The Stones of Monhegan
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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AS I PLEASE

A trip to an island in Maine reveals a strange phenomenon. The stones seem to stand by themselves, in unique clusters. You have never seen this before and as you spend time on Monheghan, you begin to understand.

 

 

 

Islands of Maine

You can see them from the ferry as it circumnavigates the island, between Lobster and Christmas coves, just beyond the rusted orange shipwreck. The diesel pants like a sun baked dog and the top deck of tourists arch and point at the spot where the stones are standing.

They're not much to look at from this distance though, not compared to the cliffs of Monhegan that rise above us, and fall so sharply into the cold Atlantic that the ferry captain dares take his panting ship within ten yards of the headwall. The rock face of Blackhead, one of Maine's highest coastal cliffs, looms 160 feet above.

A woman with a disposable camera pulls her son back from the railing of the boat as her husband feigns nonchalance. He grins a fearless New York grin. His nose is oiled, grilled scarlet from the long ride to the tiny island.

"Let, the boy look," he tells his wife, and smiles as if he bobs this close to crushing death each day. His fingers are a soft gray where they grip the long white bench that everyone knows is filled with life preservers. Nearby are four hazard-red life rafts that will hardly save you if a comber comes.

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"Combers" are the giant waves that arrive unannounced from some invisible storm hundreds of miles at sea. Around here we call them "rough waves". They have been known to slam an unsuspecting boat against the cliff, or lick tourists off rocks like a frog snatches mosquitoes. This is Maine, after all, not some Disney ride.

Those are real live untrained seals to your right. They don't exactly frolic for the cameras on command. They lie imperfectly across the boulders of Seal Ledge like tawny globs of toothpaste. Finally, 10 miles out to sea, the wildlife is truly wild, and wouldn't raise a flipper of interest if we all went splat against the headwall.

Remember, you are here for the wildness -- the birds, the deer, the swarming bugs and bloodsucking ticks. There are no paved roads on Monhegan, no cars to speak of, no motocross bikes, no skateboards or roller blades. There is only a baby-sized village and 17 miles of woodsy walking trails that curve along the cliffs or cut through marsh and an elegant tall pine forest. No hospital, no movies, no Osco, no Gap.

You must arrive by ferry from Port Clyde, Damariscotta or Boothbay Harbor. You must leave the same way, and the island population ebbs and flows with the panting of the ferry engines. In summer there are basically three places to stay, eight places to eat (if you count the two stores), one place to worship and nothing much going on, which is the ultimate charm of the island. A dozen or more artists summer here and their shops are open now and then for buyers. There are galleries, a few shelves of produce in two tiny stores, a gift shop, a lighthouse and a museum. Half a dozen beat-up trucks criss- cross the dusty roads lugging luggage and provisions from ferry to building and building to ferry. Only the weather, where you walk and whomever you talk with makes one day different from another. Three days on Monhegan and you can't remember where else you used to live. The little library now has internet access for those who must stay connected.

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In three days you've seen it all. Though the island inhabits just one square mile, you've walked ten miles a day, feeling fitter. Must be the air or the lack of distraction. Phones rarely ring and there's scarcely a TV in sight. So far, you've bumped into the New York couple with the kid and the disposable camera a total of twenty-two times. You've sampled every fare, and though you swore it could not happen, a painted Monhegan sunset is propped against the backpack in your teeny hotel room. You bought some art to remind you how it feels to be on another planet.

This afternoon, your last on Monhegan, the kid down by Swim Beach will row you across the harbor to see Manana Island up close. It's nothing more than a giant rock where the Manana hermit once lived. You can read about him in the museum at the top of the hill by lighthouse. Local legend says the hermit was a New York stockbroker who snapped one day and came here to escape the world. He kept sheep on the island and lived in a wooden hovel that clung to the dark side of the hill. Decades after his death, the his tumbled gray house made from drifted wood is still an island highlight.

For some Yankees, Monhegan has already gone cosmopolitan. Locals remember the days when one couldn't get brie, or roasted red peppers or cans of imported real draft lager. They worry what will happen when the island goes electric and the independent generators shut down. They wonder if the bathroom signs will no longer read "Flush Solids Only." They want Monhegan to stay the way they left it, because if Monhegan changes – where in the world can we go?

But most people never see how much Monhegan truly changes. That happens off season, when the tourists are tucked safely in their condos back home. Then the real residents reclaim their island. Only about 100 islanders stay year round, and you'd be lucky to spy one on your visit. They can tell you about the cliffs in winter, the ice and the isolation, the killer bugs and the lobster beds, the fish, the sunsets, the old one room school house and the fireplaces. They are a tribe of survivors who know a sense of community that no one on the mainland ever knows. The artists come and go like migratory birds. The tourists see it all in three days, and disappear.

So with two hours to the final ferry, you walk again down by the shipwreck to your favorite spot where the stones stand end to end. You've seen many beaches along the Atlantic Coast, and nowhere do the stones do this. There must be a hundred configurations balanced on the jagged rock shelves or along the beach. The rocks seems stuck together by glue or magnets. They defy gravity and weather. Some of the standing stones were here yesterday. Many are new. But where do they come from? You attempt to build a memorial of your own, but it crumbles. The boat whistle reminds you that you are a visitor and must go home.

A few of the rock formations, like clouds, have recognizable shapes. There are animals, dancers, houses and birds. But most of the stones defy description. They are the essence of balance, weight and weightlessness, shapely and shapeless. They are wild natural things made momentarily more beautiful by hand. They are intrusions on the landscape and they are the landscape.

Risking all, you are building again. Two rounded stones that should not find each other do. Then a third even less likely element is added. The fourth is impossible, but after gently turning and rotating the stone, you find the balance point and when you step away -- it stands. A fifth, not much more than a pebble goes on top and threatens everything. You stand back. This is perhaps the most important thing you have ever done. Nothing on the mainland where you live is so full of purpose and meaning as teaching stones to stand.

Then comes the distant panting of the ferry and a new crop of tourists are craning their binoculars your way. Their arrival means you must go. The island can bear only so many tourists at one time. It is a delicate balance of nature and culture, locals and come-from-aways. Looking back from a distant path, you see your sculpture has already fallen. No wait, it is there, but different somehow, almost invisible among the changing community of stones.

© 1997 J. Dennis Robinson at SeacoastNH.com. Revised 2008. All rights reserved.

SEE MORE STANDING STONES (click to continue)

Balancing Stones in Maine

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All photos by J. Dennis Robinson / SeacoastNH.com,
All rights reserved.