I was invited to write about a book that had influenced my writing, for the inaugural issue of Earthlines magazine
Green Was The Earth on the Seventh Day
Little, Brown, 1996
In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl sailed his balsawood raft, Kon Tiki, from Peru to Polynesia, in the expedition that would bring him global fame. He was attempting to add weight to his theory that the Polynesian islands had originally been settled not from Asia but from South America. Most anthropologists had little time for this idea, but Heyerdahl was not an anthropologist. He was an adventurer and he had something to prove &emdash; and something to find.
Green Was the Earth on the Seventh Day contains a number of images that have stayed with me since I first read it sixteen ago, but perhaps the most powerful is the image of the waters Heyerdahl sailed through on that journey. ‘The ocean was clear when we sailed on the Kon Tiki raft in 1947’, he writes. ‘We were in intimate contact with the plankton that we scooped up with our hands.’ Twenty years later, Heyerdahl took to the oceans again in a reed boat, but something had changed. He and his crew ‘found ourselves sailing in a soup of glittering oil and asphalt lumps.’ They thought it would pass, but it didn’t. Almost every day the ship sailed through oil, asphalt and plastic. Heyerdahl had travelled the emptiest expanses of ocean on Earth, on prehistoric boats, but there was no escape from the backwash of civilisation.
This story &emdash; the explorer’s attempt to find paradise, and his realisation that it can’t be found &emdash; runs through Green Was the Earth on the Seventh Day. I first read it as young man, and its impact was profound. In 1937, the young Heyerdahl and his new wife hatched a plan to run away to the last place on Earth untouched by the corruption of modern life. They sailed to the Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva, and spent a year and a half there, building their own house of palm fronds and wood, bartering with villagers, eating and drinking the fruits of the forest.
I could identify with this. Like Heyerdahl I was fiery, romantic and sure that there must be some escape from my own culture to a better, simpler world. I was hardly alone. The remote, Pacific island, free from the deadening influence of techno-industrial culture, is an archetype that has appealed to citizens of the West since at least Robinson Crusoe. My girlfriend and I decided we would follow in Heyerdahl’s footsteps. We would find our own Pacific island and make our own journey to paradise. We bought aeronautical maps, and found a potential destination. I was looking forward to writing a bestselling book about it.
We never went, and it was probably just as well. Green Was the Earth on the Seventh Day is Thor Heyerdahl’s late-life account of how his illusions were, if not exactly shattered, then certainly scattered across the South Seas. It wasn’t that he didn’t find a paradise of a sort &emdash; he found much on Fatu Hiva which was eye-opening and full of wonder. But he also found that he had taken his own assumptions with him. And he found that Fatu Hiva was home to human beings who were as corruptible, malicious and diluvian as anywhere else. He found that he needed a mosquito net, and modern ointment to prevent his leg from becoming dangerously infected in the tropical heat. And he found, in the end, that he wanted to go home. ‘Something of the insect is within us’, Heyerdahl writes, ‘and has invisible ties to the anthill. The bee finds no satisfaction in hiding from the hive and enjoying its harvest in solitude.’
In the end the young Heyerdahl is forced to admit, reluctantly, that ‘there is nothing for modern man to return to’. It would be easy to use this lesson, as it is so often unthinkingly used, as a riposte to anyone who believes that our civilisation is headed in the wrong direction. But Heyerdahl’s last chapter, which reflects on the rate of ecological destruction that has happened globally since his stay on Fatu Hiva, makes it clear that complacency is not a useful corrective to naÃ¯vetÃ©.
I still have those old maps somewhere. Sometimes I look our island up on Google Earth to remind myself of who I used to be. Maybe I’ll get there before I die, and maybe I’ll raise a glass to Heyerdahl if I do. He never found his paradise, but at least he had the guts to go looking.