Monthly Archives: March 2019

Castaway 5: The Weird and The Wonderful

Johnston Island is a contradiction. Beautiful and hideous. Exasperating and comforting. Plentiful and barren. Its vistas are endearing in an absurd way. Plumeria and hibiscus flowers surround a decaying tennis court. Birds nest in the thousands around a crumbling multistory building. Turtles bask on a beach marred by discarded telephone poles and marine debris. I myself am consumed by a striking contradiction in feeling. I love and hate Johnston. I want my sunrises and lazy afternoons to stretch on, but my weeks and months to contract. Half of me wants to use my time here to the fullest, the other to whittle it as efficiently as possible. It takes near constant presence of mind not to live in the future. Many of our survey tasks are somewhat mindless, like walking between points of a memorized route or scratching at the ground to disturb ants. It’s hard not to drift off in these moments, exploring all the lovely people and things that await me upon return. Audiobooks have been one of the greatest life preservers against this temporal drift. Better I be immersed in a story than in some false projection of possible futures, their promises filling me with vacant desire.

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Luckily not all our work is mindless. As we continue not finding yellow crazy ants and the birds in our reproduction monitoring plots grow, we are able to spend time banding the juveniles before they fledge. Banding a bird means applying a small numbered metal circlet to the birds right leg so that it may be identified in future population studies. Banding these birds is the first real wildlife handling I’ve done since college. Though I hate distressing any creatures, the process is quick and painless. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun. Banding is one of the activities that reminds me why I’m here. And my ability to pick it up relatively fast gives me hope I may not be in the wrong career path after all.

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We’ve also started to notice changes in the wildlife and invertebrate composition here on Johnston. Though I wouldn’t say we experience “Spring” at this latitude, the slightly rising temperatures seem to be coaxing certain species out of wherever they were hiding. In some ways this is wonderful, with the arrival of more white, grey, and sooty terns. Or the sighting of more turtles, eels, and sharks. In other ways it is frustrating and even terrifying, with the heat bringing out garden pests, ants, and—my personal mortal enemy—centipedes. I struggle to put fresh vegetables on the table as it is, having produced only two zucchini, one eggplant, and some herbs and arugula for my crew so far. With the coming months bringing even hotter weather, I’m starting to feel as if I’m fighting a losing battle with Mother Johnston.

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I think most people who live here must experience a similar mixture of extreme feelings. For many, this is the most remote spot they will ever set foot on. The pleasure of having a whole island nearly to oneself is undeniable. To be on Johnston is to live someplace almost wholly taken back by nature. And living in an atoll means being more surrounded by that other world—the marine world—than I ever thought possible. But being here also means you’re at Mother Johnston’s absolute mercy. You must roll with the punches, whether that means a perfect rainstorm right when you need it or a boobie shitting on your head.

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**This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service**

Categories: Blog Series, Environment, Lifestyle, Remote Living, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Castaway Part 4: Halfway Heartbreak

Our crew has finally been blessed with the knowledge of our departure date. The boat to deliver us from Johnston Island will purportedly arrive June eighth. Five days of shattering social contact will then take place between my crew and the new CAST, known affectionately as “the changeover,” in which we will train the newbies on all things Johnston. Then we will leave the poor saps behind and head back to Honolulu.

This puts us almost exactly half way through our stay here. In many ways this makes it easier to grapple with, seeing as we’ve already survived as many months as we have in front of us. The finish line is finally in view and we can stop making jokes about being abandoned here to eat radioactive coconuts for the rest of our days. But initiating the countdown has also drawn emphasis to the time we have left. Though I still enjoy the Johnston lifestyle, I have finally identified some things I really miss, such as couches that don’t have ants perpetually crawling across them and beds not made of air.

Still, the material desires are completely inconsequential and could even be ignored, if it weren’t for the looming shadow of what I really miss. My people. I am not alone, but I am lonesome. I feel an ache that can’t be placed, a desire to search for and ruminate over some unseen affliction. Originally finding it easy to still my mind in the early weeks, I now struggle to meditate. When left unoccupied, my attention bounces erratically from past to future, picking at emotional scabs and obsessing over possibility. It often seems as much a task to focus on the present as if I were in physical pain. I imagine unlikely hazards befalling my loved ones whilst I sit on this bizarre, impossibly far away hunk of rubble. I make plans and change them. I play the movie of my reunion with my family, partner, and friends over and over again.

Tranquility still surrounds me. The birds still fly in from the ocean every evening. The Milky Way still stretches above. But sometimes majesty is lost in the absence of love. I want to believe I have the capacity to appreciate beauty regardless of company. That it is inherent in my nature. That all else failing, the intimacy between I and the earth will buoy me when I have no one to turn to. But there is a certain sadness in the moment shared between a single human being and a single shooting star. Between a vast ocean and one heart. Perhaps beauty is not a benevolent gift of the cosmos, but of the complex and conniving machinery of natural selection. Perhaps we only revel so that we may draw another closer in our ecstasy.

Or perhaps I am weak. Needy. Perhaps my inability to focus on the beauty that surrounds me displays codependency. Perhaps the desire for the physical proximity of certain individuals is just another aspect of the hedonic treadmill. To say so would be valid considering the life history of the species I belong to. We need one another to survive but our nature does not exactly program us for tranquility and peace, even when we get the things we most desire. But if attachment to the people in my life makes me just a cog in the machine, then so be it. There is no force in the universe I’d rather be beholden to than the love for my people. If I’m destined to always grasp for something, I’d rather grasp for humans than objects, places, or ambitions.

As I stare down the line at that somehow close yet somehow so very far away finish line, I repeatedly tell myself to savor this time. That I will look back and miss the days spent hiding in the ant cave from the midday heat, baking brownies and watching stupid TV comedies with my island sisters. Or seeing the adorable fluff of a tropicbird chick peak out from under it’s striking parent. Or the vastness of the ocean and the silence of disconnection. Though I may have left a lot behind, I’d be remiss to forget how lucky I am to be here.

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Red-footed boobie and chick

 

***This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Categories: Blog Series, Humanity, Thoughts, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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