Life on Matinicus Island
Matinicus lies 23 miles out to sea, the most remote inhabited island on the Atlantic seaboard. Its unique culture has been little understood by the outside world. When a moment of violence “crossed a line that had never been crossed before,” the islanders were caught between a precious past and a precarious future.
Vance Bunker turned 70 this year, a large, grizzled man with broad shoulders, ham-size hands, and a weathered face. He’s hard of hearing and walks arthritically. Once, nearly 20 years ago,he was the captain of a lobster boat,the Jan-Ellen, that pulled three doomed tugboat sailors out of a January sea on a night when the storm swells were eight feet high and the wind chill was 50 below. Medals followed, and media stories, a standing ovation on the floor of the Maine State House, a citation in the Congressional Record. For 17 years after that night-and more than 30 years before it-he was a lobsterman on Matinicus Island: one of its most esteemed, remembered by some for his cussedness, by others for the size of his hauls, and by at least a few for the sick children he sometimes flew, in his private plane, to medical care on the mainland. (“[He] was my personal hero,” blogged journalist Crash Barry, a former Matinicus lobster-boat sternman. “A gentle, funny giant … He drove a boat like it was an extension of his body … Kind and generous, tough and strong …”)
Today, two years after putting a bullet into the neck of another lobsterman, in defense, he says, of his daughter, Vance Bunker is a pariah on the island: legally acquitted but privately unforgiven, widely but quietly reviled. Although he still does business on Matinicus and hauls traps in its waters, he lives year_round on the mainland now, his island home of 30 years up for sale, his life there — a lifetime — now behind him. He says he isn’t angry, but it’s hard to believe him, and his wife says no such thing. Even the few who defend him, including parents who recall what he did for their children, are too fearful of their neighbors to say so publicly.
And it doesn’t end with him. Three families have been fractured. A man is partially paralyzed. Old wounds have deepened. A fragile, prized way of life, unchanged for generations, has never seemed more in peril. And on this little island, where a brooding sort of silence has settled over things, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t fear for the future.
“A saddening has happened here,” Suzanne Rankin says. “It’s happened to me, to the island–it’s happened to us all. We’re living it, every one of us, every single day. Vance and S.T. [Vance Bunker’s wife, Sari] don’t see that, I don’t think. How could they possibly, with all their troubles? My heart goes out to them–but they don’t see it at all.”
Rankin lives, with her husband, Tom, in a 200-year-old farmhouse along a gravel road, the only through road here, midway between the school and the church. She’s in her late sixties, an attractive, courtly woman with frosted gray hair and blue, intelligent eyes. Though not born here herself-she arrived with Tom less than 30 years ago, which makes her almost an interloper by the island’s way of seeing things-she can trace her own ancestry here back nearly to the settlement’s beginning: to Phebe Young, who came with her husband in 1763. She is the island’s historian, the clerk-secretary of its church, and a member of its school board. Her devotion to the place seems almost ingrown.
It’s the same with everyone here. You almost have to be devoted to choose to live in such a place: some 15 miles off the coast (23 miles by ferry from Rockland); no year-round stores, or bars or eateries, or doctors or policemen or paved roads, and only one industry; where the fog drops around you like a curtain for days at a time, the same three families have been fighting the same fights for 200 years, and the ferry comes once a month in winter. As the natives are fond of saying: You live here because you love it, or you don’t live here at all.
But lately, since that July morning two years ago, when Vance Bunker shot Chris Young-and the island’s clan-based, sometimes brutish culture was suddenly the stuff of cable-TV news–the islanders’ devotion, while no less total, has stiffened and turned fearful.
“A line has been crossed that was never crossed before,” Suzanne Rankin says. “There’s no going back. The question is: Where will the next line be?”
Walking the length of the island–two miles, an easy hour’s walk–the main thing you feel is the stillness. Even on the softest, sunniest midsummer afternoon, with a stiff little breeze and the lupines in full color on either side of the road–the way it was the day I first walked it–there’s something desolate about the place. The gravel road, the island’s spine, runs its dusty, almost unbending course through the old-growth spruce interior: from the tiny dirt airstrip in its clearing at the northern tip (shorter by 50 feet at high tide, they say), past the empty church and schoolhouse, the sad little pile-of-stones monument to the island’s first white settler, Ebenezer Hall (“Killed by Indians, June 6, 1757″), and the two dozen or so hardy, mostly modest homes that cluster at uncertain intervals at the intersections of dirt side roads. The day I walked it, the only movement I saw was a woman feeding an animal at her back door.
The yards are large and flat; a few have small gardens. In many of the rest, scores of green or yellow lobster traps are stacked head-high, sometimes alongside the scraped-clean hulk of an old boat or dory. Fish crates, firewood, and rope coils are piled about. Lobster buoys hang like Christmas balls from the branches of a spruce. Old pickups sit in driveways, their six-year-old license plates bearing witness to their last presence on the mainland–which some here call “America.”
A mile and a half down, past all but the last of the houses, where the island starts to narrow and you begin to think you can smell the ocean again, you come to the cemetery. It’s larger than you’d expect, and more formal: probably two or three acres, a fenced-off square of grass and old granite, with its tiers of headstones–several hundred–giving way to a small, shaded bench in the rear. The dates begin in the early 1800s, though most are later, between 1850 and 1910, growing fewer with each decade after that. Some of the newer stones are engraved with a lobster boat.
More than half the graves belong to the same eight or nine families, the island’s anchor names, which I’d come to know by this time: Ames, Young, Philbrook–the three surviving “alpha families,” as one islander calls them–as well as Hall, Condon, Bunker, Tolman, Crie. Not all are grouped together; a cluster of Condons might be resting in a corner among Youngs. It’s hard to guess what order was applied.
“There’s a sense of history here like nowhere else,” a lobsterman’s wife, Lisa Twombley-Hussey, had said to me weeks before. As a child, she spent her summers on this island and now has returned here with her family. “It’s all around us, layers and layers of it. ‘This is Aunt Belle’s house,’ [someone will say]. ‘She was a Ripley, she had a store here once, she was married to an Ames.’ It goes on and on: this person, that house, this husband, that wife. Memories, connections, personal histories. All those generations. It’s always been that way here. You don’t see that other places. Not anymore, anyway.”
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