Wednesday, July 23, 2008


We left the house at 6:00am yesterday for our journey to Bear Island, Maine. If we were crows, I suppose it would have been an hour's journey, (though this is just a wild guess and Dick could probably tell me the exact amount of time, but he's asleep).At around 11:00am we arrived at the island, which I feel I ought to capitalize. The Island.

There are almost 3000 (!) islands off the coast of Maine. I had no idea that the number was so high until a moment ago, when I googled it. I knew there were alot, but not this many. 95% of these islands are privately owned.

The idea of owning an island is beyond me. Yet, I remember having fantasies about just such a proposition years before I moved here. I had come to Maine to camp for a few weeks via plane, and while waiting to leave, I noticed that there was a glass display of real estate ads, all for islands, not houses, nor acreage but whole islands for sale, and most of them cost less than the price of a modest house in the suburbs of New York.

At the time, I lived in a tiny house on Long Island (not the one in Maine). For the price of that house, I could have owned my own private realm. I would have no money left over to build a house or buy a boat, but a person can dream, can't they?

I didn't buy an island but I did move to Maine. Unfortunately, I moved up here totally broke and didn't buy property until the prices were driven almost as high as they ever have been (such has been my luck in all matters financial).

But this is not what I meant to write.

I wanted to write about the kind of light (and darkness) that exists on an island. I am pausing here, trying to find the right words, and they are not coming to me. I am terribly tired, but I would venture to guess that this is not why I am at a loss for words. I am not enough of wordsmith, by any means, to convey the quality of the light off the coast of Maine.

Every time I have left the mainland, within five minutes I become awe struck. The water reflects the sky and even when the skies are dark with rain clouds, the sense of spaciousness grows as one gets further from the shore. The boat may be noisy, but the sound of gulls and terns overpowers the sound of the motor (or maybe only to my ears).

Yesterday morning was gray and foreboding, but the gray was tinged with purple, so similar in color to the shakes on the sides of most of the islands' buildings. One realizes, too, just how many shades of gray there are. The rocks, the sky, the dead trees (oh, they are beautiful, those mangled behemoths), the new and old houses, the storm petrels. . .all gray, magnificent gray.

We got lucky, and heavy humidity and fog did not turn to storms. The sun came out brilliantly, quite surprisingly, and the sky was filled with the kind of cumulous clouds that I've always thought of as islands in the sky. Totally perfect. Islands below and above.

And then Bear Island, the Island, small enough to see water on all sides, but large enough to hold a small forest and quite a bit of mystery.

What can I say? I coveted. I still do. There was the "big house", where the family has lived for over one hundred summers. And there was the "kitchen house", which not only held a kitchen but an indoor dining room big enough for thirty people (or more) and still feel intimate. The screened dining room faced the sun setting over the water and held a view of not only the other islands, but the coast of Maine, far enough away as to obscure what I knew was there - the "city" of Belfast, where I used to live (and now have very mixed feelings about). I could not see the new nail salons and the big orange sign of the new Family Dollar Store. Ah, poor Belfast. If one strays from its still beautiful side streets and two lower shopping streets on the water, one could be in Anywhere, USA.

As this evening has turned to night, I realize that the darkness on the island was so much deeper. Here, in my tiny rural village, we have street lights. No, it isn't New York. I can see the stars at night and at some point, around 9:00pm, the sound of cars pretty much ceases. But it is never truly pitch black. It never becomes truly quiet either, for there's always some hum of a motor to be heard, whether it's the cooler in the General Store or one of the trucks my neighbor has in his front yard. In my own house, something is usually making some sort of sound. It may be the sump pump or the well water pump. We've stopped using our furnace (for good, I think), but there's a propane heater and a refrigerator and if one is really sensitive to these things, the sound of the electricity. Yes, it makes a sound. Another thing Dick could explain, but I won't wake him up to say "Hey Dick, why do we unplug the washing machine?"

Bear Island runs what little electricity they use from solar panels (or something - I didn't ask for details). At night, the darkness seems deepened by the quiet. And oh how I long for that kind of quiet. It is like the quiet after a huge snow storm. It envelops me and makes me feel comforted and snug as a bug. I am surprised when I find that many people are afraid of this kind of darkness and quiet.

So many homes, most of them, I'd say, have neither quiet nor darkness. The TV is always on, or the radio, or someone is listening (sort of) to music. The phone is always ringing. When I was in Princeton, I noticed that about a third of the folks on the street were talking into the air, for they had bluetooth devices in their ears. There is no place you can not be reached by others or assaulted with sound.

On the Maine Islands, you're lucky to get any kind of phone service. The mail arrives by boat, every day during the summer (at least on the few islands that were serviced by the boat we came in on) and twice a week during the winter. For those who do have cell phones, they have great excuses for not being able to talk; "I'm on an island." It sounds so dramatic, as if they were cast away and stranded, and not living leisurely and by choice in this wondrous setting.

I have been bewitched by other Maine Islands: notably Swan's and Little Cranberry Islands. As a teenager, I spent a day sitting in the woods of Deer Island, Canada, reading H.P.Lovecraft under the enormous pines. I never wanted to leave.

The same summer I read Lovecraft, I joined a bunch of other kids to rough it on an interior island on Moosehead Lake. We didn't figure out properly how much food we needed and were out by the end of day two, so three of us got in a canoe and started paddling in what we thought was the right direction of the store. Moosehead Lake is big. None of knew how to read the map of the waters or use a compass (skills we should have had, of course). To make matters worse, a storm blew up out of nowhere, lightning and all, and we wound up nearly killing ourselves trying to make it up onto the shore of another typically stoney Maine Island. I am not lying when I tell you there was an old sign that read "Welcome to Devil's Island". Sopping wet and freezing, we crawled our way over the rocks and found a row of burnt out summer cottages fronting a deep woods. We figured we'd sleep in one of them until the morning came, assess the canoe's damage in the morning, and pray someone would come along. Or something. We hadn't a clue.

Before we made it to the cottages, a woman ran out of the woods. She was quite old. She said she had been watching us, and feared that we would not make it to shore. She led us through a dark path to a large house deep in the woods. There were two other old women who lived with her. And then there was this - the ground floor of the house was filled with glass canisters of cookies and sweets. On every surface we saw, there they were. It was insane. We were kids of 15 suddenly thrown into a real life Hansel and Gretal house. The women were thrilled to see us. They went off island once a month for groceries and spoke very little. We were like little children to them. The boy who was with us was of particular interest to them. He had dark skin and dark hair and had the audacity to announce he was Jewish. I have no idea why he did, but one of those woman, I kid you not, parted his dark hair to look for horns. Oh, we were babes in the wilderness!

I remember falling asleep, scared that I had been poisoned, and scared that I would be bitten by bedbugs, for I was sleeping on a bed filled with straw, something I'd only read about in books or seen in museums. In the middle of the night, I had to pee, and went to the outhouse. There was a chainsaw on the floor, with something oozy looking dripping off of it. My imagination ran away with me. I truly thought one of compatriots had been killed very quietly while I was sleeping and certain I was going to be unwittingly fed him or her for a meal the next day.

The next day turned out to be bright and beautiful. Our canoe was ruined. The women told us that we could stay and that Moosehead Lake had a coast guard of sorts, since it was so big, and that after a large storm they generally would come by to check on things. Eventually.

Even though none of us had been cut up and stewed and the women were less terrifying in the light of day, none of us wanted to stay too long. We were grateful when the boat turned up in the late afternoon. They were looking for us. They had checked on the friends we left behind first, who were terrified we had been killed in the storm. They took us all back to the shore. We were admonished for our ignorance and warned against ever trying such a thing again without knowing the basics of compass reading and preparation. It didn't matter. We were all from the city and now that we were out of danger, we all agreed that this would make the best story of the summer once we got home.

And that was certainly true, for here I am, thirty years later, telling this story.

Back then, I was somewhat scared of the darkness and quiet of islands, though I also felt deeply attracted to them. Tonight, it is raining heavily, thunder is cracking and lightning is lighting up the dark night sky. But it isn't so wild or so daunting here on the mainland. We will not be stranded. Tomorrow, my driveway may have some new ruts, but that is all.

I meant to speak of the nature of the light on the islands, but I fell back in time, and remembered some of what brought me to this place called Maine. It is not the place I knew as a child, but it is still is, out there on most of those 3000 islands. Yes, now people have satellite dishes, internet service and cell phones, but they can always say "Service is bad out here" and go about their business, picking blueberries and gazing out at the water, living in a world of enormous light and darkness.

If I lived out there, I'd have a gray cell phone. A osprey might come swooping down and mistakenly carry it away in its talons, thinking it was one very cold mouse.


Photo note: This is not the water off the coast of Maine. I have no idea where it is. It was on the Web, and the description was in a language I did not recognize, which is intriguing in of itself. I looked for a good picture of any of the 3000 Maine islands, and gave up. They all looked too much like picture postcards, or were ads for multi-million dollar homes. I toyed with the idea of putting up a square of purplish gray, but this photo will do. For what, I am not sure.

1 comment:

Abigail said...

Relatives had a home on Deer Isle when I was a kid. We visited every summer. I've also been to Great Diamond Island not so long ago. Every time I go to Maine I fantasize about living on one of those Islands, just like you did. I love the "I can't talk, I'm on an Island" mentality. It seems the only place where one can truly get away. My Mom is leaving for Maine tomorrow, to visit my Aunt for 2 weeks in Brooklin on Penobscot Bay. I *so* wish I could join her. Not just for 2 weeks but forever. I started reading this wonderful cooking blog, called Pioneer Woman Cooks ( and even though she's somewhere like Montana on a ranch, it makes me long for an isolated cabin in Maine (minus the 4 kids she has! my dogs are enough!). Bask in the quiet and darkness, my friend....q