The Lobster Coast
Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier
The remarkable story of one of the last hunter-gatherer societies in the developed world
This lively book reveals a little known culture that predates the Pilgrims and has remained true to the earliest version of the American Dream: an egalitarian, self-reliant republic. The self-sufficient lobstermen of the Maine coast are models of environmental prudence: at a time when the fishing industry is in crisis, they have conserved the bounty of their waters, even as the once-humble lobster has become a coveted delicacy. How denizens of the coast achieved this balance, even as they withstood assaults from everyone from French raiders to rapacious land speculators, makes for a “stellar informal history ... a primer for conservation and the effects of bad politics” (The Kingston Observer).
But on this last day of November, the Laura B. is packed with people. There are nearly as many people on board as live on the island this time of year, most of them mainlanders on their way out to help friends and family prepare for the most important day of Monhegan's year. Tomorrow, December 1, is Trap Day, the day Monhegan's lobstermen begin their unique, winter- only lobster season.
At a time of year when most of Maine's seven thousand lobster- men have hauled up their traps and brought their boats around to secure winter anchorages, Monhegan's fourteen lobstermen are getting ready to set their traps for the first time since spring. Once the fishermen have set their traps, they'll continue fishing through the dead of winter, braving ferocious weather and subzero temperatures that often leave their twenty-eight- to forty- foot boats encased in frozen spray. The lobstermen can handle this with the help of a sternman or two, but on Trap Day they need all the help they can get moving their heavy traps down to the town wharf. There are only twenty aging, beat-up pickups on the island, but each lobsterman needs to get a gang of six hundred traps, weighted metal cages weighing forty to fifty pounds apiece, out of their backyard, down the hill, and stacked up on the town wharf where they can be loaded onto the lobster boat. It can't be done much beforehand because the island's 8,400 traps can't fit on the granite wharf. Even if they did fit, they'd make offloading the Laura B. next to impossible. So, just before Trap Day, the entire village and dozens of mainlanders turn out to move the traps in the maritime equivalent of a barn-raising ceremony.
I'm on my way out to help Zoe Zanidakis, the island's only female lobster boat captain and onetime proprietor of the Monhegan House, one of the island's three summer inns. But there's a problem. About two months ago, Zoe quit answering her phone. She stopped picking up her cell phone and left e-mail and answering machine messages unreturned. It was as if Zoe had dropped off the face of the earth. After failing to track her down through several mutual acquaintances— nobody seemed to know where she was—I decided to board Laura B. as planned and track her down on the island. After all, no Monhegan lobsterman would ever miss Trap Day, least of all a ninth-generation islander like Zoe. Monhegan lobstermen make or break their season in the first few weeks of December, harvesting lobsters in an area that has not been fished in six months. But Trap Day has a ritualistic importance that transcends dollars and cents. “It's like cleaning the slate,” one islander explained to me. “We all come together to get the boats ready and any of the crap and hard feelings that have accumulated in the community are wiped away.” As we pass Allen Island and begin the final, seven-mile open ocean crossing, I'm certain Zoe is out there on the gray, humplike shape looming on the horizon.
It's a mild day for Maine in early winter—forty-five degrees and almost sunny, with still air and gently swelling seas—so many of the passengers spread out on deck, lounging amid the luggage, propane, and building supplies. I join them, and halfway up the port rail I find Billy Payne, who runs one of the island's two small stores. Billy, tanned from a vacation in South Carolina, tells me Zoe is nowhere to be found. “They say she's in a movie out in Hollywood,” he says, breaking into an understated smile. “But nobody seems to know for sure.”
The Laura B. lolls along, unperturbed by the swells. She's nearly sixty years old, and her wooden hull is only sixty-five feet long, but she was built for tougher chores than the Monhegan mail run: running soldiers and ammunition around Pacific bases during the Second World War. Slowly, steadily, Monhegan grows before us, its features becoming more detailed with each passing minute. First the rocky cliffs emerge from their forested crown. Then the forest reveals its inner anatomy of pine, spruce, and fir trees, straight and tall on the island's interior, stunted or dead along the exposed headlands. Guillemots and other cold-loving seabirds flutter over the primeval scene.
At first only one or two houses are apparent, poking out from the forest like lost children, along with the lighthouse tower, which sticks up from its hilltop like a ship's funnel. But as we round the island's northern tip and head down the western shore, the village slowly reveals itself. A cluster of wood-shingled houses, fish houses, and boat sheds stand on the gentle hillsides facing the shore. There are two hundred all told, but as we approach the harbor it's clear that most of the buildings are boarded up for the winter.
We slip past the nasty ledges guarding the north entrance and into the harbor, or what passes for one. Monhegan, a sausage-shaped island two miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, doesn't have a single deepwater cove or inlet in which one can protect so much as a skiff. All it has is Manana, a small grass-covered hump of rock that protrudes from the sea alongside Monhegan like a whale calf cuddling next to its mother. Monhegan's lobster boats are moored in the narrow passage between the two islands, an anchorage as uncomfortable as it is beautiful. The four-hundred-yard-wide passage is well protected by the tall islands on either side, and the ledges at the narrow north entrance afford reasonable cover from northeasterly winds. But the harbor is completely open to the south, and in a southwesterly storm the seas race through the harbor unimpeded. During particularly fierce winter storms, waves have crashed through low-lying parts of the village, but the lobster boats themselves ride the tempests out on their heavy moorings. We enter the harbor and come alongside the town's heavy granite wharf. Stacks of lobster traps are already growing at the base of the wharf, and one of the town's aging pickups is driving down the dirt road, piled high with more traps to be unloaded. But as we tie up and begin collecting our bags from their pile on the foredeck, the first thing I notice is the camera crew.
The three-man crew has set up a tripod-mounted camera and a big pole-mounted mike right on the edge of the wharf to film the mail boat's arrival. The height of the tide is such that the camera is pointed right in our faces, and a couple of people pause to stare at it as we head down the gangway. “Just move along,” one of the cameramen barks, waving us along with a gloved hand. “Pretend we're not here.” I try but just up the hill from the wharf I encounter a giant boom crane, poised to capture Trap Day action on the wharf. As I stand, gaping, the pickup pulls alongside me.
I drop my bags and start stacking lobster traps.
A burly, red-faced man in a flannel shirt has climbed to the top of the truckload of traps, stacked six-high in the same inverted ziggurat pattern farmers use for hay bales, which makes sense since the traps are approximately the same size and weight as a large hay bale. He passes traps down to the four of us on the ground and we carry them, in turn, to the growing stack on the wharf belonging to that particular fisherman. It's not hard to tell which traps go with which stack. Each lobsterman has already rigged his traps, and every second or third trap has a buoy and a coil of rope inside. The distinctive main buoys are painted in the unique color pattern of their owner, in this case white with an orange top and matching orange and white spindle. Later, when the traps are deployed and the buoys are floating on the surface, there will be no confusion as to whose traps are whose. It quickly becomes evident to me that the traps with the buoys in them are much heavier than the others. These “headers” are the first to be hauled up in the strings of two or three traps used on the island. Often these are more heavily weighted than the other traps in their string, serving as the anchor for the other traps they are attached to, called “tailers.”
The truck is empty, and the four people who came down with it jump in the back and start riding up the hill for another load. We haven't yet spoken a word apart from “got it” or “over there.” Another truck rolls in, loaded with traps containing fluorescent pink buoys topped with a black ring. The scene repeats itself. By the time the Laura B.'s crew has finished hoisting the heavy cargo onto the wharf with the boat's gantry crane, truckloads of traps are already waiting to be piled up in her landing zone. After an hour or so, the same trucks begin reappearing with fresh loads of traps. The men and women in the respective crews start acknowledging my existence the second or third time around. We shake our introductions with gloved hands. One couple is from Port Clyde and attended Georges Valley High School at the same time I was at a track and basketball rival a few hours to the northwest. Another guy turns out to be from Boothbay and knows my father. As we stack traps I ask if anyone's seen Zoe. I get all sorts of answers.
“Out to help Zoe? Haven't seen her since October,” a taciturn sternman tells me. “They say she's doing stunt work out in California.” A middle-aged resident assures me she's acting in her own movie and that that's why the film crew is here, sleeping in Zoe's house at the top of the hill. “No, no, no,” a third islander asserts. “She's in Australia with that actor Russell Crowe.” After hearing variations of these and other stories throughout the day, I feel like I've stepped into a novel cowritten by the ghosts of Franz Kafka and the Brontë sisters.
After a teal and white truck comes down to the wharf for the third time, the driver introduces himself. He turns out to be my host, John Murdock, a lobsterman in his mid-forties who also runs one of two year-round bed and breakfasts on the island. “Colin!” John laughs. “Was wondering where you were. Welcome to Monhegan! When we get this unloaded, toss your bags in and we'll show you your room.” Fifteen minutes later I'm in the back, bouncing up the hill with a couple of John's friends.
We pass the imposing Island Inn, its windows boarded up for the winter and a film crew on the lawn, round a corner at the crossroads, and pull up in front of John's rambling house. John's wife, Winnie, shows me to my room, where I dump my bags and change footwear before heading around back to where John's traps have been stacked all summer, waiting for this day. A second stack belongs to his nineteen-year-old son, Ben, who has his own friends out on the island helping. But Ben has been distracted by a problem with his boat's engine, and most of his six hundred traps are still sitting in the backyard. Half of John's stack has already been moved down to the wharf.
By early evening, the wharf is stacked so high with traps that no more can be safely added. A narrow passage to the wharf's boat ramp passes between the fifteen-foot-high towers of green-, black-, or yellow-coated metal traps. A few boats come alongside and take on twenty or thirty traps for the first run, scheduled for the following morning. After that, the wharf grows quiet as most islanders turn in early in preparation for the manic day ahead.
It's an unseasonably warm fifty-five degrees, and the road down to the wharf is turning muddy, with pools of water accumulating in the ruts left by the town's little fleet of trucks. All that warm air hanging over the forty-degree water has created another hazard. A pea soup fog is flowing slowly over the village, whose clapboard houses drift in and out of the gray mist. Despite the towering piles of traps, I can't see the wharf until I'm almost standing on it. Inside the traps, the fluorescent paint on the buoys glows as it refracts in the swirling fog. I walk through the narrow canyon between the traps and peer out to sea. I see only two of the fourteen lobster boats in the harbor, their sterns piled high with traps. Manana, just two hundred yards away, is completely invisible, though the foghorn on her far side cries out plaintively from time to time. Big swells crash into the wharf's granite blocks every few seconds, and their splash sizzles on the ocean surface like bacon in a frying pan.
There's no breakfast place on Monhegan this time of year, but there's fresh coffee down at Billy Payne's store. Billy isn't there when I come in, but he's left a pad of receipts on the counter for patrons to fill out. Some have weighted theirs down with little piles of change and banknotes. Rita White, an elderly lady who once managed not to visit the mainland for seven years, is playing solitaire at one of the store's little booths, and a couple of lobstermen are shooting the shit by the coffee thermoses. Somebody's collie is napping on the floor. I greet people good morning, which seems to take everyone but the dog aback, as if they have gotten out of practice since the summer people went away. Rita sizes me up at a glance. As is often the case in Maine, I'm not sure if I've passed inspection, but she nods assent to my sitting opposite her to drink my coffee.
The lobstermen are speculating on the result of the upcoming fish house meeting, and there's general agreement that the swells won't die down before nightfall. Problem is, tomorrow is Sunday, and a few of the captains observe the Lord's day of rest. Traditionally, Monheganers don't start their season until everyone is ready. If somebody has engine trouble or a sick relative ashore, fishing is postponed until they can start too. But a number of years back, the fishermen by the coffee thermoses recall, the majority decided to start the season on a Sunday, and some of the older fishermen watched them leave from the beach. “Didn't do relations much good on the harbor for a time,” one recalls.
As if on cue, pastor Ted Hoskins comes into the store. Hoskins, middle aged with a white sea captain's beard, is the minister of the Maine Sea Coast Missionary Society, a century-old organization that provides social services to Maine's fourteen year-round island communities, none of which have a resident cleric. The Harvard-educated son of Isle au Haut's summer minister, Hoskins usually makes the rounds to his far-flung flock on the Sunbeam V. He conducts weddings and funerals or just talks to islanders who, by midwinter, are getting tired of talking with one another. This weekend, however, Hoskins is on Monhegan to bless the fleet. So is fishing on Sunday taboo? I ask. “Oh, gosh, it depends on who you talk to.” Hoskins laughs. “Some think it brings bad luck. But of course there are all sorts of things that fishermen say can bring bad luck.” There's wearing blue clothing on the boat, some say, or carrying black bags. Others say you should never whistle (it calls the wind) or say the word “pig,” which apparently dooms one's boat, as does setting down a hatch cover upside down. “Rest assured,” one of the lobstermen by the thermoses pipes up, “if we go out, then the next time something breaks they'll say it was because we set out on Sunday, no matter how long from now that is.” Everyone has a laugh about that.
The talk turns inevitably to lobstering and, before too long, to Zoe Zanidakis's mysterious absence. One lobsterman asserts that Zoe is definitely in California, working on her own movie. The film crew here on the island, he maintains, were probably part of the production and, in any case, were quickly making themselves unpopular. They should have had the common sense not to film on the dock as the Laura B. came in, he asserts, or to put their boom crane “in the way” on the hillside. A female fisherman—they don't like the term “fisherwoman”—chimes in that none of it surprises her. “Zoe's always wanted to be famous, she just needs to decide what she wants to be famous for,” she says, arms akimbo over her rubber overalls. “I mean, Linda Greenlaw [of The Hungry Ocean and The Perfect Storm fame] was famous for being a fisherman. Zoe seems to be trying to be famous by not fishing.”
On my way back from the store, the film crew appears out of the fog in front of me, right in the middle of the road, camera trained on my approach. “Keep coming! Keep coming!” the cameraman directs me, imperiously waving his hand. I ignore them as ordered, passing by their position without a glance. “Great,” he says, still looking through his view finder in the opposite direction. “Call your agent,” he quips, his back to me, as he jabs a thumbs-up in my direction with his free hand. The next time I look over my shoulder the crew has vanished in the mists, as if they had been but an apparition.
Built in the 1780s, more than 170 years after the first Europeans began fishing from here, the fish house is believed to be the oldest structure on Monhegan. Island fishermen have gathered to make important decisions here for a century or more, partly because of its convenient location. The little two-story structure perches on Fish Beach, one of two one-hundred-yard-long stretches of sand on the harbor, where the lobstermen land their skiffs and drag them ashore after a day of fishing. (Nearby “Swim Beach,” which is protected from the strong tidal currents running through the harbor, is reserved for summer recreation.) But the real reason that the harbor's informal legislature meets here, rather than at some adjacent fish house, is probably because the Stanley clan has owned it for generations. And for much of the last century, it is said, the Stanleys' word was practically law on the island.
Stanleys were living in Maine long before the American Revolution, and have been on Monhegan since 1883, when William Stanley came here to man the island's lighthouse. He bought the fish house in 1899, and passed it on to his son, Will, a master carpenter who built many of the homes in the village. William's grandson Dwight, however, embraced lobstering, and by the 1940s had such influence over island affairs that he became known as the “king of Monhegan,” a title occasionally ascribed to his son, Sherman M., who retired in the mid-1990s and now winters in Florida. The time of kings may be over, but Sherman's son Shermie Stanley, who serves as harbormaster, is still regarded as the informal leader of the fishing community. Someday Shermie's son Dwight may take over at the fish house, becoming the sixth generation of Stanleys to do so.
The lobstermen now gathering at Monhegan's fish house effectively determine when, how, and by whom the ocean bottom for two miles around the island is lobstered. Until very recently, anybody holding a Maine lobster fishing license was eligible to fish anywhere in Maine waters under Maine law. But in reality, each lobstering community controlled and defended its own bit of territory or “lobster bottom” from would-be interlopers. These traditional methods have proved remarkably effective at conserving the state's lobsters, virtually the only important commercial fish species that has not been fished into near-oblivion.
Monhegan, whose residents are particularly dependent on lobstering, has a long history of careful, long-term conservation. In 1907, the fish house took the unusual step of asking the legislature to ban lobster fishing within two miles of the island from July to December, initiating the island's unusual winter-only fishery. In Dwight's day, the fish house mobilized to free undersized lobsters from the traps. Doug and Harry Odom, proprietors of the island store at the time, compelled one of their unwilling fellow lobstermen to comply by threatening not to sell him anything. In 1974, when Sherman Stanley and his brother Alfred led the harbor, the island's lobstermen voluntarily imposed a six-hundred-trap limit on themselves when most mainland lobstermen fished twice as many. These conservation measures have kept Monhegan's lobster bottom unusually productive.
Things don't always go smoothly out on the water, however. From time to time, lobstermen from adjacent harbors get into disputes over where one's territory should begin and the other's end. A growing harbor occasionally tries to bully a shrinking one into ceding territory. Sometimes an aggressive fisherman or two will decide to fish wherever they want to, and woe to anyone who tries to stop them. First, warnings are left: a note left in an interloper's trap, a knot tied around the buoy. After that, things may escalate into full-scale lobster war. Traps are cut—sometimes hundreds of them in a single day. Sometimes shots are fired, and boats are rammed or sabotaged. It can, in the words of one lobsterman, get “really ugly, really fast.”
A few years back, things were getting really ugly in the waters around Monhegan. In the fall of 1995, the mainland town of Friendship, sixteen miles to the northwest, the island's chief rival, launched a full-scale incursion into Monhegan's traditional territory. Much of this territory was not recognized under the 1907 state law, and Friendship, with a winter population nearly twenty times larger than Monhe- gan's, had been “pushing the line” especially hard since the late 1970s, when bigger, safer boats made it easier to tend traps this far from home. The invasion triggered a vicious lobster war. Traps were cut and, near the end of the season, vandals sank John Murdock's Sea Hag while she sat at her mooring in Port Clyde, causing $13,000 in damage. “When they came out here and boats started getting damaged and guns were being toted around, I thought: this is wrong and somebody in the state ought to know about it and ought to help us,” recalls Doug Boynton, one of Monhegan's leading lobstermen. “We were pushed to the point where we felt if we didn't do something, we would lose our lobster bottom, and that would be the end of the winter community out here.”
Things went from bad to worse. As tempers flared, Department of Marine Resources commissioner Robin Alden tried to negotiate a compromise, but it fell apart after a single season. The dispute had laid bare the gap between the laws of the state and the laws of the fishermen. In the fall of 1997, Karl Pitcher and five other Friendship lobstermen decided to use the state's laws to crack open Monhegan's waters once and for all. Using a loophole in the state's lobster regulations, the Friendship lobstermen attempted to register as legal members of Monhegan's winter-only fishing fleet, even though they kept their boats in Friendship. If the move went forward, it would have represented a 50 percent increase in the number of lobstermen in the Monhegan Island Conservation Zone, more than enough to reduce each islander to a starvation- sized piece of the pie. Or, as Shermie Stanley put it at the time: “If ten more people come into your cranberry bog, there's not going to be that many cranberries for you.”
That's when Monhegan's lobstermen met at the fish house and decided to fight the law with the law. Rather than setting their traps in the winter of 1997, they bundled their families into their boats and took their case directly to the Maine state legislature in Augusta. If the laws weren't changed to keep nonislanders out of Monhegan waters, Doug Boynton told anyone who would listen, it would undermine the traditional territories system that had served the lobster industry so well. Harbors that hadn't managed their resource well, he told reporters, shouldn't be allowed “to uproot as a posse and raid another area.” John Murdock's family camped out in Augusta for much of the winter. His younger son, Kyle, age eight, proved one of the most effective lobbyists, engaging senators in the elevators and paging for members of the house. “They basically just moved in,” recalls Senator Marge Kilkelly of Wiscasset, who championed the islanders' cause. “Their absolute commitment to their way of life and the fact that the legislature literally controlled whether or not they survived really made an impression. At a point when we're losing many of the people in small island communities, here was a chance to help one that had done an incredibly good job of taking care of themselves for a long time.”
The effort paid off. In February 1998, the legislature passed a law effectively closing Monhegan's grounds to nonislanders by a staggering margin: 29 to 1 in the Senate and 132 to 14 in the House. On February 27, the islanders piled into the House gallery to watch Governor Angus King sign the unprecedented law. “Maine has a long history of recognizing tradition,” King said. The legislation, the governor proclaimed, was “nothing new” but rather “a recognition by the Legislature and the governor of something that's been the law for nearly 100 years.”
In the three years since, the island's lobstermen say things have been going well. Tension with Friendship has been reduced, but they fear that's only because the lobstermen there are embroiled in some internal dispute of their own. “There's probably just a changing of the guard there now,” John Murdock says with a chuckle. “Pretty soon the next generation of Monhegan-haters will come along, because they've been raised that way by their family members who hold them up on the shores of Friendship saying, ‘See that island out there? It will all be ours someday!'”
But for now, the island remains in Monhegan hands, and at midday, word comes down from the fish house: given the swell and fog, Monhegan will start its season at 6:30 the following morning.
Over the next hour, the wharf changes from a tranquil observation post to a hive of frenzied activity. The whole town has turned out to get the traps down to the dock, onto the boats, and down to the lobster bottom. Trucks trundle up and down the hill with new traps to replenish the great stacks. Boats, sometimes two or three at a time, come up to the dock, and people begin scrambling like pit crews to get them under way. We form bucket brigades, passing traps down from trucks, across the wharf, and down to the lobstermen on the boats below, who stack them in astonishing piles that overhang the aft rail and extend all the way to the cockpit housing. We move countless bait tubs filled with crushed ice and bags of stinky five- to six-inch-long herring. All the while, little Kyle Murdock is issuing orders as he marches across the tops of the trap stacks in his green rubber boots.
In the early afternoon, people start arriving at the wharf with food for everyone. In between unloading trucks and loading boats, we munch on apples and muffins, fill our cups with coffee from the thermoses, and down slices of hot pizza from the North End Market. While snacking I learn that the film crew has managed to piss off the wrong people and has been told in no uncertain terms that they are not to film on the dock today. Apparently the cameraman got right in the face of some of the lobstermen while they were working on their engine. This was the sort of thing the crew might have been welcome to do had their social standing been higher. A gregarious photographer from Portland's Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, clearly in seventh heaven amid the traps, gained permission to shoot people up close. But under the circumstances, the film crew got a shot of an enraged fisherman, eyes bulging, screaming, “Get your fucking camera out of here and don't come back!” They had retreated up the hill to their boom and were trying to capture some of the action from there. In Maine, a bad attitude can get you a long way in the wrong direction.
By four o'clock the sun is setting and the stacks of traps are vanishing like snowbanks in springtime. Doug Boynton is the first to finish, his crew marching off the Alice B. and up the hill like mock heroes. “Out of the way,” someone jokes. Doug tells me it's been the smoothest Trap Day he's ever seen. An hour later it's nearly dark, but the temperature still hovers at fifty degrees with a clear navy sky and flat calm. We load the thirty traps onto Sea Hag and John Murdock invites me to hop onboard for the last set.
We head out of the harbor through the north passage. It's that magical twilight time when the fading sky transforms the ocean into a mesmerizing silver-blue kaleidoscope. The bow wave appears almost fluorescent as we power out beyond Manana. Holden Nelson, the new owner of the Monhegan House, helps out by impaling the bags of herring on the long, skewerlike baiting needles used to bait the traps. When John reaches the spot where he wants to deploy the first traps, he throttles us down to a near-stop. Chris, John's sternman, goes back and forth to the stern a couple of times, placing a header, then a footer trap on the starboard rail. Chris flips the doors of the header out and, as we drift forward, throws the buoy and rope out into the water. Holden slips bait into each of the traps, and John ties them together with a type of nylon rope that floats, preventing it from hanging up on the bottom. At John's signal, Chris tosses the header overboard. John guns Sea Hag forward, balancing the tailer on the rail with his spare hand. A few seconds later, the rope linking it to the sinking header trap has played out and John shoves the tailer overboard. A few moments later he slows again and the crew repeats the process. For John, spacing is everything. “I want to be able to haul a trap, take the lobster out, bait it, set it back, and as I'm going out and all the ropes are rushing overboard then, within seconds, I'm onto the next one and hauling that in,” he explains. “No need to be looking all over the place for your next buoy, especially on rough days when they get harder to find, or when you get older and your eyesight gets a little worse.”
When the last tailer drops overboard we turn back toward the north end of Manana. A gannet, a great white coldwater seabird, soars over the boat, checking us out. In a lifetime in Maine, I've never seen one on our coast, but John says that out here he sees them all the time in the winter. The bird does a little loop and soars off to the southeast and into the fading sky.
Back in the harbor, as Holden and Chris begin cleaning up, John glances over the moorings, taking attendance. Every lobsterman is accounted for, their boats hanging off their respective moorings and their skiffs rowing toward or already pulled up on the beach in the shadow of the fish house.
Only one mooring lies conspicuously empty, the one with Equinox painted across its top, the one belonging to Zoe Zanidakis.
The day before our appointed meeting, I caught one of the boats out to Monhegan. In summer, there are plenty to choose from: six round-trip boats a day running to the island from Boothbay, Port Clyde, and New Harbor. The Hardy, a double-decked excursion boat out of New Harbor, was packed with day-trippers, eager to hike out to the hundred-foot-high cliffs on the back side of the island. The crossing was balmy, almost serene. At the dock, the island's trucks were waiting to transfer luggage of short-term guests like myself to the Island Inn, Monhegan House, or Trailing Yew. The infirm could catch a ride in the truck's cab, but everyone else just walked up the hill and down the dirt roads to their given lodgings. The two hundred or so cottages in the village were open for the season, flower boxes hung from the windows, occupants seated in Adirondack chairs on the porches or the fresh green grass on the lawn. In the half-mile walk to Monhegan House, I passed three painters working at their easels capturing, respectively, the grassy hump of Manana, lilies planted along the base of a summer porch, and the weather-beaten profile of an old fish house, recently converted to summer lodgings. I passed a cadaverous-looking Englishman near the entrance to the island's tiny post office and was sure I'd met him before; I later learned this was Eric Clapton, whose elegant sailing yacht Blue Guitar was moored among the lobster boats, the Union Jack ensign hanging from the sternpost. When I reached Monhegan House, my luggage was waiting for me on the porch steps. I carried it in to the reception desk, where Holden Nelson said hello, told me how to get to my room, and promised to check me in later. People came and went through the swinging screen doors, some pausing by the stone fireplace to peek at today's New York Times, which had arrived from the Hardy with my luggage. The restaurant—one of two on the island—was gearing up for lunch service, while future patrons passed the time on the rocking chairs out on the porch, watching people walk past on the main road. A truck went by maybe once or twice an hour and traffic noise consisted of conversation and the quiet padding of people's feet.
In summer, the village seemed crowded. Indeed, the resident population quadruples to around 240 in summer, twice that if hotel guests are added to the tally. In the early afternoon, when the waves of day-trippers reach their crescendo, there can be as many as 1,500 people on the island, enough to tax the tiny community's water supplies and trash collecting abilities. In the height of summer, many residents feel overwhelmed by the tourist onslaught. When some of the boat companies added extra boat trips a few years back, Billy Payne closed his store early and posted a sign on the door protesting the island's “population explosion.” But others say it's not the sheer numbers that trigger resentment; it's the minority of short-term visitors who can't seem to grasp that they've arrived in a real, living island community. A few think they are coming to a resort like Newport or Nantucket, and arrive at the dock with golf clubs and tennis racquets (there are no facilities for either) or evening wear or high-heeled shoes (which don't mix well with either the dirt roads or the rustic ethos of the established summer community). But the most dull-witted think they're visiting a theme park like Colonial Williamsburg or Disneyland. Monheganers have awakened to find day-trippers wandering around their kitchens and living rooms and have apprehended them picking flowers in the backyard. “Where is the T-shirt shop?” one such person asked me that summer, and stood agape and confused at the notion that there wasn't such an establishment in the village. In fact, I informed her, apart from Billy Payne's store, the North End Market, and Black Duck—Barbara Hitchcock and Pam Rollinger's tiny gift shop—there was no shopping on Monhegan at all. She looked at me in horror and, after a long pause to gather her wits asked, desperation in her voice: “Well, why do people come here then?”
The answer, of course, lay all around her. We stood in the center of one of the great anomalies of early-twenty-first-century American life: an ancient, self- governing village, essentially classless and car-less, whose homes, sheds, and footpaths appear to have thrust themselves out of the wild and arrestingly beautiful landscape. There's a deep sense of rootedness on Monhegan unusual in our young, frenetic nation, a sense of knowing where you are, who you are, and where lies the critical fulcrum that balances what is individually possible with what is communally desirable. And it is certainly one of the few places in the world where the scions of great moneyed families are socially and politically outranked by persons who earn their living stuffing rotten herring in nylon bags in an effort to ensnare large bottom-feeding bugs. It is, despite its many problems and challenges, an embodiment of Thomas Jefferson's utopian vision for this country: an egalitarian republic of small, self-sufficient producers, where democracy is practiced directly by the citizens, and aristocratic privilege is unrecognized or unknown. It's an anachronism, to be sure, something better suited to a tiny community on a remote island than to, say, New York City. But being immersed in it pulls at something deep within our civic being, a hint of a simpler, perhaps nobler world that might have been, but can never be again.
But it was Monhegan's staggering beauty that first attracted outside visitors. As elsewhere on the Maine coast, painters were the first to discover this island's arresting scenery, and over the years many of the major figures of American painting have been drawn here. Stroll around Monhegan and you find yourself walking through one painting after another. There are the fish houses Robert Henri captured on a stormy day in 1903. Nearby Fish Beach is the setting for George Bellows's Cleaning Fish (1913), Eric Hudson's An Island Harbor (1926), and Samuel Triscott's late afternoon Fish Houses and Beach (c. 1910). From the hillside, on a cloudy, snowy winter's day, there's the vista of cottages and Manana that Andrew Winter painted in 1944. Nearby, the great bronze bell that Jamie Wyeth immortalized in Bronze Age stands near the lighthouse, though when he painted it in 1967 it was perched on Manana's grassy southern bluff looking out over the open ocean. Follow the footpath that snakes along the cliffs toward the back side of the island and you'll pass a rounded granite promontory littered with the crushed shells of crabs dropped by the seagulls who captured them; it's the setting for Jamie's Gull Rock. Farther up the shore you'll reach the bold cliffs and headlands that have been painted by Henri and Kent, George Bellows and Edward Hopper, Jamie, Andrew, and N. C. Wyeth. Their paintings attracted other painters and, ultimately, cottagers of all sorts searching for a pastoral setting to while away the summer months.
It's a scenario that was repeated in communities all along the coast of Maine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Artists discovered beautiful places and, in painting them, put them on the maps consulted by the East Coast's summering classes. What Henri and Kent did for little Monhegan in the early twentieth century, Thomas Cole and Frederick Church did for mountainous Mount Desert Island in the mid-nineteenth. Fitz Hugh Lane discovered the gentle beauty of Penobscot Bay's outports and islands—lighthouses perched on rocky points beneath gentle hills. Hopper made the lighthouse at Seguin Island into a subconscious national icon, while Winslow Homer did the same for the rocks of Prout's Neck, near Portland.
Many of those who saw these paintings wanted to see the places they depicted. Most were wealthy, some shockingly so. In the mid-nineteenth century, they started coming to the Maine coast, staying in boardinghouses and, shortly thereafter, the new resort hotels that sprang up all the way from the sandy beaches of southern Maine to the stark mountains of Mount Desert. These pioneering “summer people” liked what they found. America was in the midst of the Industrial Age, its cities noisy, polluted, and swelling with immigrants with strange customs, languages, and religions. In coastal Maine, comfortable city dwellers saw a simpler time, when New England was still rural, agrarian, and Protestant. Here they could “rusticate,” recharging their batteries amid this dreamy world of the recent past, where noble, simple Yankee folk went about their lives, in harmony with their surroundings, God, and one another. And so the “Maine Myth” was born: a story of a stalwart, self-sufficient place that has somehow dodged the excesses that plague the rest of the country and retained the more connected, humane life that characterized the lost Golden Age of the early American republic. Maine, the state tourism board would later declare, was the way life should be.
The reality was somewhat different. Like other parts of New England, Maine's few industrial towns were attracting large numbers of immigrants—Irish and French, Italians and Finns, Ukrainians and Jews. But the summer folk rarely saw these places, most of which were located well inland to harness the power of the state's many rivers. They came instead to the southern beaches or the tiny outports of Maine's central and eastern coast, places that have defined Maine for outsiders since the days of John Smith. And along this coast, the population was surprisingly homogenous; most inhabitants were descended from their community's original seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English and Scotch-Irish settlers. If a summer person visited a Barters or Beal's Island, he or she could count on meeting members of the Barter or Beal clan there. There were Pendletons on Pendleton Point, Dyers on Dyers Neck, and McFarlands on McFarland Shore. Certain families had been on this coast long enough, undisturbed by major immigrations, to have developed an almost European conviction that there was a blood-and-soil link between the people and the land. They were, in large part, Protestant, though the Puritans' old Congregational Church had never had a monopoly on power here as it had for more than a century elsewhere in New England. Though there were plenty of echoes of New England's Puritan past in the design of the town greens and old meeting houses, there was much that didn't jibe with classic Yankeedom. Even the dispersed settlement patterns upon the land and the names of the oldest towns were patterned after places in the English West Country, as opposed to the Puritan strongholds of East Anglia.
But the greatest misconception—one that remains today—is that the coast's people lived in an elevated state of preindustrial simplicity. Few of Maine's summer residents of the late nineteenth century were aware that the coast's economy, once vital, had recently undergone a thorough and devastating collapse. Maine wasn't preindustrial; it had just been deindustrialized.
A few decades earlier, Maine ice, granite, lumber, salt cod, and foodstuffs filled the docks of the United States' Atlantic ports, themselves clogged with Maine-built sailing ships. But those goods had been displaced by refrigerators and cement, by fresh fish caught by Gloucester steamships and cheap lumber and foodstuffs moved from the Midwest by the nation's railroads. Practically overnight, all of Maine's industries collapsed. As a result, the coast was losing population. The wild meadows and weather-beaten farmhouses the summer people found so picturesque had been abandoned by their owners, thousands of whom had moved to Ohio in hopes of a better life. With the offshore fishing industry in decline, residents of many coastal towns tried to build an industry around the only resource they had left: the summer people themselves.[A] well-researched and well-written cultural and ecological history of stubborn perseverance. (USA Today)
A beautifully considered history…Woodard’s admiration for lobster culture is stirring…[Mainers’] feisty pluck remains undiminished in the face of obstacles. (Newsday)
[A] well-researched and well-written cultural and ecological history of stubborn perseverance. (USA Today)
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: