Two on the Isle

by Caskie Stinnett

More and more people are seeking out islands, I read in the newspaper recently, in the hope of finding freedom from neighborhood blight, crime, atmospheric pollution, noise, and the general fears and insecurity of a troubled world. The law of supply and demand having asserted itself, the article continued, habitable islands are becoming almost impossible to acquire.

I live during the more moderate months of the year on a small island close to the coast of Maine, and perhaps I can furnish a footnote on the prizes—and shortcomings—of island life. There are some general fears and insecurity on islands too, and the fact that they involve nature rather than the mischief of man makes them no less real.

At high tide, the island on which I dwell contains about three and a half acres; it is heavily wooded in oak, spruce, and birch, and like alt land on this strange and beautiful coast it offers only a rocky shoreline to the sea. There is only one house on the island, and one walks down a short path from the dwelling to a small, one-room cottage which, in its more important days, served as a handyman’s lodging, and later as a toolhouse. Now it has declined further in purpose, and functions only as a writer’s workroom.

On the ridiculously small porch of this building, I am writing these lines. My boxer, as is her habit, followed me down the path this morning, and while I wheeled the typewriter table out so I could work in the sun, she struck out on her daily exploratory ramble of the island. She is very curious about what the tides leave on the rocks, and from time to time she brings some extraordinary prize to the door of my study and lays it solemnly there for my approval. She just brought the skeleton and head of a rotten fish, the sort of thing that may have been tossed from a lobster boat, although lobstermen are frugal people and throw very little away, especially a rotten fish which is about the best bait there is. At least twice a day she noisily invades a rock ledge at one end of the island, scattering the gulls resting there and causing a commotion that doesn’t die down for an hour or more. I think of the rock ledge as the Golan Heights of the island; I doubt that I shall ever see lasting peace there.

I believe that the man who lives on an island builds his isolation without meaning to and sooner or later it begins to take possession of his soul. But it brings him a serenity and sureness, a trust in himself that he may never have known before, and he is better for it. Whether he desires it or not, he finds himself the center of his world, the arbiter between man and nature, the monarch of a miniature kingdom, the keeper of peace and the protector of lives, and the occasional intermediary in dealing with a higher power—with fretful winds and fickle seas and lightning and drought. He must be a caretaker, a carpenter, a painter, a physician, a veterinarian; on one occasion which shall always remain green in my memory, I was called upon to lend an understanding ear to a confession of wrongdoing.

Most island dwellers I have known are innately humble people; I have never heard one say to a visitor, “This is the greatest place in the world.” I’m sure the words have been spoken, but I think rarely, and never in my presence. If you like the island, the owner is pleased; if you do not, he is not offended nor does he appear to be troubled in the least. No one knows better than he how incomplete and imperfect things are, how much needs to be done.

Perhaps one of the gravest errors people make is the assumption that island life is a simple life. Quite the contrary, it is immensely complicated, with every effort intricately dovetailed with another in the hope of satisfying the ultimate ambition, which is the avoidance of an unnecessary trip to the mainland. Although this island is quite close to the Maine coast—I can row the distance in ten minutes and on one occasion I even swam ashore—I find myself planning with all the seriousness of a military campaign how to manage one more day without bridging that gap between island and mainland. Of course, food and mail must be brought over regularly, although where the latter is concerned the dog demurs; this is a presumption, she thinks, not supported by the facts, and sometimes I agree.

Trips to the mainland are not casual: lists are taken, logistics are studied (the liquor store and the paint store are conveniently close together; the post office, on the other hand, is some distance away and is visited only when stamps are urgently needed), the tide chart is consulted (lugging heavy packages up the ramp at low tide clearly reflects poor planning), and thought is given to the arrival time of the rural delivery mailman at our mailbox. There are lesser considerations, such as making telephone calls when the recipient of the call may likely be at home (remember, there are no telephones on small islands), but these must find their place in the overall pattern of the expedition and they cannot expect to exert much influence on the master plan.

Weather is an extremely personal thing to island dwellers, and occupies their thoughts in a way that mainland people would find difficult to understand. Walking out of the house, one makes contact with the elements, whether good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. In rain, there is no taxicab or automobile to run to, but rather a wet boat which is likely to get wetter still before it reaches land. I never cease to be amazed at how quickly rainwater collects in the bottom of a boat. But one is close, too, to the bright days, to the mottled sunlight shining between the young leaves of the oak trees in the spring, and to the short, golden days of autumn when the shadows begin to slant and the water sparkles in a way that is almost blinding.

Fogs are frequent in these waters, and they don’t creep in on tiny cat feet as Carl Sandburg imagined; they move in solidly and with a great show of authority and they often stick around long after their welcome has worn thin. But there is something quite pleasant about the sound of the foghorns in the channel and about that gray, opaque cloud that advances like a wall and wraps the trees and the ledges and the dock in a ghostly shroud, I have been in a rowboat when the fog came in so thickly that I could not see the tips of the oars, and then it was not so pleasant, but later, walking toward the house and seeing the yellow glow of the oil lamps and candles through the windows, I was struck by the cheer and warmth and snugness that shone through the mist. Yes, the weather fits closely to the island dweller, almost like the clothes that he wears, and the first thing he does upon awakening is to glance at the shadows on the wall to see what is likely to be in store for the day.

Of course, sophistication and smartness have come to many islands, especially those used as weekend refuges of the wealthy. Generators supply electricity, there is color television, and one finds music at the swimming pool as well as floodlit tennis courts. I think of these places as extensions of the mainland, as spiritual peninsulas rather than islands, because the concept of insularity has not gripped the hearts and minds of the owners. I have often considered the installation of a generator here, but I have always discarded the notion because I can’t bear the thought of an internal combustion engine shattering the silence that envelops this place. Total silence is nothing at all; it is no prize in itself, but it provides an acoustical background against which the sounds of nature are reflected clear and true—of water lapping in the darkness against the dock, of wind whispering through the spruce trees, of a gull squawking disdainfully as it buzzes the house at midnight. I would hate to have these sounds drowned out by an engine.

Thoughts of secession, however mad, nibble like mischievous mice at the mind of the true islander; he knows it can never happen but he derives great satisfaction from contemplating it. I once went through a period—we were all young once—of referring to the mainland as the United States, and I thought of my shopping expeditions there as trips to a foreign country. (My foreign policy, at the time, extended to the United States a most-favored-nation status, and I was not above receiving foreign aid of a nonmilitary nature.) This only illustrates how deeply the fantasy of sovereignty resides in the islander’s heart and how stubbornly the wistful dream of self-sufficiency occupies his thoughts.

I must be fair and acknowledge that the threat of loneliness is a constant condition of island life; a small concern to some and a terror to others. But loneliness is not unknown on the mainland, and unless an island is very remote and far at sea one can always go ashore to a movie or to a tavern or to whatever one’s heart draws one to that will fill the emptiness.

For some reason that I cannot explain there is an intensity to life on an island; beauty is exaggerated, is felt more deeply. A few days ago I put on foul-weather gear and went down on the rocks to welcome a late summer thunderstorm. It was tremendously exciting to stand on the windward side and watch the sky darkening to a dull gray, and to feel the rush of warm, wet air that precedes the arrival of rain. The wind rose quickly, whipping up small whitecaps in the cove, and scattered drops began to fall. They were big and they shook the leaves of the trees violently and left large spots on the rocks, but in a few moments the patter had become a wall of rain, which beat against the rock on which I stood and which searched out, successfully, a dozen cracks in my oilskins. Gusts now tugged at the trees and the bayberries behind me and built great troughs in the sea. Lightning flashed wickedly, followed by instantaneous thunder that rolled across the sky, booming and echoing until it faded away. But soon the strength of the storm weakened, and the thunder moved further and further into the distance. The clouds still hung low and scudded across the sea, but all violence was spent and a gentle rain remained. In a little while I could see light in the western sky, and a shaft of sunlight appeared, bathing the island in a weird, yellow-green light. The summer storm was over.

On an island the corrosion of progress is as great as the owner will tolerate, and no greater. That fragment of land, floating in the sea, offers the rare opportunity of creating a world of one’s own, and the blame for failure is pinpointed with terrible accuracy. In 1835, a hardheaded New Englander looked at the villages and cities around him and wrote in his journal: “It does look sometimes as if the world were on its last legs.” If Henry David Thoreau were roaming the countryside today, I think one would find him on an island. And on one as far as possible from the smell of industrial smoke, gasoline, and pizza.