Off the Maine Coast

The island as foreign country; the vacationer as admiring expat

WE sever most of our ties when we set out for an island, leaving them to be healed after we return. Yet even while we're away, we are not altogether willing to abandon our umbilical connections to the mother continent. What is the mystery of the navel? There seems always to be a larger crowd at the island end of a ferry run than at its mainland end. The busiest, most intense location on any island is the ferry landing, with its raucous comings and goings. The world-weary ferrymen try to look as though they've seen everything; the arriving passengers are keeping their eyes peeled for newness; and the departing passengers look chastened at the thought of resuming life.

We mainlanders who love islands are only amateurs, enthusiasts, self-elected temporary Crusoes. As a young man, I wrote poems to explore the romance of islands, announcing their paradox in a book called The City and the Island: "Halfway between the city and the island I / Am bound for the city." My prediction was, alas, accurate, but I have never lost my taste for isolation.

When my wife and I landed last July on Vinalhaven, a large island in Maine's Penobscot Bay, after a seventy-five-minute ferry trip from Rockland, I was yet again discovering a foreign country. When we departed, only ten days later, I was cheerfully saying "so long" to a familiar realm where I flattered myself I might easily qualify as a naturalized citizen. This harbor, that headland, house, or boathouse, its purpose and its neighborhood, was now known to me. I knew something about the island's seals, its wild mushrooms, its lobsters, its landscape, and its history; I had swum in its abandoned quarries full of fresh water and had tumbled under its chilly and regenerative surf.

I spent my island time idly, listening to the huge eleven-foot-high tides bubble and trickle away across mud flats and observing a tentative raccoon tiptoe out to teach her kits how to dig clams and sea worms while the cove was empty. I was surprised at high water when an unsuspected canoe or silent yacht crept up on me as I sunbathed naked. I bristled when teenagers, in their appetite for speed and excitement and boom-box music, revved outboards to a shriek. But human contact, whether terrestrial or maritime, seems of marginal relevance at sunrise over a fjord while a lobster boat chugs hoarsely and dependably out to sea to "haul," or at sunset when the falling light is punctuated by the homeward wingbeats of an osprey screaming to her mate.

What is there to do on a mere island? The most noticeable quality out there is the silence -- a silence broken by birdcall, breeze-hiss in the firs, or the indoors whicker of the refrigerator. The sun, when it's out, sparkles like fireflies on the ripples. There are roads and trails to be walked, empty houses to inspect, landscape to be sorted out, trespassing to do: What sort of house is that in the neighboring cove, with its red boats stowed under blue-plastic tarpaulins? Didn't I see a jungle of skunk cabbage down that dirt road, or a telltale smear of orange, implying chanterelles to be gathered? Isn't there an art auction in town this afternoon to benefit the brave summer gallery? Today looks like the day to visit the tide race and watch harbor seals as they frolic and vault. Or to rent a bicycle and explore another back road. Or to watch my fellow tourists explore the causeway that forms the main street of Carver's Harbor, tides rushing back and forth underfoot, and test the brave but spartan shops doing their best to keep up with their summer traffic.

Or maybe not. As I slip down through the fog to the barnacled rocks and collect a pail of mussels for dinner, to be steamed with wine and seaweed on the stove of our rented house, or walk "downstreet" to buy a take-out pint of fish chowder at the welcoming window of the Harbor Gawker, in Carver's Harbor, or sit down to a slab of grilled swordfish at the Sand Dollar, the fir trees are impossible to forget: all week they have been bordering, punctuating, and feathering what my eyes grab for close up, flavoring and rustling the air currents that enliven my flesh in these cool-warm summer seaside airs.

Yesterday we set out on an exploratory walk along a half-abandoned woods road where, half a century ago, trucks or carts hauled pulpwood to be skidded offshore onto boats. Now the road is lined with a swath of scrawny green replacements and straggling rows of volunteer white birches where the slash was abandoned. After a mile we found the forest suddenly richer in texture, studded with stands of locust under whose nitrogen-fixing umbrella tall green grasses grow, and soon we were stumbling through unmistakable traces of former human habitation: smothers of lily of the valley, Monarch-butterfly-tempting milkweed, runaway expeditions of household brambles and perennial gardens that had transgressed their borders. Eventually we were bound to arrive at a well cover or a cellar hole. The largest of these islands have all been populated over and over again, with limited success, but most have declined in year-round population during the twentieth century.

WHEN Sarah Orne Jewett's touching stories from The Country of the Pointed Firs were published in these pages, in the 1890s, the islands were passing their point of maximum residency -- at least by males. ("She had lived to lament three seafaring husbands, and her house was decorated with West Indian curiosities, specimens of conch shells and fine coral which they had brought home from their voyages in lumber-laden ships.") Fishermen still handlined under sail for haddock and cod in waters that floated a considerable traffic of boats carrying provisions for the mainland. Ships were laden with granite quarried on Vinalhaven for city buildings like the U.S. Customs House in New York and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine -- stone blasted from the island's giant quarries in a day when its population was double the present winter load. Other ships and boats were laden with sheep and cattle that had been fattened on the grassy pastures of North Haven or Monhegan or even smaller, uninhabited islands where the herds were left alone to graze all summer unmolested by mainland predators. Later, when the October grass withered, these four-footed islanders would sail for slaughter in Boston.

In Jewett's time the curve was already falling fast. The toll of the sea meant that many sailors would never come home, leaving their women isolated as widows, teachers, solitaries. The railroads had compromised sea transportation, rendering it less economic; the forests that had once crowded the islands had been felled for shipbuilding or firewood or pulp; the house-building boom on the mainland had moved west, out of the range of maritime traffic; the granite trade was about to bow its head to King Concrete; and the fisheries that had first brought men and women to the islands of Maine from across the Atlantic were surrendering the silent graces of sail to the harrumph and huff-puff of the gasoline engine, eventually enabling fish from the vast offshore treasuries of Georges Bank and the Grand Banks to be delivered promptly, fresh on ice, to Boston or New York without the season-consuming necessity of salting and drying. By the time of my first island visits, in the 1960s, groundfish had long since begun to yield to the gnarly lobster, which before the Civil War was widely regarded as offal, fit only for enriching lime-poor soils. By a convenient combination of miracles lobster has metamorphosed into a delicacy in the age of Surf 'n' Turf. Ingenious islanders figured if they could succeed for a while as codfish salters, lumberjacks, quarrymen, shepherds, or sailmasters, why not as lobstermen? So the sea blooms with lobster pots in the summer months, and in trying winters the hardworking lobster people betake themselves to Jupiter, Florida, and like havens to relax their aching, well-paid bodies and forget fog for a while.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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