There’s a stark volcanic rock outside of my balcony. It juts up from the water as the lone point of profile across an endless horizon of Caribbean sea. We’re anchored in St. John’s Bay. Behind us lies Gustavia, a luxury port in St. Barts. People don’t bargain in the markets here. It’s not that kind of place.
Foreboding in the early morning light, this island of rock has mesmerized me for some reason, although I’ve seen plenty of similar structures since I began to work on ships as a Smithsonian speaker. It is so bold, so proud.
Despite its dissimilar profile, it reminds me of the mysterious island in Arnold Böcklin’s series of paintings known as Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead). In each of the five versions, created between 1880 and 1886, Böcklin made slight variations, including reconfiguring the shape of the rocks. A figure clad all in white appears in each, accompanying a coffin to the isle. She is regarded variously in the different interpretations, but usually as a symbol of death, or as the deceased seeking repose on the island. Any masterpiece of art invites such speculations.
Sergei Rachmaninov certainly speculated on Böcklin’s paintings. He was intrigued enough to compose one of his most gripping tone poems using the same title. Luminously beautiful in its opening, the orchestra introduces a rolling figure of five beats that hypnotizes the ear. Contrasting sections shape the piece into a cleanly symmetrical musical form, echoing the spacing of the stark rock towers and verdant crevice on Böcklin’s isle.
Isle of the Dead (whether paintings or composition) reminds us how an artist’s creativity casts a wide net, encompassing everything imaginable from topography at sea to ambiguous symbols. Art does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it created, or intended to be received, in a vacuum.
So as the morning continued, I found myself wondering if my peak in St. John’s Bay would be impressive enough to evoke such a luscious piece of music or masterful painting? Perhaps. A bevy of fishing boats clustered around it all day. The catch has to be good there. Initially it seemed not a single tree grew on the rocks, but as the dawn gave way to morning sky, I saw pines speckling the craggy surface. Their needles glowed with iridescent green. If I could swim there, would I find tropical flowers tucked into the clefts of the cliffs? What creatures might live on such an outcrop in the middle of the sea? Did birds prefer my peak to nesting sites on the shore?
As I speculated, somehow this massive rock jolted my memory back to fourth grade, when I first learned the basic vocabulary of geography from Mrs. Clark. You’d have to search hard for a teacher like Mrs. Clark today. Prim, with a ruffled collar peeking out from her proper dark suits, she simultaneously intimidated and embraced each of us. A child simply succeeded in Mrs. Clark’s class. The force of her talent as a teacher somehow scooted each of us into the path of progress.
I doubt Mrs. Clark ever saw even a fraction of the places she taught to us. Ordinary people didn’t travel back in those days. Instead, she probably worried herself every night as to whether her tireless efforts would make a difference in her pupils’ lives. She probably did not worry whether she would be remembered by us kindly in the future. Her purpose was to educate, not impress her persona upon us.
Such a teacher leaves a miniature presence on nearly every child. Decades later, that teacher’s voice will return, whispering, “Yes, see, that’s what I was talking about.” So, to all of those Mrs. Clarks laboring with an individual child or a room filled children, you will not necessarily see the fruit of your labors at the end of your year. But seeds do get planted. They may sprout like hibiscus in verdant climes when that fidgeting child gradually finds his footing in the world. Or they may jut dramatically out of the sea, joining hands with an adult’s understanding of far vaster knowledge.