The Great Escape in Finland
Published: June 2009
By Leslie Li
I have almost always lived on islands. Islands rising out of rivers, such as Manhattan, my present address, and Paris's Île de la Cité, my postgraduate home. Or islands in the sea that are big in size, like Sicily, where I decamped after Paris; or in population density, like Hong Kong, where I resided as a child. But never had I been to, let alone lived on, a tiny, uninhabited island. Not until several summers ago, that is, when I was visiting my friend Mirja in the Finnish lake district.
I decided to spend part of my vacation in a rented cottage in just such a spot. Some 1,200 islands compose the Turku archipelago in the Gulf of Finland. Surely one of them would meet my simple but stringent requirements. Mirja warned that I might be prey to tanukis ("Wild raccoon-dogs. Keep your door shut"), vipers ("Venomous. Wear shoes outdoors''), and sea snakes ("Don't worry, they may be large but they're innocuous''). Her admonitions were well taken, but no deterrent.
The temporary home that I found-- a one-room log cabin with sauna-- stood in a clearing that looked out upon a swath of islet-studded sea. It had electricity but no running water or plumbing. Those conveniences were supplied by a pump about 50 yards behind the cottage and an outhouse 15 yards downwind. Ten yards in front of my porch was a big, flat, lichen-encrusted rock-- my "centering rock"-- where I took my breakfast and lunch every day and spent hours just sitting, looking, being.
The island, like the cabin, was very small, but it was large enough to have a name, which, translated from the Finnish, means "fireweed," the tall, conical, purplish-pink wildflower. Fireweed wasn't truly isolated: a bridge connected it with Kustavi, the main island. The owner of my cottage, fearing I would come down with cabin fever, had tied red ribbons around the trunks of trees growing near strategic bends and forks in the path to show me the way back to civilization.
The antithesis of a tropical paradise blessed by nature, my northern island-- all granite and twisted scrub pine-- could only hope to coexist with it. Fireweed, isolated by a sea whose color matched that crayon shade Prussian blue, was a spit of land burned clean of all excess. What was left was the absolutely essential, the strictly elemental-- just as my life there would be.
A pared-to-the-bone island is not only a place to experience solitude; it is a metaphor for solitude. Alone on an island, you run the risk of self-discovery. But that is precisely the lure and the challenge: by getting away from it all, you come face to face with yourself. I've prided myself on being a trailblazer of sorts. That delusion evaporated on my first trip to the water pump. Unaware that three other paths radiated from it, I chose the wrong one for the return trip and found myself lost in the woods. As darkness descended, I had a panic attack with all the fixings-- the flight of logic, the labored breathing, the thud of heartbeat against breastbone. Finally, I regained enough presence of mind to follow the path back to the pump, where the second trail I took led me home. "If anything can teach you humility," Tove Jansson once wrote, "it is living with the sea close at hand."
Such a life can also impart to the novice islomaniac the paradox of simplicity. Making do with little, I discovered, was more than an exercise in self-sufficiency. It was a source of self-enrichment. A simple meal tasted like a banquet after all the preparation it required. Taking a sauna bath was a major production: two trips to the pump with a bucket in each hand, lighting the kindling and placing the logs just so to create an updraft, then waiting a good half-hour till it blazed, by which time I was more than ready to come clean in a baptism by fire.
Which is precisely the point. Everything I did, as simple and basic as it was, took time, the only thing there was plenty of. And because it took time, everything was imbued with a presentness that lent the act a spiritual significance, the grace of a ritual.
After my panic attack, I relinquished any desire to explore my island. Surprisingly, like Mohammed's mountain, it came to me. For hours I sat on my warm, flat rock, exerting a passive resistance against the centrifugal pull of adventurousness or restlessness. A seagull hovered above, its Brancusian form held in place by the steady breeze, a perfect tension between matter and energy. Before me lay the island closest to mine, anchored by a glacial erratic. This geological émigré, left by the Ice Age upon a foreign shore, basked in the dazzling sunlight serene as a sphinx. One time a schooner, sails bellied with the wind, slid silently out from behind the great alien boulder and into heart-stopping view. I, the islomaniac, did not wave. Neither did the sailors on deck. Exhibitionism has its place, but not on my austere stationary island, nor on their majestic mobile one.
In contrast to that single apparition, a pedestrian tugboat put in regular appearances, by which I gauged the time, since the maverick summer sun here dips below the horizon for only an hour or two before bobbing back up in a new day. I could read from my book of essays (novels are for paradise islands) by sunlight till nearly 11 at night. "For that is the only true Time which man can properly call his own," wrote Charles Lamb in "The Superannuated Man," "that which he has all to himself; the rest, though in some sense he may be said to live it, is other people's Time, not his."
On the day of my leave-taking, the owner of my cottage came with his 10-year-old daughter, Hannele, to drive me to the bus depot in town. Since they were a bit early, Hannele stripped, clambered on top of the highest boulder near my centering rock, and threw herself headlong into the sea.
What about the sea snakes, large but innocuous?I asked her father. He looked at me, a baffled expression on his weather-beaten face. No snakes. Years ago, but not now. And no tanukis or vipers either. With more than a little envy, longing, and humility engendered by having lived with the sea close at hand, I watched Hannele turn somersault after rapturous somersault in the Prussian blue, serpentless sea.
LESLIE LI is the author of the novel Bittersweet (Charles E. Tuttle).