Friday, March 12, 2010

Serpent In Paradise by Dea Birkett

"We all hold a place within our hearts - a perfect place - which is in the shape of an island. It provides refuge and strength; we can always retreat to its perfection. My mistake was to go there. Dreams should be nurtured and elaborated upon; they should never be visited. By going to Pitcairn, I had vanquished the perfect place within myself." - Dea Birkett

When I was in High School, I read the story of the Mutiny On The Bounty. I found it both interesting – and intriguing – to think of the 102 Pitcairn islanders (at that time), descended for the most part from the mutineers and the Polynesian women who went with them, and the lives they had forged on a tiny outcropping of rock in the South Pacific. I imagined it must be an island paradise to have kept them there for so long. I think that Birkett was correct in her assessment that at some point in our lives we all imagine a place where everything is bliss, a place where we imagine our lives will be happy and whole and fulfilled. This dream is tucked away in our hearts, to be pulled out and savored when life proves disappointing.

Serpent In Paradise is the story of Dea Birkett's belief that she would find the island of her dreams in Pitcairn. It wasn't as simple as hopping a plane; there are no airfields on the island. First, there was the matter of receiving permission to go there. It took two years, and even then it was under pretense. The islanders jealously guarded their privacy. After receiving the necessary documents, she then had to arrange for a place to stay while there. Finally, people arrive by water. With papers in hand, she made her way there after a long slow voyage aboard a vessel which was passing near the island. When the islanders came out to barter and sell their limited produce and handicrafts, she finally caught a ride back to its' rocky shore on one of their longboats.

The paradise she expected to find was not there. She found an island which lacked many of the modern amenities she was used to, where the environment was damaged by improper practices, and where the islanders were a very tightly knit community formed by the long existing presence of the Seventh Day Adventists. Her personality and personal habits went against the sensibilities of many of the islanders. She struck me as clueless and insensitive to the feelings of the people around her. Her actions were often inappropriate and created anger toward her. In the end, she felt threatened and made the decision to leave.

I am certain that Serpent In Paradise has done nothing to mend fences between Birkett and the people of Pitcairn. She frequently gives the names of those involved in the awkward and embarassing situations she describes. She was, though, accurate in one thing. She seemed to perceive a dark secret that existed there. A few years later, there were accusations against several of the men on the island concerning their “relationships” with young girls. After several years of trials and legal wrangling, all but one was found guilty.

The book left me sad. It reminds me that no society is without its' problems, regardless of how small it is. It reminds me that when we go somewhere looking for an unspoiled place, we frequently bring about destruction of its' beauty by our demands. On another level, it also reminds me that there are people who are not content to allow us to live with our dreams.

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