“You can’t go home again,” Thomas Wolfe famously wrote. This always struck me as a provocative statement. True, I accept the inevitability of change. I know that nothing remains the same for long. But I once lived on a faraway atoll in the equatorial Pacific, a lost world that seemed happily immune to the ticking of the clock. Over the years, whenever someone’s noted how much our world has been altered by the march of history – often said with a sigh of regret – I think back fondly to distant Kiribati, a twinkling cosmos of islands, certain that their isolation protects them from the ravages of the internet and the rise of Justin Bieber. Nothing changes in Kiribati, I thought smugly.
So it turns out I was wrong. I had lived on Tarawa, what passes for the main island, for two years, and when I’d left I’d written a book about my experiences called The Sex Lives of Cannibals. Obviously, I never expected to return, but then, years later, while following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, I saw that my journey would take me back to my erstwhile island home. Stevenson is one of the very few writers to have ever called upon Kiribati. Another was Arthur Grimble, a former English colonial officer who wrote about the islands in the 1950s. Though separated by a half century, the island worlds they described would have been recognizable to each other, as indeed they were to me. Elsewhere in the world, change zips along at warp speed. Here, it moseys about like a turtle, slowly, deliberately, in no great rush.
And so imagine my delight when, upon arrival on Tarawa, I sensed that everything was exactly as it was. An atoll is but the narrow ridge of an undersea volcano, coiling around a shimmering lagoon that seamlessly merges with an endless sky. It always felt like a precarious place to hang your hat, but at low tide, with the lagoon in retreat, revealing an expanse of blinding mudflats, there is – at least for a few hours – the illusion of living space. There were more people on Tarawa now and mostly they had built their homes in the traditional style on platforms of coconut wood with walls of flapping mats and thatched roofs. The Mormons, I could see, had been busy building more schools and churches, and the island was greener than I recalled, but otherwise it appeared unchanged. The island’s lone paved road had mostly dissipated and a few of the cinderblock buildings were in advanced states of disrepair – not least our former house, which had steadily crumbled over the years – but this was to be expected. This wasn’t an innovation or metamorphosis. It was simply stasis, and in the face of inaction, nature asserts itself.
It was only later, as I gathered behind the guesthouse, standing on a seawall to enjoy the sunset, that I sensed profound change. There is not a more spectacular sight than that of the sun descending in crimson and orange grandeur along the equator, its wispy light casting radiant flares across the expanse of the lagoon and the cascade of palms following a sliver of land to the horizon. A gathering of fairy terns fluttered near shore, diving into the lagoon and singing melodically. I could hear the songs from the boys high up the coconut trees, which they had climbed to gather toddy, the tree’s nectar. The tide had come in and I watched it rise. And rise. And rise. Soon, it was bubbling beneath me, seeping into the seawall, and escaping like babbling fountains. The seawall was but a soggy, collapsing peninsula, suddenly surrounded on three sides by ever surging waters. I looked around me with particular interest, and noted the trees and bushes that just an hour or two earlier had been dry and undisturbed, but now lay immersed in the lagoon. Many of the coconut trees, I now saw, were dead, standing like mute sentries above the encroaching water. The island was sinking, its destiny foretold in the great beauty of the gathering sea. And this was something new and novel, and I reached for pen and paper, and began to write, describing what I saw, as if I were recording the dying days of Atlantis.