<< Back to Feature Page
By Cathy Newman
First of all, there are boundaries, and if you don't know where they are, you will find out soon enough. They begin with 12 miles of ocean separating Monhegan Island from the rest of Maine. They continue with a three-mile offshore perimeter marking the Monhegan Lobster Conservation Area, inside of which lobstermen from elsewhere may not intrude. They include a welcome mat in front of the cottage belonging to the former librarian. "Go Away," it reads. They end with the barrier islanders erect around themselves—an invisible, inviolable line, which if crossed would trigger red flags, a falling barometer, and the certainty of storm warnings ahead.
On my third day on Monhegan, I spoke with Sherman M. Stanley, a fisherman whose family has lived on the island for six generations. For decades Sherm was the nearest thing Monhegan had to a monarch. Before he retired, his word (and that of his brother Alfred) was law. During the Stanley reign, order prevailed. Things got done, people said.
Now 75, Sherm still carries himself with a mast-rigid carriage and an unshakable conviction that most people are damn fools.
"Tell me about the rules lobstermen live by," I asked him. Lobster season on Monhegan runs from December 1 to June 25. There are limits on lobster size (the body, not counting the tail, must be at least three and a quarter inches long, with a five-inch maximum) and on the number of traps that may be fished (600).
"What if there is a violation?" I asked. "Say someone kept undersized lobsters or put out too many traps. What if someone from another community strayed into your waters?"
We take care of it, if you know what I mean," Sherm answered. "I don't. What do you mean?" I pressed. Lobstermen form a fraternal order of their own, and lobster wars between rival communities of fishermen often erupt. I wanted specifics.
He gave me an appraising look.
"I could tell you a lot of stories, but I won't."
Spread out a maritime chart of Muscongus Bay, along Maine's ragged mid-coast, and run your finger southwest by south out of Port Clyde, the tiny harbor on the tip of the St. George peninsula. Continue on, taking care to avoid the shoals of Hupper Island and Old Horse Ledge. Trace a path between Allen Island and Burnt Island, turn slightly west, head straight, and you'll find Monhegan Island at latitude 43˚45´ N, longitude 69˚18´ W. Captain John Smith came in 1614 and found it a "round, high Ile," which is pretty much how one finds it today.
Monhegan is ringed by high, dark cliffs. Its interior mixes meadow, marsh, and spruce groves so dense that light doesn't filter through, forcing trees to grow ever taller to meet the sun. Often a batting of fog covers the island. Monhegan fog is not subtle. It is a wringing-wet, gray shroud, and its appearance triggers the sob of a foghorn on Manana Island, a small hump of rock opposite Monhegan's harbor.
There are 4,613 islands off the Maine coast. At the turn of the 20th century 300 of these were populated; now Monhegan is one of 14 true island communities left. When islanders visit the mainland to shop, to visit the doctor, or simply to clear their heads, local parlance has it that they're going "inshore"—or, even, "to America"—as if Monhegan were some offshore principality, which perhaps it is. "I'm going downtown," I overheard a woman say, by which she meant the 30 yards or so down the path to the post office, which is all there is to "downtown" except for two small grocery stores and a scattering of galleries that cater to summer tourists.
Monhegan in summer is marked by wicker rockers on wood porches and Scrabble and jigsaw puzzles with just enough pieces missing after countless seasons to make it frustrating. Ferries disgorge hundreds of day-trippers, who spend a few hours hiking the 17 miles of trails, then head home, though some linger in half a dozen inns busy only in summer. The summer resident population hovers around 200, but day-trippers can add another 600 or 700 to the mix. Winter is a quiet and lonely time; the island shrinks to its bedrock population of 65.
In the unofficial hierarchy of Monhegan, day-trippers are the bottom dwellers; short-term renters rank a few notches up, superseded by the stable population of summer residents; and finally are the year-round locals, fewer than half of whom fish for lobster in winter.
In the Carina, one of the grocery stores, summer is defined by the shuffle of Tevas and Birkenstocks across the pine floor. The store offers more than a hundred varieties of wine from California, France, Chile, and Australia. It is also, for those who must, the place to buy a New York Times or Wall Street Journal. "There have been more confrontations over the last New York Times than anything else," says Ray Hydusik, who helps run the place. He indicates a sign: "If you can't enjoy the natural beauty of the island without the New York Times, the boat leaves at 12:30 and 4:30."
Ray holds a definite opinion about day-trippers. He dislikes them. Does he bite the hand that feeds him? It's not a blanket bias, he explains. "It is a matter of quality, not quantity. It's the ones who arrive with golf clubs or tennis rackets, wanting to know where the courses and courts are" (there are none). "Or the woman who clicked off the ferry in high heel shoes" (there are no sidewalks, only dirt roads).
Similar grumbles have been voiced for a century or as long as rusticators, as tourists were known, have visited. "I expect in ten years the island will be spoiled, for everybody except a few of the summer folks," an old captain told a Portland newspaper in 1910. "His remark is typical," the article said. "the summer tourist is tolerated, rather than invited . . . hotels have been erected because of the demand for them rather than as a bid for company."
Monhegan is more fortunate than most other islands: Three-fourths of its land is protected by the Monhegan Associates, a land trust formed in 1954 by Ted Edison, the inventor's son, who had a summer cottage near the lighthouse; a group of other summer residents; and locals, including Sherm Stanley, who supported the proposal among the fishermen.
"When I come here, I become who I really am," Sue Bolman told me one morning over breakfast. For more than 30 years Sue has spent summers in her cottage on Horn Hill. Summer residents do just fine with locals. "The fishermen were always invited over for cocktails, and they accepted with gusto," she said.
The warmth is reciprocated. She spoke of Alfred Stanley and how last year, when she was hospitalized inshore with a heart ailment, he visited three times a day. "He didn't feel compelled to chatter, tell jokes, or mutter platitudes. He just sat by the bed and held my hand," and you could tell how deeply moved she was by his compassion.
There is something healing about islands. Perhaps it's the limitless expanse of water, suggests Jan Bailey, a poet, who once lived on Monhegan and still summers there. "Water heals," she says. "Its permanence sets the rest of the world in perspective. There is greater solitude and inner time here." We sat on her porch overlooking a pond, sipping gin, and watching mallards glide on the dark green water.
The interior of her cottage is decorated with whimsical brushstrokes of lemon, blue, and lavender. When I complimented its cheerfulness, Jan explained she had painted it herself one winter. "My neighbor Alice Boynton said to me, 'You will learn to love the gray.' But that never happened."
Is there a square inch of Monhegan that has not been painted? Perhaps it is the silver light that dances off the mirror of the sea or the fog that softens the landscape that has lured painters here since the 19th century. Among them are Edward Hopper, the American painter of urban desolation, the illustrator Rockwell Kent, and three generations of Wyeths: N. C., Andrew, and Jamie.
Ted Tihansky is an artist. Ted also is a mess. He has paint everywhere but on the canvas. On his forehead, a war-paint-like slash of blue; in his hair, chartreuse; on his shirt, chrome yellow. What is it about Ted that invites disaster? Once when he was painting by the shore, a little girl came over to watch, and in the wink of an eye the painting tipped over on her, and she became a living canvas.
Watching Ted paint is a spectator sport, judging from the knot of tourists gathered in the road behind him. It is a dance. He steps back from the easel, then forward, brush in hand, back and forth, and soon the glorious display of larkspurs, nasturtiums, and poppies growing in the garden belonging to Kathie Iannicelli, the island's greenest thumb, lifts from the canvas and blooms with such exuberance as to dazzle the eyes. "Painting is my life," says Ted, who is tall, rangy, and endearingly earnest. "It took me 30 years to learn that." Monhegan has been an artistic epiphany for Ted. "People here take their lives seriously," he says, returning to the canvas, painting furiously.
By November, wind and cold have stripped the island. Leaves are gone, and so are tourists. The water is turned off, marking the dividing line between locals and anyone else. Only residents, who have wells and do not rely on town water, remain. "If you can't stand the winter, you don't deserve the summer," a T-shirt says. In winter the wind blows with such fury picture windows fronting the harbor bow in from the pressure. Ferry service cuts back to three boats a week, weather permitting. The rhythm of the island shifts. For fishermen the year begins with December 1, or Trap Day, when lobstering starts.
Monhegan is the brain trust of fishing. Seven of the island's 16 lobstermen have college degrees. Bryan Hitchcock went to Andover, then got a degree in business at Lehigh University. His sternman, Ray of the Carina grocery (nearly everyone holds more than one job), has a degree in architecture.
Although he once worked as a freelance photographer, for the past 30 years Hitchcock has fished for lobster. When I asked why, he explained that it was being his own boss and not having to listen to anyone else. "If you feel like going out, you go. If not, you don't."
It's also, he added, the thrill of pulling the trap and never knowing what you will see. "You may get a blue lobster" (genetic permutations produce such things). "And once I caught a half-black, half-yellow lobster." Trap Day was two weeks away, and Hitchcock sat in his fishing shack hammering out dents in his wire traps in preparation for the season.
Monhegan has a fiercely won set of lobstering regulations. Some are state law; some are local tradition. On Trap Day the rule is that everyone goes or no one goes. That's tradition. The Monhegan Lobster Conservation Area, limiting fishing to holders of a Monhegan license, is state law passed by the legislature in 1998. Then there is the law of lobstermen, a place where local tradition and state statutes blur; it has to do with territorial claims and who has the right to a license. "If you are a lobsterman, you know where you belong," says Mattie Thomson, a Monhegan lobsterman who has fished with every kind of net, line, or trap known to man on both coasts and beyond. "On this island you can't buy your way in."
Monhegan is full of stories that take on the quality of myth: The time Billy Payne dumped his books and Princeton degree off the wharf to make a statement about who he was. The time Danny Bates nearly burned down Manana Island (he was trying to torch two derelict buildings, but things got out of hand). The time Bryan Hitchcock fell overboard in winter and came home iced over and turning blue, and his wife asked: "What are you doing home?" The many times Harry and Doug Odom, who ran the general store for 43 years, sold land they owned for a fraction of its worth so fishermen could afford a place to live.
There are darker tales too—stories of Old Testament rectitude like something out of Nathaniel Hawthorne: The time the teacher of the island's schoolhouse rubbed some parents the wrong way, was shunned and forced out, leaving a trail of bitterness. Stories of fishermen banished for transgressions against the community or the rules of lobstering.
Then there was the flap several years ago over the "fairy houses"—Lilliputian structures of lichen, moss, and twigs erected in Cathedral Woods by visitors or local residents with children. One side argued the houses were ecologically irresponsible, destructive of plants; others pointed to the magic of fantasy and the delight of children. Tempers flared; fairy houses were stomped to bits. When a reporter for National Public Radio asked Faryl Henderson, an islander who is pro-fairy houses, how such issues were discussed, she replied: "We don't discuss anything out here. We just form our opinions, and then we silently brood."
Islands are like that, says Charlie MacDonald, who first came in 1946 and keeps track of Monhegan's weather as his way of giving something back to the place that offered his spirit safe harbor after the pain and trauma of World War II. I'm in his living room, listening to him discuss the protocol of island life. You don't want to rock the boat, he advises. "Everybody on the island needs help sometime." You may need a cup of sugar, a tank of fuel, a tow on the water. Confrontation can be tricky. Best to be on good terms. Blessed are the Flexible; for they shall never be bent out of shape, a sign on the refrigerator says. "Now if anybody takes exception to anything I tell you, I stand to be corrected," Charlie says when I leave.
Yet, in crisis, there is caring, compassion, loyalty. The islanders draw together and become caretakers for their own.
Lynne Drexler became one of the island's own. She came to paint and stayed. Her voice was like dark molasses with the elongated vowels of Tidewater Virginia, where she grew up. She'd hold court on her couch in her white sneakers. She'd have a crystal glass full of Jack Daniel's in one hand, a cigarette in the other. She had a round face and eyes that sparkled with the certainty that human folly ruled and wasn't that a hoot. Her tongue could sting. She could be bossy. In a letter she wrote about a friend who died, she said, "I feel badly that I couldn't have reached out more, given more affection, but then that isn't me."
She put her love into painting instead. She'd lean a canvas against a wall, sit on the floor and paint her heart out. She did that every day, except Saturdays, which she reserved for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast. She painted in bold sweeps of color. She had that vision artists have whereby seas can be pink, trees can be blue, and the grays of the world aren't grays at all but reds and oranges so hot they singe the senses.
A diagnosis of cancer and emphysema put her on notice she had six months to live. Defiantly, she lasted another year. In the end a circle of friends honoring her request to die on the island enabled her to do so. "I can see her now, sitting across the table," Harry Bone told me. "You'd drop by, thinking you had a real scoop, but she already knew the details." Harry, a seaman who worked oil tankers and tugboats, has lived on the island for the past 15 years. He takes care of three dozen or so summer cottages, and so it happened that he and seven others formed a hospice group to take care of Lynne. For the last months of her life, they took turns staying day and night. Talking when need be; silent when need be.
She died on the morning of December 31, 1999. Tralice, Kathie, Pam, Barbara, Jackie, Alice, and Luke, the paramedic, were there; so was Harry. Tralice held one hand, Harry another, and Alice went to get her recording of Don Giovanni, Mozart's sublime opera
about a man incapable of fidelity, who causes the one woman he professes to love great pain.
"I don't know if Lynne could hear at that point, but it sure helped us," Harry told me. You might say that Lynne Drexler turned her dying into a party to which everyone she cared for was invited. There are worse ways to leave this world.
"After she died," Harry told me, "I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead."
He paused. "She would have hated that."