Li f e on I s l ands : El i zab e t h Ga r b e r
I lean against the long, white enamel sink in Rose’s island kitchen watching as she and her elderly mother pick
crabs, working with a little hammer and thin knife to pull the meat out of the legs and bodies. Rose explains, “We
have to pick twenty crabs for a pound of meat. We only do what’s needed for the families on the island. Five pounds
today.” Rose grew up on Great Spruce Head Island, summer home to the Porter family, when her parents were year-
round caretakers of the island, and now she and her husband, Tom, are the caretakers. His lobster boat is moored
in the harbor along with the Porter sail and motor boats.
Out the windows the fog burns off and granite islands across the reach gleam in the sun. It is a perfect June day
on this remarkable island in the middle of Penobscot Bay.
As I leave with crab meat for my lunch I make sure to walk to the spot where Fairfield Porter painted the care-
taker’s house in 1969. The painting “Island Farmhouse” is of a classic Searsport cape dwelling with the sea in the
distance, a lobster boat in the harbor and a dog lounging in the shadow of the house. The painting has appeared
on countless posters and in magazines all over Maine. It is a reminder that it is through the eyes of artists, such as
Fairfield Porter, that we have come to know and appreciate life on the islands of Penobscot Bay.
Time slows down on islands. Locals refer to it as
island time
as life continues at the same pace that it has for
generations with only minor changes. Most islands are woven with paths for foot traffic or rutted roads for an old
tractor to haul gear. When walking on spruce needle- and shell-strewn paths is the primary form of transportation,
one’s awareness of time slows down. History is present in ways that can only be imagined on the mainland. Each
island’s story is told and retold in daily conversation, written down and reread by the people who live year round or
summer there. The names of past inhabitants are spoken of often, their names carved in stone and littered with
lichen in the cemeteries in the woods. All islanders have a story of when they arrived and how many generations
they have been there.
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As you follow Route 1 north along the mid-coast of Maine, Penobscot Bay glimmers in
and out of view, quilted with spruce-edged islands and traced by ferries, lobster
boats and a panoply of sailboats in one size or another.
The palette of water and sky continually changes, tempting generations of artists.
For those bound to the land the Bay is a place just out of reach. Yet you imagine it holding a wealth of untold
stories that only those who inhabit the islands could know.
You have to discover how to find your way to an island.
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