It’s hard to imagine Versaille’s geometric gardens jutting from the spine of Isle Royale. And yet The Royal Island does come marked, if in name only, by a French king’s far-reaching hubris. Sometime in the late 17th Century, French explorers claimed and named this island for Louis XIV, a man who believed himself the center of the universe and so declared himself the “Sun King”, a man who I picture in continuous contemplation of the shapeliness of his own legs, his pointed toe the center of a planet-turning pirouette. Louis XIV meant always to own, but never to know, this island. And so he could claim dominion over a place that might have in real life resisted him, his glorious ownership mocked by the light work of a Lake Superior shipwreck, his royal skin punctured by a thousand black flies. At court in Versailles, where his absolute monarch reigned so absolutely, where he kept his enemies as roommates, it seems unlikely that Louis gave much thought to the power of wind or wave, or the firm physicality of an island rising from the waters of faraway Lake Superior.
Today on Isle Royale, boat hatches open and a small crowd of the physically fit or physically ambitious spill forth. They come to Isle Royale National Park with sleek packs of gear hoisted onto hips and shoulders. These people happen to come for the express purpose of experiencing the physicality of an island in Lake Superior; as seems appropriate, they give Louis XIV little thought. After one night at park headquarters, they disappear on foot or by kayak. When they re-appear, three days or two weeks later, it’s to drink a beer at the park’s small patio restaurant, to ignore, at long last, their bodies’ need for water or the threat of sun on skin. Cloistered away in Isle Royale’s Dassler Cabin, I write by the light of fires that temper the cool edge of August nights. Though these fires, made in the cabin’s hundred-year-old stone fireplace, aren’t necessary, they are a part of my project – sustained reveling in the physicality of Isle Royale and Lake Superior.
Experiencing the island involves simple, bone-deep pleasures, each of them unexpected and occurring from waking until sleep. My solar showers, taken behind the cover of pines, are a goose-pimpled revelation in water-use. That is, I use so little and feel so clean. I bake a pie, ladling into its center a mix of wild berries culled from the island. When done, I pull it from the oven – its sweet buttery self lending the perfect complement to the Dassler’s early evening light – and then I proceed to feel generalize astonishment. How could one place be so good? There is also: the water that never ceases lapping up the side of my little point; the sky, which morphs and re-morphs continuously, darkening late but then casually unfurling a whole new world of stars; and the weather, whose changes, no matter how incremental, seem to tilt the world this way and that, inviting yet another consideration.
I forget that I have a job. As far as I can tell, I live here and will do so forever. I am that woman who draws water from the lake each morning, who sweeps the cabin and makes breakfast. Some day, I will be that old woman, the one still seen drawing her water from the lake. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine my office uprooted and then transplanted here, placed on top of Scoville Point, its modern white shapes stretching clean and still under large windows that do not open, my computer pulling all focus to a version of somewhere else, the unmet promises of the screen. Which place feels more incongruous with this one? The gilded halls of Versailles? The meaningless assembly of the office furniture universe? As I dry by the fire, I cannot care less. What could be more irrelevant? What I want to know then is this and only this, the fire drying the water on my skin, my body warm and alive, every dreamy second the full-bodied miracle of an hour. I could easily condemn ol’ Louis for his cool dominion, his belief that he could own this, but I’m suspicious of innocence, real or proclaimed. And so I extend this suspicion to myself.
Everything outside of Louis XIV existed for his plundering, for his pleasure, for the purpose of shoring up who and what he thought he was. But it seems to me that many of the things we consume and surround ourselves with are similarly subjected to us, that they exist as our own Isle Royales, as things owned, the provenance and particulars of which are neither known nor seen. In other words, I wonder if I haven’t gone to Isle Royale to escape my Isle Royales, to find it at last: an island on which to gently place my feet.
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