I have a vague memory of a scene in a film, perhaps dating from the 1940s, although I can’t say for sure. Where I saw this film I have no idea; it could have been during some airing of classics on late-night TV, or possibly it was in some movie I’d seen at the Nanaimo Festival many years ago. I’ve long forgotten the subject of the film; my best guess is that it was some romance set during the First World War, or possibly a historical comedy involving a fishing village. The details are lost.
But what I do remember is a scene of a lighthouse, standing solitary on a rocky island not far from shore. The day is calm, and the small waves curl in gently, making a sound like paper being folded. This image, of a solid tower squating serene among quiet waters, has taken on a relatively profound significance for me–almost as if, when I recall it, there comes to me a sensation similar to that of deja vu–of having experienced this scene outside of time’s flow, of possessing an intuition that I have been to this shoreline many times before, although I’m fairly certain I’ve never actually visited the place. And yet this scene enters my consciousness fairly often, and at seemingly random times (although most commonly in moments of stress or depression) and over the years, various sensations have gradually attached themselves to this image, much as patina grows upon a bronze statue; so that now when I recall it I also hear the sound of terns softly crying as they float on the wind, or smell the pungent, pleasurable odor of sea-rot.
I mentioned this scene to my friend Christopher J. Liszt, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies, particularly film noir and pre-Code screwball comedies. But try as he might, he could recall no such scene in any film he was familiar with. And truthfully, the whole scene may have been so fleeting that it wouldn’t have impressed itself on him in the same way it had upon me. I’m sure for most moviegoers it passed by completely unnoticed. As for me, I became filled with an obsessive need to discover anything I could about this lighthouse (which I began to suspect existed only in my imagination), and so made several trips in the autumn to Suzzallo Library on the campus of the University of Washington. There, on a dark, drizzly afternoon I sat at a long oak table under the gothic arches of the graduate reading room and immersed myself in reference books. Before me were stacks of atlases and maritime charts, historical accounts, and indexes of lighthouses across the world.
Most useful and comprehensive of these was Penfield’s Complete Lights and Beacons, a massive and musty-smelling codex that cataloged every lighthouse constructed in human history. I spent long hours buried in its pages, swimming among the stone towers, Fresnel lenses, and automatic fog horns. After several days hunched over these pages and failing to find what I was seeking, I began to feel that gloomy lassitude that comes with being excessively immersed in a research project. At these times, a sense of guilt overcomes me, knowing I’ve spent too many hours exploring deep caverns and finding nothing of use.
And anyway it was a difficult time for me; my daughter had recently undergone surgery, my literary career was stalled, and the prospect of continuing at my freelance job for another year, which involved writing glowing descriptions of various random consumer products (running shoes, coffee makers, lingerie, and board games among them) threatened to drag me into a deep funk.
And then I found it. There in Penfield’s was a picture that matched my memory exactly. The caption described it as the stone lighthouse on Machias Seal Island, in the Gulf of Maine. There’s not much there, apparently: a few species of wildflowers and grasses, some nesting Atlantic puffins, and the tower, which is the only manned lighthouse remaining on the eastern coast of Canada.
The island has a strange history. Far from coastal settlements, Machias Seal was for most of its history virtually ignored, save for an occasional visit by a passing lobster fishermen. It sits in a gray liminal zone between boundaries. The 1783 Treaty of Paris, which established the boundary between the United States and British North America, was vague in its description where precisely the boundary line should be drawn. The island sits in a maritime no-man’s land, and is claimed by both countries. In 1832, the Governor General of Canada ordered a stone tower built there, and the beacon has been staffed by Canadians ever since. Even today, sovereignty of Machias Seal is disputed, and strangely enough, anyone born on the tiny island is automatically granted dual nationality.
Intrigued, I dug deeper into the island’s history, and discovered that only one person has ever qualified for the distinction of being granted both American and Canadian citizenship on Machias Seal.
Her name was Elspeth Codd.
She was born in the watchman’s house in 1841 to Dorthea and and Philemon Codd. Codd was a former ship’s captain who’d taken the job as the lighthouse keeper on Machias. He was from Nova Scotia and had a reputation as a skilled skipper of lobster boats (stung by childhood mockery of his name, he always refused to fish for cod). The captain, who was a quiet, intense man, left his maritime career to marry Dorthea, a spirited American actress from Boston. Once on the island, she gave birth to Elspeth, and the family lived happily in their remote hideaway. Dorthea raised her daughter in the small cabin next to the tower; in summer the three of them would picnic on the grass; during lashing winter gales, Dorthea would read the novels of Sir Walter Scot to her daughter by the yellow glow of whale oil lamps.
Philemon A. Codd (rear, right) pictured with ship captains in Halifax.
Elspeth was precocious and observant child, according to several of Philemon’s letters that survive. In one, he describes his seven-year-old daughter’s eyes full of “sharp glints like sun upon the summer sea.” He wrote to his sister that
“The child has a laugh like an accusation, and her eye is merciless. Elspeth sees everything, the girl shies away from nothing. Yesterday I caught her staring down a sculpin I’d caught for bait, lying on the dock and gulping its last breath through bloodied gills. “Does it hurt him?” she wondered. And it was only the day before that she inquired of me as to why sometimes young puffins fall from their high nests and die on the rocks below. Every answer I provided was deemed insufficient to concluding her inquest.”
Once every few months, Philemon would sail back to Seal Cove for supplies. On a bright August day in 1848 he did so, and several days later he returned, his skiff laden with sacks of flour and rashers of bacon, a crate of apples, three tins of coffee, and a paper bag full of sasparilla candies for his daughter. But when he met Dorthea at the dock, the worried look on her face erased all traces of splendor from that balmy day. Elspeth, it seems, had cut her hand on a rusty nail and she was now in bed with a terrible fever. Bundling her into wool blankets, Philemon sailed her back across the gulf and late that moonlit night he knocked at the house of the town doctor. Her prognosis was not favorable, and several days later she died.
After burying their only child in the garden beside the lighthouse tower, Dorthea placed a bouquet of daisies and blue-eyed grass upon her daughter’s grave. In the days and weeks after, the couple descended into a fathomless grief. In rare moments when the sadness departed, it was replaced by anger and recrimination. “Our marriage is finished,” Philemon wrote in a letter to his sister, and in 1850 he quit the island for Halifax. Soon after Dorthea returned to Boston.
Philemon Codd signed on with the W.H.F. Preston Line, where he served as captain of merchant clipper ships carrying cargo across the Atlantic and to the Far East. For many years he commanded the Mercury, which brought opium to China, tea to San Francisco, Campbell River lumber to Plymouth, and tin from the mines of Malaya to Portsmouth. He was known as a stern but fair commander, and it was noted among his fellow officers that he was distant and aloof, preferring to dine in his private quarters. With the arrival of steam engines, Codd proved himself resilient and adapted to the new technology. His boats were heralded in the Preston Line for their speed and prompt arrivals. Codd evoked great loyalty from his crews, even though he worked his men hard (and was quick to punish any man for dereliction or tardiness). But he was generous in allowing recreational diversions, and it was not uncommon to find the entire crew of his packet steamer, on some sultry tropic evening, passing around bottles of rum and belting out the old sea shanties to the accompaniment of a squeeze-box.
Few knew of Captain Codd’s tragic family history, and those who did possessed scant details. There was much debate among his associates as to whether he was a changed man after the loss of his daughter, or if he had always been a reserved and taciturn individual. Myself, I am fascinated by Codd’s story, and I find that the more I read his correspondence and the accounts of those who knew him, the less I actually know him.
For example, there is an incident late in Codd’s career, in 1881, when a steamer under his command made port at Mombassa in order to take on a cargo of coffee. One member of his crew, a man by the name of Alawan, had been accused, while on shore leave, of stealing a woman’s purse. Codd defended this man before the local magistrate and, vouching for his character, obtained his release. One might see in this defense a certain enlightened, admirable side of Codd. But in the course of my research, I also came across, in the log book for the S.S. Mildred Prewitt, not long after the incident in Mombassa, a rather perfunctory and disturbing entry by the captain:
Apr. 12th, 1881: Trying to make good time thru Malaccas, we encountered fierce storm with swells reaching 20ft. Proceeded under full power into the night, men exceedingly tired. In attempt to secure a loose hatch, one of crew, a certain Alawan, went overboard and attempts to locate him in violent seas unsuccessful. Crew might have been more disconsolate had he not been a Negro Mussulman, so I consider this fact a bit of good fortune. Made port at Penang Apr. 18 three days ahead of schedule.
What to make of Codd–a man, by all reports a fair-minded captain, but also one who didn’t hesitate to sacrifice a dark-skinned crewman in order to get his cargo to port several days early? After Elspeth’s death, Codd became a man intent on his career and nothing else–he abandoned his habit of reading novels, his skill at playing the jaws-harp, and also his hobby of sketching birds. As for his wife, he reportedly sent money to Dorthea, who upon receiving an annulment, had remarried and went on to have both a large family and a distinguished acting career.
Sometimes, when I consider the directions my life could have taken, and I am grateful that random tragedy has, for the most part, spared me and my family, I think about poor Philemon A. Codd and the profound existential break that opened up in his life and never repaired. I think about how his life at the lighthouse of Machias Seal Island must have been so incredibly idyllic, and also so temporary.
Codd’s later career involved work as a ferry captain in the Pacific Northwest. For several years, he helmed a boat that ran the line between Lopez Island and the Canadian Gulf Islands. It was here, in another liminal space between borders, that Codd’s career came to an end. In a thick fog, and distracted by his thoughts, Codd neglected to see a formation of dark billow basalt rising from the narrow straight, and his ferry ran aground. Stripped of his certification, he returned to Nova Scotia.
Remarkably, his old position as watchman of the lighthouse was at that moment vacant, and Codd was allowed to return. He manned the tower for several more years, and died of hear failure while on the lookout. A search party found him two months after his passing.
What can I pull from the flotsam I’ve discovered in the wake of Captain Philemon Codd and his daughter Eslpeth? Is it that I should be grateful, and wary that at any moment my life could take a terrible turn? Is it that we all walk blindly in a thick fog, unaware of what awaits us when it clears? I thought I might get to know this captain and lighthouse keeper and divine something from his character–perhaps a lesson in moving beyond tragedy. But I found almost nothing to admire in him; the simple fact is that he became a lesser person after his setback, and never recovered. And how can I judge him for that? How do I know that I would respond any better, that I would not also abandon what I previously loved and, in order to distract myself from the loss, apply myself to my profession with a merciless lack of emotion?
Codd’s notebooks filled with sketches of birds I find especially difficult to look at. He made several while he lived on Machias Seal Island, and though they are not particularly accomplished, they demonstrate an abiding interest in the life around him. One can easily imagine him pointing out a sketch of a common eider to his young daughter and describing to her what he knew of puffins, or arctic terns, or the various migrating song birds that occasionally stopped by the island on their annual migration. In one of the sketchbooks, Codd notes a moment in which a “fall-out” of birds occurred when his daughter “had a multitudinous array of all manner of colorful songbirds perched upon each of her arms.”
I found that line rather extraordinary, and in my subsequent research, learned that “fall-outs” do happen with some regularity at Machias Seal Island, owing to the fact it lies in the path of a major flyway. Sometimes a storm will cut off the tired birds, and a rainbow of different species will descend. On the internet, I found an account posted by the current keeper of the lighthouse; and in one exceptional incident, he observed perhaps a hundred different species taking refuge on the island: yellow and Blaburnian warblers, ovenbirds and redstarts, Northern parulas and veery thrushes. These fallouts are moments of crisis for the birds–such sightings only occur when a storm and hunger have forced them to land in a desperate attempt to find food and rest. And yet there is an urgent beauty in this moment of danger.
Philemon and Elspeth Codd are both buried on the island in simple graves adjacent to one another. The captain’s stone includes a quote from Sir Thomas Browne:
Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us.
Photo of Machias Island songbird fall-out courtesy of Ralph Eldridge.