Emily in Samoa: Home from the Sea

One day, around six months ago, I was struck by a craving for Book. I was somewhere in transition—a train station, an airport, a car, a couch in a busy room—and decided that it was time to supplement life with a story. As many may in such a situation, I picked Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, having never read the book, and figuring it was time I did.

Never did I imagine that my book choice would come full circle for me here in Samoa. Stevenson spent the last five years of his life in Vailima, a town in the inner hills of the island of ʻUpolu, where he would meander through the rainforest behind his house for hours on end, climbing to the top of Mount Vaea to look down into the valleys and out to the bay in Apia. Arriving at the age of 40, Stevenson and his family were welcomed by Samoans and befriended many locals, even giving support and advice to native independence movements. He wrote a number of books in his Samoa years, inspired by his Pacific travels, and gained the Samoan name Tusi Tala, or “teller of stories.”

 

View from Stevenson’s veranda

View from Stevenson’s veranda

 

However, Stevenson had come to the island to die. He had never been in good health, and had traveled to the Pacific in hopes that the climate would have a positive effect on it. He died in 1894, and asked to be buried at the top of Mount Vaea, overlooking the ocean. His Samoan friends forged a path through the forest as they carried his casket, mounting steep slopes in often scorching heat. He was buried, at his request, looking out over the island and wearing the boots he had worn throughout his stay in Samoa. His requiem, written on his grave, says the following:

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me die.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

   And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

    And the hunter home from the hill.

The Samoans have set the verse to music, and now sing it (in English and Samoan) as a song of grief. Our museum guide sang the English version, telling us that she would cry if she sang it in Samoan. We climbed with the melody on our minds, and when we reached the top of the mountain, it was both tranquil and…chilling. The verse Stevenson wrote becomes more than a poem when you see the view it accompanies. The home he talks about is no longer Samoa, though the island welcomed him and he gladly became a part of its society. The home, from the top of the mountain, is the world he created for himself in his writing.

 

Hidden pirates

Hidden pirates

 

It’s possible that I idealize the place, but for me, the end of the climb was reverent. I could imagine Stevenson, a man whose health would prevent him from fighting pirates or going on the grueling adventures that fill his books, sitting atop Mount Vaea and looking out at the jagged mountains and sparkling sea. Devising, letter by letter, a world in which anything was possible; painting on the canvas that the view provided him.

I like to think, after this experience, that everyone will one day find their mountain. Wherever we are, we are looking to create a home for ourselves, be it physical, social, or literary. A place or a state of mind from which we may look out and survey what we have lived and shaped. And I am indebted to this experience for showing me that.

 

The group at the end of our climb

The group at the end of our climb

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