Monday, March 28, 2011

a kaddish for the disappearing islands

This book caught my attention today and I couldn't put it down. Plunked down my little piece of plastic and carried the irresistible treasure back to Brooklyn.

It's called:

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will
by Judith Schalansky. Translated from the German by Christine Lo.

Beautifully illustrated with a topo map of each island on the right, and a blurb about the spot on the left — this book gives us the author's dreamscape — lands exotic, remote and unattainable, stripped of their political affiliation, roads and nationhood. They are bits of land as they might have appeared to explorers a thousand years ago or more. Except that they were a hell of a lot bigger then.

But rather than being remote and unattainable — islands I have never set foot on and never will — a number of them are classics in the anthropological literature or well known for their roles in world history. Tikopia, for example. Easter Island. Iwo Jima. Feet have trampled them. And stepping on them has been significant to global politics as well as to human understanding.

Schalansky's book is wistful and romantic. Bound in such a way as to look like a vintage find at the flea market. Bound to appeal when we've just climbed out of a bustling overcrowded subway, and walked into a bookshop to escape the sea of humanity scurrying like rats across New York City sidewalks. The book is nothing, if not calming. Almost sepia in its effect on our consciousness (but choosing a light sea blue instead). It presents itself as an antidote to whatever it is we're needing to escape at the moment.

To tell the truth, I'm not an island person. I'm not at all lulled by gorgeous calderas surrounded by and slipping into the sea at an alarming rate. I don't care how white the sand or clear the water, this is a book of fifty islands that I, too, have never set foot on and never will.

I bought the book because these islands are slipping into oblivion through rising sea waters, and some of them are almost gone — and the author doesn't really 'go' there. Once they thrived, and were key points in trade routes. Once they were essential stepping stones to creatures in their crossing of the seas. I just keep wondering where their populations will go when their bit of sand slips under the sea.

Sometimes I want to be a disappearing island. Sometimes I want to be a landmark that endures. Sometimes my dial is set somewhere in the middle. Hoping at least my children think of me a bit after I am gone.

Topography shifts.

I mean, that's just how it is, right? Should we hold romantic notions for what has slipped away? Cling to the memory? Work hard to save endangered places? Or should we draw new maps and celebrate what is or what will be?

Should we mark our graves or send up human dust into the wind? Or does it matter?

I mourn my dead, and grieve my dying. And feel sometimes unbearable loss for what will disappear. I support ecological programs that try to stave off disappearing shorelines. And dream of stepping foot on delicate islands before their time is up. I mourn — but I'm just not sure that mourning is a very useful sentiment. Or if the task of the living is just to be alive.

I vacillate between acceptance, outrage, and forbearance. Used to think being pro-active was what it was all about. Now, I think of unintended consequences of our best intentions.

Should I act? Or should I watch and see?

And if I act — will I place my imprint on the future? And will that bring more harm instead of good? Sometimes I'm caught inside this push-pull of every single action. Sometimes I charge forth without a thought. Sometimes I hide and wait for history to find me.

And history finds me, just as sure as it finds you — and those disappearing islands.

That's the strangest part. I step back inside my indecision — and someone steps forward and takes action in my place. And the topography of these terribly remote islands — they too are replaced by something somewhere else.

Do we act to preserve what's familiar and before us? Or accept that oceans rise and we're the cause? Do we step up to meet the challenge of our actions? And can we love our fellow humans despite our fatal flaws?

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