The call of an island life

A feature last Sunday about a documentary to record life on the southern islands for posterity got my attention.

It had never occurred to me that there were sizeable communities in these places, now mainly uninhabited, living full lives we can only imagine today through words and pictures. In interviews, islanders talked about the charms and privations of living on a smudge of land surrounded by water, far away from "civilisation".

Some people were glad to get away into a decent flat on the mainland, as they were extremely poor. But there were others who could never quite kick the habit of island life.

Many still go out to sea each weekend to fish. One man keeps alive his connection to St John's Island through weekly visits to a friend who continues to live there.

I had been to St John's in my childhood but had no memory of it. One Sunday afternoon some years ago, my husband and I, on a whim, took the children there. You can still catch the ferry from Marina South.

There were no shops of any kind that might cater to a hungry, thirsty or fun-seeking tourist. There was a marine laboratory and some derelict buildings. Most strikingly, there was a surreal quietude, due mostly to the abandoned hulk of an old prison with its barbed wire fences and silent watch towers, all in eerily good shape.

I think we splashed about in the water and picnicked at one of the numerous tables set there for that reason. Though there were other visitors, it felt rather desultory, as though any vibrancy the island might have had in the past had been leached out of it. It was a trip back in time, juxtaposed against the spectacular backdrop of the ultra-modern Singapore skyline.

More recently, the beguiling nature of island life lulled us into spending a few days on a cluster of islands in Florida. Cedar Key, once home to pencil factories, evolved into a fishing village when the factories closed and, when those businesses died, found new life in becoming the country's second largest producer of farmed clams. You can be sure I ate a lot of them while I was there.

In this sleepy, sweet hideaway, we met a woman who had decided to give up her career as an oncologist working for the National Institutes of Health in Maryland to answer the call of her childhood growing up on the coast of Florida.

She now oversees a wildlife refuge in the area and, yup, is as happy as one of those shellfish I consumed in numbers, steamed in butter, wine and garlic. She has let her hair grow into a curly mane, sports an enviable tan and goes to work in sandals.

It's easy to romanticise island life, though the reality, for people cut off from the economic advantages of cities, must be a fair amount of hardship. Yet the sea calls back many who have moved on.

What they miss, and what urbanites hanker for, is the promise of a slower and simpler life, unfettered by the many things that tie us down.

Who doesn't want to be on island time, with the prospect of nothing to do but to enjoy the soothing breeze and a good book?

But one can't be on vacation all the time, so how can I impart something of that island life mindset into everyday life?

It means more than turning off the phone and setting aside time each day to savour the moment.

What I admired about the islanders - both in reading about them and meeting some of them - was their deep connection to the land and one another.

In our modern existence, we tend to experience the world at arm's length, neatly packaged in a styrofoam food carton, through a window or on a screen.

Islanders, and other people who live close to the land, are nowhere as insulated. They have an intimate knowledge of their environment, relying on it as they do for their livelihoods, and they take great pleasure from it. Because they know how much they depend on it, they tend to be better stewards of their patch.

Their gift to me, personally, is to remind me, literally, to slow down and pay attention to where I am and what I am doing. Not to move on before the moment has even passed.

To experience the world in the present with wonder and joy. Isn't that what we imagine of island life?

sharonl@sph.com.sg