White Island

Lawyer and writer, who graduated from Princeton in 1905 and who received the Woodrow Wilson Award from his alma mater in 1961, Raymond B. Fosdick used to recharge his batteries on a small island off the Maine coast, as these pages so pleasantly testify.

IT IS a curious thing, this craving for solitude that we all seem to have. Gregarious by instinct though we are, even in early childhood we hunger to be alone. Who has not known the child’s passion to become inaccessible — the secret cave made out of a blanket thrown over upturned chairs, the house in the tree to which one climbed and pulled up the rope ladder? And the treasures of that solitude — the pebbles, the broken bits of china, and the apple or two? Perhaps these common things that surround us in the house of life mirror our wish for security. Because they share our solitude they give us confidence as we face the uncertainty of the future.

Was it this instinct that led Thoreau so carefully to catalogue his possessions at Walden Pond? — “a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet and a frying-pan, a dipper, a wash-bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned lamp.”

I have an impression that Thoreau was perhaps a trifle ashamed of his catalogue, as if he had been caught off guard, for in his next sentence he thunders a little louder than usual: “Thank God! I can sit and I can stand without the aid of a furniture warehouse!”

For me, this feeling of solitude took the form of wanting to own an island — a big island, a little island, or any kind of terra firma surrounded by water. So about forty years ago I bought one off the coast of Maine, five miles out in the Atlantic from Boothbay Harbor. My next-door neighbor was Monhegan Island, considerably larger and much better known than mine. But my island was a giant white rock, flaked with mica and crowned with trees, and it lifted its head a hundred and twenty-five feet above the surf that pounded it on all sides. I had long coveted this very island, but the purchase took me completely by surprise. The property was put up for auction, and a day or two later I found myself with the title deed in my hand. I owned an island!

To clear myself of a possible charge of ostentation, I hasten to add that because its precipitous cliffs make it rather inaccessible, the island was supposed to have very little value. In an art gallery in New York I later saw a painting of White Island by a well-known marine artist, Frederick Waugh. There it rose in the distance out of a blue canvas with its snowy surge at its feet. I noticed that the price of the picture was precisely five times what I had paid for the island. I do not cavil at the discrepancy. The artist had his picture, and I had my island; and I leave the philosophers to struggle with the eternal question: What is reality?

“Monhegan 1938,”lithograph by Stow Wengenroth. Courtesy of the Print Department, Boston Public Library.

Walter He la Mare in his delightful book Desert Islands lays down a number of specifications. A model desert island, he says, should be thirteen miles by four. Alas! White Island falls far short of this ideal. “About sixty acres, more or less,” says the title deed. I never had it surveyed, but I fancy that the first owner who started that figure going in the abstract of title was a genial and exuberant soul. I am sure he was honest, but I suspect that in the uplift of his spirit he added the vast expanse of perpendicular cliff to the lateral area.

Mr. De la Mare also says that a respectable desert island should be from “three or four hundred to a thousand miles or so from the nearest habitations of humanity.” Here again White Island falls pitifully below the standard. It is only five or six miles away. But five or six miles is quite a decent distance, particularly if it is composed of often turbulent water, of scattered reefs that show startlingly white even in a lazy sea, of occasional blankets of fog that creep treacherously in to baffle even a Maine fisherman, and of mountainous waves and surf when the wind is high. Indeed, when the full, unimpeded force of the Atlantic is thrown against my island, it is as completely isolated from human contact as if it were a thousand miles from the coast. At such times it is encircled in a chaos of thundering seas that rage up the cliffs in assault after assault, sending their spray nearly to the top of the island. In such an ocean no boat could approach without being dashed to pieces. My solitude was guaranteed.

LANDING on White Island, even under the best of conditions, required something of a technique. I took a launch from the mainland, and then in a flat-bottomed skiff, with a Maine boatman at the oars, we made a dash for the rocks on the side of the island where they slope down to the sea. There was no dock or float; such an improvement could scarcely have survived the first storm. A hasty jump to a ledge slippery with seaweed, a quick transfer of supplies while the skiff rose and fell with the swell, an energetic shove with an oar, and the skiff was on its way back to the launch. I waved to the boatman, and he waved back — rather condescendingly perhaps, for I suspect he had secret misgivings about my sanity. Climbing up through the wood path to the top of the island, I would watch him board his launch, just as Ben Gunn stood on the pinnacle of Stevenson’s Treasure Island and watched Flint’s crew rowing back to the Walrus. I was marooned, a castaway.

When I first acquired the island, it was what real estate men call “unimproved.” No one had ever lived there, although its white cliffs attracted the attention of Captain John Smith when he sailed from the Virginia Colony in 1614 to buy fish on Monhegan. Certainly the good captain gave the island its name. And it is possible that the island served as a temporary refuge against Indian attack during the French wars. History tells us, however, that Damiscove, about two miles away from White Island, served as a defense against the Indians, and from its shores the colonists watched the burning of their homes on the mainland. Even during those frightening years I doubt if anybody ever built a house on White Island. But today it boasts a stout log cabin at the very peak of the rock, with windows on four sides, a stone fireplace, and bookshelves that I shaped with an ax.

I flattered myself that Robinson Crusoe would have found my habitation quite comfortable, although I doubt if it would have suited the more fastidious tastes of the Swiss Family Robinson. White Island provided no such miracles of animal and vegetable munificence as greeted those Swiss castaways. A few wild strawberries in the early summer and the crabs that cling to the rocks at low tide represented its sole contribution to human sustenance. I doubt, however, if one need starve to death on White Island even if one’s boatman is weeks in returning. The sea is full of fish, and I found that a line dropped from the rocks brought quick results.

But much as I like the sensation of being marooned, I did not care to experiment too far with this question of starvation. After all, Crusoe and the Robinsons had wrecks from which they could retrieve provisions. There was a wreck once on White Island, and old-timers told me that back in the eighteen seventies a large three-masted schooner lay for two years across the northern ledge of the island until it was demolished by pounding surf. The only thing I inherited from that wreck was a colony of large Norway rats, which had to be destroyed at once. Fortunately, over the years they had been so isolated from mankind that they proved to be an easy target for a small 22-caliber rifle. But I never got anything else out of that wreck, and I felt that I was not departing from noble tradition in insuring myself against a stormy week with an ample supply of canned goods.

I wonder what people did before the advent of the tin can. The suggestion seems a bit irreverent, but how this new invention would have transformed Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond! Certainly it would have saved him many trips to Concord village, although he doubtless would have spent more than the $8.74 which constituted his grocery bill for eight months. It was during one of these trips that he was arrested and thrown into jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. Had he lived on White Island in the nineteen thirties instead of at Walden Pond in 1845, this misadventure would not have occurred. Once on White Island he would have stayed there, living not on his customary rice and salt pork, but on canned fruits, canned vegetables, canned milk, and canned meats; and no New England sheriff that I ever heard of would have bothered to interrupt his sojourn. But the result would have been disastrous to posterity. Out of that day and night in the Concord jail came Thoreau’s great essay on civil disobedience, without which the literature of human freedom would be indeed poorer.

For his love of solitude Thoreau never felt the necessity of apology. Here was adventure; here was escape from complexity. “We live thick and are in each other’s way.” he cried. This was in 1845. What would he think of our situation today with traffic jams on every country road? “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” he said. What would he think of our conception of solitude when even on a ship in mid-ocean one cannot escape from daily newspapers and movies and hourly radiograms from one’s office?

One of my friends suggested that I should have a radio on White Island. It would keep me in touch with the world, he said. The idea sounded blasphemous, somehow almost unclean. Equally appropriate would be a loudspeaker for a nightingale, or a thirty-foot cross, outlined in neon lights, on the roof of the Parthenon. What would I do with a radio? Instead of the far-off scream of the gulls, I would hear the closing quotations of the stock market. Instead of the flawless rhythm of the surf as it breaks at the foot of the cliffs, I would hear raucous voices pleading with me to buy particular brands of cigarettes. I would hear earnest sermons urging me to do something serious and purposeful, when what I wanted to do was to practice the pagan art of leisure and watch the white crests that were sweeping in from Spain.

But the fight is a hopeless one. Man is waging a losing battle with his own machines. For better or for worse, we are doomed to live “thick” and to find such solitude as we can in the marketplaces of the world. Thoreau was quite upset about the railroad that invaded his Walden paradise. “That devilish iron horse,” he called it, “that Trojan horse, with a thousand men in his belly, introduced by mercenary Greeks!” But all the invective in the world cannot stop the drift toward propinquity, which science in our day is so rapidly accelerating. One day an airplane, with open throttle, flew around White Island, skimming above the water below the top of the cliffs. Like Robinson Crusoe when the earthquake came, I ran out of my hut “affrighted at the noise.” The gulls were scattering in all directions, and my two fish hawks that had come back each year to their huge nest on the top of a lofty snag never returned.

I wonder what White Island will be like when the same space of years separates the future from us that separates us from Walden Pond. Today, for example, the trees of the island have been uprooted by two hurricanes, and the new owners have put clapboards over my lovely old logs and have inserted a huge picture window, which to me seems singularly inappropriate for a desert island habitation. When Thoreau first saw Walden Pond it was “completely surrounded by thick and lofty pine and oak woods, and in some of its coves grape vines had run over the trees next the water and formed bowers under which a boat could pass. . . . It had the appearance of an amphitheatre for some kind of sylvan spectacle.” When I last visited Walden Pond some fifteen years ago, a large bathing pavilion occupied one end, signs attached to the trees warned picnickers against scanty bathing costumes and profanity (a New England catalogue of sin!), and the leafy roads along which Thoreau tramped were jammed with cars and ornamented with filling stations and hot-dog stands. This is what civilization does. This is the march of progress. This is what happens when man turns loose his iron creatures to browse across the pastures of the world.

IT IS amazing how rapidly the day passed on White Island and how much there was to do. In the first place, the preparation of three meals, even when one procures his raw materials largely from tin cans and glass jars, is to an inexperienced cook something of a feat. To watch heat turn three or four ingredients into something else is to witness a miracle. Of course, the something else may be a wide departure from the original design, but after all, a settled, unchangeable, clearly predictable order of things makes for a monotonous existence. Thoreau says that only one or two of his visitors were ever bold enough to stay and eat a hasty pudding with him, and that even they beat a rapid retreat when they saw how he made it.

I am sure that cooking develops some unusual mental powers. To cook one dish successfully requires concentration. Two dishes cooked simultaneously demand a high degree of alertness and a time sense not ordinarily employed in one’s customary tasks. Three or four dishes brought to the table in edible condition and steaming hot must be the work of sheer genius. I never reached such heights.

It was not only food that took up the day on my desert island; it was also wood. Years ago White Island had apparently been visited by a twister storm. It had cut a wide swath through the woods, and in this section the dead trunks were interwoven and matted together to form a veritable jungle. Here was not only wood for my hungry fireplace, but an opportunity to use an instrument which to our forefathers was both a means and a symbol of progress: the ax. Someone should write an ode, or even an epic, on the place of the ax in the development of American civilization. This is the weapon, wielded by hard muscles, that pushed the frontier across the continent. It fitted the hands of our grandfathers even better than a musket. There is a delight in its rhythmic swing which no golf club can equal. The clean-cut bite of the blade as it eats into the fiber of a log, the thrill of achievement in felling a tall, tough-coated snag, the sight of a growing woodpile — here are ancient satisfactions for which there are no modern substitutes. Moreover, this business of obtaining wood brings a double reward. For one burns what one cuts, and the fireplace in the evening reflects the glory of successful combat.

One of the really important activities that fill a day on a desert island is exploration. No desert island can ever be completely explored. To be sure, I have never found a mysterious footprint on the sand, for there is no sand on White Island. But a new variety of fern in the woods, or a new spot where adder’s-tongues grow, can produce something akin to excitement. I had no wild animals to contend with, but one morning on the low-lying rocks I came upon a baby seal that barked furiously at me when I cut off his retreat to the water. When after careful inspection he decided that I was not an enemy of his race, he allowed me to approach, and crooned contentedly when I stroked his sides, even letting me lift him to a spot where he could more easily flop into his ocean home.

Then there was the leisure time on the island when I would stretch out on the top of the rock with my favorite books — the volumes of Herman Melville, for example, or the salty tales of Joseph Conrad. Occasionally a school of whales would spout nearby with noises which echoed against the rock. It I was feeling a bit energetic, I would take a hammer and a chisel and dig out the garnets from the mica schist, of which the island is largely composed, and examine the tortuous streaks of basalt running through the rocks.

Once with binoculars I watched President Franklin Roosevelt steering his little yacht through that narrow reef-lined passage between White Island and the mainland. Later when I saw him at the White House, I told him I thought he had been navigating through rather dangerous water, “Oh,” he said, “I knew it was a pretty tricky thing, but I just thought I would make a run for it, and I was sure I could make Pemaquid.”

At night it was a different kind of leisure. I would sit on the top of the island and watch the flashes of the lighthouses, most of them white but some of them red. There are nine within sight of White Island, and at night they flash all the way from Cape Elizabeth up to Pemaquid Point and on to Monhegan. One comes to know them like old friends, and they bring a reassuring word from the outer world.

And then, of course, there were always the gulls. I would lie in the tall grass on the top of the island and watch them through field glasses. They wheeled and turned with a majestic grace with which no other bird is endowed. Alas, they quarreled too, bitter quarrels among themselves—most of them, like human quarrels, inexplicable in terms of cause. And yet they are highly intelligent birds. With eyes unbelievably keen one of them would suddenly swoop down on some luckless crab which at low tide had ventured too far from its crack in the rock. Whirling high in the air with the crab in its beak, it would drop its load with deadly aim on a flat rock in order to break the shell. If the first attempt was unsuccessful, it would drop the crab again from a greater height, until finally the shell was crushed and the feast was spread.

When the tide was low and the sea was fairly calm, exploration brought added rewards. The pools which the retreating tide leaves contain wonders of life and form — pink starfish and gaily colored seaflowers and the delicate tracery of old shells. The shore slants down into deep water, and an infinite variety of weed and ribboned kelp moves with the systole and diastole of the sea. Lazy jellyfish with their trains of filmy lace respond to the same rhythm, and everywhere there is the whisper of mystery.

At night, with the stars spreading from horizon to horizon, the same whisper creeps up from the ocean and rustles through the trees. The island seemed to me to be adrift, a giant ship moving with no throbbing of engines across a phosphorescent sea. Or perhaps afloat like Delos before Zeus anchored it to the bottom. A great peace settled over the earth. No longer were there wars or depressions. Indeed, no longer did the race of man clutter the planet. I was the sole survivor of a mighty cataclysm. This mood was what psychiatrists might call a manifestation of an exaggerated ego. But I fall back on the authority of Thoreau, for such was his attitude at Walden Pond. “Why should I be lonely?” he said. “Is not our planet in the Milky Way?”