For the past two summers, I have lived on an island in southeast Alaska. The island’s name is Baranof. While ice-coated mountains surround Sitka, the coastal town of 9,000 on the island’s west coast, dense fog often seals them from sight. Roads end after seven miles from town in either direction. Arrival and departure require a fishing boat, a kayak, a ferry, or a plane. With nowhere else to go, my world has narrowed to this small and rugged island. Instead of driving to the nonexistent neighboring town via the nonexistent road, I have waded into the 58-degree water, followed trails during midnight runs through the alpine, and kayaked between rocky islands in the sound’s archipelagos.
Amid this contraction to one small place, details have emerged. I have measured spruce trunks eleven feet in diameter. I have learned the names filling this grey-green, rainy world: first the tasty plants nearby, like salmon berries and sea asparagus, and later, pansies and puffballs, goldenrod spiders and chestnut-backed chickadees. During one trip this past summer, I became so attached to my field guide that its fresh pages yellowed and frayed after only five backcountry days. That trip, I learned about yellow monkey flowers (smooth petals, sweet taste), variations of crucifiera (small and cross shaped, bitter squiggly leaves), and columbine (pointy red sepals, drooping yellow petals). Sometimes I puzzled at the stocky stem of Indian pipe, or the gooey mold of scrambled egg slime. I tried to learn birds, too, listening to the squeaky “ps-SEET, ptsick, seet” of the Pacific slope fly-catchers and the staccato “seet-seet-seet” of the yellow warbler.
I did not wander very far—walking a mile off trail in the rainforest can take a full day—but I wandered with depth, noticing what surrounded each step. The more I hunted with noticing eyes, the more treasures I found in the landscape: the spruce-tips still light green and perfect for boiling into a thin red syrup on the back of Harbor Mountain in June, the sockeye salmon running thick in the frothing rapids where sea meets lake in July, the fiddleheads near snowfields that still hang from ferns in August.
In town, this island-specific type of contraction pulls the community together: With no help to truck in from “outside,” Sitka looks inward to provide the help it might need. When a deserted campus was donated to a local fine arts camp, some residents volunteered over 80 hours of work a week to renovate it in time for summer. Most days, going to a coffee shop in town means knowing most people enjoying the pizza or pie, and walking down the main street means keeping your hand free to wave.
This act of narrowing is also an act of awareness. It has forced me, over these summers, to notice such things; instead of zipping by bus or train or car to some new place after work ends, I have stayed put. I have learned about the plants and the trees; I have become closer with the people and their pets. I have slept on the floor of a mail boat in squally weather while the boat’s driver, David Castle, drove through the night, determined to deliver letters and groceries to the three communities at the southern tip of the island (all with populations under 40 people; one with a population of four). I have walked through forest, across alpine, and over glaciers to reach the east coast of the island. I have ducked in groves of rainforest, holding back alder branches and devil’s club (as thorny and horrible as it sounds), trying to duck so my hair doesn’t snag overhead as I pause to pick some low bush blueberries (as sweet and wonderful as they sound).
Islands, by necessity, look inward instead of out. On Baranof, the fog amplifies this notion, rendering what is “out” hidden from sight. More and more, though, the idea of this intense locality and utter isolation is harder to find. Sitka’s harbor, for example, is often full; the clouds above it usually droning with planes. Some estimate that over 95% of food is barged to Baranof.
Islands, to varying degrees, are everywhere. Islands may be geographically isolated, like Baranof, or isolated in some other way, such as culturally. In this issue, The Yale Globalist brings you stories of isolation and contraction from around the world. We hope that you, too, will take notice of what makes them so unique, and puzzle with us over how “isolated” we can really be in our world today.
Editor-in-Chief, The Yale Globalist