No book is an ‘Island’

Reese and Wyatt are ready to make tracks to Alaska. The rest of the household, not so much.

How did Richard Wilson’s The Island Within elude me all these years? I feel like Sammy Potts, the righteously testy pubescent “author” of my favorite Onion column who has reached age 12 without having been informed of the “elegant awesomeness” and “incredible kick-assness” of Bruce Lee.

But seriously, no one had my back on this? Not even my bearded, literate, outdoorsy friends, or are you just going for the Americana-hipster vibe? I believe I have long presented myself as someone who enjoys tales about dudes who wander into the wilderness alone, save perhaps for a sagacious canine companion, and have adventures and self-discovery and whatnot. And here is a book set in a coastal region of northwest Alaska in which a guy and his dog have intimate encounters with deer and bears and whales, a work that other authors for whom I have openly expressed admiration have called “a masterpiece” (Annie Dillard) and “a holy book” (Jim Harrison), a tome first published when I was being force-fed Thoreau’s canine sidekick-free Walden in high school. Yet it required an Amazon.com algorithm to bring The Island Within to my attention.The Island Within original book cover

The last 28 years of my life have been squandered. Do I not seem like a person who would benefit from the Koyukon wisdom that dental floss is next to useless for one’s teeth but can be a lifesaver in the backcountry?

I presume the book is not as widely read as it should be; it appears in a few best-of-nature-writing lists previously unnoticed by me, and often below inferior works. Or maybe its existence was concealed as part of an elaborate scheme to prevent me from immediately forcing my better half and the dogs into the car, relocating us to a remote corner of the Last Frontier, and adopting subsistence living (I ran the idea by the head of household; a firm no, though Reese and Wyatt are on my side—we have those Republican-drawn electoral districts at home where you can lose despite the will of the majority).

That any like-minded readers trapped in a rote if rewarding cycle of Jack London and John Muir and Barry Lopez be spared my tragic fate, I submit the following notes.

The Island Within begins with a deer hunt and ends with another nearly a year later, the latter a poetic, full-circle event. In the swift, subtle, couple-hundred-plus pages between, Wilson’s season-to-season escapades and observations essentially provide a rousing textbook for finding our place in the natural world, which he reminds us allows us to exist and not the other way around. Though Wilson is an anthropologist by profession, The Island Within does not veer into academia; in fact, he often proudly embraces his ignorance of a particular bird or plant (it makes their songs no less pleasing, their blossoms no less beautiful).

His impressions connect us more intimately with nature. Wilson is guided in part by the values of the region’s native Koyukon people, whose respect for the natural world one wishes was more broadly shared.

“Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it,” Wilson writes, “and by the way in which its bounty is received.” He later asks: “What obligation is more binding than to protect the cherished, to defend whoever or whatever cannot defend itself, and to nurture that which has given nourishment?”

Wilson—an early advocate for the eventual and rightful repeal of Mount McKinley to Denali—also refers to places and landmarks in the native manner, which is more practical, meaningful and magical than designating them in honor of rich white folk who in many cases never witnessed the features their names adorned. Labels like Cape Deception, Sea Lion Point and Peril Island stir the imagination while letting you know exactly what you’re in for; they also lend The Island Within an air of mystery. I could do some research, but knowing where exactly The Island Within is set would not enhance its power. “What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart,” Wilson notes, “not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid…”

Wilson’s nearly constant companion throughout the book is Shungnak, a former sled dog settling comfortably into her golden years, who emerges as one of the great literary canines. Shungnak is no hero; she doesn’t rescue an imperiled Wilson from a river or lead a sled team delivering the serum to an infectious outbreak. What separates Shungnak from the pack, via Wilson’s words, is her very dogness. And her presence sparks some of the books most elemental reflections. Detailing an encounter with migrating gray whales, Wilson considers how dogs and whales may view the world: “I can’t imagine what the world is like through Shungnak’s senses, although we’ve shared a close partnership for the past eleven years. Speculating about a whale’s mind is a bold step into the wilderness… And whether their mind is like a human’s or a hermit crab’s, they would deserve the same respect. What matters is that we are here, separate and together in our own ways.”

Perchance everyone who reads something other young-adult fiction or the ravings of Fox News “personalities” has already read The Island Within and you’re having a hearty laugh at my own ignorance. That’s fine. But to avoid future misunderstandings, let’s make one thing clear: If you know of any books in which a contemplative dude and his dog venture into the wild and confront orcas and wolves and personal demons, please alert me immediately.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go consume whatever other elegant awesomeness and incredible kickassness Richard Nelson has written.

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