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The Island Within

The living cathedral, Brooks Point.

Jennifer and I live so close to the natural world, where we are on South Pender. Even in the summer, when the island swells with vacationers, hours will go by where we neither see nor hear any human. So when a shadow passes over the front – a raven flying over to Craddock Beach or our osprey landing in the twisted Garry oak on the hill beside our property ‒ it can cause a chill to shudder through the body.

On rare days, a pod of transient orcas will move past us in Boundary Pass without a circus of loud, crowding whale watching boats. By themselves, the whales move much faster, appear happier without the tourists ogling them. It is sublime to see them in their natural element.

Deer are common visitors. Firing Mildrith one recent morning, a deer walked behind the oven not six feet from me. It stopped and peered back. The light of the fire bathed me in an orange light, and I imagined her wondering what strange creature she beheld. The stillness of the early morning hung between us for a full minute. She finally turned and moved back into the darkness.

Most days I swim in the frigid waters at the foot of our cliff. Many people don’t understand what draws me to the cold water. As I tread off the rocks, I am moved to think I am a visitor in the same “atmosphere” as the whales, seals, salmon, and crab. I feel gripped by the intense cold and the “benign indifference” of the ocean. When I emerge, I am refreshed. The water has washed away the petty concerns of the day. Jennifer always says I look ten years younger.

Meditations on the natural world

I’ve been reading The Island Within by Richard Nelson, an American cultural anthropologist and writer who has studied how aboriginal peoples interact with the natural world. The Island Within is about his own interaction with the natural world, a meditation on mystery and beauty of nature through his own eyes as informed by the Koyukon people of Alaska. It is akin to Thoreau’s Walden or the works by the contemporary nature writer, Barry Lopez.

The book was published in 1989. Much has changed in the 20 years since it appeared, but I’d suggest that, more than ever, we need to be reminded of our place in the natural world, that we are small, not large, and that there is great beauty to be found in nature … and great peril if we don’t show it proper respect. That seems an understatement.

The Island Within is a series of vignettes over a year of the author’s journeys to an island across the Haida Strait from his home in Sitka, Alaska. The island, the identity of which is unclear, is mostly uninhabited and Nelson obsessively (by his admission) drawn by its natural forces, both terrible and beautiful.

Life and death, growth and decay co-exist

In his visits to the Island, Nelson attunes himself to the mystery and beauty of the land, the animals, the sea life, the birds. He notes the patterns of tree growth, the birdsong, the movement of deer and bear across the land. He crawls across a peninsula of rock to lie close to a large pack of seals. He observes the pecking order of animals feasting on a beached carcass of a sperm whale. Life and death, growth and decay coexist in a constant interchange on Nelson’s island, as it does through all nature.

The book opens as he is hunting deer on the island with his dog, a former sled dog named Shungnak. He walks through dense forest, a clear cut, and open beaches. He introduces the philosophy of the Koyukon people and their belief that humans are a small part of the natural world. They believe, among other things, that:

  • a true hunter is one to whom the hunted animal presents itself (the animal comes to the hunter);
  • the killing of an animal is an offering, a gift, and that reverence and respect should be shown it;
  • all animals know a great deal more about the natural world than any human.

The raven brings you luck

Nelson’s telling of the hunt is gripping. He and Shungnak track and lose many deer over the course of a day. He steps carefully, moves to keep his scent upwind of the animal, observes the behaviour of other animals and what it might tell him about the presence of deer. His confidence rises when his patient tracking reveals his prey, then falls when he hesitates or makes a noise to scare away the animal.

Two ravens appear above him, calling out: “gaaga … gaaga!” The sound is the Koyukon word for animal. Nelson wonders if they are guiding him to a deer, as the Koyukon elders would have claimed.

And in case it isn’t enough, the same raven adds another sign of luck. He tucks his wing and cartwheels in the sky, “dropping his packsack,” the elders would say, to give me a share of the meat and fat inside.

Nelson questions whether these signs are given consciously by the raven and, if so, what their motive might be. Would the raven manifest its power for him, or only for someone born into a tradition of respect for the spirit in nature?

If the raven brings you luck, it’s to serve himself, because he will eat whatever you leave for him from the kill.”

Streamers of kelp

There are dramatic moments in each of the 10 chapters. Two orcas, a male, and female, pass within a few feet of the aluminum skiff he is in with his wife and young son (“His dorsal fin is as tall as I am, with streamers of kelp hanging from its tip.”) He spends the night in a petrel rookery, a cave that is home to thousands of these sea-bound birds.

Nelson even indulges his passion for surfing off the island. Waiting for a wave, a passing sea lion stops to investigate the surfboard and Nelson’s legs dangling in the water. It’s a moment of danger. Nelson fears the sea lion might grab his leg and cause severe injury or death. Luckily, the sea lion forgoes an attack and moves on down the coast.

The living cathedral

Some of the most stirring passages of The Island Within, though, are the meditations on nature. Walking through the forests of the island inspires his sense of connection to the natural world.

I’ve often thought of the forest as a living cathedral, but this might diminish what it truly is. If I have understood Koyukon teachings, the forest is not merely an expression or representation of sacredness, nor a place to invoke the sacred; the forest is sacredness itself. Nature is not merely created by God; nature is God. Whoever moves within the forest can partake directly of sacredness, experience sacredness within his entire body, breathe sacredness and contain it within himself, drink the sacred water as a living communion, bury his feet in sacredness, touch the living branch and feel the sacredness, open his eyes and witness the burning beauty of sacredness.

When the wind rustles through the trees, and you feel goosebumps for no good reason, it is the mystery and beauty of the natural world. It’s the same when you think you see a mouse scurry by in the corner of your vision and you wonder if you truly saw it or whether it was your imagination. When you sense, sometimes, that you’re being watched and look up to see pair of raccoon eyes blinking at you through the leaves of a cedar tree. A shock of fear may hit you on a forest trail when you encounter a buck with a large rack of antlers, or you may feel a sense of wonderment discovering a ball of shimmering silver fry in the water off Mortimer Spit. The natural world is all around us on our island. It is something much larger, more beautiful, and more dangerous than you may think.


Read the Happy Monk Newsletter sent out to customers the week this post was published.

1 thought on “The Island Within

  1. Lovely!

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