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Isles of Shoals | The Winter Caretaker

Isles of Shoals | The Winter Caretaker
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This will be my 10th winter living on Star Island. Here the wind shapes everything: the old buildings, twisted shrubs, and long grasses standing bare against the sky.

I’ve explored every part of these islands that I can get to, alone and with my partner, Brad. Often I climb the high, rocky bluffs, where I truly feel the isolation of this place.

For the first week or so after we arrive, my mind still buzzes with the details of the move and with events that happened before I left. After some days, the silence begins to creep in and wash away the mental clutter. I have fewer things in my life and in my mind. Yet this doesn’t feel like a loss. After nearly a decade of winters spent here, I feel like I’m really learning to listen. And to truly see. A hard, rocky ledge looks at first impregnable and solitary. But when you look closely, you see that the rocks are slicked with a clinging wetness. They are not rocks alone, but have been joined by the sea. If you look even closer, you’ll see that they’ve been smoothed and blurred by long strands of rockweed and mollusks, that there is an interconnectedness between these natural forms.

People ask, “What do you do for five months?” When we get storms, we check all the buildings. If windows have blown out, we have to board them up. Sometimes the snow blows right into buildings and we have to shovel them out. A few times a winter, boats show up, people want to look around, and we tell them they can’t stay and send them over to nearby Smuttynose Island, where they are free to explore.

I watch a lot. This past winter, I watched a seal sunbathe on the rocks in front of the caretaker’s cottage. Throughout the day, I spent a lot of time checking in on her through binoculars. And if you’ve never spent a day watching a seal, I can only say that I highly recommend it. The seal lay close to the water in the hazy sunshine. When she wasn’t sleeping, she was in almost constant but relaxed motion, the fur on her big stomach riffling in the breeze, back flippers stretching and playing footsie with each other while her front ones reached out to the sky. She seemed to be in ecstasy lying there in the warm sun, rubbing her face along the rocks and gazing at the water.

Many days I’ll walk to a spot on the island and stay there for a while — just to enjoy being there. Somehow, the more I can let a place connect with me, the more it reveals itself. I’ll find that I’m swimming under the surface, and there is no bottom.

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Updated Wednesday, November 30th, -0001

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