Thursday, April 14, 2011

Atlas of Remote Islands

Cover of Atlas of Remote Islands, light blue with a black tape bindingJudith Schalansky's thin volume Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will is an anomaly -- a tiny coffee table book, a carefully executed sketch, a design book about ideas and places.

From the opening essay, where she shares her childhood in East Germany and her fascination with the atlases that represented places she and her parents would never be allowed to visit, to each beautifully rendered map and mini-essay, the book is both light and heavy to read.

After the essay, each two-page spread gives the name and location of an island, what country claims it, how many inhabitants (if any), its size and distance from the nearest land, along with a full-page map and facing text.

The most overwhelming entries, for me, included:

Tromelin (east of Madagascar) -- In 1760, an East India Company ship landed on Madagascar to restock and while there, illegally stole 60 people to sell as slaves. After leaving Madagascar, a storm drove the ship off course and it wrecked on a tiny island (2 km long and 800 meters wide) 430 km to the east. The French sailors built a boat out of the ship wreckage and all of them sailed off, promising to send help (which they did not). Some of those left behind made a raft and sailed off, never to be seen again. 15 years after the wreck, seven women and a teenage boy who was a baby at the start were found by another French ship and brought to Mauritius. They had kept a fire burning then entire time as a signal. The island is named after the captain of the French rescue ship.

Tikopia (east of Indonesia, and part of the Solomon Islands) has been inhabited for thousands of years, but at less than five square kilometers, it can only support 1,200 people who grow yams, bananas and taro, and fish in a brackish lake. I couldn't help seeing the island's people and their survival as a metaphor for our situation here on Earth:

When a cyclone or drought destroys the crops, many islanders opt for a swift death. Unmarried women hang themselves or swim out into the open sea, and many men go out to sea with their sons in a canoe, never to return.

Every year, the chiefs of the four clans preach the ideal of zero population growth. All the children in each family must be able to live from the land it owns, so only eldest sons can start families. The younger sons stay single and are careful not to produce any children. Feeling obliged to hinder conception, the men practise coitus interruptus, and if this does not work, the women press hot stones to their pregnant bellies.

A couple stop having children when the eldest son is old enough to marry. This is when the man will ask his wife, Whose child is this, for whom I must fetch food from the field? He decides whether the baby lives. The plantations are small. Let us kill the child, for if it lives, it will have no garden. The newborn is laid on its face to suffocate. There are no funerals for these children; they have not participated in life on Tikopia.
A patriarchally organized solution, yes, but it makes me think of how the societies detailed in Jared Diamond's book Collapse didn't deal with the reality of their situations. I wonder how contraception has affected these traditions on Tikopia. According to the Wikipedia, it is now common for young men to leave the island for work, which has eased the population pressure.

One final thought from Judith Schalansky:
Those who discovered the islands became famous, as if their achievements related to an act of creation, as if they had not merely found new worlds but actually invented them. Naming geographical features plays an important role in this, as if a place is only brought into existence once it has a name (page 20).

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