Sunday, November 2, 2008

Searching for Crusoe by Thurston Clarke - Excerpts

Searching for Crusoe: A Journey Among the Last Real Islands. Thurston Clarke. 2001. ISBN 0345411439


Crusoe persuades us that islands are more liberating than confining, more contemplative than lonely, and that they are holy ground where we meet God more easily because we have been, like him, “removed from all the wickedness of the world.”

… an islomane, someone who, according to that famous island-lover Lawrence Durrell, experiences, an “indescribable intoxication” at finding himself in “a little world surrounded by the sea.”

Before Selkirk marooned himself and Defoe marooned his fictional Crusoe, tropical islands had been considered fearful places where sailors risked the lonely death of a castaway or the spears of hostile natives. After Selkirk and Crusoe, they were seen as places of redemption and improvement, where you could escape the wickedness of the world, build Utopia, and find God.

“Here, I have time to think, to listen to what is in here,” [Marietta] said, touching her chest.

I had never been anywhere where people lived so lightly on the land and took up so little psychological space. They were not unfriendly, just living so deeply within themselves that every conversation felt like an interruption, and even when I was among them, I felt alone.

Islands are so self-contained, and even ones within sight of one another so different, they demand comparison. When I land on a new one I weight it against others I know, asking what it would take to send me seeking refuge on it. Would I make it my home if I had lost everyone I loved? An insoluble more dilemma, an unforgivable crime? Barren Greek islands are for minor romantic setbacks and midlife crises. Tropical South Pacific islands are for longer sojourns and larger calamites: a bankruptcy ruining your closest friends, a wife falling in love with your brother, a traffic accident killing a child. But Isla Crusoe was in island where you could disappear forever, one to reserve for the most shattering catastrophe.

Most of the marooned passengers went through a predicable emotional trajectory. They were furious, then resigned. Finally they relaxed, and “allowed the island to redirect their emotions.”

Being marooned on an uninhabited and unvisited island outside the polar circles, and remaining undetected and unrescued for Crusoe’s twenty-eight years, or Selkirk’s four, is no longer possible. Castaway records are not like four-minute miles, records begging to be broken, and islands like this one have become places where people come to find, or lose, themselves.

Back in Santiago I experienced the same tenderness and inability to decide which was the dream, the island or the mainland, that follows my departure from remote islands.

The colors were so brilliant my eyes ached, the lagoon so smooth I could imagine skating across it, the forests dense enough to hide tigers.

Bora-Bora is Bali-ha’i because Michener called it “the most beautiful island in the world … as close to paradise as men in this world ever get.”

… an island whose horizon is empty in every direction resembles a self-contained universe, floating in water instead of space and capable of setting its own rules … But however they do it, some remote islands can provide the ultimate freedom, from time itself.

The assumption that any impact would be negative, at least for the Maldivians, may be justifiable, considering the assault on island cultures elsewhere by mass tourism. But it has to discourage anyone who struggles to believe travel can sometimes enrich visitor and host.

She is the right person for an island: self-sufficient, frugal, an avid reader, comfortable with solitude, and greedy for small pleasures.

[George Orwell] predicted the Pleasure Spots of the future would be outfitted with sunlight lamps, pools with artificial waves, and amplified music, and would follow five principles:
1. One is never alone.
2. One never does anything for oneself.
3. One is never within sight of wild vegetation or natural objects of any kind.
4. Light and temperature are always artificially regulated.
5. One is never out of the sound of artificial music.
To this last principle he added: “The function of the music is to prevent thought and conversation, and to shut out any natural sound, such as the song of birds or the whistling of the wind, that might otherwise intrude.”

From the deck of my ferry it looked so bleak and forbidding I imagined travelers changing their minds when they saw it and continuing to the next island. Like all the best islands, Tilos was a complete and self-contained world.

The Polynesians’ myths say they traveled to escape overpopulation, land disputes, and warfare – the usual island plagues. But anyone mesmerized by an empty horizon knows they must also have been restless and curious, sailing beyond their reef for the same reason boys who grow up hearing train whistles in prairie towns head for Chicago.

[Russell] Kirk blamed Eigg’s perilous condition on the preference of big governments for big mainland institutions. He argued that small and cantankerous islands represented a symbolic criticism of the centralized and industrialized mainland, and he predicted their eventual depopulation and abandonment. He never imagined the phenomenon of Nantucket, Key West, and other Pleasure Spot islands, of mainland culture annexing and taming islands, or that a half century later, Eigg itself would symbolize a rare triumph for the small and eccentric.

A diagram showing how, when and where everyone interacted during an average week on an island like Eigg would be a confusing blur of crisscrossing lines. But it would be a good representation of the kind of freedom people find on such an island – the freedom to pursue a number of interests, fill a number of jobs, use a number of talents, and become, like Crusoe, accomplished in many fields.

… incomers remained separated from natives by the fundamental fact that natives bore the isolation and material privations of an island in order to live where they had been born and raised, while incomers were free spirits who, by coming to an island, had cut precisely the kind of geographic, community, and family ties that island natives prized.

Eigg really was a Utopia where no one was very rich or poor, and where everyone ate a similar diet, lived in similar dwellings, and acted like members of an extended family. Castaways face the horror of solitude without community …, but community without solitude could be a Sartrean No Exit of people trapped for eternity in a brightly lit room. Eigg’s inhabitants enjoyed the balance of community and solitude Robert Lax found on Patmos, living in a landscape as wild as Jura’s and as beautiful as the Bandas, yet shaking hands every day.

The Odyssey contains some of the greatest island horror stories of all time, and bears some responsibility for the notions that an island’s temptations are more fabulous than those of a continent and its dangers more terrifying, but that even a frightening island can be seductive.

It is astonishing how many islands, particularly beautiful tropical ones, have a horror story in their past. Many of these stories involve shipwrecked sailors who attempt to subjugate the natives and are murdered by them, or romantics who come searching for paradise and become mortal enemies.

The cannibals may be gone, but most of us have prison lands in our backyards. The same isolation and freedom from mainland scrutiny that make islands so appealing also make them great places for a prison. In fact, so many islands have served as prisons that the words are almost as inseparable as “island” and “paradise”.

… for islophobes, no island can ever be pretty, sunny, or friendly enough to outweigh its baggage of exile and confinement. For them, an island’s small population promises a hell of repetitive social encounters, its silence is worse than tinnitus, its insulation from the mainland a painful exile, and its limited space an Alcatraz cell writ large.

If all islands, by virtue of their geography, echo Devil’s Island and Alcatraz, then another of their charms may be the curious feeling of escape and liberation that sometimes accompanies your departure from them.

Cruise liners are the most fearsome attack dogs the leisure industry looses on islands.

Before I began traveling, there had been numerous jokes about my “never-ending vacation” and “Carnival Cruise route.” In reply I had argued, without entirely believing it, that an all-island journey was as logical as a trip down a great river, across a desert, or through any region unified by culture and language. Now I knew this was true. I also knew that not only did islands share similar traits and face similar threats, but islanders themselves were a distinct psychological race.

My islands had all been interesting individualists, yet all shared certain characteristics. They were silent and wild, so they encouraged reflection or, as Marietta would say, “hearing yourself”. They had preserved their relics and history, and their rocks “remained in the same place”. They left indelible memories, and were friendly places that encouraged their inhabitants to becomes, as Tamil had said, “better people”.


Jose Maria
Remember that on an island everyone waits for something: for mail, passengers, love … and the wisest, they wait for death.

Shhh … listen, and you will hear the birds, and the ocean, and finally, yourself.

Thomas Merton
I want to find a really quiet, isolated place … where I can get down to the thing I really want to do and need to do – from which, if necessary, I can come out to help others.

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