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  • The Edge of the World: Embattled Leagues of Children and Seals Teeter on the Rim
  • Stuart C. Aitken (bio)

Presidential Address delivered to the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, 72nd annual meeting, San Diego, California, October 3, 2009

I take my title from Michael Powell’s 1937 movie, The Edge of the World, which tells the story of the evacuation of the Island of St. Kilda. On the extreme western edge of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, for centuries St. Kilda supported around two hundred people, who after 1745 paid rent to a local factor through barley, oats, fish, and produce from cattle, sheep, and especially seabirds. The islands experienced population decline through emigration starting in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1912 there were acute shortages of food, and in 1913, an outbreak of influenza. WWI brought some relief, with regular supply vessels arriving with deliveries for a naval detachment stationed on a nearby island. When these services were withdrawn at the end of the war, feelings of isolation increased, and in 1930 the remaining islanders requested evacuation (Fleming 2000).

Powell’s story is about the edges of modernity and the changing way of life for a people who were solely dependent upon nature. A thinly veiled subtext speaks to empire and English control of the Celtic oceanic world. The representation of the passing of a kailyard community1 is shadowed by the toll it takes on the life of one of the film’s main protagonists, who meets a heroic end on the two-thousand-foot cliffs that edge the northern rim of the island. Powell constructs nostalgia for a past gemeinschaft life that is slow and coalesces with wild nature in impenetrably complex and heroic ways.

The story I narrate for you here continues with the quasi-remake of Powell’s epic by John Sayle in his 1993 film, The Secret of Roan Inish (Seal Island), which turns the original movie into a children’s fairy tale that points to pithy connections to an unseen but acutely felt, globalized adult world of ecotourism, privatization, and land-use control. From this fantasy I move on [End Page 12] to real-world secrets embedded in the sands of Seal Beach (also known as Children’s Pool) in La Jolla, California. My story connects the real and imagined tensions in these places at the edge of our adult worlds, bringing them together through a consideration of the relations between children and nature. The idea that child well-being is intimately related to frequent and intimate connections with nature and wild things is pervasive in past and contemporary psychology and popular culture. Interesting things occur when the well-being of children and wild things collide. The protracted fight for what should happen at Children’s Pool highlights these issues to the extent that there is no easy resolution.

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[End Page 13]

Introductory Secrets

“[At that time] there wis still only Irish spoken on t’ islands. They built their meager homes on the beach and the seals and the birds moved aside tae make room for them … man and beast lived side by side sharing the wealth o’ the sea.” Using the voice of an elderly grandfather in conversation with his visiting granddaughter, The Secret of Roan Inish presents a story of close relations between humans and nature, and how those relations are mediated by children. Ostensibly, the “secret” of Roan Inish revolves around selkies. Selkies are creatures living off the west coast of Ireland and Scotland that are both human and seal. Underneath its seal skin the selkie is human, and when it discards the skin it can walk on land as a man or a woman. If a man steals the skin of a female selkie, she is tied to him as a wife and will not return to the water for as long as he has her skin. It is said that this ancient legend is a precursor to the modern myth of mermaids. For...


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pp. 12-32
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