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Originally published Friday, January 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Giving two remote islands an identity

A few years ago, while on a trans-Atlantic flight, I happened to catch sight of Sable Island: a 30-mile-long sand dune 112 miles southeast of Nova Scotia...

Seattle Times book critic

A few years ago, while on a trans-Atlantic flight, I happened to catch sight of Sable Island: a 30-mile-long sand dune 112 miles southeast of Nova Scotia that shrinks and expands, according to storm patterns, smack in the middle of the North Atlantic shipping lanes. Throw in the sand bars that stretch from either side of it, and you have a 75-to-80-mile-long hazard that, before modern navigational technology came into use, claimed several ships a year.

With its bright-sand and duller dune-vegetation colors, it looked like a typical, fragile barrier island — the kind you get off Long Island (most famously Fire Island) or North Carolina (the Outer Banks). Only Sable had no continent behind it. It was all on its own.

A new book by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle, "Sable Island: The Strange Origins and Curious History of a Dune Adrift in the Atlantic," tells you everything you could possibly want to know about the island: its wildlife, its extraordinarily malleable dimensions, how it was formed, how interacting winds and currents keep it from simply washing away, how so many ships were wrecked on it, how herds of feral horses have survived there for hundreds of years, how such a low-lying island (maximum height: 85 feet) manages to maintain a year-round fresh-water supply.

"Sable Island: The Strange Origins and Curious History of a Dune Adrift in the Atlantic"

by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle
Walker, 276 pp., $24

We get accounts of how the island's only piano was "laboriously wrestled through the surf from the government supply boat," so that Trixie Boutillier, the daughter of the island superintendent, could give recitals (she lived on Sable from 1885 to 1920). We see reformer Dorothea Dix, after a visit in 1853, jump-starting a movement to obtain better lifeboats and lifesaving equipment for the island. We're told of Alexander Graham Bell coming to the island in 1898 to search for the bodies of friends lost in the wreck of the ocean liner La Bourgogne. We see four lighthouses destroyed within 40 years, thanks to storms that could eat up miles-long lengths of its sands in a single night.

We learn that over the years the island's fulltime population has fluctuated between 12 and 60, including stranded shipwreck passengers and on-island rescue personnel and researchers. Now it's down to two fulltime residents, and the authors of the book end with prospect of the island reverting entirely to the custody of seabirds, seals and horses.

Sable is, at least, in our hemisphere. Hop a flight from the East Coast to Europe, and you might catch a glimpse of it.

The same can't be said for Amsterdam Island in the South Indian Ocean, roughly halfway between South Africa and Australia.

Despite its Dutch name and early history (Dutch East India Company Captain Willem de Vlamingh was one of its first human visitors), Amsterdam Island is under French control. And in the opening chapters of his hilarious and ultimately affecting book, "The Lost Island: Alone Among the Fruitful and the Multiplying," Dutch author Alfred van Cleef makes it clear that it can be bureaucracy as much as any physical obstacle that makes some islands so difficult to reach.

His years-long attempt to get permission to spend time on Amsterdam Island was thwarted again and again. At one point, a French "national calamity" ("it was announced that that the number of French restaurants with a Michelin star had once again fallen") prompted a change of government that forced van Cleef to start all over again in his attempts to charm officialdom into letting set foot on Amsterdam.

So fierce was French resistance that van Cleef started wondering if there was something about the island he didn't know: "Maybe the island was a covert military base. Or a place of exile for scientists who'd lost their mind conducting nuclear or chemical experiments, and had been deported to avoid a national scandal."

"The Lost Island: Alone Among the Fruitful and the Multiplying"

by Alfred van Cleef, translated by S.J. Leinbach
Metropolitan, 244 pp., $24

When he finally makes it, he experiences both comedown and fulfillment. His picture of how some island residents embrace their isolation while others are driven to insanity and even suicide by it couldn't be more vivid. And he does a superb job of rendering his growing intimacy with island geography.

Amsterdam Island is a volcanic island dominated by peaks close to 3,000 feet high. One of its many craters is called the "Great Cooking Pot." (Van Cleef doesn't say whether the homage to Saint-Exupery is conscious or not.) Other locations

"Ravine of the Sleepwalkers," "The Balcony," "The Great Wood," "Two Tits" — are depicted on a map every bit as enticing as the one I recall from my boyhood copy of "Treasure Island."

Van Cleef, a Dutch journalist, hints throughout the book at the personal crisis that prompted him to flee an urban Amsterdam for a desolate, volcanic Amsterdam. By the time he stands on the island's highest peak and reaches his goal of "standing face-to-face with the infinity surrounding me," you get the feeling that he'll make it through his problems, no matter how dispiriting they are.

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