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The Stones of Monhegan


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 Revised 2008. All rights reserved.

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