1. The Island
Defined by the vast South Sea, The Island from a wooden craft, far out, was a destination, a place of refuge. At first sight it looked no more than a gray blur. Plying the sea against strong tides and capricious winds, the blur turned to jagged mountains looming form the water. Dark clouds hung over the eastern end. They promised clear streams, meat, and respite from the journey's storms.
Ranging beneath the lee, searching for anchorage, the broken, craggy precipices revealed forests, cut by lush valleys, watered by cascades and streams. The bays of boulders and shingle became harbours of society.
Spewed in the earth's heat, once The Island had been molten stuff beneath the earth's crust. Formed of columns of basalt, it was a causeway of mountain peaks, the highest, shaped like a huge anvil, rising three thousand feet above the ocean. Its rocks were grey, scoriaceous, slaggy, veined with olivine and picrite, coded with skeleton crystals of feldspar, aluminium, potash, lime…Its coast escarpments, high forested ridges and the dry seaward slopes of its valleys, were lava beds, relics from a magmatic flow: magma from the Greek 'to knead". By its shores were lumps of black porous lava, like burnt-out clinker, like a dead fire.
The fire could rekindle. The Island changed with the scudding clouds, the waxing moon, a fall of rain. Sounds that cracked in echo round the mountains, warned of its awesome energy. Mariners told of the earth's explosion, of "A Vulcan casting out Stones as big as a House', of a column that spouted from the sea filled with smoke and flames, of how the sea swept back in great rollers that left the bay dry, then surged in at such a height that trees uprooted and goats drowned.
Classifiers gave their views on geotectonic connections between The Island and the continent of South America and the movement of continental plates. They picked up pieces of rock, sailed home with them in boxes, identified the grains of colour these rocks contained as augite, magnetite and ilmenite and speculated on when the volcano had erupted and the manner in which time turns one thing into another. Their analyses made The Island less remote. If they named it, classified it, they could in a sense possess it and tame it to their will.
Mountains and Gorges
In the scheme of things it was a chip of land - twelve miles long, four across, thirty-four miles round, four million years old. At the low parched western end only dwarf trees grow (Dendroseris litoralis and Rea pruinata). * By a headband was a rocky bay shaped like a horseshoe, where a small boat might land on sand and shingle.
The eastern cliffs rose sheer from the sea. Moss and algae grew where surf drained from the talus' edge. The sea undermined the coastal wall and hollowed it as caves. Along the south-east shore were tufted grasses with high culms (Stipa fernandeziana). Waterfalls washed soil to the sea that stained the surf sepia. Beside a small bay, strewn with lava beds and furrowed by stony streams, two mountains rose, sculpted with hanging gullies carrying water after every rain.
Sea winds met the coast, rose high over the mountain crests, the cooled, condensed and fell as rain which drenched the ridges, gushed in torrents down the mountains, and in the lush green valleys turned to fast-flowing streams. Cloud shrouded the mountains while sunshine bathed the western hills. Winds gusted in the valleys in violent squalls. In the humid spring, rainbows arched the bays. Summer came in December and lasted until March.
In the forests that covered the mountain slopes were sweet smelling sandalwood trees with dark brown bark, pimento with glossy leaves and pungent berries, large mayu trees with jutting roots, mountain palms with long straight trunks, dark green and ringed with scars. Trees uprooted in the squalling winds and thin mountain soil. In the gorges rushes thrived with sword-shaped leaves and white flowers. Gunnera masafuerae spread parchment leaves. Tree ferns more than three feet tall, with dark green fronds grew in groves in the wooded valleys. Scandent ferns trailed over stones and fallen trunks. They clung to threes and branches. Bronze green filmy ferns filled the open glades, the banks of streams, the wet cliff walls.
Light-loving rosette trees grew on low rocks. Three times a year they flowered dark blue. Evergreen myrtles with whit flowers graces the forest's edge, plum trees blossomed in spring. There was brushwood on the rock ledges and lichen on the stones. Luxuriant moss cushioned the boulders at the foot of the waterfalls. Colonies of flowering plants and grasses formed heathland. Herbs thrived by the valley's streams.
In one valley of green pastures, cut by a fast-flowing stream there was a small harbour where boulders shifted under heavy swell. In calm seas a boat could land at the foot of projecting rock, hollowed like a tunnel. The rock led to a cave sixteen feet above sea level. It was a place where a man might shelter.*
But only in one wide bay might a large ship find safe anchorage in deep water and its boats reach the shore. This bay was walled by high mountains cut by gulches. The grassland of its valley was screened by sandalwood trees and watered by streams. It was a place of echoes and fragrance: gentle at dawn and dusk, hostile in gusting wind. By its streams grew turnips and radishes, herbs, wild oats and grasses. Behind the valley were high-walled gorges, dense with tree ferns and giant-leaved Gunnera peltata. From these gorges plunged waterfalls. Through thick forest a steep pass led to the south side of the island. At the summit of this pass, after an arduous climb, a man might scan the encircling sea. He would miss no ship that approached The Island. In times this summit became known as Selkirk's lookout.
And beyond the valley and before it were ten
thousand miles of ocean. The ocean was The Island's protection. It kept man
(Homo sapiens) away. It carried only the daring or the desperate to its rugged,
stony shore. Without intervention from man The Island found its times of
burgeoning and times of repose.