A scientist on walkabout

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(8000 words)

Map courtesy of Robert Chiu of the Outer Islands Health Office, RMI.

Majuro Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands, July 2016

The two-lane road from Majuro airport was busy. Pastel-colored homes, a few tin shacks, coconut palm and pandanus looking primeval and lush, a dog, a few chickens, all glimpsed in a blur from the van, mere impressions as our driver crashed gears and the diesel stuttered, taking us on our way. After the flight from Honolulu and a fitful sleep the night before I felt languid and groggy, not really wanting to chat with the other passengers on my van ride from the airport. 

My fellow travelers were mostly a few scattered tourists, and a family of Americans, a mother, father, and two sons. So, I said hello, then turned to watch the scenery roll by, pretending to doze, while snatching my first glimpses of a Pacific lagoon on the left and the ocean on the right. At most spots, the islands are not much more than a few hundred yards across. The airport runway was inundated during a king tide some months before, and a new seawall ran beside the road for a bit, blonde rock squatting silently beneath a shocking blue sky piled high with rainclouds. After a record drought last year, monsoon weather had returned that summer, usually gentle to moderate rainfall, perhaps an hour per day.

Speaking louder than needed to converse with her family, an American mother informed everyone on the bus that the islands were named after General George C Marshall, US hero of WWII. She was derailed from her monologue when the bus stopped and in a yard next to us we noticed a car on fire. A small boy stood poking it with a stick. Probably a trash fire, her husband offered. We rode in silence after that.

Like all of the Marshall Islands, Majuro is an atoll, the slender coral-encrusted rim of an ancient and extinct volcanic edifice. While wandering about, surrounded by water on all sides and never more than a few feet above sea level, you walk on a mountaintop a mile high. Like so much else in life, the depth of things here lies out of sight, well beneath the surface. Drilling down through Enewetak Atoll in the 1950s, geologists found layer upon layer of now-dead coral and carbonates, a kilometer thick, before hitting the basalt floor of volcanic rock. This discovery confirmed Charles Darwin’s theory that over tens of millions of years, after the original volcanic eruptions had lifted the edifice up then subsided, the land had eroded back into the sea over millennia, while living coral strove to keep a thin rim of life in place at the ocean surface. As the seas rose and fell over the aeons, the coral adjusted, a good metaphor for the challenges now faced by the humans who live there.

The Lagoon Road bridge at the southern inlet to Majuro Lagoon. The Pacific Ocean lies in the distance. The peak of the bridge is the highest point of any road in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which has an average height above sea level of only a few feet. Photo by author.

There is not much land thereabouts. Majuro Atoll is about four square miles of land, stretched out like a green tree-lined lei around the blue lagoon, the land threaded by a single potholed road, thirty miles long. On Majuro one can’t hide from the sea, it is the source of life and a looming threat. One also can’t hide from the people: Majuro, and Ebeye, in Kwajalein Atoll, have some of the densest island populations on the planet.

Names given to the landscape also tell a kind of story. Place names accrete in layers over historical time, much like the coral, but now adjusting to the rise and fall of dynasties. The islands are in fact named after John Marshall, an English sea captain who charted the islands in the late 18th century while seeking a new trade route to China. Of course, the Marshallese had their own names for the islands, Aelōn in Majel or Aelōn Kein, and they had already surveyed them thousands of years before Marshall. The Marshall Islanders were organized into two tribal chiefdoms that each spanned hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean territory. That inter-island voyaging culture lasted for almost two millennia until Germany colonized the area in the 19th century, inviting the locals to join them on the deck of a gunboat to sign a treaty of friendship. Plantations and missionaries followed as part of that amicable embrace. Even then, the voyaging tradition continued until the Japanese banned it outright in the 1920s, after they seized the islands from the Germans. Then the Americans came, taking the islands from the Japanese in a series of fierce battles. Majuro Atoll, site of the capital, has two large pieces, long and pencil thin — one called Laura and the other Rita — named after American movie stars, or the wives of US admirals, depending on who does the telling. 

After checking into the hotel I decided to take a shower and then a walk to get my local bearings. A sign in the bathroom reminded the visitor that the islands were in the midst of a drought—surrounded by ocean on all sides it was important to be careful in the use of fresh water. After my shower, sitting on the balcony I could hear children at play in the lagoon nearby, but they were blocked from view by a row of pandanus trees along the shore. I had read that the lagoon waters are polluted with raw sewage and the effluent from ships, of which I could see at least a dozen at anchor farther out in the harbor. I would later see rusting wrecks in the lagoon, destroyed by a typhoon in the 1980s, which have not yet been cleared away. The children use them as diving platforms.

Majuro Lagoon. Photo by author.

A Sunday stroll around Majuro was like sampling a Christian smorgasbord. Everything was on offer, from traditional Catholic mass, entirely in Marshallese, to loud revivalist meetings. Raucous rock n’ roll mingled with the sound of roosters crowing, children laughing, and the quiet murmur of more sedate backyard services where women and girls in flowered dresses listened raptly to their pastor while huddled in the shade of flowering trees. Hymns carried a good distance on the moist equatorial air. Children were everywhere, curious and friendly, gentle and open, quick to smile. They smiled at me, and more than a few giggled. I must have looked silly in my sneakers and shorts, faux island shirt, and sensible floppy hat. 

A street scene near the hotel. Photo by the author.

A dog was always in view somewhere, mostly friendly, and they mostly avoided me. The streets were otherwise empty that Sunday noon. I crossed paths with only a few women or men in the street, coming and going to the few shops that were open, nodding to one another in the shimmering heat as their flip-flops made a gentle swish on the sandy street, likely all members of an extended family, all living in the same neighborhood. They were going to and fro between the line of pastel-colored houses, set back from the hot street in a cooler dappled shade beneath the flowering trees, the ocean visible just beyond the backyards. The vendors on the street huddled in the dark ovenlike interiors of small shacks, selling food and drink through open windows that faced the street, stands of Cheetos and Doritos framing those windows, along with signs for Coke and Fanta. I saw one other person on my walkabout that day who was clearly out of place like me, a determined man, much younger, possibly Japanese or Chinese, walking with purpose along the main street in the blazing equatorial sun. He didn’t say hello.

The ocean is never far away, and rising. Photo by author.

The ground underfoot is hard as rock, made of limestone and carbonate sediments formed from dead sea creatures, so people are buried above ground in painted-white concrete sarcophagi, most often adorned with a cross. These graves are everywhere: in the back yard or next to the house, sometimes collected into graveyards marking the remains of a few dozen departed souls, generation upon generation gathered in close proximity even after death. I passed one tiny yard, hard by the road, with a freshly whitewashed grave covered in flowers. Next to it sat a small girl of about ten keeping Sunday vigil in a lawn chair.

I knew no one in the Marshall Islands prior to my visit, and my few email contacts had gone silent on me in the weeks prior to arrival. I was beginning to wonder if I’d be spending my time sitting on the back patio of the hotel, nursing a beer, watching the sunset. 

My first night in Majuro I tried to get on the local schedule, so I headed downstairs to the restaurant even though I wasn’t very hungry. It was a humid evening, midsummer near the Equator, and lightning flickered on the horizon to the south. It had rained a bit earlier, part of monsoon weather, and taxis splashed through potholes in the slick street, their headlights shining in the growing darkness up and down the two-lane Lagoon Road that ran in front of the hotel. 

There was a breezeway outside my room, concrete and stucco construction with the doors of the rooms facing the road, which made the Marshall Islands Resort, the MIR, feel more like an aging motel than a resort. On my way down the stairs, I happened across a young man standing in the external stairwell facing the street. He nodded as I came by, then turned back to his work. He had a laptop open propped on the guard rail, a two-story drop to the sidewalk if he wasn’t careful. He looked to be about twenty or twenty-five, Asian, short and slender, about five-foot three. He wore shorts and a short-sleeved island shirt, with a baseball cap and silver-framed glasses which made him look like a young banker or lawyer on holiday. I would come to know Robert Chiu very well over the coming days. He, more than anyone else, made my trip to Majuro a success. Through him, I would meet many people and his friendship would open many doors for me.

Robert worked for the Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund, roughly the equivalent of the US Peace Corps, and he was the only ICDF public health specialist in the Marshall Islands. He was on a one-year assignment with the Outer Islands Health Service—which for some reason goes by the acronym ‘OIDS’. Pronounced quickly, it sounded like ‘oy-dees’. Most of the other Taiwanese volunteers worked at Laura Farm, on the far end of the island, an hour’s drive by car. Robert would take me there one day on a long trek to buy a small pig.

But, that first night I was puzzled by Robert’s behavior, his huddling over the laptop. I still felt disoriented, jet-lagged and nervous about the strangeness of my new surroundings. He noticed that I was standing there, having passed him on my way down and then turned back, looking at him in the dimming light of the stairwell.

“Wi-Fi.” He said, smiling, and pointed up toward the small white router with its antenna, snuggled up in the rafter.

“Ah!” A few days later, after Robert had introduced me to some of his many contacts on the island, I told him that our meeting had been a piece of serendipity.

“How do you spell that?” In his earnestness to improve his English, serendipity became his new favorite word.

On my way to meet Robert for lunch a few days later, I was picked up by the only taxi driver I met who didn’t speak passable English. When I told him I wanted to go to OIDS, he was puzzled: “OIDS?” He seemed to disbelieve I knew what I was talking about: “OIDS?” But I kept insisting, O-I-D-S, it was what Robert had told me to say, and the taxi driver finally took me to the hospital complex. We drove around to the back into a narrow passage with broken pavement, and we finally pulled up to a nondescript two-story building, nestled among a small mental health facility, some rusting storage lockers made from reclaimed shipping containers, palm trees, and a ten-foot-square one-story shingled building labeled as a women’s health clinic. Across the backstreet from OIDS was a single-story concrete building painted aquamarine with letters over the entrance spelling out “177 Health Plan”. The taxi driver pointed me to OIDS, still shaking his head, so I gave him a decent tip and he was on his way. I went inside to find Robert. 

The 177 Health Plan Building, across from the Outer Islands Health Office. Photo by author.

Leaving OIDS a little later we encountered an old woman in a full-length traditional flowered muumuu and flip-flops. She was waiting alone at the locked door of the 177 facility. Thin and dark skinned, missing teeth, extremely frail, she spoke to us in rapid Marshallese. We apologized that we didn’t understand her, but I recognized the word Rongelap, over and over again, mingled with the fast patter. The 177 Health Plan is funded as part of US reparations and it serves the four atolls most directly affected by nuclear testing. Rongelap is one of them because it was downwind from the largest US H-bomb test.

The second-floor dining room of the Hotel Robert Reimers overlooks a parking lot, a piece of the lagoon, and the low-slung urban sprawl of Majuro. On a sweltering summer’s day the main street of town looks like one big strip mall long past its prime. From our view out the window, I could make out the rusting fifty-foot pylon of a defunct wind turbine, awaiting repair parts now for a few years, and across the parking lot was a nondescript Department of Energy office that looks more like a failing travel agency than a facility used for whole-body radiation scans and health monitoring. Downstairs from us was one of only two ATMs on Majuro, making the Reimers Hotel a go-to spot. It’s a busy place. The restaurant was popular and easy to find for someone new to Majuro, so that’s where Jack Niedenthal had suggested we meet for lunch.

Jack had been the US Trust Liaison to the Bikini Island Reparations Authority for three decades, responsible for helping to determine how income from that $120M trust fund should best be used to help the Bikini Islanders. He had just stepped down from the position a few weeks before we met. “My friends back home think: ‘Oh, Jack’s in the islands, sitting under a palm tree, enjoying life.’ But the Trust Fund gets audited about once a month by the US Department of the Interior, which has oversight.” Sounds stressful to me.

Bikini Atoll Town Hall is located in Majuro because Bikini Atoll, like Enewetak Atoll, remains uninhabitable due to US nuclear testing that ended in the 1960s. Photo by author.

He grew up in Pennsylvania. In his early twenties he had been headed for graduate school at Penn State where he planned to pursue a PhD in business economics. His default goal was to become a rich Wall Street banker, but he decided to do a stint with the Peace Corps first. That was 1981. By the time I met him, in the summer of 2016, he was middle-aged, his dark hair now turning gray, just long enough to be wind-blown. Well-tanned, he wore a black t-shirt with a ‘power to the people’ upraised fist. After some initial conversation, I asked Jack how he came to spend his life in the Marshall Islands.

He told me that on Namu, where his Peace Corps team was assigned, there were only a few hundred people, and nothing much to do. It was little like paradise, but also very isolated. At the time there was no airport on the island, and a boat would only come by once every five months. The island is small and there’s no privacy. Privacy’s not a traditional part of Marshallese culture. 

“Well…there’s different cultures here. I mean you have Majuro, which is a big giant melting pot.” It’s odd to think of an island of only three square miles this way, but I take his meaning. Majuro has been a regular port of call since the 19th century, visited by writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and more recently Oliver Sacks. United has a daily flight from Honolulu, five hours away. The various layers of colonial history can be seen in the large diversity of the people, many of whom are of mixed race, Marshallese, Samoan, German, Japanese, American, Chinese, or Taiwanese. The outer islands are far more isolated, however, and the people there far more removed from those global tides of people and ideas that come ashore at Majuro. 

Jack lived in the outer islands for six years: “That’s where true Marshallese culture is. I loved it. I mean it was hard to get used to because you’re never alone. I lived in a house by myself, but there’s always people sleeping in it, playing my guitars, you know, watching you read. I remember reading Shogun and having people watch me.” 

“That must have been a bit unsettling.”

“It’s kind of a bizarre experience. You’re like a walking TV set for them.” But the law out there is Marshallese custom. If you mess up, they’ll tell you: “Hey, you don’t do that.” You also have to learn all the interrelationships of the family, cousins and uncles, nephews and aunts. “It’s a very extraordinary…to me it’s a wonderful place.” 

On the road to Laura. Photo by author.

After Jack’s tour with the Peace Corps was done, he decided to see if he could extend his time. He went to Majuro to meet his supervisor and to ask her if he could re-up for another year. She replied: “Who are you?” So it all went pretty smoothly.

Often times here in Majuro, Jack sees the way someone behaves and thinks that person should spend a year on an outer island: “They’re Marshallese, but they don’t understand their own culture. They shouldn’t be acting like that towards somebody else.”

“You need to understand the background: Bikini Atoll is one of the outer islands, and those people knew very little about the modern world when the US showed up. The Trust Fund was established to pay for health costs and relocation of the Bikini Islanders, to help the people who were directly affected by the [nuclear] testing. They faced real hardship. That older generation are all dead now, or close to it.” Jack related how he knew some of them, elders who were still alive when he arrived in the 80s. “They were good people. And wise. Always looking out for the good of the clan. Trying to keep their people together. To give them hope. True leaders.”

“Now, everything’s starting to fall apart. You got kids who’ve never set foot on Bikini, wanting you to use their Trust Fund allocation for cigarette money, or to pay for a birthday party.”

“The clan means a lot here, doesn’t it?”

“It means everything. This society, for all its problems, is better than the US. US society is fucked up. That’s why I stayed here. You know the last time there was a shooting in the Marshall Islands?”

“Nope.”

“Neither do I, that’s how long ago it was.” He said that a few weeks ago the place was in an uproar because two guys got drunk on some cheap Chinese vodka and started fighting. One of them went into his house and came out with a gun. It was still in the box. “He threatened the other guy with the picture of the gun on the box! Never took it out. Never loaded it. Even so, everybody in the neighborhood went batshit. You can’t do that! You can’t threaten your cousin like that! Everybody went crazy. It’s just not done. The family ostracized him for having the gun at all.”

Half of his Peace Corps group had left after the first year: “That’s because if you can’t conform to Marshallese ways, if you don’t like yourself, you can’t live out there because these people…there’s no entertainment, there’s no TV, no electricity, no nothing, there’s just people and they will strip you down and hand you your personality on a plate in about a month. And if you can’t deal with who you are, you can’t live out there. You can’t pretend to be somebody else.” Jack put his silverware down and looked at me closely, his elbows on the table now, leaning slightly forward: “They’re expert psychologists. People from our culture, in Western culture, are very defensive when someone’s doing that to you, so it’s very hard to get used to. But they’re not trying to hurt you, they just want to know you. And they want you to be happy.”

Iakwe (pronounced yok-way) is the traditional Marshallese greeting, said to strangers and friends alike, upon each encounter and even in emails. It means, variously, “Hello!” “You are a rainbow!” and “I love you.”

Reading and writing are late additions to our mental toolkit, invented long after the evolving human mind became adept at storytelling, so it’s not surprising that multiple versions exist of ancient stories and legends. The tribal band huddled round a campfire was an early focus group, and itinerant poets and storytellers would have sensed which way their audience leaned, who they wanted to live, and who they believed should die.

Consider the Greek story of Iphigenia. She was the daughter of Agamemnon, falsely promised by her father to be the bride of the hero Achilles. Iphigenia’s ambitious father and her false lover — who knew his betrothal was a lie — bound the young girl in her wedding robes and brought her to the altar, not as bride but as blood sacrifice to ensure fair winds for Agamemnon’s fleet of ships, to carry his men and arms to war with Troy. 

There are multiple versions of what happens next. In the Oresteia by Sophocles, Iphigenia dies on the altar. Agamemnon has his victory at Troy only to be murdered by his wife upon his return home, leading to a bloody cycle of revenge and the eventual destruction of the House of Atreus. In another telling of the story, the goddess Artemis takes pity on the young Iphigenia and turns her into a doe that springs from the altar and escapes the sacrifice at the last minute. In yet another ending, the gods spirit Iphigenia away from the altar to live with them, forever young and beloved. 

There are also multiple tellings of the story of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, maze maker, master inventor and technician, who gave himself over in service to the ambitious King Minos of Crete. Daedalus had a falling out with the King, who ordered Daedalus and Icarus to be locked in a tower. The clever Daedalus fashioned wings so they could fly away. From the ground, the people gasped when they saw the two flying figures leap from the tower, believing that only birds or gods can cleave the air in that way. In the most familiar version of the story, Icarus dies when he flies too close to the Sun, ignoring his father’s warning. But in another version, they escape from the tower by other means, then attempt to sail away from Crete. Icarus falls out of the boat and drowns after allowing himself to become distracted.

In each telling, Icarus dies as a result of his own hubris and youthful self-regard. What changes in the different tellings is the meaning of his death. While Iphigenia is innocent, and therefore always worthy of life, the tragic heart of the Icarus story is that he must die, a victim not only of his own failings, his arrogance and self-absorption, but also his father’s ambition. Or, in more admiring interpretations, Icarus dies because of the urge to transcend his human limitations, to touch the blazing sun of freedom itself even if only for a moment.

In the foundational Marshallese creation myth, “The Beginning of the World”, First Woman gives birth to a coconut before any human child. Through experiment she learns to use the entire plant — the nut for food; the trunk for a canoe; the leaves for rope, shelter, and sails. In another story, the woman Lōktanūr gives sail technology to her sons. These stories illustrate two important things: the importance of the coconut, and the fact that the Marshallese Daedalus was a woman. 

According to another legend, everyone in the Marshall Islands descends from two goddesses, Liwātuonmour and Lidepdepju, both of whom arrived long ago in a canoe from the west. After a time both turned to stone, Liwātuonmour on the island of Namo, and Lidepdepju on the island of Aur. In the late 19th century, Dr CF Rife, a Baptist missionary from America who first translated the Bible into Marshallese, sailed to Namo in the Morning Star and removed Liwātuonmour from her resting place. The islanders told him that if he moved the stone, the goddess would surely destroy his boat. But Dr Rife carried her out beyond the reef where he tossed her overboard in deep water, thereby demonstrating to the startled islanders that it was just a rock. 

Tossing the goddess out of the boat must have seemed a world-shattering event. Yet, the next day the sun came up, the bananas ripened, the islands still rode above the waves, and the monsoon rains still fell from the skies. How terrible this must have been, this normalcy after spiritual outrage. Those who have suffered a crisis of faith know it can strike like a bolt of lightning into the electric core of your being, turning your soul to ash and your body to lead. Yet these are also moments when the old myths get rewritten, when the world becomes new again, our mental landscape undergoes a tectonic shift. The Marshallese now connect to the outside world through the internet, travel to visit relatives in the US on United Airlines, love American television shows, eat American food, and many attend US schools. That act of rewriting your myths is a survival imperative, like Icarus learning to swim.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner teaches literature at the College of the Marshall Islands. Her 2017 collection of poems, Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter, is the first publication by a Marshallese writer. In that sense, she is the ‘First Writer’ of the Marshall Islands, a kind of walking archetype, barely five feet tall with large glasses and a friendly smile. Her current research interest, which she hopes to pursue as a PhD topic, is to explore the various non-spoken symbolic forms of storytelling traditionally practiced by the Marshallese, like weaving, tattooing, and the characteristic patterns found on traditional pottery. All can tell a story, all can carry the weight of meaning.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and the author outside her office at the College of the Marshall Islands.

In one of her classes, Kathy has her students read those traditional Marshallese stories, legacies of an oral tradition that is dying fast. The stories were collected over a thirty year period by the American anthropologist Jack Tobin. “The Beginning of the World” is a surprisingly long, complex, and difficult creation story. The storyteller who related it to Tobin began with the statement that the young are no longer interested in such things, having adopted the white man’s stories instead. Some of Kathy’s students react badly to having to read it. “Why are you making us read that, when we know it’s false?” They argue that the only creation story they need to know is the one in the Bible. Kathy’s response is to try to use her poetry and knowledge of Marshallese literature to reawaken interest in their stories, and proud heritage.

Today the Marshallese people have largely forgotten their legends and myths, their history, and their voyaging heritage, and we know of their traditional stories largely through the work of a few anthropologists like Jack Tobin, who gathered them from elders and wrote them down for the first time. Many Marshallese now don’t believe in climate change, assured instead by their Christian ministers and preachers that this is a lie, that God would not bring a flood again, that such a thing would violate the covenant made to Noah.

And so this seafaring people, whose lives for thousands of years were regulated by the monsoon rains, the trade winds, and the eternal sea swell, are now guided by the ancient holy book of a desert people. The Marshallese have largely abandoned their own myths, believing those are ‘just stories’ while the Bible holds the Truth. And yet the Bible says nothing about how to make use of coconuts, or pandanus fruit, or how to sail the open ocean, the original and vital embodiments of Marshallese knowledge, traditions, and culture, forming their internal sense of who they were in the world. Here’s the poem that first caught my eye online, “Tell Them”:

Most recently, she has begun to work with other indigenous poets from around the world. You can find more videos on her website including her 2014 speech to the UN General Assembly to open the Climate Summit.

The first recorded encounter between European explorers and Polynesian voyagers in the open Pacific is described in the 1619 book The Relation of a Wonderfull Voiage by Willem Schouten, the navigator on a commercial expedition led by one Isaac Le Maire. On May 8, 1616, their ship the Eenddracht encountered a Polynesian catamaran between Tonga and Samoa, far out of sight of land, bearing northward under a single large sail. At first the crew of the Eenddracht mistook it for a European vessel, but as they grew closer they realized it was something else entirely.

The Eenddracht fired its cannon as a hail, as a signal for the new vessel to take down its sail and parley. This would have likely been the first encounter these people had had with gunfire, and so it isn’t clear why the captain thought they would understand the meaning of the hail. The Eenddracht fired again, and then again, when the Polynesians now attempted to flee. 

Some armed crewmen were dispatched to give chase, and by laying on with oars they were able to come within musket range of the fleeing Polynesians, who were now seen to be coating their faces with a black ash, and terrified, throwing their stores of food overboard. The sailors could see now that the canoe carried about two dozen men, women, and children, standing on the open deck, or sheltering inside a small lean-to made of reeds. They fired into the crowded vessel with buckshot, wounding three or four of the men, one of whom grabbed a small child and leapt into the sea. Some of the other men leapt overboard as well. When they boarded the canoe, they found three of the women had infants at their breast. Now realizing the Polynesians were unarmed families, they began to try and save those who were drowning, but mostly failed in this. By the end of the encounter about half the Polynesians were lost. 

Schouten writes that when they brought the remaining women and children and an old man aboard the Eenddracht, they were given beads, and ‘used kindly’. There is a note of regret in his tone, and words of respect that these people who would set sail far beyond sight of land without a compass, or any of the other navigational tools that he was familiar with. He speaks with admiration for the workmanship of the canoe, the quality of the ropes and sail, and the gentleness of the people. But, he also notes that they appeared to be at the end of their stores, having thrown most of them overboard, and that they were seen to be drinking seawater, offering it to the children, something Shouten believed to be ‘against nature’. There is no mention that the crew of the Eenddracht offered to share some of their own store of fresh water.

A few centuries after the Eenddracht, missionaries arrived offering news of what they believed to be water for thirsty souls. Two thousand years after his death, nearly everyone on the island of Majuro believes that Jesus is the ‘Irooj of Iroojs’, the King of Kings. Perhaps spooked by the newly-built Saudi-funded mosque on the island, a reenergized evangelism continues apace, led by those not yet satisfied with the theological fervor of Marshallese Christianity. Missionaries are not hard to find in Majuro. 

The tile-floored lobby of my hotel was cool and air-conditioned, a place I often retreated to in the muggy heat to connect with wi-fi in the morning and evening. The lobby was dominated by a three-foot-long replica of an oceangoing sail canoe, a single hull with outrigger and a triangular sail made of woven reeds from pandanus or coconut leaves. The missionaries across the lobby spoke loudly and with passion, huddled around a coffee table. I’d seen two of them in the dining room of the hotel the night before, an older man and a younger one, now joined by two Marshallese locals, planning their day’s work. The most senior American was a thin silver-haired white man who did most of the talking. His younger acolyte looked to be about thirty, also white. 

There was a lively give and take about the Book of Revelations. Babylon was invoked, and the Beast and the Rapture, and various preaching methods expounded, to be used in equatorial climates, for example comparing the grace of God’s love flowing over you as being like a cool waterfall. “When I come to the climax of the sermon, I take a glass of water and douse my head with it,” the old man said, feigning the motion, now almost shouting, arms outstretched: “That never fails to make an impression.” 

He then turned to talking about President Obama, never mentioning him by name: “Everyone knows ‘our president’ is a secret Muslim, because he always speaks reverently of the Holy Koran and Islam, while he says ‘The Bible’ and not ‘The Holy Bible’.” The man went on at length to explain that ‘our president’ had made secret deals with Arab leaders, and discussed ways that he might continue in office to forward the Islamic agenda in America by declaring martial law. This secret meeting was well known to have happened. “Islam is a religion of lies, and the Koran is a foul book. It gives Muslims the right to do anything, to lie, cheat, steal, or even kill, to forward the religion.” All within earshot of anyone in the lobby: “You cannot trust a Muslim in any way, in any circumstance. They have been given license to do evil.” 

These missionaries seemed to collect Marshallese souls like trophies. Over the next few days I saw them hard at work, relentless and earnest working the parking lots or on the streets, their signature move in play, a guiding white hand laid upon a brown Marshallese shoulder, both heads bowed in prayer. The gentle Marshallese are cornered and brought to Jesus while walking on their own streets, to buy a coke, or trying to go to the grocery store. In their Marshallese desire to help others find happiness, they relent, too polite and gentle to refuse salvation.

The Marshall Islanders like to tell stories about their ancient prowess as warriors. Upon the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century if any ships ran aground on islands like Bikini the crew was killed and the cargo taken. But in 1883 the Rainier, an American merchant vessel bound for Japan, struck the reef at Ujae Atoll, breaching the hull and forcing them to abandon ship. The daughter of the captain, newly wed to the first mate, was bound by the crew with ropes into a large armchair, hoisted over the side in a heaving sea, and planted with much fanfare into a lifeboat. The sailors offered to blindfold her, fearing the worst as they were about to be overrun by brutal savages. But instead she bravely insisted that she wanted to see what the islanders were going to do to her, telling the sailors: “I am not afraid.” She was rowed to shore wrapped in an American flag.

In the end all aboard the Rainier were given shelter. As the Ujae Islanders tell it now, in stories and songs carried down through the generations, and celebrated in an annual festival on the 9th of June, the story of the wreck of the Rainier has become like a fairy tale, all because the ruler in Ujae at the time was a kind man. The Americans were all taken in and given shelter, no small sacrifice given the limited food and fresh water available to the several hundred islanders. In their telling of the story, they welcomed those in danger, the refugees, who in turn shared their shipboard provisions, their canned beef, fresh water, and kerosene. The islanders provided shelter to the castaways over many months until a rescue ship arrived. 

The Marshallese tale ends with a modern coda: during World War II an American naval vessel arrived, and then a landing craft rode up the beach and an officer stepped off, thereby closing the loop of human kindness across the generations, keeping faith with a parallel tradition, passed down from parent to child on the far side of the planet. An American family story. The naval officer wanted to thank the people of Ujae for saving his ancestors, without whom he would never have been born.

And then the crew and the islanders celebrated with a party and played baseball.

Unlike the US, UK and France, which used remote Pacific Island sites for many of their above-ground nuclear weapons tests, the Soviet Union was limited to using land-based sites. As the bombs got larger, this posed problems. An old Soviet-era video shows the effects of a multi-megaton H-bomb test in Kazakhstan. In the foreground is a street scene from Novosibirsk, a city seventy miles from ground zero. The bomb explodes; a silent blinding glare on the horizon that outshines the sun. The fireball swells and rises, the mushroom cloud punches through layer after layer of cloud deck, eventually dominating the entire horizon. Several minutes later the blast wave arrives, knocking people off their feet and shattering windows. 

With the end of WWII, many of the Pacific Islands newly-won from the Japanese were declared UN Trust Territories, and formal responsibility for their governance parceled out among the Allies. The US was given trusteeship over much of Micronesia, the stated goal being to guide those who lived in the islands toward independence as democratic and self-governing peoples. 

Assigned trusteeship, the US moved quickly. Less than twelve months after the Japanese surrender in August, 1945, the US carried out its first post-war nuclear detonation on Bikini Atoll in July of 1946. Over the next fifteen years there would be 66 more on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls, averaging one every few months, including the largest thermonuclear detonation in US history, the 15 megaton Castle Bravo Test on Bikini on March 1, 1954.

Trinity: Visualization of nuclear detonations from 1945 to present, by Orbital Mechanics. Notice the flurry of the 67 tests located in the Marshall Islands, in the Western Equatorial Pacific. You’ll want to open this full screen, by clicking on the link at lower right, because the date, name, location, and yields are noted for each test in the lower left of the screen. Bravo is at the 1:23 mark.

Not long after the Castle Bravo detonation, delicate white flakes floated down from the sky over Rongelap Atoll, about thirty miles from Bikini. The children thought it was soap and began to wash their hair with it. No one had warned them not to touch it. In fact it was radioactive carbonaceous material, the remains of a vaporized island from Bikini. Two days after the blast, US servicemen arrived to evacuate everyone. By then their hair had started to fall out, and beta-radiation burns appeared on their scalps and other exposed skin. The two-day lag between the Bravo blast and the arrival of help on Rongelap looms large in the Marshallese memory of these events.

Artwork depicting the Bravo Test, on display at the public library in Delap. Photo by author.

In the living memory of the Marshallese generation now entering old age, the outer and more remote islands in the group like Rongelap went from one of the most isolated places on Earth, still practicing a neolithic lifestyle unchanged over thousands of years, then suddenly thrust into the middle of modern global war and geopolitics. The Marshall Islands were the site of several major battles during WWII. Islanders tell stories — told to them by their parents or grandparents — of starvation during the war, and atrocities committed by the Japanese on the outer islands, and how the US ships sailed into the Majuro Lagoon just in time to prevent another mass killing. It is hard to imagine a more wrenching and disorienting introduction to the modern world.

In the 1960s, when negotiations began on the form of self-governance for the islands of Micronesia—of which the Marshall Islands are only a part—one of the senior negotiators for the islanders was asked why the Pacific peoples would want to remain closely tied to US, and not seek some other patron or go their own way entirely. He answered: “There are many sharks in the ocean. I want to align my people with the baddest, ugliest, and meanest one of all.”

Tossing a goddess out of the boat is a ready metaphor for what the Daedalus drive at the heart of science has done time and again to our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Separated in time and space by only fifty years and a few hundred miles, the plunk of the goddess into the waves of Aur and the fireball of Castle Bravo reflect human drives toward purity and the quest for ultimate power. The Marshall Islanders gave up their old gods and warlike ways in order to embrace the Prince of Peace. Two generations later they vacated Bikini and Enewetak to help the US build a weapon of war so terrible it would bring an end to war itself.

We humans now living in the rich world are the inheritors and beneficiaries of a cultural legacy that emerged quite recently in historical terms, one that fetishizes innovation and change as having value in and of themselves, an invented tradition that embraces creative destruction as a permanent and desirable state of being. Yet the constant tossing overboard of our moral and mental touchstones can be numbing, like repeated blows to the head. The survival of the species depends upon whether we can pursue our Daedalus impulse for invention without killing ourselves, to shine the light of the human mind into all the dark and hidden corners of the world, and then return with cures for disease and new astonishments, to set foot upon all the worlds of the solar system, while avoiding the ever more effective mechanized slaughter of the past, the killing fields, the holocausts, and nuclear Armageddon. These are the ultimate outrages against human wellbeing because they call into question whether there is any meaning to meaning itself.

The story of Icarus works in myth time, which is infinitely elastic. That reach of Icarus toward the blazing heart of things, and that plunge from a height, those might take a day, a generation, or an age, but it also might seem like a moment when viewed from some distant future that looks back on our time, and knows how our story ends.

Jack Niedenthal told me that after his tour with the Peace Corps ended, he wound up working with the Bikini Islanders in their relocated home on Kili. The people grew to rely on him, and to trust him, so in the 1980s when the US Government set up a trust fund to provide reparations, Jack became the US liaison to it and he held that position for thirty years. Somewhere along the way, he met and married his Marshallese wife, had some kids, and adopted some others. 

One day Jack was at the video rental store with one of his sons, and the boy asked him why there weren’t any movies in Marshallese. Jack thought: “Good question.” So, he and his children set out to make the first Marshallese language film, a ten minute short. They shot it on his home video camera, and then he pulled strings with a friend who ran the only theatre in Majuro, convincing him to show the movie for two days, for free, inserted between showings of the latest American action film. By the second day, the line of people wanting to see their movie was around the block. It played for weeks to packed houses. People saw it dozens of times. 

Jack had an epiphany when he saw an entire audience munching popcorn, mouthing lines of Marshallese dialog he’d written: “I decided right then we needed to make feature-length films. We needed to create a Marshallese language cinema.” To launch this artistic revolution, Jack ordered some cameras and gear from the US, taught himself screenwriting and editing, and added a new purpose to his already busy life. 

He went on to make a half-dozen feature films, using family and friends as crew and actors, with Jack writing screenplays based upon Marshallese legends, or mashups of old and new stories. In one film, an elderly survivor from Bikini Atoll summons a mysterious ancient deity played by Jack’s friend Alson Kelen in a grass skirt — tattoos on full display — to help reunite the family. In another, a young girl tries to use a magic shell to save her islands from rising seas. 

At the time I interviewed him, Jack and his crew were hard at work on their next project: a Batman parody, a tale where Batman tracks Catwoman to the Marshall Islands. But when United loses Batman’s luggage, Bruce Wayne becomes just another rich American, lost in the Islands without his gear. 

Now, Jack says, things have really changed in Majuro: “It’s very westernized. You got Netflix, you got cable, you got internet. You got the whole big world.”

And yet the Marshall Islands is a very small place, and the sense of being part of an extended family is strong for islanders. There are only handful of high schools in the entire Marshall Islands. Students on the outer islands have to live in one of those residential high schools if they wish to continue their education beyond eighth grade. On the taxi ride back from my interview with Jack, the driver had his radio tuned to a ceremony of some kind. 

“What are you listening to?” I asked him.

“Middle school graduation.” An old man in a baseball cap, driving a Toyota Corolla taxi with a cross dangling from his rear view mirror, he serenely listened to the broadcast. I asked if he knew many of the students, and he just nodded and smiled. The ceremony was all in Marshallese, which I don’t speak, but I could tell they were announcing the names of the students, the islands they came from, and the high schools they would attend. The two of us marked this important and hopeful milestone in the life of a new generation of Marshallese youth while bumping along a broken and potholed road, close in between tin shacks, corrugated walls rusted and dilapidated, with roosters crowing and dogs milling about. 

Support for this trip was provided by a grant from the William & Mary Center for the Liberal Arts.

Top image: National Assembly Building, Republic of the Marshall Islands. Photo by author.

Copyright © Eugene R. Tracy. All rights reserved. If you enjoyed this piece, please share it, while respecting the Terms of Use.

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