Art by Dane Chisholm
You jump across the gap. Right foot first. Fall forward as you land, so your hands can grab the rock and pull yourself up. A narrow channel of water breathes in and out with the swell. Separates you from the mainland. This rock is known as The Hat. It looks like a beanie, complete with a pom-pom on top. Kids come of age jumping from it. Some have drowned. You sit down with your back against the pom-pom and look out to sea. Apparently your eyes were like the ocean once. Probably still are.
Such a tiny gulf you’ve crossed. Yet, something feels different, as the sea licks at the grey stone beneath you. Lately, you have been thinking about islands. Too much. On your birthday, you looked back and saw your past as an island, or perhaps an archipelago. You have been seeing islands everywhere and even wondering if the mere notion of them shapes our world.
Islands appear in almost every story: in the journey between one thing and another, the view from one place to another, from within one to within another, and in the dialogue between two worlds. No surprise then, you think, that the word “metaphor” means ‘to carry across.’ And as you sit, feeling the warmth this rock has been gifted by the sun and now shares with you, and thinking that you probably wouldn’t ever bother sharing such worthless thoughts with anyone, you assume that we all contain a unique island within us. The ‘real’ us that no one really knows. Not even ourselves.
You imagine it would be impossible to count the thousands or millions of islands around the world, because we could never define them. Is this an island, or just a rock? How small do you go? How big do you go? And anyway, they are always coming and going. By the time you finish counting you’ll be wrong.
Biologists, who love to simplify complex things and to complicate simple things, define an island as any habitat separated from another by a border. A remnant of forest surrounded by farmland is an island. We are all islanders you suppose, on this lonely little planet, floating in a dark sea. We are all islanders, drifting in the currents of humanity.
You wonder when The Hat rose from the sea or when the sea retreated to grant the first taste of air, and how it was this birthing of islands that explained the diversity of life that Darwin observed in the Galapagos. The nuance between neighbouring islands revealing an evolution that now seems so obvious.
You think of the thousands of plant and animal species that inhabit islands, some resident, some passing through. And how in partnership with time, they create their own island’s distinctive conditions, helping to build a world in which they uniquely belong.
You recall the words of Rachel Carson in The Sea Around Us: “There is no more delicately balanced relationship than that of island life with its environment.” You suppose that island ecosystems, with all their biodiversity, are the easiest to destroy. But equally, perhaps, the easiest to repair.
You contemplate islands as laboratories for alternative ways of being, of understanding. How, for ecologists, the edge or periphery is a place of peril as well as possibility, and islands have a lot of periphery.
You wonder if all of this applies to metaphorical islands too. If psychologists and sociologists should be studying island ecology.
A slightly larger swell slaps your island’s waist and sends a little white firework of salt water shooting into the air. An ocean gull loops past. You remember where you are. You wonder if you were talking to yourself or just thinking, and how you will never have any way of knowing. Not that you need to.
Humboldt… Someone von Humboldt, was it? Who laid the ground work for Darwin, but also proposed ‘linguistic relativity’ – the idea that language shapes thought, feeling and behaviour. Just like an island ecosystem, you think, as a cormorant lands on another islanded rock nearby. It is the favourite island of the cormorants around here. As big as a three by three shed. It is called Bird Shit Island… Those on the same island of language evolve together, just as species do on the various islands of the Galapagos, separated by sea from the evolutions occurring on other islands.
You read somewhere once, probably in a book, how the diversity of species in the Pacific islands is matched by linguistic diversity. That this is no coincidence. How there is one language for every 3000 people compared to a global average of one for every million. Or something like that. So languages are islands. But language itself is pretty much the opposite isn’t it? You ask yourself. It is language that allows us to navigate the waters that separate.
You think of the thousands of languages lost in recent human history – islands eroded and eventually sunk by rising seas. King tides and storm surges. Of how we build islands within a language, to isolate or invite. Of how we use language to hide nuance, even though it exists to do the opposite. You wonder what unique rhythms our islands of language have now. Are they more or less isolated? How are they evolving?
Another swell spanks your island. Almost playfully. How many waves, how many millennia, does it take to disappear such a rock?
You think again of islands reaching from the ocean just to begin eroding back into it. Like a life. You think of islands of ice wrongly untethered from their home to begin their lonely journey of disappearance. Like a death.
You think of how we can arrive on islands by chance, by choice, by coercion. Of how islands are both sanctuaries and prisons. Of how people become entranced by the journeys between them. You think of how islands are the last places left at the end of the world. Little worlds overlooked by ruin. Little worlds from which to grow.
You think of islands as creators of species, ecosystems, cultures and languages. Floating libraries. Living archives. You think of how they exist within us, creating endless worlds of metaphorical imaginings that shape our perceptions and the words we choose. You think… Too much.
But – you conclude as you stand up, turn around and steady yourself, in readiness to jump back across the narrowest of seas – much more than any of this, islands are a place for weary birds to land.