When a man is an island

For the past 16 years, Nick Fahey has been living on an island in the San Juan archipelago north of Puget Sound, in Washington state, where his only full-time companion is a 26-year-old quarter horse. Fahey, 67, lives in a cabin on 40 wooded hectares that has been in his family since 1930; it has no refrigerator, but there is electricity generated by solar panels, so he has light and can charge his cell phone.
       There are few amenities of the material kind, but his days are his own. Time, he said, is “one of the real luxuries of living out here.” With the exception of cutting wood for fuel and to support himself — occasionally he makes a trek to neighbouring islands or the mainland, to sell the wood or buy groceries , he is free to do as he pleases. Most days are spent rambling around the rocky island and drinking coffee, his favourite French Market brand with chicory.
       “I don’t worry about whether I am clothed or not,” Fahey said. “But the weather is such that it’s a good idea to wear some clothes.”
       Getting away from it all: It’s a common fantasy. But for some people, fantasizing isn’t enough. For whatever reason — the desire for peace and quiet in an increasingly frenetic world, an attempt to escape the intrusiveness of technology or the need for an isolated place to recover from heartbreak — they feel compelled to act out the fantasy, seeking the kind of solitude found only in the remotest locations.
       In Fahey’s case, he moved to the island full time in 1994, several years after he divorced, not because he was traumatized, he said, but because he liked the “feeling of freedom when you’re by yourself. You don’t have to answer to anybody.”
       His daughter, Anna, 36, visits about once a month, and his son, Joe, 39, who lives in France, comes once a year. There are a handful of other residents on the other side of the island, but Fahey prefers not to socialize with them.
       “I’m not a misanthropic recluse sort of guy,” he said. “I just know that I’d rather be here by myself.”
       Once a week, though, he does venture to Anacortes, a town on the mainland, 15 kilometers away by boat, to visit his 99-year-old father in an assisted-living home and to see his girlfriend, Deborah Martin, whom he has been dating for 15 years.
       Martin, 56, explained: “We are both pretty independent, and I imagine that’s partly why it works. We don’t have the same expectations that other couples might, like, ‘I need you to be here every night.’ “
            Others choose a reclusive lifestyle as a political statement. Edward Griffith-Jones, a 27-year-old British man, spent the past year living in a hut he built in a national park in Sweden. It was his way of being environmentally responsible, he said.
       “It’s a very interesting time to find another way of life,” he said. “People use the word ‘sustainable’ a lot, especially if they are in business, and it means nothing.”
       In England, he had been working in nightclubs and bars, he said, when he met a group of people who squatted in abandoned buildings. He found he shared their green, anti-establishment values, and eventually became a squatter himself. And after attending a gathering of like-minded people held in a Polish forest, he decided to take that lifestyle to its logical extreme.
       For him, that meant living deep in a Swedish forest, an hour and a half walk from the nearest train station — a trip that could take four hours during the winter, when the snow was deep — with a couple of other similarly inclined individuals who would come and go. He had a cell phone, which he charged with a small solar generator and used to call his family and his girlfriend, a college student who visited him every few weeks.
       His diet was not for the fainthearted. Along with perch and pike from nearby lakes, he ate wild plants like nettles, berries and tubers, as well as mice and rats. He couldn’t hunt larger game because he didn’t have a gun — to purchase one, he would have had to provide an address — but he began studying how to make a bow and fletch arrows. On infrequent trips to town, he would scavenge for unspoiled food in the trash.
       Recently, though, Griffith-Jones left the forest, having decided that the lifestyle was not as sustainable as he had hoped, mostly because “women weren’t willing to live there,” he said, “or raise up children in the forest.” He is now trying to start an ecologically minded commune on a farm nearby.
       David Glasheen, 66, likened his experience of living alone to “going to the moon.”
       “Everything you’ve ever learned means nothing till you come to a place like this,” said Glasheen, who lives on Restoration Island, off the northern coast of Australia, with his mixed-breed dog, Quasi, and has been there since 1996. “It’s the pinnacle of privacy.”
           “I just wanted the idea of a less stressful life,” he said. “I figured there had to be something better than this out there.”
       Glasheen was living in Sydney at the time and found the island, an uninhabited national park, through a real estate agent. His company, Longboat Investments, leased the land for 20,000 Australian dollars a year. He and his girlfriend set up permanent residence there, but she left after six months; their son, now 11, spends some school holidays on the island with Glasheen.
       “We had a baby, we had no hot water, we had no washing machine,” he said. “Things are not easy here for a woman.”
       In the city, he said, when you need something, “you pick up the phone and everyone comes running. This is an environment where you have to be independent. Most men can’t handle it either.”
       A few times a year he makes a trip to Cairns, a city nearly 800 kilometres away, for “condiments and other special things,” he said, but mostly he lives a subsistence lifestyle that requires immense amounts of labour and planning. The wind turbine he used to generate electricity was damaged during a storm three years ago and still hasn’t been repaired, so he uses a solar panel to power his computer and lights. He does not have a refrigerator, but has a gas-powered freezer.
   “It’s literally like living in heaven on Earth,” he said of the island, but “I guess I could say I’m desperately lonely sometimes.”

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