An Island of One's Own
For a time in the 1980s, I lived in a small log cabin on a small island in one of the lakes scattered around Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire. The island tucked into the back of a shallow cove, less than a hundred feet from shore. From a distance–almost until you were right on top of it, actually–its tall pines and hemlocks and high blueberry bushes appeared to be nothing more than a bump along the cove’s wooded shoreline. On the island, I could almost feel those big woods wrapping behind me, as if I were on a little point jutting into the lake.
But that hundred feet of water made a difference.
I built the cabin myself, over two years of weekends, with the help of family and a few close friends. The water separated me from land and the handful of cottages hidden along the western shore of the lake; separated me from power and phone lines and roads, and, needless to say, quick runs to the grocery or hardware store. The logistics of getting materials and supplies to the island were unforgiving: We thought through lists and planned ahead, or we did without. What could be loaded into a canoe? What would have to be floated over on a raft? We worked with the weather. On the island, when work halted for the need of something we didn’t have, work halted–or we improvised with what we had because there was no other choice. The inconvenience of time and space was almost complete; the island might as well have been a mile offshore.
The separation was psychological as well, and I felt it most keenly when I was working alone. I’d never built anything remotely like a cabin, and I’d like to say that the project felt overwhelming at times, though “at times” doesn’t do justice to the helplessness I felt along every new step of the way, staring at some unfathomable problem or at some skill that felt utterly beyond me. I suppose I might have felt the same way anywhere. But I have to say there’s something about being alone on an island that sharpens the understanding: It’s just you, with nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to, and absolutely nothing happens unless you try it, whether you know what you’re doing or not. So you try it. You figure it out. And, at some point, the feeling of being alone on an island shifts from separation to independence to something like power.
The feeling lingered long after the cabin was finished and I’d moved in.
All this comes back to me years later, as I lie in a sleeping bag on the cabin’s screened porch, with night falling around me. I come here only occasionally now. We’re here over Memorial Day weekend: my sister, Casey, and her husband, Troy, for dinner on the porch; my children, Virgil and Ursula, and their two cousins staying on for overnight. It’s early in the season, but it’s hot, the air already damp and thick as high summer. The kids had gone swimming and taken the canoe for a ride and, after being bored for a while, improvised a capture-the-flag game on what little land was available around the cabin. The adults had been drawn into the game as guards, and rules evolved, and we all played, laughing, until it was nearly dark.
I hear the croaking thrum of wood frogs and the trickle of a small brook draining into the back of the cove, and I’m thinking of islands in New England–not the lobstering Cranberries or Monhegan; or Mount Desert, with its low mountains and lakes of its own; or Champlain’s North and South Hero, with their connected causeway; or Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket or Block Island–but of the family-owned islands, the rugged Thimbles in Long Island Sound, the green and shady oases in New Hampshire’s Squam and Winnipesaukee. Some of these islands, like this one, are no more than a spit of land or a pile of rocks barely big enough to hold a cottage or a tent platform. Others are fiercely guarded family compounds, the water surrounding them much like a moat surrounding a castle. I’m thinking of improvised capture-the-flag, and how games are different when you need to create them–how the isolation strips away and alters time.
I close my eyes, and I’m struck by the stillness. I’m barely a hundred feet from shore, and it sounds crazy to say it, but it’s as if the water has dampened all of the energy flowing out from the land and the bustle of the world beyond. And it strikes me what these places have in common: that combination of power and peace, what we feel in that moment when it’s just us and nobody else in the world.