The Sea Isle of Itsara
After W B Yeats
When the time comes I will go there, to the far Koh Itsara.
There will be no house there, but the time to collect exactly the right materials to build one will stretch ahead like all the opportunities I never took. I will gather them all together as required: stones from the headland, lime from the earth, sand from the beach and hardwood dragged from the interior, sawn straight and square and good for the beams.
There surely must be tools there because I cannot bring my own. It’s tempting to believe that the memory of tools will be enough—the trusted tenon saw that served my gnarled hand all my adult life, my rule, my pliers and my claw hammer, half-rusted but still ringing true. My bricklayer’s trowel, no longer sharp at the edge but worn to the curve that makes a perfect grout, I will hope to see washed bright and laid out on a rock. My power tools, the grinder, drill and saw, will work without their cables.
And there will be no haste there, for time is all I have, time to build my cabin, to prepare the ground, sink good foundations and fit the stones exactly, offering each one up to its position in the wall, knocking off a corner here or a swelling there to improve the bedding in. I will not hesitate to put one stone aside for another if it doesn’t fall into place without effort. Admiring the Mayan masons, I might risk slipping a cigarette paper between my stones as a test of my new patience.
While I am building, a temporary shelter of some kind will shade me from the sun and deflect the tropical winter rains, providing me with a dry place to sleep, if sleep will come. Branches stripped and wedged across two or three trees with a thatch of coconut fronds should do the job; it’s only for a while after all, though what is a while when time is immaterial?
I’ve decided that I shan’t restrict myself to conventional working hours, but build when I have the notion, tidy my bivouac when its disorder offends me and rest when I’m tired or feeling lazy.
And I shall need some food there, for whatever stores I am allowed to take can hardly be expected to last forever. Clams and mussels will mass on the rocks, abundant for the taking; winkles if I care to pick.
There will be fish of course and the traditional methods of catching them are sure to be the best. A spear! I must have a spear and this weapon will surely be one of the first things I will make, perhaps even a small quiver-full to trial a number of different techniques. Bamboo may work, with a sharp piece of shell bound in at the tip, or some likely sapling with its buds removed, whittled to a point, may be just the thing to stab at the taunting shoals.
I like to see myself stalking the azure, white-sand shallows like a thoughtful heron, the dark schools of sprat parting before me and closing behind like a skirt.
I can’t live on fish alone; I’ll have learning enough to know that I need green vegetables to stay in good condition. I wonder if I shall be granted the necessary folk knowledge to distinguish the nourishing gifts of the jungle from the emetic or deadly, or is this a skill I shall have to acquire after arrival? If it has to be learned it can hardly be by trial and error, the way the folk themselves must have worked. I’ll be on my own and will have no room for error.
Some herbs I hope to recognise—sweet basil and coriander certainly, ginger and cardamom are possible—but many staples I shall surely have to grow myself. Rice would be a natural for the climate, but with its need for irrigation I’m not confident of the viability of paddy on the isle. It may be better to think along the lines of potatoes—they’re easy to grow and so versatile in the kitchen; besides, they’re in my bones. Spinach and broccoli would be nice, and carrots and parsnips of course; then there are Jerusalem artichokes—well now, if I could propagate such things as Jerusalems my happiness would be assured for eternity.
Fruit is the crowning glory of any harvest display. I would like to take papaya for breakfast, doused in lime juice naturally, and a choice of melon, mangosteen or lychee for after dinner. That will be my plan at any rate. Bananas are a given; I’m depending on their being indigenous for I have no idea how to grow bananas from scratch.
A clearing in the jungle will be required—more hard work, I know, but that’s a virtue; after such toil I shall be assured of good sleep at least. I shall hack away at the shrubbery, tug out the grass and be sure to dig deeply enough to remove all the roots to prevent them coming back. After an eternity of natural mulching the soil will be dark, rich and peaty.
I shall save a suitable percentage of my foraged seeds for planting—corncobs, grass ears, fruit pips and beans—and sow them all in plough-straight rows.
For ready protein I could do no better than to keep livestock. The species will depend not only on what’s available and what I can catch, but also on what I can effectively domesticate. Rabbits are a possibility and chickens are for certain, but the prize would be to develop a small herd of bush pig. I will not keep bees; their infernal buzzing would be an annoyance and besides I can’t bear the taste of honey.
My animals will also do for company of a sort, though it is my paramount wish to be alone—the pigs in their corral, the chickens in their pen and I in my half-built cabin in the glade.
It won’t be all hard work there. There will be time enough for contemplation, for walking in the margins of the sea, climbing the rocky outcrops to look out to the unpeopled horizon and exploring the luscious, wooded interior of the isle.
I fancy settling near a stream, a thread of vivacity running from some mossy, gurgling place in the stillness of the jungle downwards to the sea. Of course I will need the water itself as a domestic commodity, but I’m thinking of an aesthetic and recreational resource here too. I shall divert the flow into all kinds of races, waterfalls and ponds using an ingenious system of pipework and aqueducts fashioned from hollowed-out tree-trunks and useful-shaped rocks hauled back from the beach. The visual effect will be entertaining; the constant tinkling music of the water, a reminder of eternity, will be a comfort in periods of doubt.
It may be that, after a while, I will develop a diurnal routine. In the early morning I might work on my cabin, occasionally taking time away from the weight and mineral hardness of stones to tend the animals and weed the vegetable beds.
Later in the day, I shall move undercover to avoid the sun and prepare food for the day or, sitting at my workbench, put my mind to fashioning essential items from the bounty of the forest—a toothbrush from a frayed twig, a comb from a spined palm stem, spoons from tree-bark, knives from flint. It will be a time for testing my past, assessing what was needed and what, when said and done, was a flippant luxury.
The early afternoon will be a time for rest. After a lunch of baked potato or sweetcorn and bacon fried in its own fat over a wood fire, I’ll have no mind for building.
Evening will bring a chance to appreciate the beauty of my isle. The sunsets will be magnificent, the dying sun skittering diamonds in off the sea like a jeweller on his velvet cloth and the night a rash of stars. Sometimes I’ll sit alone on a high dune behind the beach and wonder where all the other isles might be. The quiet will be deafening, the peace so loud it will be broken only by the lapping of tiny waves and the flurry of mynah wings roosting.
When the time comes I will go there. With the destination so fully imagined, all that remain are the details of departure. I have the ticket; I have the visa; I will go, but the dates are open; I don’t know when. It seems premature to pack my bags just yet, but there are times I admit when I feel such a yearning for my journey’s end that it’s hard to resist at least laying out my clothes.
For this is all I know now: there’s something deep in us all that hankers for peace, for the simplicity that we are denied just by being human. I’ve seen it at the edges of our world, on a cliff-top perhaps, where people stop to consider where else there is to go; in a crowd where an angry populace surges together; or at a party where a woman’s attention drifts. You see the same in cities where, occasionally, someone who is unloved or victimised at work or drawn into cheating on his wife looks up and sees himself standing on a small block of grey cement, his pockets full of mobile phones, in a galaxy of stars.
And then there is regret, repentance for a life lived in impatience, approximation or compromise, a making do. Somewhere, sometime, there is surely a chance, if not to make amends, at least to put the lessons into practice, to polish the technique, to have another go.
There was a less complicated time—childhood perhaps—a time in the memory when we were free of all this. This is what I hope to regain by going there, to sing with the leaves and be silent under the sky, to recall what my memory has recorded for me as good and true and worthwhile.
I long for it because in the end it is to simplicity that we are bound to return, because peace is an isle in a welcoming sea, because freedom is the first poem I ever learned by heart.
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