I grew up barefoot in a place where nature and history exist side by side. Pieces of Ming Dynasty porcelain dotted the shore of a beach near my house where a Spanish galleon long ago capsized off the coast, taking its treasures with it to the bottom of the sea, to be spit out, in pieces, on to the shores for children to find for centuries afterward.
Stories are told still of eras long before, when the sea had returned gold to the coastline and the inhabitants of the island, having no use for such a soft metal, had used it to decorate the trees around their villages. You can still see the gold sometimes, after one of those powerful but brief showers in the middle of the day, when the light bounces off the wet leaves and fruits like so many shimmering ornaments.
That's not the only thing the Spanish left behind. The feast days are still there, cradled by folklore. Ancestral spirits and creation myths walk beside saviors, virgins and saints. Jesus died for our sins, they say, whatever sin is, but it's the turtle that saved our ancestors from the life-giving and death-dealing sea. You cross yourself as you pass the church, but you pause when you encounter the banyan tree and ask permission to step over thick and gnarled areal prop roots. Maybe you're afraid of damnation, but the stories told around the campfire aren't about hell, they're about what happens when the taotaomo'na are disrespected.
Another stroll, another beach, this one with white, finer sand, where in certain places you can see the tracks left by so many little turtle hatchlings. Take a swim across the turquoise lagoon and you'll find, perched on the reef like lost relics of a foreign strife, two Sherman tanks left behind during the Second World War, less than a mile from the shore. Red with corrosion, they are now part of the ecosystem that those who navigated them over the coral cared so little to spare. You can do pull ups on the barrel, and sit atop them to watch the sunset, but beware the lion fish that call their interiors home, along with so many other sea things.
I've swam with reef sharks and hawksbill turtles, stone fish and parrot fish, lion fish and sea cucumbers. I've seen the waves glow with biolumnescent dinoflagellates and woken surrounded by coconut crabs the size of my fist. I've dived grottoes and airplane graveyards and watched in wonder as my entire form is darkened by the shadow of a manta gliding over me. Such beautiful things.
But those planes are a reminder -- beyond this vast blue, on a smaller island, a B-29 named after the pilot's mother took off on August 6, 1945 and dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima. The airfield remains on this island, unmarked but untouched, just a short distance from a casino where Washington's congressional fact-finding missions go to convalesce after some days of arduous golfing. I took my grandfather there once and while everyone laughed over chips and cards, we sat on the field, somber and mute.
I met Paul Tibbets before he passed, shortly after the 65th anniversary of the war, at a bar with a picture of the mushroom-shaped cloud on one of the walls. It was the strangest moment of my life, a pivotal moment, though nothing happened, besides a gin and tonic. To grow up among these artifacts -- the pock-marked cliffs where we brought oranges and candles to commemorate people we never met, running through the thickets of the invasive species of tree brought in to prevent erosion after the landscapes were destroyed in this history-defining stage of a war greater than any single nation, the bunkers in which we hid to drink and kiss, the old Japanese jail where we gave in to self-disclosure and told one another the longings of our hearts, the rusted grenades and half-scorched glass Coca-Cola bottles we kicked up in the jungle cantering on horseback, so many things -- and here was a man, just a man like any other at that bar, yet I couldn't ask a single question.
They call places like these paradise, and they're right. But no paradise is without history. And yet -- because there is always a yet -- no matter how many buildings we erect and how many battles are waged over land and principle, the island refuses to be taken. If myth dies hard, nature dies harder. Savage and beautiful, it's claimed those tanks and bunkers. It's claimed old satellites and factories. It's claimed an amusement park and a mall. And it will claim every building after we're gone, leaving only shards and rusted things. One can only hope someone will remain to tell our story, the same way we tell the stories about the banyan tree and how the turtle carried our ancestors safely across the sea.
Photo by Michael John Grist.