I had made a rather serious mistake. A few weeks before my family’s first-ever overseas vacation, when I would be strapped into a Dreamliner for eight hours, I watched Castaway.

I didn’t watch it on purpose—it was playing in the background, with commercials, at a friend’s house. We tuned in at the end, when Tom Hanks’ character reintegrates into society with charmingly little psychological fallout from his four years of solitude. I barely even caught the part when the plane goes down and he loses the emergency supply bag. But I’d seen the movie plenty of times. And now, having just crossed over the last viable landing area between Europe and the Americas, I found myself fixating on the details of that theatrical plane crash—the wall of salt water bursting through the cockpit windshield, the rapid flooding of the cabin, the mighty black waves assaulting the rubber dinghy, the blue and bloated body washed ashore days later.

I had never been afraid of flying. There was even a time in my life when I thought turbulence was exciting, like the last little dip on a roller coaster. A fat old man had once gripped my arm and crossed himself when we hit a bumpy patch on a flight to Puerto Rico. It was before I knew any Spanish, so I just shrugged and smiled at him. Now, almost a decade later, I understood his reaction. Turbulence was a reminder that we were all at odds with gravity, and gravity is often a winner.

Images from the movie peeled through my mind like a flipbook each time the plane bounced. I wasn’t so much afraid of the crash as I was of being stranded in the ocean, floating atop a place so dense that even light, with all its agility, could not access its depths. I’d once heard someone say that humans live at the bottom of an ocean of air, under an oppressive atmosphere that keeps us tethered to the ground, like creatures that skirt the ocean floors unaware of the crush of water above them. Here I was, perched above two oceans, fearing most to be trapped at their horizon.

Attempting to tear my mind from the double-ocean beneath me, I hit fast-forward. Tom Hanks made it to a desert island, so it was reasonable that I, and my family, and probably some other people on our flight could be as lucky. (Well, maybe not the man next to me, who had kicked off his shoes and was occupying both armrests.) I got lost in a daydream about our survivor society.

Bedraggled but resilient, we’d wash up on a sandy shore, our clothes tastefully tattered and our skin already tan. Collecting water would be our highest priority. Fortunately, our island was lush with vegetation of the large-leafed variety, which would make convenient funnels to trap rainwater. We would refine the system later, but it would do for now.

Our next task: shelter. I’d made the executive decision that we should prioritize water over shelter, this being a tropical island and unlikely to kill us from hypothermia. (I’d also made the executive decision that I would be making executive decisions for our group. I’d watched hours of Man vs. Wild as a teenager, so I was pretty well-qualified to spearhead our foundling survivalist republic.) Shelter seemed easy enough, with all of our large-leafed plants. We would find a spot that straddled the tree line and the beach—close enough to signal passing ships or planes, but strategically secluded from the wrath of the midday sun. We, I assumed, would all share one enormous, wigwam-esque leaf hut. I glanced at the man next to me, now snoring, and casually wondered how long he would be tolerated in the communal leaf hut.

Fire came next. I recalled the scene when Hanks splits a branch up the middle to allow air flow to the kindling. This was seeming like a reasonable method of making fire when I realized I was just poaching survival ideas from Castaway. I’d added some actors and inserted myself as the protagonist, but, ultimately, this movie was my island republic blueprint. I didn’t know how to make fire or shelter. Maybe I could rig up some kind of water collection system, but what if it didn’t rain for weeks? As for food, my strongest skill was identifying plants that you definitely cannot eat in western Pennsylvania. I’d never scavenged or grown food. Never made a fire without chemical starter. Never built a lean-to or sourced my own water.

The daydream receded like melting film: the palm tree canopy dulled into overhead bins, the sandy beach dissolved to drab carpet. I twisted in my cushy airplane seat that doubled as a flotation device, and my mouth fell into a frown as my fear crumbled into despondency.

I had lost so much. I had lost the knowledge and wisdom that my ancestors—our ancestors—had discovered, kindled, and fanned for millennia. I began to tally all the things people did for themselves in the somewhat recent past: building fire and constructing houses, hunting, fishing, and raising crops, navigating by the stars and harvesting by the phases of the moon. My interactions with nature had been curated to shield me from wildness—I hiked paved trails and flew over oceans. I glanced again at the man next to me, now awake and scrolling through his phone, and I remembered the scene at the end of the film when Hanks flips a light switch over and over, resentful of its ease. If I had lost the wisdom to contend with nature, so had most people around me.

I dragged this loss around long after we landed. It pulled on me every time life seemed too convenient, too pre-packaged and distant from nature. I resolved, in my own small way, to reclaim what I’d lost.

A year later, I harvested my first crop of tomatoes grown from seed. Thirty-four small tomatoes—bulging, sweet, and red as embers.



Avery Keatley is a freelance writer and radio producer. She received her MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. 



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