For nearly a year in my early twenties, I stayed within a five-mile radius of my house. As with the current stay-at-home order, it was not necessarily by choice. I was teaching English on a speck of sand five miles long by a half-mile wide in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and apart from the occasional boat ride to go fishing, I simply didn’t have anywhere else to go. Neither did the 500 or so Marshallese people who had graciously shared their home with me. Planes and boats off-island were few and far between.
Most people in the 21st century can’t fathom this kind of stillness. We’re used to jumping in our cars or catching public transportation or booking plane tickets with hardly a second thought. Our freedom to go, whether into the mountains or across borders, becomes intertwined with who we are, and with our emotional and financial well-being. Those of us who work or play in wild places seem especially vulnerable to the allure; whether we call ourselves bikers, skiers, vanlifers, guides, backpackers, or whatever else, movement is often baked into our very identities.
And then a global pandemic grinds everything to a halt.
Like many people, I’ve been confined to my house and neighborhood for over a month now and am trying to accept that the restrictions won’t end in April or May, but may stretch into the summer and beyond. On top of concerns about health and healthcare, paying the bills, and buying food, I’m struggling to accept that I may have to stay in one place for many months. Back in March, canceling a weekend of mountain biking was disappointing but manageable. The idea of going the whole summer without road tripping or camping or visiting distant family, though, has been harder to swallow. It sticks in my throat like a bitter pill.
And so I’ve been reading my journal from the year I lived in the Marshall Islands, trying to remember what it was like to stay in one place for so long.
Looking back on those salt-stained pages, the biggest takeaway was that it was stultifying and isolating and hard. There’s no avoiding that fact. I remember Sundays in particular, when the one store on the island was closed and no one was allowed to work. I’d walk to church in the morning, sit through several hours of preaching and singing in a language I barely understood, then shuffle back home to lie on a cement floor in the suffocating heat, reading a book while flies buzzed around my head and landed in the cuts on my shins. I’d hum that John Prine line—“well there’s flies in the kitchen/I can hear ‘em there buzzin’/And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today”—and write in my journal about the things I missed. They were very specific, like drinking an iced coffee while driving to the beach with the windows down listening to the Grateful Dead, or hugging close friends, or standing in the cereal aisle at the grocery store and buying whatever I wanted. Oddly, these are some of the same things I’m missing now.
I noticed things I might have overlooked had I been able to seek out grander vistas: the nightly battles between geckos and cockroaches on my bedroom wall, the dozens of colors in a single handful of sand.
But there was also a subtle, unexpected beauty in being confined to a five-mile strip of sand and jungle. There was only one trail to run on, a path worn by men pushing carts teetering with coconuts, and I came to know it intimately—each rock and root, each bend and bump. Such intimacy breeds attentiveness. I noticed things I might have overlooked had I been able to seek out grander vistas: the nightly battles between geckos and cockroaches on my bedroom wall, the dozens of colors in a single handful of sand.
With each month that passed, I thought I knew my new home as well as anyone could know a place. And each month, without fail, I’d discover something new. Once, a group of kids took me hunting for a kind of nut I hadn’t heard of, called kwole. We rooted through the leaf litter looking for them in the same jungle I’d run through a hundred times, each time unaware that delicious nuts were ripening beneath my sneakers. It was as if the island had actual layers and you had to peel back one in order to see the next.
Still, my knowledge was superficial. Marshallese people have lived on this island for some two thousand years, and their understanding of its natural systems consists not just of their own observations, but of generations’ worth of careful attention. As a result, the Marshallese language has more than one hundred words and phrases related to coconuts and another fifty for fishing. I find this specificity beautiful. And I find that my own language, which loses place-specific vocabulary as our society becomes increasingly global and mobile, doesn’t measure up.
Perhaps, on a very small scale, the pandemic is starting to change that. I’m fortunate to still have trails at the end of my street that are open for walking, and as I walk these trails, day in and day out, I develop my own language for them. I name rocks and landmarks, not to be cute but so I can explain to my husband where our daughter tripped and skinned her knee, or where we saw the first scarlet globemallow leaves pushing through the arid soil. I abandon plans to canoe between the towering walls of a canyon two hundred miles west and instead examine the miniature canyons carved by rain into a boulder a mile from my door. I exchange adrenaline for attention, for what poet Jane Hirshfield calls “slow joy.”
After nearly a year on the tiny island where I once lived, I couldn’t wait to get away. The airplane that was my lifeline to the outside world often didn’t come when it was supposed to, so for several weeks I waited at the airstrip, staring at the sky and silently begging the plane to materialize. One day, it came. I boarded it, back to choices and roads and friends and freedom, back to a path that would eventually lead here: constrained to a single place in the world once again, trying to remember that staying still doesn’t have to be a sentence. It can be a gift.
Top photo: Bruno do Val
If you’re going to be paying more attention to your immediate surroundings, you’re going to need a guidebook or two. We love the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Western Region. You’ll also want to know what kinds of trees you’re looking at, right? The National Geographic Field Guide to the Trees of North America: The Essential Identification Guide for Novice and Expert will come in mighty handy.