Amazing Mainers, On and Off the Page
It's been a good time for reading, these past couple of weeks, chilly and wet, and I've met some remarkable Mainers that way, in the pages of books. Then, just yesterday, I was lucky enough to meet one of the subjects in person, when she stepped off the page into a cafe in Rockland, looking even more lovely and gracious than I'd expected.
My first encounter was with the Kellams, Art and Nan, a married couple who moved here from California just after World War II. After searching up and down the coast for a place to get away from it all, they they sold their home and bought an island — a place called Placentia, 500 acres of old fields and tall spruce in Blue Hill Bay, just a couple of miles south of Bar Harbor — where they lived in seclusion for the next four decades. Art passed away in 1985 and Nan in 2002, but you can get to know them now, a little, through the just-published We Were An Island by Peter P. Blanchard.
In some ways the Kellams' story resembles that of better-known back-to-the-landers like Helen and Scott Nearing, Louise Dickson Rich, and Henry David Thoreau. Eager to escape what Nan called "the diverting complications of modern civilized existence," they chose to drop out entirely, to immerse themselves in the beauty and peril of nature, roughing it without running water or electricity and dependent largely on their own resources for survival.
In other respects the Kellams stand out. They would seem, for starters, to have been temperamentally unsuited for their new way of life. Neither was especially interested in gardening; apart from half-hearted efforts to grow a few vegetables, their preferred means of sustenance consisted of regular shopping runs, by rowboat, to the grocery store in Bar Harbor. Despite being surrounded by water they never took up fishing. They don't seem to have been seeking a healthier way of life — Art remained a lifelong chain-smoker. And though they devoted time each day to writing — extensive journal-keeping for which they invented a private language ("geums" for cigarettes, "zooners" for mosquitoes) — they never troubled to explain exactly what they were doing out there, what it was about modern civilization and human society they were trying to get away from, what they were seeking, and whether they found it.
Down East readers may have met the Kellams before, in passing, in the opening chapter of a wonderful book called Against the Machine, which was reviewed in the magazine several years ago. The author, Maine writer and bookseller Nichols Fox of Mount Desert Island, visited Nan briefly in a retirement home in the last years of her life and eventually made a pilgrimage of sorts to Placentia Island, which was owned by then by the Nature Conservancy and was being allowed to revert to its undomesticated state. Poking among the ruins of the couple's hand-built cottage, Fox was both moved and mystified:
"Here they lived. In this tiny cramped space. The two of them. Winter and summer. Day after day. On peanuts and sardines, if their rubbish is to be believed... Such a fierce dedication to an idea, the Kellams had!"
What idea, though, I wonder? I suppose we'll never know.
For a study in contrasts one could not do better than the other Mainer I met last week, first through her writing and then in person. Alice Gorman, originally of Memphis, contacted me through a friend in Camden looking for a fresh set of eyes to help with her memoir-in-progress, a project in which she's been immersed now for several years. And what an amazing project it is! Ms. Gorman, who now lives near Rockland, has been, among other things, an art dealer (in Memphis and later in New York), a movie actress, an artist, a mom, a widow, and lately a writer. Her story is so remarkable, and her prose so evocative, that I felt I knew her fairly well even before we met in person.
Her connections to Maine go back several decades, through her extended family and then through her late husband, with whom she moved here in 1992 (which makes her nearly a classmate, so to speak, of mine). It seemed fitting that our netting should take place in Rockland, which become a sort of artistic Mecca these days. We sat for an hour and a half in the Atlantic Baking Company, on a street practically lined with galleries, and talked about paintings and writing and Maine and the transformative power of art and the strange paths one finds oneself taking through life, the improbable connections one makes, including the one that brought us together over a literary manuscript.
Here's one such connection for you: As a girl, Ms. Gorman was largely raised, in the old Southern fashion, by an African-American nanny named Joyce, a delightful character who features prominently in her memoir. And Joyce, who died many years ago, was the sister of Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old voter mentioned prominently by President-elect Obama in his victory speech, who had survived a tumultuous century to finally cast her vote for a black president.
This was easily the most civilized conversation I've had in months, and I felt very honored both to have met Ms. Gorman and to have lent a (very light) hand to a book I hope you can read for yourself someday soon. The very best books, I think, are the ones that convey the sense that real, extraordinary people — Mainers and otherwise — live in their pages.