Life on Matinicus Island
Hussey is a lawyer in his forties, a slight man with thin features and tousled, receding brown hair. He used to work for the Maine Department of Corrections. Thirteen years ago, on his honeymoon, he came to Matinicus for the first time; his new wife, Lisa, had spent her childhood summers here. They began spending parts of their own summers. In 2005, for three days, he signed on as a third man in a lobster boat, and, he says, “a gene flipped on in my head.” He left his job; she left hers. Today he makes his living on the island, doing carpentry jobs and occasional legal work, collecting taxes, helping out at the schoolhouse, and hauling lobsters from a motorless, oak-and-cedar “peapod”-style rowboat he calls the Sweet Pea. It’s a boat no serious lobsterman has worked from in probably 60 years, but it leaves no carbon footprint, and that’s important to Hussey. On summer Saturday nights on the boat dock, Hussey and his guitar lead dance parties that turn out the whole island. On Prom Night three summers ago, he was the one in white tie.
The day we talked, a warm May day in the front yard of the couple’s island home, he’d just put his boat in the water for the season. A few yards away, alongside the traps still piled by the garage, two of the three Hussey children took turns dousing one another with a garden hose. Lisa, busy readying her Matinicus Island Store for its spring opening, just days away, came and went from the conversation. (The tiny store, launched in July 2008, lasted three seasons, but with too few patrons to cover costs, would finally close at the end of last summer.)
Out on the water, Nat said, “You’re close to your work, you’re wet, it’s noisy, it’s real, sort of like farming must have been at one time.” Lisa, for her part, talked about the silence–“You listen carefully, you hear individual things: the wind, the bell buoys, the generator at night”–and the spareness of day-to-day life: “That whole Walmart mentality, there’s none of that out here. You learn how little you need. You learn what real need is. Lots of stuff like that, stuff they lost 50 years ago on the mainland, it’s still the same way here.”
It was a long while before any of us mentioned the shooting. When Lisa finally did–she’d been talking about neighborliness and the response to the post-office fire–it was so unexpected, and came in such a half-whispered seethe, it felt almost like an eruption: “It’s such a fragile system we have here. Just so delicate. And then the fire, and the center of our community is gone, just like that. Then last year, with what happened–a man opening fire on the public dock. I got sick when they told me. Literally, physically sick.”
In the end, though, it is the island’s willfulness, more than anything else–more even than its isolation–that sets this place apart. Two hundred years’ worth of clan-based survival–six or seven generations of Youngs and Ameses and Philbrooks, and the few who have joined them–fighting, marrying, burying, and working with one another, on a 700-acre island, has built up a very thick crust.
“It’s the big dogs who’ve kept it going,” Nat Hussey says. “It’s like the way they know their bottom: The trenches and channels and rocks, they’ve known them since they were boys. They know the island the same way. It needs them, it’s always needed them. The system here relies on clans. If they died out, I don’t know where we’d be.”
You hear this a lot on the island: that the old ways are the best ways, that the surest route to the future leads through the past. It’s as though the clans in their way were a sort of monarchy: a continuum of ascendant families whose generations of canny, devoted stewardship will somehow see the way through. As a belief, it’s a hopeful, uniting force. It’s also the biggest reason why, whenever there’s an event at the school–just about any event at any time of day that involves the five or six kids there–30 people are apt to show up.
“Everyone knows that the kids are the future of the island,” Heather Wells told me when I met with her last summer. She had just finished her second and final year as the island’s teacher; her six students had ranged from kindergarten through sixth grade. We were sitting together in her schoolroom, surrounded by books, wall maps, crayons, and computer tables, talking about all the people on the island who had helped create the projects her students had shared. She told me about how, when an octogenarian member of the Ames clan had died not long before, a local writer, Eva Murray, had come to the school to talk to the children about his life, “so they’d understand something of the history of this person they’d known.” I asked about the shooting: Had she discussed it with the children? She looked at me coldly. “It doesn’t come in here,” she said, and that was the end of that.
She told me about a social-studies exhibit the islanders had planned: “Captains of Matinicus,” put together by the captains of the island’s lobster boats. “Twelve or 13 of them, I guess, came in and told stories, showed photos, shared their memories,” she said. “One of them brought in some old buoys, maybe from when he was a kid, I’m not sure, and showed us how they were made. I loved seeing that. It’s about building long-term memory–like the way farming used to be, when the kids still learned from their elders. Not like today, with computers, where the process works in reverse …
“And you know what? It works. I had two 10-year-olds this year already laying traps. There’s a strong dedication in this classroom, I can tell you that, to continuing this way of life.”
Donna Rogers is 71; she lives with her husband, Charlie, a lobsterman, in a home overlooking the harbor. She’s a painter, and in the summer also runs a small gallery she calls “The Fisherman’s Wife,” selling art, handcrafts, and notecards to the summer people. On my last day on the island, I went to see her there and bought a small, dreamy photo, taken years ago, of a rainbow over Matinicus Harbor.
She’s a little like a rainbow herself: stout and graying but full of wonderful old stories that paint pictures and cast spells. Many of them are included in the thin, typewritten, hand-stapled book she wrote a decade or so ago: Tales of Matinicus Island: History, Lore and Legend. It tells of Indians, settlers, famous storms, and old shipwrecks, as well as a long-ago girlhood of apple fights and ice-cream making and “homemade kites made of brown wrapping paper and miles of trawling line.” Nearly every home on the island has a copy.
She told me about how she’d first come to the island, as a 9-year-old girl–“a thousand years ago”–when her mother married a Young. Then she’d left, and returned again as a young wife and mother when her husband first took up hauling traps: “We’ve always had to fight to hold on to what we had, always. When Charlie first came here all those years ago, they cut his traps, too. Well, he just put more in, and they cut them again. So he put more in. He was new. He had to pay his dues. It’s what you had to do.”
Then she stopped. “But now with this …” She tilted her head back, hard, almost violently, toward the open window behind us and the dock and harbor beyond.
“Vance and I were kids together. He’s my family. All of them, everyone, the whole island–my family. So it’s hard, what’s happened. It’s very hard. It’s a break in the family …