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Isolating

May 1, 2011

Jonathan Franzen, in the April 18 New Yorker–the “journeys” issue–has a long essay (sorry, you have to buy it or visit a library) about boredom, Robinson Crusoe, David Foster Wallace, and a visit to Alejandro Selkirk Island, a remote island off the coast of Chile, also known as Masafuera, home to the endemic Masafuera rayadito. He’s trying to battle his own boredom and come to grips with Wallace’s suicide. And he’s trying to see the rare rayadito.

Simply knowing that the bird was on the island made the island interesting to me. When I go looking for new bird species, I’m searching for a mostly lost authenticity, for the remnants of a world now largely overrun by human beings but still beautifully indifferent to us; to glimpse a rare bird somehow persisting in its life of breeding and feeding is an enduring transcendent delight.

I won’t tell you what happens next! It’s an adventure!

Addendum (May 3): I thought about adding some other thoughts the night I wrote this, then decided not to. But I’ve changed my mind. So:

I still won’t tell you exactly what happens next. But there is one thing that bugged me. After searching for the rayadito, Franzen goes back to Robinson Crusoe Island, another island in the same archipelago, but a little less remote. He’s feeling, basically, cranky about being there.

Before leaving for Masafuera, I’d already seen Robinson’s two endemic land-bird species, and the prospect of another week there, with no chance of seeing something new, seemed suffocatingly boring–an exercise in deprivation from the very busyness that I’d been intent on fleeing, a busyness whose pleasurability I appreciated only now.

The essay is partially about boredom. So I get that here he’s really describing the feeling, and how it can affect how you see the world. But it’s just so petulant, and it puts the first quote in a less-pleasant light. He’s saying the delight in seeing these species can only be had once. And that’s just a shame. Compare that to the delight John Muir feels upon encountering everything in nature, like this line, which I love, from My First Summer in the Sierra:

Saw a common house fly and a grasshopper and a brown bear.

Muir’s out in the Sierra seeing Yosemite and giant sequoias, but to him the house fly is worth noting, too.

Just to get totally over the top here, I’ll end with Emily Dickinson:

In the name of the Bee— And of the Butterfly— And of the Breeze— Amen!

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