A Sense of Place: Call Me Island
A man, whose name in Old Norse means island, recounts his island in a sea of grass.
By Bill Holm
I'm not sure I was looking for wisdom when I invented islands on the prairie as a boy. Like most children, I longed for a private world with boundaries unassailable by adults, or even by other children. Maybe only children like me discover the essential isolate quality inside human beings before others, but I'd guess that all humans discover it in the course of an average life; pain, disease, failure, betrayal, death, all have proved themselves adequate instructors.
My father's island was his hilltop farm from which he could survey the roof peaks of his neighbors' barns and the 20-mile-distant line of glacial hills that rose southwest of his house. My island was not his island, despite the fact that we shared a name. The farm seemed to me a bottomless pit with its practical labor, animal smells, grain dust, whirling eternal winds, barbed-wire boundaries. I discovered the imagination early, then fed it with books, music, and daydreaming till it grew to the usual monstrous human size. I lived in a private mental world, sure that no other human being on the face of the earth had any remote notion of the strange goings-on inside my head, or what singular oddities gave me pleasure. I found my comrades among the dead: Poe, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Icelandic sagas in literature; the fiercer and stranger books of the Bible: Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon; the romance of the Arctic: Fridtjof Nansen, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Robert Peary, and Frederick Cook, the search for the lost Franklin expedition. I savored the gothic and the horrible: Frankenstein, Dracula, stories of zombies, of corpses risen from their coffins for revenge, mischief, self-assertion.
Though I think I was a friendly enough boy in my functions on the surface of life, I was always convinced at bottom of my utter disconnection from humanity. Who else longed for violin music, dog sleds mushing over frozen ice floes, old heavy leather-bound books, eerie scratchings on night windows from inhabitants of the next world? I would look in the mirror at my pink, soft, fleshy head, crowned with a mop of bright red hair, adorned with thick black plastic glasses and think: There is someone else trapped inside this body--another life, another possibility. The universe has made some mistake here.
So in the brief subarctic Minnesota summer after the box elders and cottonwoods leafed out and the legions of insects hatched, I would journey out with my equipage to furnish and fortify my private island. It was not a long trip. Trees were scarce on the prairie and aside from farm groves and river courses grew one or two at a time in odd places, along fence lines or in the middle of fields, where the birds had shat out or the wind had scattered as if by random chance, a seed that actually amounted to something and grew up to be a real tree. A fine old cottonwood sat on a little island of grass in the middle of the field just west of the house. You passed through a grove of Chinese elms and box elders to arrive at the field's edge and there it stood, as if out to sea--either corn, wheat, alfalfa, oats, or flax. An ambitious farmer might have cut down the tree to reap another bushel or two and to avoid plowing around this impediment to agricultural progress, but my father was willing to circle it and leave nature well enough alone. I furnished my island always with food, (I was and remain a happy eater), bottles of water, books, paper, and pens. I used fallen branches and pulled up weeds and farm scrap to make the island invisible to prying eyes, though my father could always follow my progress from his tractor seat. Such are the illusions of youth in its pursuit of a private world.
The illusion of island life always looked best in years when my father planted the hilltop with flax. Flax is the loveliest of all crops on the northern prairie. When it flowers, the field turns into a sea of bright blue blossoms, pitching and rolling in that omnipresent prairie wind. Now my island of green grass with its single tree had the look of a real tropical island. I don't think I ever pretended to canoe through the flax to arrive there, but I might have with some justice. My imagination wasn't as big as I thought. Corn provided the best cover. When it arrived at its stately mature height, the island turned invisible even to my father. Had I been able to invent secret and terrible rites, I could have practiced them undisturbed, at least until my mother summoned me for a meal. Even the imagination doesn't like missing dinner. It must be fed too--sometimes with pork chops and rhubarb pie.
What did I do on my namesake island? I practiced geography, naming and mapping it, charting its chief natural features, its cities, industries, resources. I did what young liars do: I made it up. I imagined invaders and the means I might use to repel them. I populated the island with large, plump, nerdy boys who, astonishingly, shared my odd tastes. I had scintillating and witty conversations with them. Puberty hadn't arrived in my island days, so I probably didn't imagine colonies of beautiful black-haired women, but I confess to having done so since. Thoreau had his flute at Walden, but I had my black plastic tonette on Holm's Holm, so I composed and wrote down whole symphonies--one tune--and labeled them, like my hero Beethoven, with opus numbers: Grand Symphony for Tonette in D Minor by William J. Holm, Opus 12, 1953. I began to assemble my collected poems, though I think I was a little premature in that. I folded, then bound them either with Scotch tape or string. I don't remember assembling Festschrifts in honor of my upcoming Nobel Prize, but I might have. Isolation breeds grandiosity in human character. If no one can see what you're at, you may as well be extraordinary. It doesn't cost any more than Lutheran modesty.
I drove by Holm's Holm last summer, but found it gone. The tree must by now have died, or the new farmer cut it down when he sensibly reshaped the hilltop field in terraces to prevent the downward slide of topsoil, a conservation practice my father never discovered. But, of course, the island goes on existing where it always existed: in my mind's eye, the same ocean that holds Crusoe's island, Dr. Moreau's, Lilliput, Laputa, Brobdingnag, and Treasure. Like Thoreau, I wanted to drive life into a corner, to see what it was made of. The big world seemed too strange, too hostile, too unsuited to my nature, but we all discover, as we age, that in at least one sense, our interior islands grow even larger. We find that we are, in fact, connected, that John Donne may have been no fool when he said we are not islands--entirely. Those connections may not always please us, and we may sometimes long to return to the private and fortified island surrounded by flax. We may even conspire to remove the other islands that we imagine get in the way of our vision. Islands are necessary for us to be able to think about what is true at the bottom of our own character; we need to reduce the world for a while to count it and understand it. But finally no island is without fine threads traveling mostly invisibly under the ocean floor to every other island, that we are, like it or not, part of the gang, and the gang, like it or not, had better get used to that fact. You can safely take all this sound advice from me: Call me island and I will answer, though probably to other names as well. Walt Whitman thought we were all continents, even planets, each and every one of us, and that might be true too.
Bill Holm is a devotee of islands as well as an essayist, musician, and poet. This Sense of Place is excerpted from his book, Ecentric Islands, 2000 (Milkweek Editions, 1-800-520-6455). Copyright 2000 Bill Holm. Reprinted with permission.