An Island is an Island

An Island is an Island

Stuck on an island that even a film crew for Survivor found too rugged (or dull) to film, Loulou Callister-Baker’s head has become swamped with thoughts of the existential-crisis variety. In a quest to maintain her relevance, Loulou explores what it means to be both psychologically and technologically isolated, and the community that maintains this lifestyle all year round.

A few years ago, my friend furiously texted me several clichés during a moment of tension, one of which read “no man is an island.” Unknowingly, and without truly grasping the meaning of the line, my friend had quoted John Donne, a 17th-century poet.

After hearing church bells sounding for a funeral, Donne wondered if the ringer of the bells was aware that he too was dying. These wonderings eventually transformed into the famous poem “Meditation 17.” Through the eyes of a dying man Donne viewed everyone as connected, and therefore every death as diminishing humankind in some way.

While I believe the wisdom of a dying poet is swell, I am starting to think that Donne’s imaginings do not apply to me. As I sit in a house on an island oceans away from anyone I know, I am practically dead to the world. Due to this realisation I am obsessively scrolling through the Internet trying to work out how the world has diminished without me, but the news is only reporting Kevin Rudd’s sudden awakening from a three-year dream and a woman called Wendy Davis standing for a very long time.

The world is continuing on in its vibrant, confusing way and here I am, a metaphorical island sitting on a couch on a real island. In a quest to maintain the relevance of my existence I wonder: in this day and age, what does it actually mean to live in relative human and technological isolation?

On an island in the Hauraki Gulf is a dwindling population whom most non-residents describe as the “Locals.” The Locals are technically New Zealanders but, as a result of their pre-existing, unspoken social code and physical isolation, they have created another type of nationality. For one reason or another each Local has left behind urban living for a rugged, outdoor lifestyle that runs on a slower clock, known as “Island Time.”

Out here, broadband connections are not fundamental to every household and cellphone reception wavers. The island’s news bulletin is riddled with crudely designed ads, barely-coherent letters to the editor, and blurry photos of weddings held at one of the island’s pubs.

Despite the roughness around the edges there are humbling aspects of the island community. Every time you pass another car on the road, the drivers will wave at you and every time you walk by someone he or she will say hello. They look after each other. In a world where everyone seems “logged in,” the people and lifestyles out on the island are a bewildering and romantic mixture of isolation.

When I arrived on the island a couple of weeks ago, it was the first time in a decade I had been out here in winter – with no one occupying the neighbouring baches they became lifeless skeletons. A huge storm loomed over us, sending the place into an ominous darkness in the middle of the day. Later, thunder and torrential rain closed in on my dad, my brother and me. My phone had no reception, the Internet was dodgy and the sounds of Dad bringing wood in for a fire echoed throughout the house. Everything felt on edge.

A day or so later, however, my enamoured view of this stormy, isolated lifestyle started to waver. I watched photos of parties and gigs fill my various social media feeds. I watched people interacting and I waited for those people to contact me but none did. I had become irrelevant. In a dramatic move I permanently deleted my three-year-old Tumblr. Then, later that night, I refreshed my emails constantly, waiting for my “last resort” plan to afflict my friends with concern. Sadly, no panicked emails – with copious capital letters and exclamation marks – entered my inbox. I drank an array of expensive alcohol and stared deeply into the fireplace until my eyes burned.

While isolation brings your vulnerabilities to the surface, it also stitches up those wounds and gives you time to meditate on important clichés. Once I was able to place the anxieties of a technologically dependent young adult aside, I began to realise that living on the island forces a lifestyle that most reverends-for-sustainability preach.

A central source of power in our household, for example, comes from solar panels, which rely on photons from the sun to generate electricity. On days without sunlight, a petrol-fuelled generator runs the system. Several years ago we even had a windmill, but our neighbour forced us to take it down because of the terrifying sound it made on windy days – like a loose rotor blade spinning off a plummeting helicopter. Our water supply comes from the rain and is collected in two huge tanks.

The food supply is more problematic. While our garden (as well as the nearby community garden) has an abundance of herbs and fruit, the other staples of our diet, including meat and carbohydrates, either need to be ordered online and sent out to the island in boxes or bought at one of the two very expensive dairies – one of which is run by a large woman with dreadlocks. We do have a “contact” who may or may not slit a lamb’s throat on request, but as one island mantra goes, “what happens on the island, stays on the island.”

There is a pattern emerging among communities that have limited budgets and are either isolated or must regularly contend with large disruptions. Practices on the island are not the only evidence of humans being incredibly resourceful. In Kenya, an insurance programme called Kilimo Salama was established for small-hold farmers. The programme uses wireless weather sensors to help farmers protect themselves financially against climate volatility. In India a project called Husk Power Systems converts agricultural waste into locally generated electricity.

A further example of communities employing sustainable and resourceful thinking in the face of environmental and conflict disasters is the Pallet House Project by I-Beam Design. The inspiration for this project came from the realisation that eighty-four per cent of the world’s refugees could be housed using a year’s supply of recycled American pallets. According to I-Beam Design, a 250-square-foot “Pallet House” consists of 100 pallets nailed and lifted into place and covered with tarps or corrugated roofing, and can be built in just a week.

Similar projects are also evident throughout New Zealand, especially with the current push to rebuild Christchurch in an environmentally conscious way. One interesting New Zealand project is the Whangapoua Sled Home, designed by architecture firm Crosson, Clarke and Carnachen. The home is built on two huge wooden beams (or sleds), which allow the entire structure to be movable in order to avoid coastal erosion. The home also strives for sustainability with a worm tank waste system, water tanks and an exterior designed with macrocarpa-cladding that can be closed completely in storms.

While none of these solutions can be seen as permanent ways to combat crises and the inevitable environmental changes of a warming planet, each provide marginalised communities with a way to control the shocks that can devastate populations. The solutions also create pathways for innovation and community involvement and represent a combination of humanity’s best attributes.

Viewed in another light, these community projects show a movement away from the well-worn concept of “sustainability” towards the emerging concept of “resilience thinking.” As Andrew Zolli for the New York Times states, “where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.”

Zolli clearly outlines the necessity of this thought transition by using events in New York as a central example. After 9/11, Lower Manhattan was rebuilt with the largest collection of green, LEED-certified (a rating programme for eco-friendly design) buildings in the world. But when Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, sustainable or not, buildings in Lower Manhattan were damaged hugely.

Zolli eloquently summarised the situation: “the sustainability movement’s politics, not to mention its marketing, have led to a popular misunderstanding – that a perfect, stasis-under-glass equilibrium is achievable. But the world doesn’t work that way: it exists in a constant disequilibrium – trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles. Indeed, it’s the failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. That’s why some of the most resilient places are, paradoxically, also the places that regularly experience modest disruption; they carry the shared memory that things can go wrong.” The focus on sustainability frequently answers only part of the problem, without recognising that the environment is constantly fighting back.

However, even resilience has its downsides. Robert Engelman, president of the environmental research organisation Worldwatch Institute, writes that “by adapting so well to past environmental losses … we humans have been able to keep expanding our population, leading to ever-wider ripples and denser layers of long-term unsustainability … We would be wise today to look to dramatic and rapid ‘demand contraction’ – call it de-growth or simply an adaptive response to an overused planet – to shift toward a truly environmentally sustainable world that meets human needs. We need to understand the boundaries we face – and then create ways to fairly share the burden of living within them.”

In the relative wild, however, if you don’t know the difference between diesel and petrol, knowledge of concepts proves surprisingly unhelpful. For the cellphone- and laptop-wielding members of my generation, who have degrees in ideas rather than practicality, disaster comes in the form of a power cut. A few days ago, this sort of disaster struck us. At this point my parents had returned to work on the mainland leaving my brother, my boyfriend and me to run the household.

The morning after my parents left, the power was low so the two boys went out to the garage to power the generator. When they returned, however, there was a look in their eyes of guilt and inadequacy – instead of starting, the generator had omitted a thick black smoke and stopped abruptly. After a brief discussion we decided that if we went for a walk the issue would correct itself – although the generator was destroyed, the solar panels would charge the central system’s batteries and we’d be fine.

Out here, everything depends on whether the needle is in the green or the red. When we returned home, the power meter showed that we were in the green, which should have meant we could use power. But something was seriously wrong – the Internet connection was non-existent. My brother (who is not a pessimist but a self-described realist) concluded we were doomed. But I, using logic derived from nowhere, decided we should wait it out – things would right themselves.

After an hour a terrible realisation dawned on me: without power the water pump cannot function and without this the toilet wouldn’t flush. Horror enveloped the three of us. In an attempt to ease the tension, my boyfriend offered a n anecdote he heard in the Outback (I have no idea why he was in the Outback): “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.” Remembering, however, that the “flush” part of this anecdote was unavailable, my boyfriend started designating us corners of the back lawn. By this stage I had had enough – I decided to call the electrician.

Our disaster epitomised certain flaws of my generation as well the oddness of the relationship between outsiders and the island’s locals. The first electrician that came to our rescue was a small man with red cheeks and a sympathetic nature. However, as is always the case on the island, he could not fix the task alone and had to call on another guy. The second man was a grey-haired giant who continually spat everywhere. He peered down at the generator, then at us and grunted, “you’ve gone and put the wrong fucking fuel in.” When my boyfriend asked how he knew that, the giant electrician sniffed and uttered, “you can smell it.”

Noticing that we were still sticking around he asked us if we were having a break from school. When we told him that we were actually at university studying various arts and science papers he informed us, “all yous young people need to do a basic motors course.” By then our dignity was on the floor and the lack of shared interests between the electricians and ourselves was clear. As we were about to leave, the electrician advised us not to have a smoke out the back as the place was soaked in fuel, and it dawned on me – we urbanites were going to be talked about at the pub tonight and by the next day the whole island would know us.

In independent filmmaker Debra Granik’s film Winter’s Bone the small community depicted proudly exists off the grid. With the combination of poverty, small-town gossip and the infiltration of the illegal drug underworld into the community, the lifestyle of these small town residents is sombre. Another recent film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, also depicts a similarly isolated community, called the “Bathtub,” located in a bayou in southern Louisiana. The people of the Bathtub participate in daily celebrations of their own existence, which, for them, is the best way to be.

Although the outsider communities shown in Winter’s Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild have undoubtable dark sides, they are strangely fascinating and attractive. In many ways these lifestyles are similar to the one in which I am currently immersed on the island. These isolated communities, which are spread throughout the world, live with a type of wild freedom – they don’t need anyone from the outside and, to some extent, their lifestyles are sustainable.

As for the rest of us, when one considers the vast cost of a first-world lifestyle and the comfort it provides, the precarious state of the planet is clear. In the Worldwatch Institute’s book Is Sustainability Still Possible?, Engelman worries that so many of us “enjoy pleasures and comforts unknown to even monarchs in the past.”

While life on the island is slightly anarchist and not attainable for everyone, it is surprising how the resilient and environmentally conscious aspects of the lifestyle are the least mainstream – especially compared to life in a university city like Dunedin. If we don’t turn our understanding of ideas towards practical outcomes it won’t really matter whether John Donne views every person as a piece of the same continent, because no one can be a part of a dead continent. If that happens, there will be no one left to even ring the bell.
This article first appeared in Issue 15, 2013.
Posted 8:23pm Sunday 14th July 2013 by Loulou Callister-Baker.