will be gone as well. What I try to focus on is the fact that there are no clouds today in the sky.


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