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Searching for Crusoe: A Journey among the Last Real Islands


They inspire feelings of great passion, serenity, and sometimes fear . . . they give people the opportunity to find themselves—or to lose their minds . . . they are revered as paradise or treated as junkyards . . . both haunted by and respectful of history . . . they are central to the myths and religions of many peoples throughout time . . . they provide a real, friendly community or the hell of repetitive social encounters . . . What is it about islands that has captivated ...

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They inspire feelings of great passion, serenity, and sometimes fear . . . they give people the opportunity to find themselves—or to lose their minds . . . they are revered as paradise or treated as junkyards . . . both haunted by and respectful of history . . . they are central to the myths and religions of many peoples throughout time . . . they provide a real, friendly community or the hell of repetitive social encounters . . . What is it about islands that has captivated millions of people around the world and through the centuries?

In a penetrating, brilliantly written book that weaves sociology, history, politics, personality, and ancient and popular culture into one compelling narrative, Thurston Clarke island-hops around the oceans of the world, searching for an explanation for the most passionate and enduring geographic love affair of all time—between humankind and islands.

Along the way Clarke visits the remote and silent Mas À Tierra, the island off the coast of Chile that inspired Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe; tropical Banda Neira, one of the Spice Islands, where its self-crowned prince hopes for nothing less than nutmeg's complete and glorious revival; sleepy, simple Campobello, the Canadian island where Franklin D. Roosevelt spent his boyhood summers; Patmos, with its imposing mountaintop monastery; Malekula, once the most notorious cannibal island in the world; and Jura in Scotland's Hebrides, where George Orwell wrote 1984—the island that turned Clarke into a islomane, someone Lawrence Durrell says experiences an "indescribable intoxication" at finding himself in "a little world surrounded by the sea."

Despite colonialism and missionary conversions, wartime scars and shrinking coasts, islands have thrived. Though each island is unique in its own way, Clarke discovers that the islanders themselves are a distinct people— tranquilized by their watery horizons yet sensitive to the first shift in weather, conservative yet more likely to drop their inhibitions because no one is looking. And over every island falls the shadow of Robinson Crusoe, persuading us that islands are more liberating than confining, more contemplative than lonely, more holy than barbaric because we have been "removed from all the wickedness of the world." In a stunning work of wit, adventure, and incisive exploration, Thurston Clarke brings a unique passion to dazzling life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From Robinson Crusoe to CBS's Survivor, islands have always exerted a special fascination. Clarke, a self-professed islomaniac and author of Pearl Harbor Ghosts, attempts to better understand this phenomenon by visiting different types of islands in this well-written, if sometimes rambling, travelogue. He surveys islands that have inspired famous stories like South Pacific, islands that have personal meaning for him (such as the one on which he spent his honeymoon), islands with utopian societies, prison islands and private islands owned by rich individuals. He even searches for a perfect, undiscovered island unaffected by modern influences. Clarke vividly captures the uniqueness of each island, relating its history, conversing with the locals, immersing himself in the local culture and expertly describing the landscape. He also displays an awareness of the challenges provoked by a tourism industry that threatens native culture and of rising sea levels caused by global warming. An added bonus is Clarke's unearthing of the sources behind various literary characters; he introduces us to the real "Bloody Mary" and the cave where Alexander Selkirk, the model for Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, lived for four and a half years. Though the book's loose narrative may put off some readers, true island lovers will enjoy its exotic anecdotes and colorful, authoritative prose. (Feb. 1) Forecast: Due out in the dead of winter and boosted by a first serial to Cond Nast Traveler, this book could do well. It may even ride on the expected success of the just-released Tom Hanks's vehicle, Castaway. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The award-winning author of the California Fault begins a world tour of island hopping by visiting M s Tierra, the island off the coast of Chile that inspired Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Along the way, Clarke also visits Campobello, the Canadian Island where FDR spent his boyhood summers; the Holy Island of Patmos; the Asian prison island of Phu Koc; and the island of Spitsbergen in Svalbard, a Norwegian-administered archipelago 600 miles south of the North Pole. At Banda Neira in the Spice Islands, the author observes the slow and peaceful lifestyle, where the loudest night noises "came from the click of bicycle pedals and the slap of dominoes." Throughout, lone traveler Clarke explores the lure and lore of islands, including paradise, utopia, myth, mutiny, starvation, exploitation, disease, and stunning beauty. He even has a prediction for the future: in the age of Club Med and international jetports, with "the last real islands" threatened by global warming, world communication, and cruise ships boasting more people than the places they visit, the one-red-telephone-booth island is a relic. Highly recommended for public libraries.--Margaret W. Norton, Oak Park, IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A middling memoir of travels among the world's far-flung islands. Clarke (California Fault, 1996, etc.) takes us on a wide-ranging tour of islands that are off most tour-group maps. Some of them (such as the Bay of Fundy's Campobello Island, where Franklin Roosevelt kept a summer home) are notable for their role in history, while others (such as the embattled and rapidly disappearing coral atolls of the Maldives) are notable for what they reveal about the fragility of islands as ecosystems. But most, it appears, figure in Clarke's narrative simply because he happened to go there at some time or another, and his descriptions of what he calls"the last real islands" are often little more revealing than those found in standard-issue travel brochures. His pieces follow a standard formula: he travels to a distant island, takes a quick survey of its appearance and flaws, and then finds some offbeat character or another on whom to hang an anecdote or two. For instance, on Chile's Isla Robinson Crusoe,"a strangely claustrophobic place" where the Scottish sailor (and, by all accounts, nasty punk) Alexander Selkirk was marooned between 1704 and 1709, Clarke homes in on a French curmudgeon who'd spent time in a Viet Minh military prison in the 1950s and now spends his days fishing in solitude, while on Vietnam' s Phu Quoc island (a wartime vacation spot for Viet Cong and American fighters alike) he hooks up with a fearlessly contemptuous Amerasian anticommunist who"was careful to speak Vietnamese, but he dreamed in English." Though Clarke is capable of inspired writing—his brief passage on the eerie silences of Jura is superb—he seems a little bored withthewhole business ofisland-hopping, and his account compares poorly to Bill Holm's Eccentric Islands (p. 1097), which covers some of the same ground with more vigor. A competent travelogue, but not much more. First serial to Condé Nast Traveler
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345411433
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/30/2001
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Thurston Clarke is the author of nine widely acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, including California Fault, a New York Times notable book, Equator, By Blood and Fire, Pearl Harbor Ghosts, the basis for the CBS Pearl Harbor documentary, and the bestselling Lost Hero, which was made into an award-winning NBC miniseries about Raoul Wallenberg. He has written for Vanity Fair, Glamour, Outside, Travel Holiday, Condé Nast Traveler, and numerous other magazines and newspapers. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Publication Award for the Geographic Society of Chicago, and a Lowell Thomas Award for travel literature. He lives with his wife and three daughters on Lake Champlain in upstate New York.

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Read an Excerpt


The modern obsession with islands starts with Robinson Crusoe, so I
started with his island, Mas a Tierra, the Pacific Island four hundred miles off the coast of Chile in the Juan Fernandez archipelago, where a
Scottish seaman named Alexander Selkirk was marooned for four and a half years between 1704 and 1709. After his rescue by the privateer Captain
Woodes Rogers, Selkirk recounted his story to the journalist Richard
Steele. It is believed that Daniel Defoe read both Steele's resulting article and Woodes Rogers's book, A Cruising Voyage round the World, and incorporated Selkirk's experiences into his novel Robinson Crusoe. Some scholars suspect Defoe met and interviewed Selkirk, and when a Selkirk descendant recently sold his birthplace to settle inheritance taxes, she lambasted Defoe as "a man of no scruples" who had stolen and distorted her ancestor's story.

I first encountered Mas a Tierra in Two Years Before the Mast, Richard
Henry Dana's account of his 1834 voyage from Boston to California. Dana called it a classic island, the most romantic on earth, and praised its rushing streams, lofty mountains, rich soil, plentiful fruit, and aromatic trees. It had a "peculiar charm," he wrote, perhaps because of its solitary position in the vast expanse of the South Pacific, and "the associations which everyone has connected with it in their childhood from reading Robinson Crusoe," ones that gave it "the sacredness of an early home."

To reach this sacred home, which Chile has renamed Isla Robinson Crusoe,
I traveled to Santiago, telephoned the offices of Transportes Aereos
Robinson Crusoe (TARC), and was instructed to be in my hotel lobby at
3:00 p.m. with $420 in cash. The TARC agent was a stone-faced lady in rhinestone glasses who counted my money twice before parting with a ticket. After snapping her purse shut on my dollars she warned that the rains had started early this year and we had already entered the season of autumn storms, when flights could be delayed for days or weeks. But I
was just happy to be buying a plane ticket to Isla Crusoe. An island of two hundred people four hundred miles from the Chilean mainland would not have had air service at all without the highly prized lobsters that were shipped to Santiago on return flights.

TARC was one of several small companies using the antique Ce- rillos airport. When I arrived at midmorning, the tarmac was shrouded in fog and the terminal deserted. A little girl unlocked a kiosk selling newspapers and snacks, then curled up on the counter and fell asleep. An old crone cleaned the bathrooms, then locked them. A pay telephone rang and rang, echoing through the empty hall.

There were three other passengers. Carlos was a burly young man with a face lost in whiskers and the loping gait of a yeti. He said he had taken a leave of absence from the school where he taught and was going to Isla Crusoe for a week "to forget certain things." But he carried a polar anorak, his luggage exceeded the ten-kilogram allowance, and I
suspected he had suffered some crushing tragedy and planned on marooning himself for much longer.

Irene was a parakeet-sized woman in her sixties who had brought along a friend, the plump and timid Alicia, as her silent caboose. Thirty years in the Atacama Desert had sun-blasted her face into a dalmatian pattern and left her straw-colored hair brittle and spontaneous- combustion dry.
She made a theatrical meal of every sentence and introduced herself by excoriating everything that had ruined Chile: the corrupt politicians,
the McDonald's hamburgers, and owning more things instead of touching more people. Whenever her family or the Atacama became too much, she said, "I threaten to move to this marvelous island and always I imagine living there alone." Her sons had finally given her a ticket and said,
"All right, then, go!"

She wore a thin sweater and admitted having left behind her windbreaker.
She had it ready to pack, she said, "But then I asked myself, 'Why do I
need that thing in paradise?' " She stared at the peeling ceiling and shut her eyes. "It will be how everyone should live. No noise or contamination. The islanders will be gentle people who know how to enjoy life. I may stay forever."

I began describing Selkirk's despair upon first wading ashore. She looked appalled and threw up a hand. "Stop! Oh, please stop, dear man.
Don't say anything more! If this island is not paradise, I don't wish to know."

The four of us stood alone in the middle of the empty terminal as speakers played, "Put your hand in the hand of the man. . . ." I
remembered the Agatha Christie mystery And Then There Were None, in which a mysterious host invites ten strangers to a private island off the south coast of England, then murders them one by one.

TARC's Santiago manager appeared. He swooped his arms and delivered a lecture about the complexities of landing on Isla Crusoe. The dirt runway was eight hundred meters long and curved upward, like a ski jump.
Beyond it was a cliff. Strong winds were blowing across the airport today, making landing treacherous. We would wait another two hours,
until the telephone in the hall rang with the next weather report from
Isla Crusoe.

The delay stretched to two days and when we reassembled we had gained another passenger, a young Chilean named Luz with the high cheekbones of an Indian princess. She had graduated from college in the United States and was flying out to visit her mother, a recent divorcee who had moved to Isla Crusoe on an impulse and was supporting herself by teaching the children of the lobster fishermen to speak English. Cerillos airport remained forlorn and foggy. As we climbed aboard, our pilot, a baldy wearing thick spectacles and a filthy cardigan, was kicking the tires.
The manager and his wife handed out homemade sandwiches and waved handkerchiefs. I fell asleep and woke two hours later as we descended toward a rugged green island waving a tentacle of brown desert into the ocean. The contrast was stark: a tangle of craggy, thickly forested peaks shooting from a boiling sea to the north, an arid red plateau of rock and dust to the south: King Kong's island married to a finger of
Lawrence of Arabia desert.

We landed in the desert and taxied past a smashed Cessna to a shack. The wind had blown out every window and piles of scrap metal kept its tin roof from taking flight. A mestizo with shock-treatment eyes pumped our hands as we descended the stairs. "Marcel is our fireman and weatherman," the pilot said. "He tells us if it's safe to land."

Irene pirouetted. "It's wonderful, wonderful!" she shouted. "I'm always saying I'll move here, and now . . ." She took in the peeling shack and the dust devils dancing across the runway. "And now . . . I guess we'll see."

Marcel roped our luggage onto a Land Rover and we lurched down a crumbling track cut into the caldera of an extinct volcano. A fishing boat waited at the jetty below. We boarded it and spent almost two hours plowing through a roller-coaster sea, past skyscraper cliffs ending in ridges sharp enough to slice an onion.

The crewmen were mahogany-tanned and loquacious. They said they used these razorback ridges to mark their lobster traps and pointed out a jagged pile of rocks nicknamed, for obvious reasons, "the Widow-Maker."
They claimed it was not really that windy (in New England, gale force flags would have been flying) and called this cauldron of whitecaps a gentle sea. The new moon often brought a five-day window of calm weather like this. After that, watch out.

They boasted that their island was a United Nations World Biosphere
Reserve because it had so many rare plants. Its lobsters were the sweetest in the world because they came from the lobster latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere. Its seals were native only to this archipelago and the most beautiful on earth because of their rare mixture of gray and black hairs. And nowhere else could you find Isla Crusoe's red hummingbirds, or the luma tree, whose hard wood was prized by Chilean policemen for their billy clubs, or the wild cabbage that nourished
"Alejandro" Selkirk.

As we rounded the next-to-last headland before the island's only settlement, San Juan Bautista, spotlights of sun fell through the firmament-of-heaven clouds, illuminating a cave with a low stone wall set in its mouth. "Crusoe's cave," the fishermen chorused— the first evidence I had that on this island Selkirk and Crusoe were interchangeable.

An amphitheater of green mountains rose steeply from the shore and surrounded San Juan's ramshackle warehouses and bungalows. The highest mountain, the tombstone-shaped El Yunque, was so rugged that less than a dozen people have reached its summit, and so dark and sinister that an indigenous people would have made it the seat of a fearsome god.

Someone had fastened ten richly illustrated boards with poems about
Selkirk and Crusoe to pilings lining the town wharf. Before I could translate them, a jaunty man wearing a country club golf outfit tossed my bag into a wheelbarrow he pushed across the street to his boardinghouse, the Villa Green. "Call me Robinson," he said, explaining it was a popular first name for island boys. There was also a Hosteria
Defoe, and a Posada de Robinson, where I drank a beer, alone. I drank a second one, also alone, in a three-table bar where a yellowed clipping recounted how the British navy had sunk the German warship Dresden in this harbor during World War I. One survivor had become a castaway,
living as a hermit for fifteen years and becoming known as "the German

There were more Crusoean echoes in cottages that appeared slapped together from driftwood, backyard greenhouses growing pro- duce to ward off scurvy, and the brave trappings of civilization. School- boys wore blazers and ties, like their mainland counterparts, and the bust of the naval hero decorated a plaza where I never saw a single soul walk or sit.

You could hardly blame Isla Crusoe's inhabitants for confusing Crusoe and Selkirk. The government had renamed Mas a Tierra for the fictional
Crusoe, and visitors came with his name rather than Selkirk's on their lips. When Americans on their way to the California gold fields stopped here in 1849 and 1850, they had been convinced it was the real home of the real Crusoe. One miner called it "the most fascinating spot, to me,
on the face of the globe!" He wrote in his diary: "Tomorrow I shall see the enchanted isle! Not the picture of fancy but the real ground . . .
perhaps see the cave that Robinson dug, or the ruins of his little hovel." At the Villa Green, I read a 1928 National Geographic article titled "A Voyage to the Island Home of Robinson Crusoe," in which the author waited until the penultimate paragraph to point out that Crusoe was not a real sailor who had been shipwrecked on Mas a Tierra. When excursion steamers from Valparaiso called during the first half of the century, a man dressed as Crusoe, complete with parrot, umbrella, and peaked goatskin hat, and accompanied by a redheaded Friday, had poled out on a raft to meet them. Even in Largo, Selkirk's Scottish hometown,
there was a Crusoe Hotel with a Juan Fernandez Bar and Castaway restaurant, but nothing named after Selkirk.

I soon adopted the local habit of confusing the two men. When puzzled stares met my request for directions to Selkirk's lookout, I asked for
Crusoe's lookout. I began calling the cave where Selkirk stored his supplies "Robinson's cave," and caught myself wondering if any of the
Spanish cannons lying in the grass or mounted along the waterfront dated from Crusoe's time. But I remembered Selkirk when my ankles were brushed by the descendants of the feral cats he had trained to lie at his feet and ward off rats.

San Juan had no venerable government buildings, historic churches, or large buildings. Everyone looked to the sea for their living, depending on the lobsters that could bring twenty dollars in a Santiago restaurant. A century before, the islanders had simply tossed chunks of goat meat along the shore and attracted swarms of lobsters. The lobsters had since become more scarce and it was agreed that if they ever disappeared, so would San Juan. Meanwhile, it was as silent and lonely as a community of six hundred people could be. Lights twinkled at dusk,
but the only people about were children gathered in a bar to watch the owner burn warts off his daughter's knee, and a half dozen adults enjoying a favorite evening ritual, watching the red hummingbirds drink nectar from bell-shaped yellow flowers. When night fell, the streets emptied, except for a boy kicking a soccer ball through the supports of a gong, the island's only fire alarm.

I ate cold lobster, alone, in the Villa Green, surrounded by polished wooden sideboards and wall calendars, and listening to the click of a pendulum clock. I read in the hotel guest book about "lifelong ambitions fulfilled," bird-watchers who had "come for the hummingbirds but found so much more," and the joy of the world's most traveled disabled person to find himself, at last, on "the famous island of Robinson Crusoe."

I returned to the wharf with a flashlight to read the poems. One spoke of Selkirk sleeping with Odysseus, another of Crusoe's "island of silence." On my way back to the hotel I bumped into Irene, who was staying at a neighboring boardinghouse. She said, "You know, it is very quiet on this island."


It was once believed that the silence and solitude of an uninhabited island would drive a marooned seaman insane. A captain leaving behind a loaded revolver was considered a humanitarian, and such acts of charity explain why skeletons clutching rusted revolvers often greeted early visitors to islands like Mas a Tierra. The fact that Selkirk, who had a musket, powder, and bullets, survived four years without committing suicide made him a successful castaway.

I had planned on making a solitary pilgrimage to his cave at Puerto
Ingles so I could stare at the horizon and wonder if I would have done as well, or become a skeleton clutching a revolver. But Robinson Green had warned against walking there over the sharp ridge separating it from
San Juan. Last month, this ridge had defeated a party of Germans who had come from weeks of hiking the Andes. It was most likely the same one
Selkirk tumbled down while chasing a goat, escaping death only because he grabbed the animal and cushioned his fall. The Villa Green's proprietor recommended traveling around the headland by boat, so I
joined Irene, Alicia, and Luz, who had hired a fisherman named Daniel to take them in his skiff.

The rocky shoreline and rough sea made it impossible to land at Puerto
Ingles. Daniel jumped onto a rock with the bowline, shouting, "Have faith in the fishermen of Juan Fernandez." We disembarked one by one,
grabbing his hand as waves hurled the boat toward the rocks. Irene almost skidded into the sea, and she staggered ashore shivering and frightened.

We stumbled down the beach over polished rocks the size of a baby's head while Daniel rattled off a potted history of Selkirk's ex- periences.
Then we climbed to a bluff overlooking a broad, well- watered valley where he pointed out the remains of a house built fifty years before by an optimistic German farmer who had imported the amaryllis growing wild among the ruined walls. There was water in a creek; there were rabbits,
wild oregano, and enough wood for years of cooking and signal fires. An army ranger could have lived off this land for months, but he would always have known that he was on a training course, and that a boat would one day round the headland to fetch him.

I slipped into Selkirk's cave while the others beachcombed. Its walls bore the scars of centuries of graffiti artists and souvenir hunters.
Forty-niners heading to the California gold fields had caused some of the worst damage. When their ships stopped to reprovision, they headed to Crusoe's cave to mine for souvenirs they could sell in San Francisco.
J. Ross Brown, a passenger on a California-bound packet who wrote a book about his voyage, Crusoe's Island, had found twenty prospectors at
Selkirk's cave. "They had battered away at the sides, top, and bottom of the cave in their eager search for relics till they had left scarcely a dozen square feet of the original surface," he reported. "Every man had literally his pocket full of rocks." When Brown left, they were proposing to search for gold in what they called "Crusoe's Valley," and to annex Juan Fernandez to the United States.

The mouth of the cave faced the same beach where Selkirk first came ashore. Nowadays, we would call the impulsive and bad-tempered Selkirk a punk, and his family of notorious brawlers and malcontents dysfunctional. He had been rebuked for behaving indecently in church, he fought constantly with his family, and after one nasty punch-up he went to sea with the notorious privateer William Dampier. Within a few years,
he was master of the Cinque Ports, a ship commanded by the equally hot-tempered Captain Strandling. As the Cinque Ports neared Juan
Fernandez, he and Strandling quarreled over its condition. Selkirk declared its recent repairs so slipshod that he would prefer being marooned on Mas a Tierra to facing certain disaster at sea. To his surprise, Strandling ordered him put ashore.

Selkirk had counted on other crewmen joining him. After the ship's boat landed him alone at Puerto Ingles he must have taken stock of the towering mountains and empty valley, weighing the prospect of starving or dying of exposure here against perishing in Strandling's unseaworthy ship, the horror of unending solitude against the pleasure of becoming king of Mas a Tierra. As the Cinque Ports's crewmen pushed the skiff back into the surf, he probably experienced some of the conflicting emotions I sometimes feel upon arriving on a remote island: an excitement at having at last reached such a silent, lonely place, and a sudden impulse to escape it—to reboard whatever boat or plane has brought me there, and go home.

According to Woodes Rogers, Selkirk jumped into the water at the last minute and began swimming after the skiff, screaming that he had changed his mind and begging to return to the ship.

Captain Strandling, so the story goes, replied, "Well, I have not changed mine! Stay where you are and may you starve!"

According to Selkirk's testimony to Richard Steele, he was miserable for his first eighteen months on Mas a Tierra and "grew dejected, languid,
and melancholy, scarcely able to refrain from doing himself Violence."
One Defoe biographer, Thomas Wright, depicted Selkirk as eating raw shellfish and seal, afraid to go inland and contemplating suicide.
"Voices spoke to him both in the howlings of the sea in front and in the murmur of the woods behind," Wright wrote. "The shore was creatured with phantoms. Then—cooling his fevered brain—came sweet visions of his childhood, the home at Largo, his mother, the fields he had rambled in,
the words he had heard in the old kirk, thoughts of God."

Selkirk told Steele he had cried, wandered aimlessly, refused to eat,
and remained at the shoreline, seldom lifting his eyes from the horizon.
Defoe's Crusoe was similarly distraught during his early days, beginning his journal: "I, poor miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwrecked,
during a dreadful storm . . . came ashore on this dismal, unfortunate island, which I called the Island of Despair."

After overcoming his depression, Selkirk transformed this valley into the kind of self-sufficient estate Defoe's Crusoe would build. He gathered wild fruits and vegetables and trained himself to outrun and tackle the goats that privateers had released to provide fresh meat when they reprovisioned. He turned the chase into a game, notching the ears of the goats he released and keeping score of those he ate. He dueled with the sea lions like a matador, clubbing them before they could smash him with their tails or grab him in their jaws. He flavored his goat stews with wild turnips, parsnips, and parsley; boiled his lobsters with a native pepper berry; gorged on black plums; sewed together a goatskin cap and coat, using a nail as a needle; and discovered that pimento wood made a clear-burning and fragrant fuel, good for light, heat, and flavoring barbecued goat. He entertained himself by carving his name into trees and by singing and dancing with his cats and kid goats. His life was less luxurious than Crusoe's—no dairy, bakery, or three plantations—but Defoe had given his Crusoe a more forgiving Caribbean climate and allowed him to salvage tools, food, and ammunition from his ship. Selkirk started with clothes and bedding, a gun and ammunition, a knife, a kettle, and a Bible. Like Crusoe, he found solace in religion,
scheduling daily services and reading the Scriptures out loud to preserve his ability to speak. Captain Woodes Rogers praised him for being "a better Christian in his Solitude than ever he was before."

Steele reported that Selkirk's manner of life was "exquisitely pleasant"
and "he never had a Moment heavy on his hands." His nights were
"untroubled," his days "joyous" because of his "Practice of Temperance and Exercise." His life became "one continual Feast." (Woodes Rogers's account of Selkirk's rescue somewhat undermines the "joyous" business:
Selkirk burst from the bushes, "a Man cloth'd in Goat-Skins, who look'd wilder than the first Owners of them," bellowing in an indecipherable tongue. Only when he screamed, "I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of Heaven and Earth . . ." did the sailors realize he was human.)

Crusoe was literature's first self-made man, not its first conspicuous consumer. He created a comfortable life, but no more. He set aside time for reading, writing, and worship, and celebrated his island for removing him "from all the wickedness of the world." He concluded that
"all our discontents" sprang "from the want of thankfulness for what we have." Selkirk made a similar point upon re- turning to Scotland,
insisting he had never been so happy as when he was a castaway on Mas a
Tierra and "not worth a farthing," leading Steele to conclude, "he is happiest who confines his wants to natural necessities."

Before Selkirk marooned himself and Defoe marooned his fictional Crusoe,
tropical islands had been considered fearful places where sailors risked the lonely death of a castaway or the spears of hostile natives. After
Selkirk and Crusoe, they were seen as places of redemption and improvement, where you could escape the wickedness of the world, build
Utopia, and find God.

For almost two centuries, visitors to Isla Crusoe have described its inhabitants as contented with their simple life and lacking ambition.
Richard Henry Dana called them "the laziest people on the face of the earth" and said they passed the time taking long paseos and replacing the boughs the wind blew from their roofs. They were even "too lazy to speak fast." In 1992, an American couple, James and Mayme Bruce, made almost identical observations in The Explorer's Journal, complaining that the people were idle, showed "no curiosity or interest" in visitors, and moved "at an agonizingly slow pace." In 1895, the celebrated yachtsman Joshua Slocum stopped at the is- land for several weeks during his single-handed circumnavigation of the globe. He supported himself by making fresh doughnuts, which the islanders bought with "ancient and curious coins" salvaged from the wreck of a Spanish galleon. He noted that the adults were all healthy and the children all beautiful, and reported: "There was not a lawyer or police officer among them" and "The domestic economy of the island was simplicity itself. The fashions of Paris did not affect the inhabitants; each dressed according to his taste." He departed thinking, "Blessed island of Juan Fernandez!
Why Alexander Selkirk ever left you was more than I could make out."

Selkirk had prayed that a British ship would appear on the horizon, but
Daniel, the fisherman taking me to Puerto Ingles, worried about cruise liners appearing and disgorging hundreds of tourists who would travel by foot, donkey, and all-terrain vehicle to Selkirk's lookout. They might eat a few lobster empanadas, and buy the wallets San Juan's women stitched from fish skins, but they would also trample the lichen, pick the rare cinnamon, spook the hummingbirds, and ruin the simple life of an island where it is still remembered that passengers off excursion boats once stripped bark from the chonta tree, threatening it with extinction.


I met people on Isla Crusoe who had come to live a simple life removed from the wickedness of the mainland. They praised the island for offering clean air and water, plentiful food, and physical security, all the "natural necessities." They liked it that no one was rich or poor,
and most transactions involved barter and credit. (Banknotes were so scarce my smallest bills sent shopkeepers rummaging through drawers for change, and one man had to shake coins from a piggy bank.) They feared development more than solitude, exile to the mainland more than isolation, and I heard several times how a teenager recently banished for theft had been prostrate with grief, sobbing uncontrollably as he boarded the steamer for Valparaiso.

I met the hawk-featured Marietta in the offices of the agency charged with managing Chile's national parks, where she worked surrounded by samples of the island's endemic species. She had come a few years before with her two boys for a five-day holiday and had never left. Sure, she sometimes missed la vida intelectual—the theaters, bookstores, and museums—but there was no crime or pollution here, and plenty of food, if you liked lobster. Her sons loved Isla Crusoe and identified with the children in Swiss Family Robinson. "Here, I have time to think, to listen to what is in here," she said, touching her chest.

She led me outside to a bluff overlooking the harbor and pointed to the mist-shrouded mountains. Up there, in an inaccessible valley ringed by sheer walls of rock, the single known wild specimen of a tree growing only on Isla Crusoe clung to life. Several endemic plant species were represented by only a few surviving specimens because the descendants of
Selkirk's goats had devoured the rest. This island still had the greatest number of endemic species per square mile of anywhere on earth,
124 on its thirty-six square miles. They made it unique and special, and made Marietta feel special for living on it. As she spoke, I noticed her disconcerting habit, one I noticed among other islanders, of shooting her eyes to the ocean, as if checking for . . . well, for what? A
steamer on the horizon? A longboat heading for the beach?

She put a finger to her lips. "Shhh . . . listen, and you will hear the birds, and the ocean, and, finally, yourself." Her eyes jumped back to the horizon and she said something I would hear elsewhere, that on a
"real" island you could see yourself surrounded by water. She often climbed to Selkirk's lookout because from there, she explained, "I
cannot see any people or buildings, just water, everywhere, surrounding me."

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