This post picks up on the idea of South Pacific atolls - "ideal" islands in the sense of being easily comprehensible in terms of their geography - which I had in mind when creating Basin (see the previous entry). The closest thing I've witnessed in person is Lord Howe Island in Australia, not technically an atoll, but similar in terms of scale and general appearance.
This World Heritage Site, about an hour's flight northeast of Sydney, is located relatively far south but in the path of a warm ocean current. As a result, it contains a unique mixture of temperate and tropical terrestrial and marine life, including the world's southernmost coral reef.
The island is only about 11km long by 2km wide, and most of the less rugged parts are accessible along a trail network - so it's possible to get a nearly total experience of the island's geological and ecological complexity. At low and middle elevations, Lord Howe is covered by rainforest, somewhat temperate in appearance except for an endemic variety of strangler fig, one species of pandanus and two endemic palms - Howea forstereana and H. balmoreana. (The second species, also known as the Kentia Palm, is a popular houseplant worldwide; the harvesting and cultivation of its seeds is the island's main industry.)
The dramatic eastern end of the island, home to Mts. Lidgbird and Gower, is accessible only by guided hike to the top of the latter at 875m. The summit is covered by a fascinating "mist forest" - stunted by the wind and draped in moss (including the world's largest). Here there are two more endemic palm species - Hedyscepe canterburyana (Big Mountain Palm) and Lapidorrhachis mooreana (Little Mountain Palm), as well as tree ferns and the world's largest heath. The landscape feels like a movie set, and the restriction of its global range to these two tiny mountaintops of course makes it seem even more surreal and exceptional.
I remember looking down at the landscape below, obsessed with the idea that the wild and otherworldly landscape around me was only a few kilometers away from the inhabited and more "believable" part of the island, but at the same time completely isolated by topography. And the next day, standing at the other end of the island looking up at the mountains, I tried to visualize the environment at the top, so near and yet so far away.
Lord Howe in general feels like a playful miniaturization or caricature of the real world. It is tiny, diverse, easily explored by foot or bicycle, and suggestive of a place invented for a fantasy film. Plus, the ubiquitous H. forstereana resembles a down-sized coconut palm, much of the forest is of low stature, the little lawns and cow pastures seem like something out of a children's book, and even the colorful boats floating in the harbor look like toys.
And then, there's the fantastical-sounding (and controversial) proposal to evacuate the island's human and cattle populations while dropping poison over the entire island in order to end its infestation by alien rats. There would certainly be dramatic consequences for the native wildlife as well. Clearly it's a matter of weighing two undesirable options.