Well, Since You Asked
Living on any of the outer islands means you have signed on to a few lifestyle adjustments...stockpiling food, doing without that latte on the way to work, worrying about the weather to an almost neurotic degree. Most vacationers think we’re living a “simpler” life; most year-rounders wonder, at least once in a while, just what they were thinking.
I’ve had the experience more than once of being asked where I live by random people on the mainland; when I answer “Matinicus Island” they’ve looked at me straight-faced and sincerely asked, “Why?”
The true natives, few and far between, bemoan recent changes to their entirely home-ruled subculture but don’t generally blame any non-fishing children for moving off and never coming back. Pompous “summer jerks” might be nouveau-riche airheads and overstaffed movie stars, but they also might be attitudinally-challenged lobstermen who want an island port name on the stern of their boat but who nevertheless don’t bother to darken our winter doorsteps with their presence.
Simple questions rarely have simple answers. It takes a long time, or a lot of column inches, to explain how islanders deal with medical emergencies, or trash, or heating oil. A one-room school, a tiny independent power company, or groceries arriving with a bush pilot spur more questions than they answer. We do without things most Americans take for granted, from a doctor to a Starbuck’s to a daily ride to high school. On top of that, of the 14 Maine islands with year-round communities, no two have quite the same circumstances.
After more than two decades in residence I am beginning to get the impression that many of the “powers that be” (environmental and regulatory agencies, for example, and the education people, and almost all of the doctors) would strongly prefer that nobody even try to live in a remote location. Why on earth somebody should think they needed to live on an island just mystifies these people.
What they don’t consider is that this community has existed for something like 300 years. It used to be much larger. It was “home” to many in years past, and is still home to a few, the only home they’ve known. To quote a line from a song we like: “This is my home. This is my ONLY home….”
Most people don’t wake up one morning and just say to themselves, “I think I’ll quit my corporate job and move to someplace where there’s nowhere to get your oil changed, the cell phone won’t work, and if I have a heart attack I’ll probably die there.” OK, some have done that. Alright, maybe a lot of my neighbors have sort of done that. They didn’t simply inventory the negatives, of course. Our refugees from the shirt-and-tie cubicles, subway commutes, and administration-heavy workplaces which discourage actual work in favor of internal politics, hapless committees and artificial team-player-ism, probably did wake up one morning and say “I’d rather take my chances with the gale, the milk-rationing and the long line for the oil boat than punch in one more time to this tedious, insulting machine.” Something like that.
How dare anybody in a position of authority question our right to live on an island just because their job would be easier if nobody did? We routinely shoulder the burdens of significant transportation difficulties, utilities costs, and weather-related inconvenience or even danger; we don’t have a lot of sympathy when somebody blithely informs us we cannot get warrantee service on an appliance, or taxpayer-funded police assistance if some nutcase is running amok with a weapon, because it is “hard” to get here.
People have made their homes on the islands, and in the other isolated corners of Maine, long before any rulebook agencies existed. For what it’s worth, we were here first. Departments and requirements created to prevent the Cuyahoga and Schuylkill Rivers from catching on fire again, to prevent Superfund sites, and to stop the callous decimation of natural resources by enormous corporate entities shouldn’t be used to make granny unable to heat her home.
Educational systems devised to manage thousands of students in urban areas have become the norm, no, the only “normal” way of conducting school, to the extent that now educational authorities view tiny rural schools as ridiculous anachronisms. (Meanwhile, everybody knows that private schools rightly brag about their low student-to-teacher ratios, offer of one-on-one attention, and student-centered teaching styles, exactly the things that a small local school can offer and a large consolidated school cannot.)
Fear of lawyers and regulators has caused the decay of well-meaning attempts to provide some degree of help in cases where a community, agency or individual cannot provide full-scale services. For example, one local EMS service was down to a single EMT, and found itself having to suspend operations because a sole EMT cannot comply with the rule that they accompany the patient at the same time as complying with the rule to never leave the town without coverage. So…it is better to have no EMTs than to have one? In some rulebooks, apparently it is.
I have been lectured on the moral superiority of using public transportation and been assured by environmentalist friends that nobody “really” needs a pickup truck. I have been interrogated about how I could be so cruel as to ship my children off to boarding school (not to mention having raised them without the benefit of organized sports). I have been heckled about living in a “dangerous” place where there “is no law” while also getting a thunderstruck look when I admit that I can leave my door unlocked at night. I’ve been told the power company cannot possibly be the size it actually is, that I must have my numbers wrong. I’ve been asked innumerable times how I could possibly live on an island and not own a boat (simple answer: I can’t afford enough boat to make the 23-mile trip safely). Everybody is an expert.
We enjoy re-telling the story of the dump-truck driver, here on the Island Transporter with a load of gravel for a construction job, who suggested to my husband that they grab a cup of coffee while waiting. Paul said “I suppose we could go to my house and make some…” The driver looked shocked. No coffee shop? “How,” he asked, “can you possibly live here?”
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus Island, where she also runs a summer bakery. In her spare time she is researching a book on one-room schoolhouses and writing recipes.