One solitary letter, an umlaut of longing, floats in my consciousness – ö – the Swedish word for island. Elegant and simple.
Ö. A beautiful word visually and conceptually. Round and separate. Grounded. Singular. I must round my lips to say it; push out a ring of breath, push out sound. The letter ö is a lovely creature with a crown, or an island with a landing place, welcoming me home.
Island is mountain top.
Above the Shenandoah Valley, forested islands appear within a fog ocean at sunrise. The sea of vapors wipes away all trace of the towns in the valley, and mountaintops become islands, inaccessible until late morning when the mist disappears and imaginary seas recede. I remember my time living on a Blue Ridge mountaintop, early summer mornings, imagining my home as island.
Island is the remnant of a submerged landscape in a reservoir.
Stillwater Reservoir, the largest human-made lake in upstate New York, was created by damming a river, submerging a valley, and transforming mountaintops into islands.
Two hours of hard paddling in the reservoir brought my companions and me to Spruce Island. Sheltered among trees, comforted in pale sands, we lived for a week on what we carried with us, and then we feasted on days beside water, strengthened our hearts and muscles with each stroke after stroke, each portage. Every crossing lived in our bodies. In an hour of paddling we reached Beaver River – the town isolated by the creation of the dam − a village only accessible by water or by air. Crossing the deep waters, we could only imagine the buried world beneath us: the lost farms, roads, and towns we floated over.
Island is a Moldavian Hungarian dance in which two people become one, separated from all the other couples on the floor. The kettös is a swirling conversation of push-pull where dancers generate a pulse like an electric current singing into the earth: turning now clockwise, now counterclockwise. Hip to hip, dancers sustain an asymmetrical pounding dance-heartbeat, whirl and blur until nothing exists but their energy: step step whoosh, step step whoosh…
Island is land conjured from water.
While working in Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands as a National Park Ranger, I told the Anishinabe creation story of the Apostles – how the islands arose from a set of sand grains tossed into water.
In the time of the Great Flood (perhaps the same one noted in biblical times or in the geological theory of plate tectonics) Waynaboozhoo, a spirit who acted as a human, sent animal spirits to save Creation. One by one, each attempted to dive in deep waters to retrieve earth. Only the muskrat, who gave up his life, was successful, and sand grains taken from the muskrat’s paw blossomed as islands.
I lived on one of those islands beside an empty historic lighthouse. Though Raspberry Island was not far from the mainland – only two water miles away – I was alone. A world away.
On Raspberry Island, I moved as if enchanted. On a perfect blue-sky-windy day I was a captain on a ship some people call an island, sailing deep waters to some sunny place. The lighthouse tower was the prow. In fog, I was a sailor lost at sea. I could find neither my way, nor my memory. In fog, nothing existed beyond my hand.
On Raspberry Island, I could sing or shout, and only the trees would hear me. Waters ignored me. I was under their spell. There was a voice I could hear when I let go of thoughts. Sailors through time immemorial have heard Sirens; I heard Lake Superior's song of slap and shush. It washed over me and became part of my being.
Whufomph shushhh whufomph shushhh
My breath followed the rhythm of the waves. Each breath, each step I took as I climbed the island became part of Superior's song.
In between breaths, steps, and waves there was a fleeting moment – a suspension. An anticipation like waiting for voices when drifting off to sleep – the voices that my long-ago housemate, Robert, once told me about. A crowd of voices, he said, you'll hear just as you're about to go to sleep. I'd listen for them, wondering if I'd ever hear them – and I did! Robert! I tried to shout out from my bedroom. Robert, I hear them and then, oh, I awoke and it was morning.
Whufomph shushhh whufomph shushhh
As waves crashed and receded, I felt the push-pull of an isolated home a world apart from mainland. I wondered about the lightkeepers and their families. Surely living on the island felt lonely for them at times, though they had a house full of objects and daily tasks to keep them busy. Their lives revolved around a clockwork mechanism and a milk cow. My life on the island as a wilderness ranger was one adrift. My only mooring was to hold lighthouse stories frozen in time, animating them when visitors arrived.
Summer light lingered into the far northern night. I stayed outdoors as long as I could before giving up, before giving in to the darkness and the damp, cold air. In my tiny cabin, I wrapped myself each night in layers upon layers of wool clothing, and burrowed deep into my sleeping bag. All night, waves slapped against the island's banks. I fell asleep to voices in the water, my own heartbeat drowned out by my ever-present companion, Gitchgumi, Lake Superior.
Ö. Island. It waits alone, unconcerned whether I or anyone else will cross to its shores. Voices in the waters wash away memory, but tell me who I really am, present and captured.
Island is land. Is land more comforting than water? Is land a ledge, a shelf, a cupboard locked away where you forget your name?
Is Ö – the Swedish word for island – a life preserver? Can you attach ropes to it and secure it to the shore?
I'll go; I'll let go and live away from all else.
Does one of the two dots over the ö represent me on an island, and the other symbolize the thoughts I let go when I am present on island?
My thoughts circle islands like lake gulls seeking something tasty to scavenge.
An island is a high ground, distinct from its surroundings.
I now live on another such high ground, the Driftless Area, a bioregional island right in the middle of the United States. In 200,000 years of repeated glaciation, my island was missed by ice sheets, time and again. Its rugged hills sprout springfed streams which race away from it and plunge into the Mississippi River.
The hills and valleys of the Driftless Area are bare-bones places, where limestone hills expose their layers, and trout streams wind among each hill, bearing geodes of crystals, their shades cream, garnet, sienna.
Like relentless tides battering at an island's shores, agribusiness chips away at the hills of my island, mining soil for corn and soybeans, tearing away grasses and woodlands, accelerating erosion. Loggers denude its hills, and construction companies mine its sand and gravel for roads. Now frac sand mining takes the hills down layer by layer.
The Driftless Area is an island of holdouts: remnant pine trees from pre-glacial times, yellow birch and balsam fir trees far from their boreal relatives to the north at the Canadian border, the northern monkshood flower, and mollusks that grow nowhere else in the world.
Those of us who live here are holdouts too, hanging onto land as support for traditional dairy agriculture in our region vanishes. Without farm income on a land pattern of contiguous family farms, stability eludes us. We are deluded. We take whatever work we can just to make our homes here, in these elevated lands. In the Driftless Area, each farm is a separate island; flotsam in a collapsed rural economy, tethered by the mail carrier.
In little more than an hour's drive, I leave behind my island of hills and hollows for the glaciated plains surrounding us. When I return home, I walk its limestone surface, fossilized from ancient sea shells millions of years ago. I live on beaches.
Were there islands in the Cambrian seas?
Islands are my imagined getaway. My gateway to freedom because I remain on mainland.
Every summer I pack my car and help my child get ready for the two-day journey to the south shore of Lake Superior. I arrive at salmon-colored sandy beaches facing the Apostle Islands. While my daughter plunks down to commune with sand, I immerse myself in water so cold my feet and hands hurt. I become part of the Lake.
The islands appear on the horizon as humped, sweet beasts. I stay in the frigid water so I can connect to them. Waves advance and retreat; wash a heart beat. Sandstone crystals carried from island cliffs sift at my feet, tumble in suspension.
I walk the liminal space, the glassy purple shimmer where water meets shore; where Superior drops gifts of rounded stones colored rose-rust, black, white, ocher. Some are sandy; others, perfectly smooth. I collect the smooth ones to bring home with me, where I will set them in water to display their colors.
My daughter and I play on the beach together, then race in and out of the lake. In spurts, we splash and float in the chilly water, then warm ourselves in sand. I look across to the wild islands. They are a world away. Deep, unpredictable Lake Superior waters separate me from them. I cannot cross over. The words of a folksong about a lost love float to me: Neither have I wings to fly. Build me a boat…
Raspberry Island was a place where my needs were reframed; where being with water, sand, trees, and sky equaled wholeness. Yet island, for me, was suspended beyond ordinary reality, and now seems unattainable.
I wonder sometimes, could I live on a wilderness island again? Could I leave my family and community to be on an island just for a season?
I imagine traveling around the peninsula and out across the deep and cold waters to the island I cannot see from the beach: Raspberry. On the shores of Lake Superior, I dream of that time, when island was what I became, and my voice was stilled by the Lake. I look back to my daughter: my mooring.
Island is the maternal world we each swim away from.
My life began, as everyone’s does, as an island surrounded by maternal waters. Perhaps I am intrigued with islands simply because I cannot easily cross back to my original island existence, where I floated peacefully, with all needs met. In the course of evolution, we long ago left behind our amphibious nature. Yet, deep within, I remember solitary existence in water; listening to voices transformed by maternal ocean.
I wait to be delivered.
Islands are memories of loved places.
On a radio call-in program, one of my favorite authors, Bill Holm, an essayist of Icelandic descent, talks of islands. He has written a new book about eccentric islands around the world. He is fluent in Icelandic and Old Norse. In the last few minutes of the program, an Anishinabe woman calls about the voices you hear when you're on one of Lake Superior's islands. My heart leaps. I phone in.
As I wait on the line, I hear a click, and then the moderator says, "We have time for only one more quick call."
"I have heard them," I say, nearly breathless. "I have lived on an island in Lake Superior, and I have heard the voice in the Lake."
"And your question?" the moderator prompts.
"What is the Icelandic word for island?"
I hear the writer inhale deeply and pause. "Holm."
I ask, "Do you know the Swedish word for island?"
"No. What is it?"
"One letter. O with two dots," I reply, punctuating the air in front of me while holding the receiver with my other hand. "Ö," I say to him, pursing my lips, pushing out imaginary waters.
Islands are ever-changing.
Abraded and eroded by surrounding forces, island cliffs are torn away by water, cleaved away by ice.
I wonder, do sand grains remember the island from which they came from in the geologic cycle of sand cemented into sandstone; split back apart into sand?
I am torn away from island. I carry memories of what it was like to be only island. Perfectly present; listening to the voice of the Lake. Bathing in frigid waters.
Once each summer, I see the Apostle Islands from shore, and remember. It is enough to hear the waters and remember. It has to be enough.
The letter o without two dots is complete unto itself.
The o in longing is an island waiting in the distance, perfectly self-contained. The letters surrounding it are sand and cliffs.
The o in home is an island, a circle where I have landed in contentment, surrounded by farms and dreams.
Island was published in
Midwest Review 5
and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize