My daughter made a face and stamped her foot for every plume she missed, but my son was more stoical. A nursing gray whale and baby were trolling northward past the point, surfacing at three-minute intervals to send up smoky puffs of vapor. Then, backs arched, they would dive again, and while they dived we would count and re-count the harbor seals napping on a brief scalloped island below, or laugh at the oystercatchers fussing for possession of a rock. Meanwhile long rows of cumuli boiled in from the Pacific and the sun poured between to stripe the sea in turquoise and steel.
An afternoon’s drive south of San Francisco, the lighthouse at Pigeon Point is a blanched column of masonry built in 1871, twenty years after the ship Carrier Pigeon cracked open on the rocks to christen the knob of headland. At 115-feet, Pigeon Point matches the Point Arena Light for tallest on the Pacific coast. The original half-million candlepower Fresnel lens still inhabits the glassy crown of the minaret. The Coast Guard lights it only for holidays and special occasions. The tower is in such a state of decay these days that it’s fenced off for twenty yards in all directions lest some falling piece of debris murder a tourist.
To my mind Robert Louis Stevenson could hardly have picked a more romantic occupation than to follow in the family business and become, like his father and grandfather, an architect of lighthouses. The grandfather, after whom he was named, designed and built Scotland’s Bell Rock Lighthouse off the North Sea coast, famous at the time (1810) for being raised at a steep toll of lives and fortune on the merest scrap of a rock that spent twenty of every twenty-four hours below tide.
In a short piece written in 1887 to commemorate the death of his father, Stevenson wrote that although he had been a “convinced provincial” and was hardly known in London, his fame abroad was such that in Germany he was called “the Nestor of lighthouse illumination,” while in Peru it wasn’t the tales and essays of the son that were read and admired, but the technical volumes of the civil engineer.
Though Stevenson disappointed his family in his choice of career, the supernatural image of the lighthouse must still have meant something to him. I wonder if we don’t see it refracted in ‘The Lantern-Bearers,’ another of his late essays, in which he recollects a boyhood custom of tying a tin ‘bull’s-eye’ lantern to his belt on a summer’s night, then covering it with a coat and setting out for after-dark adventures. In the following passage I can almost see the pale, lean tower of a boy like a sort of mobile human lighthouse with the windows blacked, daring collision in a sea of night – content with a secret illumination, and withholding it from the world:
The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool’s heart, to know you had a bull’s eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.