A Tale of Two Islands
Mataki had taken to spending more time alone on the central mountain where he could see the entire island and its reef below. For over a thousand years his people, the Polynesians, had spread from island to island, ever eastward, and Mataki, Master Navigator, was again looking to the east. He knew 78 islands to the west and how to navigate to each, even the ones he had never visited, but knew of none to the east. Several navigators before him had sailed to the furthest points of no return—east, southeast, northeast before turning around, but had found no new lands. Now this island was filling up; only a few trees large enough to make voyaging canoes remained—it was time to go.
Going meant going to the point of no return and beyond. If no land were found, all would die at sea. Few were willing to go, but Mataki's youngest daughter, her husband, and six other couples were prepared to sail into the raising sun.
Overseeing the construction of the voyaging canoe, the Space Shuttle of his culture, and its provisioning occupied Mataki for over a year—no detail could be overlooked. Finally, in a tearful parting, fifteen adults, ten children, eight chickens, two bred sows, and seeds, roots, or cuttings of all useful plants set sail to the east.
On the 43rd day, in the late afternoon, Mataki saw a seabird flying high towards the southeast and changed course. Three days later a speck of island appeared on the horizon. It was a relatively large island mostly covered in giant palm trees of a kind no one had seen before. Soon gardens were planted and the roosters crowed.
The next year Mataki lead a voyage to explore for islands further east; five children were born that year, but no new islands found. The next year they explored to the south; the oldest of the children was now a woman and gave birth to a daughter, and no new lands were found. In the third year Mataki discovered a reef far to the northeast upon which waves broke, but there was no land to settle. The home island, called Rathsi to honor the gods, now had 20 children to call it home.
By the eighth year both Mataki and the voyaging canoe were too old to explore any more, and it mattered little because by then Mataki knew there were no more islands within reach. For now there was no reason to go beyond the furthest horizon. It was a big island and there were now 71 rather fat people and 312 chickens living on it (the pigs had died before reaching the island).
It was a big island for so few people, but not so big that Mataki, standing on the central mountain, could not see all of it. It was a paradise of rare device, but Mataki's thoughts were troubled. It would be long after his death before the island filled with people, but fill it would and there were no new islands.
On the twelfth year Mataki called together the four clans. He was old and he must speak. Only 24 of Rathsi's 108 inhabitants were old enough to listen when he rose to speak. He told them that the gods had truly blessed them in guiding them to this island of plenty, and that in his dreams the gods had spoken to him. They said that each clan was to claim one twentieth of the island as their own to farm, build upon, to cut down the trees therein, to harvest the fruit, and to use as they wisely saw fit. Also each could claim one twentieth of the shoreline and reef to fish and harvest its bounty of seafood. Each clan could claim any part of the island, but only a twentieth part for their use. Altogether the people would have one-fifth of the island and the rest would belong to the gods. The gods decreed that if anyone so much as tried to take any part of the remaining four-fifths, all the people would be punished harshly.
The people could not understand why the gods would speak of such things. One-fifth of the island was far more than the people needed. But the gods are hard to understand, and so the people honored the decree of the gods. In the following year Mataki helped the clans place the boundary stones marking those portions of land and sea that the gods had allowed the people to claim.
The fifteenth year, Mataki knew, would be his last. For the last time he spoke to the people. There were 154 of them now. He told all who would listen that the day would come when their fifth of the island would not seem to be enough. Only then would the decree of the gods be difficult to heed.
"When that time comes some will say that it is right for the people to take the whole island for themselves, but they must not be listened to. The decree will be hard to follow because there will be too many people and you will know there are too many people when they start to say their fifth is not enough, that they need more and more. Do not listen; say instead that the people of Rathsi must adopt new ways. Say that from now on none can be born except by decree, and that only the death of one can decree the birth of another. To this rule there can be no exceptions. Do what you must to live by it. Only then will the gods continue to favor you."
The people listened and said, “Yes, Mataki, we will,” but few understood. Several centuries passed, the people prospered, and in time some began to say that one-fifth of the island is not enough. Though Mataki's name was well remembered, his warning was not, and so it came to pass that those who must have more took the rest of the island and prospered exceedingly while the gods did nothing to punish them. Mataki came to be known as tena'n te, “the old fool.”
Another century passed before the last of the giant palms were cut down. Mamo had cut it down to make a fishing canoe. He and his family prospered exceedingly when theirs was the last of the great fishing canoes on the beach. The old ones told of other plants and animals that had once lived on the island; the stories of the old were listened to with bemused tolerance. There were now 15,649 proud people on the island for they had built great monuments that would last for centuries to come, filling the gods themselves with wonder.
But a dark day was coming. The people clamored for more, but there was no more. Some began to take from others; their things, their food, their land, then their lives; and the warriors, those who could take what they wanted, ruled the island. They took and they fought; they ate all that could not fly away, then they ate each other.
There were now 2,194 people, yet still there was not enough, still they took and fought. They toppled the statues of their ancestors. They fought over the snails remaining in the tide pools and cooked them by burning grass. The people had been punished harshly.
It was a small island, but it had never seen the foot prints of people before. Kopai the Navigator and 28 others who had survived the fighting and the long voyage were grateful to be alive—to have come upon a new land where they could start over. But this time, Kopai swore, his children and their children would forever walk a different path. A thousand islands had been chanced upon; a thousand times the people prospered; a thousand times the fighting began—clan against clan, the people of one island against another. A thousand times “plenty” became “not enough.”
People and pigs had survived the voyage. Now they foraged and grew fat. Patches of forest were cleared, gardens planted, and the people and pigs multiplied. Kopai had seen many islands and knew how many people and pigs there could be before tensions arose and conflict ensued. He surveyed the small island and its reef. Eight, he thought, maybe nine hundred people before the trouble began. He would be dead by then, but he thought of the generations to come and of the new path they would have to follow—and he swore that the horror he had known would not be known again.
Twenty years passed, and Kopai thought and thought, and taught his people well. There were now 217 of them, half under the age of twelve. The pigs, with their large litters, had already become too numerous, but the excess could simply be eaten. Already the people could see that as the number of people increased, the number of pigs would have to decrease, for they were eating the same foods. Already, between the people and their pigs, the island was full.
Kopai had been relentless in pointing out the limits to growth on the small island, and had lead discussion after discussion about what would have to happen when people as well as pigs reached their limit. He would be dead, but on this small island his grandchildren would have to stop and change course; they would have to do the hard things. The pigs could simply be eaten, but they must never, as Kopai had often said, end up eating each other.
And when their numbers reached five hundred they began to do the hard things, for Kopai had thought well and taught well, and everyone understood that if the 264 children now among them had large families, then there would soon be too many. They understood that the horrors Kopai had often spoke of would visit their little island if they did not stop in time—well before the island was full.
First there would be late marriages and those who would forego marriage were honored and rewarded. As the children came of age they were taught to pleasure themselves and the young men were given special instruction in how to please their lover in ways that would not result in her becoming with child. Great praise was attached to this skill—and skilled lovers were much favored by the women.
If a couple wished to have a child they would announce their intent and ask for the people's blessing—and the death of one became their blessing. To be with child without the people's blessing was a sad thing—knowledge of abortion had been preserved and the skill was practiced as needed. Those who chaffed at such limits were encouraged to build canoes and voyage far beyond the horizon.
In this manner the nine hundred lived, their culture evolved in wisdom and beauty, great stories were told and retold; the four clans lived in peace, and a thousand years passed. Then the people did a remarkable thing. They loved their pigs dearly but they loved one another more. One day, by mutual agreement, they killed all the pigs.
Their skill in husbanding the resources of the island had grown over the centuries, and now, without the pigs, there were 1,200 people living on a tiny island, and another thousand years passed.
But an evil day came upon them. Enormous canoes came from over the horizon and brought a wealth of things the people had never dreamed of, and with these things came new teachings. A solemn man, dressed in black, had gathered the people together and said, "There is only one religion, and only one way to serve God, and if you do not embrace the right way you cannot be happy hereafter. You have never worshiped the Great Spirit in a manner acceptable to him; but have all your lives been in great errors and darkness." (ref)
A council was held to consider the man's words, and the man in black was asked to leave the island, never to return. But many, especially the young people, were fascinated by the wondrous things and wanted more. Within just fifty years, a different man in black had built a white house on the island for his god. He was relentless in teaching them his new ways. He taught them to be ashamed of their sexual practices, he taught them the missionary position and the missionary way. The practice of abortion was the devil's work, and so they stopped. Being fruitful and multiplying was god's work, and so they did as the others did. Within just fifty years, everyone on the island was as children to the men in black.
Today, there are still 1,200 people living on the island. Ships come and go. Things come and people go. There are now more Aipokians living off the island than on it. And of the 1,200, half are under twelve years of age.
What the Aipokians have forgotten and the men in black never taught is that they are still living on an island. A great island, one floating in the vastness of space, but an island nevertheless. What Kopai had so long ago learned the hard way, the people of this island must some day learn again.
How should one live on an island? You might want to ponder island ethics.
What to do?