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What island are you from?

Fri, Mar 9th, 2001
Posted in

Monday, March 5, 2001

In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks, who plays a Type-A executive from Federal Express, finds himself alone on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific after surviving a horrific plane crash.

It takes a talent like Hanks to entertain an audience solely by himself. We watch as he learns to adapt to island life, turning rocks and sticks into tools. We see how he deals with the emotional loss of human companionship by turning a volleyball into a friend and confidant named Wilson.

Sixty minutes into the movie, I leaned over to my wife and whispered to her, Im sure glad you were with me in the Sols. She smiled back, confirming that she was having the same thoughts - that island life can be pretty lonely.

We lived on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands twenty years ago as Peace Corps Volunteers, and each time Hanks solved a survival problem on the screen I thought back at our own adaptive evolution to a different society and environment.

When Hanks tries to open up a coconut by whacking at the nut with a stone, I want to give him some encouragement and advice.

I learned how to open a coconut with a sharp stick in Peace Corps training. Prop a pointed stick between some rocks so that it points into the air; then bring the crown of the nut down on the sharp end, piercing the husk; then pull the nut down and away from the stick, ripping the husk away. Repeat this action until the outer shell is gone. The inner nut can be easily opened with a rock, revealing the coconut meat.

When Hanks goes walking off on the coral reef barefoot, I want to warn him. I too experienced the pain of scraped knees and punctured soles from my encounters with reefs. It was my experience that the mishap usually leads to an infection.

When Hanks finds some shoes, he cuts away the toes to make them fit his feet. I remember cutting the backs out of tennis shoes, so as to convert theminto island loafers.

In the tool making department, Hanks manufactures a make-shift ax and a machette from scrap metal that has blown up on the island. From these tools he makes other tools for solving problems. He makes a spear to kill fish with; he learns to make rope by cutting and splitting tree bark. Eventually he is able to build the craft that will take him off the island and lead him back to civilization.

A machette is the island equivalent to a Saws-All. You can make anything you need to survive on an island with a machette.

In the jungle village where we lived, there were a limited number of tools. We had a shovel, hoe, rake, hammer, wrench, saw, ax and chisel. Very few villagers had more than that, as this was all they needed to meet their basic survival needs. Their slash and burn farming required a machette, a shovel, a hoe and a match. They could build a house with nothing more than a machette - cut the timbers, the sago palm, the beetle nut, the bamboo, the liana and assemble.

Hanks biggest problem was his physical isolation. His friend Wilson didnt talk back.

Our biggest problem was cultural isolation. We had many friends on Guadalcanal, but their tribal world was so different than ours; their language was a few hundred words of functional syntax equiped to deal with daily survival. There was little in their language that spoke of mans higher calling.

In his latest book Eccentric Islands, Bill Holm says that islands seduce us because sometimes the universe seems too big. We want to shrink it a little so that we can examine it, see what it is made from, and what is our just place in it.

Seduce is the operative word, We see the welcoming lure of islands shimmering in the brilliance of aqua blue lagoons and waving coconut trees. We dont think of the isolation that may come with this scene; we dont like to think about there being a dark side to paradise.

We all live on islands, physically or figuratively. Some are limited by geography; some by other human dimensions.

Near the end of our tour, amidst the emotion of saying goodbye to people we have lived closely with and may never see again, I remember a village man asking me where I was from.

From America, I said.

No, I already know that. But what island are you from, he wanted to know.

Minnesota, I said proudly. The island of Minnesota.

He nodded his head in understanding, as one islander speaking to another islander.

Its a big island? he asked.

Very big. I answered.

By John Torgrimson

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