Ensconced in Alexander Selkirk’s seaside cave, I look through its entry arch, which frames a warp-dyed silk landscape, woven of lavender and dove gray, above a celadon ocean. The moment I first stood in front of it, a sense of familiarity washed over me. It was so exactly what I had imagined – the cobble wall in front, the framework of poles in the doorway, the yellow flowers dotting the grass – that I felt as if I had walked into an illustration from Robinson Crusoe.
Selkirk was the real-life model for Daniel Defoe’s fictional Crusoe. The stiff-necked navigator of the British privateer Cinque Ports, Selkirk had come to mistrust both the vessel and her captain and demanded to be put ashore. Accordingly, in October 1704 he was deposited here on Isla M¿s a Tierra, largest of the Islas Juan Fern¿ndez, 400 miles off the coast of Chile.
Although Selkirk changed his mind and begged to be taken back on board, the Cinque Ports sailed off into the Pacific Ocean without him. And his first instinct had been correct: The ship foundered near the mainland, and those who didn’t drown were imprisoned by the Spanish. Selkirk, on the other hand, remained here alone until February 1709, when he was picked up by two other British privateers.
Now I’m here to be a modern-day Robin-
son Crusoe and to enjoy for myself the isolation of Selkirk’s cave, near a small embayment called Puerto Ingl¿s.
In Selkirk’s time the island was empty, but today there’s a village of some 500 people at Bah¿a Cumberland, on the northeastern tip ofthis roadless island, whose traditional name means “closer to land” (as it is, compared to its sister, M¿s Afuera, “farther from land” by about 100 miles). About 30 years ago the Chilean government changed the name of M¿s a Tierra to Isla R¿binson Crusoe.
I came into the airport on the island’s southwestern tip a couple of days ago, flying the two hours from Santiago in a twin-engine plane. To me M¿s a Tierra looked very small in that immensity of sea, at the mercy of an unfriendly surrounding medium that had been working on getting rid of the island for the last three million years.
A line of white surf scribed its edge, white feathery cartouches on the sea’s map. Tufts of clouds stuck to its promontories, and anvil-shaped El Yunque, at 3,000 feet the island’s highest point, wore its clouds like a cardinal’s hat. It dominated the eastern end of the island, a deeply dark green terrain, sharply ridged and crimped.
This verdure unexpectedly segued into low, rolling, ruddy orange hills as the island narrowed and curved southwestward – vivid, bare colors worked by erosion and etched with drainage lines, a younger and different geomorphological unit than the eastern part of the island.
From the airport I hitched a ride on a small boat to the village of San Juan Bautista, a rock-and-roll ride along the volcanic cliffs of the island’s north coast. As we rounded the headland into Bah¿a Cumberland, a charming Monet painting hung before me: blue waves peaking into sprightly whitecaps; opulent, thickly green mountains; colorful roofs; and fishing boats, white with dark green trim, bobbing cheerfully at anchor.
In the village I got supplies (including home-baked bread, there being no bakery on the island) to take with me to Selkirk’s cave, and arranged for a boat to drop me at Puerto Ingl¿s and leave me to my solitude.
It was not an easy landing. We threw an anchor out about 30 feet offshore, cut the motor, and rowed to a rock outcrop. I jumped off the boat as it heaved up against the jagged, slippery rock, taking advantage of the upward motion to be thrown to shore. I left fingernail marks in the basalt.
Selkirk’s cave is larger than i anticipated, the ceiling high, the floor as clean as if swept – in short, cozy. I’ve set up housekeeping, pitched my tent, hung my backpack and rain suit on spikes in the wall, by my own inclination doing what Defoe scripted Robinson Crusoe to do. It must be a human reaction to a new place where you find yourself alone: recreate the familiar.
I join other households already established in the porous, abrasive walls. In the hundreds of holes, spiders have spun silk, closing the apertures to form pencil-width tunnels, interspersed with small fresh ferns in other cavities. Numbers of infinitesimal ants nest at the base of one of the upright poles that form the screen of the cave, surrounding the pole with little granules of excavated soil. They are so tiny that when one trails across my bare toes I never feel it, only know it’s there if I happen to glance down.
After setting up housekeeping, the second thing I do when
out alone is walk the bounds, define this new world that is mine to prospect.
To the west of the cave a broad meadow opens, the end of a small valley, including more flattish ground than anywhere else on the island except around Bah¿a Cumberland. As I walk, hundreds of half-inch grasshoppers spring up out of the grass like gray ghosts, crackling spirits, invisible until they fly.
A fresh, bubbling stream a foot wide runs through the meadow’s edge. Beside it, dew-beaded spiderwebs drape a shrub. In the stream, masses of extra-peppery watercress surround lavender mint and blue speedwell and small dock plants with rosy seed heads. I follow the water to where it gurgles into the cobble beach. Never more than ankle deep, it has cut no channel but twinkles out through the grass.
From the puddles pop little frogs, each of which would fit on a quarter. One mystery of islands is how plants and animals get there. The eggs of these frogs perhaps came on the feet of migrating birds, which also carry seeds. Essentially dark olive green, the frogs’ only distinctive markings are three black stripes that converge in the eye, and adorable pale pink feet. (I hear them singing at night, tiny bursts of amorous longing, a gentle trilling that befits a creature small enough to sit under a watercress leaf.)
Beyond the stream, cobbles piled up into unsure walls are all that’s left of an old Spanish fort – one of six or seven fortifications built on the island in the 18th century. One of its four cannons lies in front of the cave, stripped by English freebooters, a rust-
A kestrel sweeps a thistle patch, swooping down off the hill, starting up and scarfing down grasshoppers. Twenty years ago some good-hearted but misguided landscapist planted a stiff line of poplar trees (53 of them now) along the shore, and falcons are nesting in them. In the evening at dusk the birds sweep in, calling like lost children. This time of year, January, it never really gets all the way pitch black, and even when the sky is cloudy it holds the light, so that at night the poplar silhouettes look like big black feathers.
Comfortable as i am in the cave, I have slowly come to agree with Carl Skottsberg that this was probably not where Selkirk spent most of his days. Skottsberg, a Swedish botanist, came here first in 1908, fell in love with the island, and spent the next 50 years of his life writing and collating its natural history. He thought Selkirk lived 800 feet up in Anson’s Valley, at a charming place now called
Plazoleta del Yunque.
George Anson, a naval officer who named Bah¿a Cumberland and gave his own name to the valley, called at the island in 1741, after losing many of his crew in the passage around Cape Horn. Since the remainder of his men were mostly incapacitated from scurvy, he stayed on the island three months to let them recover.
Anson sheltered in the plazoleta, which his chaplain described as “a small lawn, that lay on a little ascent, at the distance of about half a mile from the sea¿.[with] two streams of chrystal water, which ran on the right and left of the tent, within an hundred yards distance, and were shaded by the trees which skirted the lawn on either side, and compleated the symmetry of the whole.”
When I made the steep ascent to the plazoleta, the path was lined with maqui and zarzamora, shrubs neither Selkirk nor Anson had to put up with. Maqui was imported to control erosion and became established with a vengeance. Zarzamora is a blackberry bramble that appeared half a century ago. Its branches arch out over the path with intent to maim. The native thrush rapidly spreads the seeds of both shrubs, which have displaced untold acres of native vegetation unable to compete with these grabby newcomers. Only on the higher slopes does the island’s treasury of endemic plants still flourish, and this has been true since the end of the 19th century, when lower altitudes were cleared by forest fires or lumbering.
Although a cave with a view by the ocean has its charms, the plazoleta is more sequestered, flat enough to plant crops, well-watered, and closer to Selkirk’s lookout, a Janus-like ridge that looks to the ocean on either side of the island, where he reportedly repaired every day to look for ships on the horizon.
Halfway up to that lookout, a fern towers above the path, its cluster of stalks easily six feet in diameter and eight feet tall, roofing the path with luxuriously feathery fronds, thickly haired on stems and veins. Another nearby fern, a primitive relic of the Mesozoic era 200 million years ago, bears two kinds of fronds. A full quarter of the higher plants on the archipelago are ferns, because the lightness of their spores allows wind to carry them long distances; wind transport accounts for a large proportion of plants now on R¿binson Crusoe.
When the path steepens sharply – from a 20 percent grade to 70 percent – and becomes muddy and slippery, my view is restricted to where I put my feet, and I notice the small plants one often overlooks. Extravagant mosses pad the bank, often sprigged with tiny maidenhair ferns. A native liverwort spreads flat fronds across the bank, anchored with rhizomes. A male plant is in opulent “bloom,” lifting tan fruiting bodies like minuscule umbrellas.
Two hovery flies – well-behaved insects that neither bite nor attack – hang in the shadows. One has a round bronze head, the other a yellow-and-black abdomen. If two get too close to each other, they zap apart like two like-charged particles, then resume their slow rising and circling and spiraling. The islands were probably fog-bound when the indigenous flies developed, so they are adjusted to low light levels. In the rest of the world, flies prefer sunshine.
The trail breaks out into the open, switching back and forth across bare rocks bordered with a thicket of murtillo, a small, white-flowered heath, on the cliffside edge. Small gray birds – black bill, white underneath with gray stripe along the side, and prominently streaked throat – flit through their tops. They are a subspecies of gray-flanked cinclodes native to M¿s a Tierra. The cinclodes are part of a South American family full of small interesting birds with delightful names like “foliage-gleaner,” “spinetail,” and “leaf-tosser.”
All in all, there are few birds in the archipelago; my Chilean bird guide lists only about 30 in all, and more than a third of these are seabirds, with many of them casual visitors. Only about a half-dozen species nest on the islands, a paucity typical of islands, where the number of species closely correlates with island size.
At the saddle’s top, nearly 2,000 feet above the sea, mists flow and swirl, sometimes flying in streamers as if startled by a cool wind setting all the branches in motion. Shrubs and trees, rank on rank, rise up the columnar basalt walls of Portezuelo peak.
What a vantage point this saddle would have been for the volcanic explosion of February 20, 1835, when a geyser of water burst out of the sea a mile offshore. It sucked the sea so far out of Cumberland Bay that it uncovered old anchors, and the water rushed back in again 15 feet higher, inundating the town four times.
When I walk down the other side, fog denies me the view of the south coast and tiny Santa Clara, the third and last of the islands in this archipelago.
When one is out alone, life takes on a much different rhythm, governed mainly by dawn and dark, the weather, and one’s stomach. The rest of the time is up for grabs. I eat at odd hours, explore a lot, see the same place from different directions, note how early the thistles open, how late before the grasshoppers are active, when the land snails are out.
This morning, in a tuft of grass, I find two snails in flagrante delicto. Their silvery paths have tinseled the dirt by the cave, but until today I’ve seen only empty shells, usually with the spire broken through, as if they’d been eaten. These snails wear fresh lustrous shells – chocolate bands on cinnamon, interlined with cream. Their bodies are palest dove gray with a tinge of peach, lightly speckled, tentacles and horns turning slowly like radar antennae.
With the woodland around Puerto Ingl¿s gone, the terrain has dried out and is less hospitable to indigenous species. Chonta, the lovely palm endemic to M¿s a Tierra, and which “abounded in the island” in Selkirk’s time, has all but disappeared because its satiny white wood with glistening black bands made it a natural for carved objects. The sweet heart of this palm, also called “cabbage tree,” provided Selkirk’s favorite food, but the harvesting killed the tree. The few left are in difficult-to-reach places in the high country, their slender, glossy green boles neatly ringed by leaf scar lines.
I eat most of my meals on the beach, not wanting to drop any tidbits in the cave and encourage the hordes of ants that long ago dug their nests there.
Among the lumps of white shells worn to nubbins, and a few red and ocher pebbles, the volcanic beach cobbles stand out – doorstop size, beautifully rounded. Many charcoal gray ones, full of gas when they hit the atmosphere, are evenly pitted with tiny holes. Others have larger holes as if they’d been worked by boring clams.Marveling at permutations of color and shape, I wonder from what depth within the earth they came, what minerals they carried, how quickly they cooled, how long did the ocean tumble them to create this size and this perfection.
Within moments 35 dark red crabs appear close by. Number 36 skulks in a crevice right beneath my feet. Some are busily feeding, scarcely missing a beat in transferring food to mouth, scraping minute scraps off the rocks, first right, then left. Their little white claws make them look white-gloved, dainty dowagers enjoying high tea. Others hold their claws poised, like wind-up toys just run down, needing to be rewound.
I begin on the chicken leg I’ve brought with me from the village. As I nibble, a scrap of skin drops off and I leave it, intending to pick it up later, forgetting what quick scavengers crabs are.
One crab picks up the whole piece in one claw and drags it like a security blanket across the rocks. Most rocks here are porous, and the crab’s progress is purposeful and secure. Then it starts up the face of a gray cobble so smooth it has difficulty getting anchored. At the crab’s most vulnerable moment, precariously hanging by only three feet, a second crab scuttles up from beneath and grabs the skin. A tug of war ensues, and the skin parts, leaving each with a snippet.
As time goes on, I become more and more entranced with the crabs and come to share meals with them just for the pleasure of watching them operate. For breakfast one morning I have bread and cheese. What I toss into crevices reappears quickly. A phalanx of crabs advances up the rocks, each with a corn-kernel-size piece of cheese held out in front, as carefully as a child taking a present to his teacher.
Before dawn one morning I am startled awake by the sound of barking. When it’s light, I hear it again and go outside to find five big dogs tearing over the ridge. This is a worry I hadn’t thought of.
When the Spanish wanted to stop the visits of foreign privateers to the islands for fresh meat, they imported mastiffs to attack the resident goats. The goats generally outran the dogs, which responded by going after the seals and cleaning M¿s a Tierra out of nesting petrels. Those dogs were mostly barkless; these are probably just town dogs out for a romp.
Nevertheless I stockpile some stones.
I come back in, take off my sandals and put on my boots without the usual desert precaution of banging them out to dislodge any scorpions before putting a foot in. I don and lace a boot. Something wiggles against my toe. I snatch off the boot and a wolf spider erupts, from front to back easily three inches in length because its long legs stretch fore and aft. I hope it’s as discomfited as I am.
One misty afternoon, while tea water heats, I begin rereading Robinson Crusoe. It is nothing like the magical book I remember from childhood. Reading it today is watching a writer’s mind develop an idea: choosing to set the action on an island in the Orinoco River of Venezuela, stretching a stay of four years into 28, giving Crusoe a native to convert (the inspiration may have been a Mosquito Indian named Will, inadvertently left on M¿s a Tierra in 1681), expounding a theme of man’s struggle against temptation and his dominion over the natural world.
Instead it is Selkirk’s own account I enjoy – published as the story he told Edward Cooke and Woodes Rogers, the two privateers who picked him up in 1709, and Richard Steele, who interviewed him in 1713 soon after he returned to England.
Selkirk came home well-to-do from his share of the proceeds from a Spanish galleon that Rogers captured. But after being lionized a short while, he returned to his father’s house in Scotland, where he increasingly spent his days alone. He hollowed out a cave in a hillside and bemoaned the remembered tranquillity of his island. Discontented, he returned to sea in 1717 and died there in 1721.
For my final day at the cave, I’ve saved walking up the ridge between the two drainages that make the stream, saved its high view for the last. Mists still flow and
recede from the mountains, but today the wind comes in from the ocean and pushes them back whenever they creep downward. Big waves hurtle shoreward, with spray blowing off the crests like ostrich feathers.
I work across the rabbit-warren slope, crisscrossed with livestock trails, flushing half a dozen rabbits that bucket up-slope, then I cross a narrow ravine patched with bright green ferns and climb to the central ridge.
Once on top there’s a smooth walk up and up and up, a pied piper landscape where each small rise opens to another crest ahead. The bottom line of the woods is sharply defined, and the crags above are wooded with trees that bear melodic names like luma and canelo and naranjillo, characteristic of this storybook island.
Wistfully, I want to stay longer. The world unfolds slowly here, holding its secrets, parting with them one at a time. Just when I smugly think everything is familiar, I go out for a ten-minute walk, come back three hours later with an arm-long list of questions, having found still another alluring cranny that should be explored tomorrow.
I am loathe to part with this day. I look down on all the places I’ve so contentedly wandered, the peacefulness of it all, the torn-paper profiles and the textures, the high cols through which the mists decant, a quiet in which I fancy I could hear a crab sneeze.
I continue to plod the ridgeline, soak up the splendor of opulent woods and jagged ridgelines, soil dark as a coffee bean, trees green as life. Selkirk’s words filter back to me: “Never have I been so happy as when I lived on my little island.”