Thursday, April 27, 2017

Another book I will (probably) never write

Every month or so I am seized with an elaborate and unfeasible idea for a book, and e mail friends an absurd precis sketch. Here's a recent example. I love the idea, but I can see, a month after I made my sketch, that logistics and finances make it unattainable, for now at least. Anyone who has more resources and time than me is welcome to pinch the idea and run with it...
After Catastrophe: journeys to the lost islands of the Pacific
Ever since Plato wrote about Atlantis, humans have been fascinated by stories about islands lost to the sea. Atlantis was an imaginary place, but in the South Pacific Plato's vision of watery apocalypse has been a reality. The tectonic plates that lie under the Pacific regularly generate earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, as they scrape and grind against one another. The region's cyclones bring another sort of violence. 
Over the last thousand years a series of islands have pulled underwater by earthquakes, blown to pieces by volcanoes, and covered by stormy waters. The Pacific's drowned islands survive in the stories passed down by their survivors, and in the logbooks and letters of sailors and missionaries.
Today, when global warming is melting ice and raising seas, and humanity is haunted by the thought of environmental catastrophe, the lost islands of the Pacific have much to teach us.
To understand the drowned islands we must float over water that was once dry land, visit the refuges where the survivors of catastrophes rebuilt their societies, read old manuscripts in colonial archives, and listening to old stories around kava bowls. 
The book is divided into five sections.
The puzzle of Tuanaki
In 1842 two Christian missionaries stopped for a few hours at a heavily wooded coral atoll at the southern end of the Cooks archipelago. The inhabitants of Tuanaki lived in spacious houses segregated by gender, preferred dancing to fighting, and could afford to gift their visitors a boatload of taro and coconuts. Many Cook Islanders knew about Tuanaki, and by the 1840s a few families from the island had resettled on the much larger and more populous Rarotonga. When a group of missionaries went in search of Tuanaki in 1844 and again a decade later, though, they could find no trace of the island. 
Burotu, island of the gods
A series of rocks extend from a small bay on the western coast of Matuku, an isolated piece of Fiji's Lau province. According to oral tradition, the stones are a pathway that leads down to Burotu, a drowned island where demigods and immortal animals live. Stories say that every tree and flower on Burotu is red, a colour associated, in Fiji and many Pacific cultures, with wealth and power. The island is supposed to rise from the sea occasionally and then disappear again, after a few hours or minutes. In 2003 it was spotted by a schoolteacher and a group of his students. The traditional religions of Tonga and Samoa named Pulotu as the place where chiefs' souls went after their bodies died. Linguists have identified Pulotu with Burotu, and geologists have identified a small island just beneath the waters east of Matuku. 
Fragments of Kuwae
Kuwae was a huge, high island at the centre of the archipelago nowadays known as Vanuatu. Its people spoke dozens of languages, and grew kava that attracted buyers from the distant Polynesian society of Tonga. In 1453, though, Kuwae exploded. Ash and smoke filled the sky, ruining harvests across the northern hemisphere and hastening the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. The disaster of 1453 turned Kuwae into a collection of small, blackened islands separated by a boiling sea. Kuwae's people fled from the eruption in boats, but in only six years the first of them had returned. A young Kuwae chief named Roi Mata soon took control of the devastated fragments of his homeland, and then conquered more land in the south of Vanuatu. Roi Mata was an innovator. He blended Melanesian and Polynesian culture, reorganised the lives of his subjects, and stabilised a society traumatised by the eruption of 1453.
Taporapora and the great dispersal
Today Taporapora is the name of a sandbar that lies a few hundred metres from a tiny bach village at the end of a peninsula in the Kaipara harbour. But many hundreds of years ago, when humans were establishing themselves on Aotearoa, Taporapora was the name of an island that boasted a school of traditional learning and a plantation of aute, the plant Polynesians beat into tapa. Surrounded by the warm Kaipara, the island was like a fragment of the tropical region that the settlers of Aotearoa had left behind. But war soon troubled Taporapora, and a huge storm dispersed its people to many parts of Aotearoa. Today farmers and archaeologists find tapa beaters in the muddy creeks that run into the Kaipara, and old stories about the island are still told on the region's marae. 
Nuku'alofa's sinking archipelago
Tonga's capital and only city is separated from the open ocean by a maze of reefs and atolls. The atolls have a long history. Medieval Tongan poets paid tribute to their beauty, and the masons who raised pyramids on the graves of Tonga's kings cut slabs of beachrock from their shores. James Cook cruised amongst them, and the famously brutal Tongan warlord Finau Ulakalala stopped at a pagan temple on the island of Pangaimotu to talk with his gods via a delirious shaman-priest. The people of 'Eue'iki, the largest of the atolls, made an alliance with sharks, and held a ceremony where they sang to attract the creatures and then hung garlands of flowers around their necks. Today, though, the atolls in Nuku'alofa harbour are sinking and shrinking. Some have already disappeared, sending their old inhabitants to the suburbs of Nuku'alofa. 


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