Blog Series

Castaway 6: Over The Blue Horizon

We are in the last month of our banishment—er, I mean deployment—here
on Johnston. I can feel the desire to be reunited transitioning from a
constant dull ache to actual anticipation. It is finally starting to
feel like it will really happen. Like the end is not some unreachable
horizon but a point on a map we are drawing nearer to, even if the
progress feels slow. In under 30 days, I will see other humans. In
around 40 I will see my humans. I remind myself of all the psychology
that insists the mental pleasures of anticipation outweigh those of
actually getting what you’ve been waiting for. Though I’m inclined to
think it’s a little easier to relish waiting a few hours for a donut
than months for dearly missed loved ones.

Lately I’ve been plagued by strange ominous dreams in which my loved
ones either ignore or scorn me. It’s as if my primate brain is sending
out alarm signals. “You haven’t seen x, y and z in an unacceptable
amount of time! They may not even care for you any more!” I know these
dreams are fictitious and I pay them no heed. But they are interesting
in that they remind me of the dreams that used to haunt my sister and
I as children, in which our parents would abandon us or do cruel
things like destroy our favorite stuffed toys. The irony (and often
hilarity) of these dreams was that they bore no resemblance to
reality. We had some of the most loving and attentive parents children
could ask for. I’ve since found that others experienced these paranoid
dreams as kids. I view it as a marker of an immature, and thus
insecure psyche. These dreams were just another form of nightmare in
which the monster, though just as unreal, was a bit closer to home.
Though I’ve maintained communication with my friends and family
through messages, I don’t believe this contact fully “registers” in
the brain. Logically, I know everyone will be waiting for me with open
arms, but my subconscious roils with insecurity and paranoia for not
having actually seen or heard the voices of every primate’s most
important security blanket: their group.

53912518_2193733600685837_8587593925017993216_n.jpg

I now see the ocean surrounding us as less a beautiful landscape and
more an impenetrable wall. Homebody though I may be, the fact that I
physically can’t leave is starting to get to me. I feel caged. We may
seem to have the run of the island—deciding which invertebrates live
or die and abducting tropicbirds for our nefarious scientific
purposes—but nothing is more humbling than watching the birds fly out
past the horizon each day and remembering that, unlike their kind, we
are stuck on this chunk of rubble with the geckos and mice, for better
or worse. Snorkeling still offers some reprieve, as the majority of
the world comes to meet you at the sea wall. Fish, rays, and sharks
are a wonderful reminder that, though it may seem like it, the blue
mass around us is far from a barren desert. Johnston Atoll belongs to
the ocean and it’s here that it really comes alive. Though
unequivocally important to the seabirds we study, the land and trees
themselves are more of an afterthought.

Tensions have grown between some of the members of the group, an
unavoidable consequence of seeing no-one but each other for months on
end. I find myself clinging to my friends some days, and wanting
nothing more than to be utterly alone others. During the all-island
tropicbird MIC, the largest survey conducted every year on Johnston,
exhaustion and frustration often got the best of us. It can be
difficult to remain cordial when you can feel your back savagely
burning under the relentless sun. Or when you’re tripping through
broken concrete and rebar on top of a hazardous waste landfill. Or
flushing your eye out after the fourth stream of guano to hit you that
morning got you right in the face. Called both lovingly and grudgingly
Trash Paradise by several previous volunteers, there are days when
Johnston earns that name very well.

As the changeover between our crew and the next CAST approaches in
June, we’ve started organizing, inventorying, and generally spiffing
camp for its new inhabitants. This process is therapeutic as it’s a
final push to get rid of the extraneous clutter that’s been hanging
around and make the space as welcoming as possible. But it’s also
strange to think someone else will be living here soon. Sitting in my
favorite spots, caring for (or say it ain’t so, neglecting) my
kombucha-brewing SCOBYs, rearranging my specific brand of
organization. I also lament the prospect of passing on my precious
garden. Tending to and sitting in it has been one of the most
consistent sources of pride and tranquility here. What if there are no
gardeners on the new crew? What if the tomato worms and mice take
over? What if they don’t like arugula?? The possibilities for
vegetable-related travesty are endless. It’s thoughts like these that
confuse the general homesickness I feel most of the time. Like it or
not, I care about this place. I may be ready to return to the greater
world beyond these endless blue walls, but there’s no denying this
place has become a home to me.

 

***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: About me, Blog Series, Remote Living, Thoughts, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

image

 

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.

53766521_546936035814702_8332812891606482944_n

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.

54361678_302425860442110_8733166464216858624_n.jpg

 

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.

54416628_1248284955327956_2457879195020165120_n-1

 

**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: , , , , | Leave a comment

Castaway Part 1: The Departure

It’s hard to say goodbye to someone you share most moments of your life with. They’re there when you wake up, when you go to bed, when you celebrate your successes and when you mourn your failures. They’re there when you don’t even necessarily notice or appreciate that they are. Then suddenly they’re not. And all those little moments that seemed so insignificant, and passed by so easily, emerge as salient reminders of what you’re missing each day. Luckily for me, I have a new family of friendly strangers to cushion the blow. I’m not sleeping in a glaringly vacant queen size bed, but a snug top bunk above a new friend. Though my departure from home is disarming, it’s almost certainly more so for the one I’ve left behind.

So here I am in a barbed wire enclosed yet somehow still charming bunkhouse in Honolulu, awaiting what may be the strangest seven months of my life. A world apart from my partner, who I’ve left to endure the Michigan winter I’d been striving to escape my entire adult life. It’s worth explaining why I’m here. I’ve taken an eight-month position with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. My official title? Volunteer Ant Killer.

The backstory is long and I’d rather go more into detail about it in a future post when I’ve become more of an expert. The short version though is that during World War II, the U.S. decided to expand a remote atoll off the coast of the Hawaiian islands to use for military operations. Fast forward to now and Johnston is a decommissioned deserted island boasting a bizarre post-apocalyptic facade, but with a twist: it’s a cherished nesting ground for rare seabirds and the location of an ambitious invasive species control operation. Enter CAST–the Crazy Ant Strike Team! An appropriate acronym for a group of volunteers seeking elective exile from pretty much everything. The members of this biannual project ship out to Johnston to preform eradication of the invasive yellow crazy ant and monitor seabird and marine life populations. Are they die-hard bird and fish lovers? Ant haters? Disenchanted misanthropes? Experience collectors in search of a good story? It’s hard to answer for more than one CASTer at a time.

 

Palmyramap_CreditUSGS-1

Johnston Atoll, among the most remote atolls in the world. 500 miles from the closest landmass and visited for government business only. There are times when the closest human population center is technically the International Space Station.

 

The reactions I received when I informed my friends and family I’d be joining this effort were a mixture of surprise, fascination, and a little horror. The process usually went like this: “I’m going to Hawaii in November!” “Wow that’s amazing! What will you be doing in Hawaii?” “Well, I’ll only be in Hawaii for a month then I’ll be shipping off to a remote island for seven!” “Wow, how exotic. What island?” “Well, it’s not really an island…it’s more of a decommissioned military base with buried radioactive waste and a serious ant problem.” “Wait….what?!”

Those who really know me weren’t that surprised however. Living on a remote island as far from large human populations as possible sounds just about right up my alley. The specific nature and history of Johnston however was a little hard to stomach though even for my closest loved ones. Though today reported as safe to inhabit, Johnston has served as a veritable dump for various toxic wastes such as agent orange, dioxin, and weapons grade plutonium. Though I wouldn’t say I’m not concerned, I’m more fascinated than worried personally.

I have to give some credit where credit is due therefore to my partner, family, and friends. Thank you for supporting me through this undeniably eccentric part of my life and career. What may look like an insane decision to many looks like a life-changing and door-opening milestone to me. My reasons for joining CAST run the gamut from passion for wildlife to obvious misanthropy. These motives propel me through most of my life, but they don’t eclipse the love I have for and receive from my loved ones. You all are my guiding light, my pillars, and my chief concern through this process. Know that I will take care of myself and that you will be missed each and every day.

So as you may have caught on, this will be the beginning of a special blog series. Though one of the most remote places in the world, Johnston boasts one of the most important amenities of civilization: internet! Though it will spotty and unreliable, I’m hoping it will be good enough to keep this blog updated with my strange goings-ons. I’ll be in Honolulu for the next month training, packing, and preparing for life on the atoll. After that I’ll be CASTaway (see what I did there?) to live amongst the ants, birds, and stars. If you’d like to get in touch beyond following this blog, feel free to drop me a line in the “About” section of this site. Mahalo!

 

***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: Animals, Blog Series, Environment, Lifestyle, Remote Living, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Be the Religion You Want to See in the World Part 1: What is Paganism?

The emaciation of the lexicon of human religious ideas in recent history is, in my humble observance, cause for concern. On a planet with seven billion intelligent and emotionally complex apes, shouldn’t we have a more diverse set of mythical paradigms? You there, reading this right now! I implore you: explore your own mythology. I don’t care if you are a Hasidic Jew or an atheist. Unless you are in a situation where practicing unique religious or a-religious ideas could put you or someone else in danger, I encourage you to look around, really look. You need not apostate your religion or atheism, but at the very least enrich it. The world is magical. If you have to redefine magic to believe this, redefine away. We’d all love to hear what you come up with!

In the interest of expanding the lens on religion, I’d like to talk a bit about nature worship, or “paganism.” Though this term has endured many meanings, I find the general gist it implies useful. Examining how nature worship came into being gives us a fascinating new context to put so-called “modern” religion into context.

It’s important to remember that today’s cultural views on “nature” are fairly new. With the dawn of agriculture, humans began viewing the environment around them as something under their control. If plants could be grown, animals tamed, and ground repurposed, the world could bend to suit the needs of man. The resulting “settlements” were built on the implicit assumption that the earth had finally been “tamed” and would continue to support life without the arduous need to move about the globe to forage and avoid inclement weather. If this assumption were not solid, it would have been hard to encourage nomadic humans out of their hunter-gatherer ways. Still, even in this new era of Earth seemingly under humanity’s thumb, culture began to evolve  to accommodate the forces of nature.

The first human religion was arguably what we often refer to now as “paganism.” It’s generally accepted that the word pagan first appeared as a pejorative term for peasants of the Roman Empire, those who didn’t conform to the teachings of the Christian god. It was likely used as a catchall term for polytheists, atheists, and practicers of magic. But nature worship and polytheism appear much earlier in human history than ancient Rome. Though Hinduism is regarded as the oldest religion in the world by many noted Historians, dating back to at least 1500 BCE, polytheism and theism in general are regarded as much older. Primitive cave drawings and sculptures dating back thousands of years before Common Era depict god-like supernatural forms, such as the impossibly voluptuous Venus figurines and impressive animal-human hybrids. It’s impossible to say in what way primitive humans viewed these representations as deities, but it’s certainly not outlandish to infer they looked to them for comfort or guidance.

800px-Guennol_Lioness

“The Guennol Lioness is a 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian statue depicting an anthropomorphic lioness. The statue was found near Baghdad, Iraq and is on display in New York City’s Brooklyn Museum of Art.” [Wikipedia Commons]

The creation of art that represented otherworldly forms may have been the spark that fueled the creation of more complex and organized polytheistic religions such as Egyptian gods, Hinduism, and Chinese folk religion. It’s likely our nomadic ancestors created deities to make sense of the often-chaotic natural world and passed these gods onto their agricultural descendants to aid them in harvests and war. Thus it’s not surprising to think Paleolithic humans may have prayed to idols of women and animal-human hybrids. The female form, especially in its oft-exaggerated relief, is a perfect symbol of fertility and perhaps, by association, power and creation. Lion, snake, and goat-headed humanoids may have been dreamed up to inspire the channeling of strengths from the “natural” world, acknowledging that there is a little of these animals in all of us (which, evolutionarily speaking, there is!).

The construction of belief paradigms based on “natural” forms and phenomena can easily be conflated with the Christian church’s definition of “paganism.” Yet the people persecuted across the ages were hardly the goat-worshipping witches we often think of when we see the word pagan. More likely than not, pagans were just believers in the traditions that had been absorbed from the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures. The celebration of Saturnalia, a winter solstice holiday, and praise for the many Greek/Roman gods existed for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Still, it wasn’t long after the reign of Emperor Constantine (the first “Christian Emperor”) that these beliefs were shunned into obscurity, leaving us with the fragmented understanding of paganism we have today.

Despite its seemingly long history of persecution, the reverence and worship of nature has actually endured longer than any other “religion.” Throughout history, paganism has enjoyed its fringe believers, often in some of the darkest corners of human history. Supposed “witches” in Europe and the Americas were aggressively hunted for allegedly “casting spells” on innocent God-fearing citizens, using twigs, bones, and animals in their sacrificial routines. In reality these people, most commonly poor women, were likely the shamans and spiritual guides of their small pagan villages. It seems crying witch was a convenient way to get rid of bothersome or threatening women (and what intelligent woman isn’t threatening, right?). Slaves brought to the Americas from Africa also maintained complex polytheistic beliefs before many were forcibly converted to Christianity. Their unique culture and shared faith likely gave them hope in beyond desperate times.

Truths held by human cultures are based on specific experiences, and the shape of the world can vary greatly through each individual set of eyes. The prevalence of Abrahamic religions today (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) denotes a departure from the specific identification of the forces of nature and an embrace of a more mythically obscure god. While devotees of these religions may scoff at the idea of a fire god or god of fertility, they seemingly have little trouble acknowledging a single omnipotent being that controls all reality. Though much of the intolerance for archaic religions seems to have evaporated, supposed “witches” and “heathens” are still persecuted in many countries and in some cases, these attacks still kill hundreds or thousands of people a year.

Will we ever turn a true corner on religious freedom in which we don’t care what deities people choose to pray to or abstain from? Will we ever stop blaming supernatural forces for our human quarrels? Should our goal be to eradicate myth and superstition or simply to evolve it? I’d like to explore these questions in the coming months in this blog series.

 

Categories: Blog Series, Humanity, Religion, Supernatural | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress.com.