Thursday, August 30, 2012

Seeking Solitude? Read An Island to Oneself

My recent thoughts on quiet and solitude have more than a little to do with this book I finished recently, An Island to Oneself. It looks like there are still a few copies available on Amazon--mostly used. I bought one for my mother to read last winter in while she was stuck on a boat in Florida. Apparently it was passed around the docks and read three or four times that season. I got my shot at it just recently and have since given it back, so I can't quote it as extensively as I'd have liked. But I found it's the sort of book that sticks with you, and I can understand why it's developed such a cult following.

This Tom Neale fellow, he spent 16 years of his life as the only man on an isolated atoll of the Cook Islands, over 200 miles from the nearest human beings. Years would go by between visitors. And he chose this life. When a couple of Navy helicopters landed there as part of a training exercise, the pilots were shocked to see him. "Thank goodness we found you. Now we can take you home."

But Neale said, "I live here!"

Neale's stamina and resourcefulness are just as impressive as his desire for solitude. He was in his 50s when he spent his first stint on the island, and he set about repairing and lashing down a WWII lookout shed, patching a boat, transplanting topsoil to grow a garden, slaying wild pigs, penning and breeding chickens--not to mention spear-fishing and harvesting coconuts every day to sustain himself.

This book covers his first two stays on the island, totaling six years. Wikipedia tells me that, thanks to the proceeds from this book, he went back for another ten, returning to civilization only at the age of 75 when he fell ill with stomach cancer.

I wonder if a man could do such a thing today. Neale certainly didn't own the island, but as it was well outside the boundaries of any shipping lanes, nobody came around to stop him. There is no discussion in the book about titles or deeds or property rights, and the only money he spent was what he paid a captain to drop him off there.

When he wanted to return for his second trip, the government of the Cook Islands was certainly not going to help him.  They didn't want to be responsible for retrieving him if he fell ill--or more likely responsible for retrieving his body, since with no way to communicate with the outside world any illness or injury could prove fatal.

But nobody stopped him when a friend offered to ferry him and his supplies back over. (They brought him and his supplies in a 30' sailing vessel. I can't help but reflect that this is the length of my sailboat.) There is something touching about his government's concern and the way they handled it: worried enough to officially register displeasure, but taking no action to stop him.

Reading the book, it's easy to see how a year could turn into 16. How, in fact, one could spend an entire season of one's life fishing and building and watching the sunsets, and have it all pass in a sort of dream. The hard work, the daily rituals, the satisfaction of addressing life-or-death challenges and working out solutions with your hands, and with the tools you had the foresight to bring with you. His island was a fragile place and dangerous enough, but it was bountiful and somewhat forgiving. The weather (aside from the storms) was mild, and the scenery stunning. Who needs the noise of the world when they have all this?

The book is not a great book. It's not deep, philosophical, or challenging. It's not even that much of an adventure yarn, come to think of it. It's more of a travelogue, building on the practical, almost mundane details of how one man was able to survive, and thrive, on a desert island by himself. And I think it's the mundane nature of these details that makes this so compelling. Here are the tools he brought. Here is how he transported his topsoil. Here is how he pollinated his vegetables. Here is how he baked uto out of fermented coconuts. From such small tasks was built a life of his own choosing--even if it took him fifty years to figure out how to get there.  

By the end of this book I found that a surprising stretch of my mental landscape had been set aside for this atoll, and I find myself wondering what I'm going to do to reach my own, and how I'm going to survive once I get there.

There are significant details in Tom Neale's life which the book omits. I found these on-line after reading the book, and so will put them below a hash mark in case you feel they may impact your own experience of reading the book first. (Or scroll to the very bottom for a link to read the whole thing on-line.)


The book makes no mention of the wife or the two children he fathered between his first and second visits. (Today his son is actually a coach for the Cook Islands Olympic sailing team.) It passes over this period with a chapter discussing the drudgery of "Six Frustrating Years" of working and scheming to get back to his island again. How his family factored into his adventures I don't know. I wonder what his children thought of their absent, eccentric father. There are pictures of them on the island on-line. (I can't seem to find them again now, sorry.) Maybe they spent part of his last stay there with him.

I suspect he was not entirely the sort of good-natured character he portrays himself to be in his pages. and apparently some of the Rarotongans who knew him claimed he was so cantankerous that a desert island was the only place that would put up with him. There is also speculation that the book was ghost written.

But who cares? Here is someone who lived a a great portion of his life on his own terms.

And one on Suwarrow Atoll.

And gosh, it looks like you can read the whole darn thing on-line. If reading a book-in-browser isn't your thing, at least you can give it a start to see if you like it before tracking down one of those lovely hard-to-find hardcovers from Ox Bow Press (1990).

1 comment:

  1. This makes me want to read this book, even knowing that it follows so many other books on my list. I love your description of it.