Paul Andersen: On small islands, in smaller shells |

Paul Andersen: On small islands, in smaller shells

The tropical island was so small you could walk around the entire shoreline in 40 minutes. Yet the island must have looked huge to the hermit crabs that left their symmetrical tracks scrawled in the sand.

The hermit crab is a squatter. He lives in a shell that’s not his own, acquired as a temporary home that he drags about like a ball and chain. But that ball and chain also is the crab’s security, both a hindrance and a haven.

The hermit crab’s shell appears clumsy and awkward to drag along, limiting mobility, freedom and awareness. If the crab could shuck it off, it could move farther and faster. But then it might become bird food.

It seems apparent that most of us, like the hermit crab, carry a shell around with us. Like the crabs, we are not born with one because, as children, we are open and vulnerable. Life demands that we create our shells for self-preservation.

We don’t fear being eaten by birds, but we fear predatory threats against body, mind and soul. Our shells buffer us from the cruel world. We could move more freely without one, and we could take in more of our environment, but that would open us to risks we are not willing to face. So we cling to our shells.

The island where I was watching crabs is in the Caribbean Sea. It is part of a much larger atoll defined by an encircling reef. The island requires the reef’s protection so it is not washed away by relentless waves.

The reef is made of coral. It was created over millennia by living sea creatures. It stops the sea by standing rigid against the waves, a life force holding back the sea.

To our island came the roar of waves battering the coral, which protected us and the tents in which we were camped. The coral protects the coconut palms, and the hermit crabs, and the iguanas, geckos, and a plethora of island life that has come to depend on the reef’s protective barrier.

This region of the Caribbean is home to peoples of many kinds — Indians, Africans, Spanish, Chinese — a rich ethnic diversity. It was colonized by the British in the 1700s, who sailed the world on wooden ships.

The British came from a small island. And yet, England came to rule much of the world, the sun never setting on the British Empire for more than a century.

The North Sea and the English Channel have protected England from invaders since the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and from German militarism during World Wars I and II.

The British, however, were not held at bay by the oceans that surround them. Perhaps it was in reaction to the confines of their small island that they developed great seamanship and ship building.

In their conquest of the world, the British answered a human drive that has prodded explorations since man first walked. Fueled by a spirit of exploration and discovery, of adventure and risk, the British sailed the oceans in search of commerce and culture, profit and riches, supremacy and domination.

We each inhabit our own islands. We protect ourselves with reefs. We walk around in shells. Then, like the British, we venture forth to taste life, to increase our knowledge, our wealth, our experience of the world.

Spending a week on a small island in the deep blue sea, I felt happily disconnected from the rest of the world. There is comfort in that disconnection, but not for long. Soon, the island becomes too small, too removed.

As novel and welcome as disconnection on an island might feel, the beck and call of our social natures prods us to reconnect with society, to return home to friends and family, to reunite with the connections that nurture us and provide us security.

Confined to the island, I listened to the crash of the surf. I watched the infinite swell of the waves. I observed the hermit crab with wonder. I mused on metaphors and reflected on my own island, my own shell.

Paul Andersen’s home island is up the Frying Pan River. He may be reached at

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