Tuesday, Sept. 24, 1996
Yesterday my expedition of one took on provisions. In the days of Lewis and Clark, this involved shooting and salting game. What I did was sneak up on a wily avocado at the local grocery. I also snared a bunch of apples, brought down a slow-moving salami, and took the measure of Friday Harbor, the metropolis of the San Juan Islands, population roughly 2,000.
I like islands. I live in Brooklyn, which is the asphalt end of a big latitudinous island, and I hang out some in Manhattan, which is a small longitudinous island. In fact, I haven’t lived on the mainland since 1981, and no regrets there. Which I mention because my day here reminded me how we islanders are much alike. We want you to admire us but we also want you to leave us alone. We’re glad you come visit and gawk and spend money (after all, who wouldn’t want to live on our marvelous island?) but we resent the hell out of you for threatening to import your Disney stores and Kmarts and otherwise remake our fine and special places in your landlocked images. When I lived in Newport, R.I., we all had T-shirts that said, “Yes, I live here and no, I don’t answer questions.” New Yorkers (all island folk except for the Bronxers) are usually kind to tourists, but it’s a kindness born of pity for their lime-green-clad asses.
So I’m happily recognizing island attitude even though it’s aimed at my black-clad ass. A door on a beat-up and battleship-gray VW beetle door bears the motto, “It’s Tourist Season–Why Can’t I Shoot Any?” Bumper stickers say, “I don’t give a shit how you do it on the mainland.” I know the emotional weather as well as I know the cry of gulls and water lapping the bows in the pretty harbor next to the ferry landing, even though it’s my first day. We island folk are, well, insular. Yet we live in places where what the sea hauls up and the ferry pours out are never quite the same from day to day. We live between the push to change and the pull to keep things as we know them.
At breakfast yesterday morning, I picked up the local papers and discovered that the cell-phone technology I’m depending on to file my next two entries is at the center of a classic island fight, between people who like things as they are and people ready to welcome mainland ways. The county just banned new cell-antennae construction for six months after people protested that the tall high-tech poles would ruin wilderness areas, spoil island life, maybe even give people cancer. (Interesting aside on the nature of the Republican Party: Its Congress passed a law saying no municipality could ban cell-phone antennae because of health concerns. Local autonomy is fine as long as you’re teaching creationist nonsense, apparently, but not if you get in the way of a large corporation.)
I guess I sympathize with the people who are against more towers, even though their stance means cell-phone coverage isn’t perfect (which may mean you don’t hear from me tomorrow). But I’m not a Luddite. Things change, and they change more quickly on islands, be it the evolution of new species or the shift from one culture another. Seattle, a Duwamish chief who lived not far from here, supposedly summed it up with astonishing stoicism as he and his people were packed off their native lands (it is not clear that Seattle actually uttered any of the profundities attributed to him): “Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless.” Ecologists call it “succession,” when one species or group replaces another; and often, at the battleground, they find species that thrive on the change–“succession plants” like fireweed for example, whose presence is a sign of upheaval and change. The appeal of island life isn’t the push of change or the pull of how things used to be, but the tension. Forward and backward, high tide and low. The sea, Columbus said, gives everyone new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home.
In a couple of hours, I’ll join the other people who signed up for this three-day paddle and our guide, and pit against nature my startling ineptitude with physical objects. I fully expect to drop this and tangle that and find that this over here has folded itself up in exactly the wrong way. Kayaks and camping aren’t familiar to me. And I don’t know these waters at all. No matter. I’m surrounded by water. I’m home.