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The Stones of Monhegan

Stones of Monhegan 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. "Combers" are the giant waves that arrive unannounced from some invisible storm hundreds of miles at sea. 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, but 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.

You're here for the wildness -- the birds, the deer, the swarming bugs and bloodsucking ticks. There are no paved roads on Monhegan, no cars, no motocross bikes, no skateboards or roller blades. Just a baby village and 17 miles of woodsy walking trails that curve along the cliffs or cut through marsh and an elegant tall pine forest. No doctors, 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 is a gallery, 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.

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.

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 lived. One more New York stock broker who "snapped" decades ago and came here to escape the world. Twenty years after his death, his tumbled gray house made from drifted wood is still an island highlight.

Some visitors say Monhegan has gone yuppie. They 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 -- what remains of them?

But most people never see how much Monhegan truly changes. 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 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 so many beaches and no where do the stones do this. There must be a hundred configurations balanced on the jagged rock shelves or along the beach. Some were here yesterday. Most are new. But where do they come from? This delicate practice of piling stones needs an island to survive.

A few, 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.

And before you know it, you are building. 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 is so full of purpose and meaning as teaching stones to stand alone.

Then comes the distant panting and a new crop of tourists are craning their binoculars your way. Their arrival is your departure time and, when you pause by the distant path to look back, your creation is missing. No wait, it's still there, almost invisible in a community of stones.

© 1997 J. Dennis Robinson
SeacoastNH.com

MONHEGAN LINKS:

Monhegan Press/Monhegan Commons

Cruise to Monhegan

Monhegan Island Lighthouse

Paintings of Monhegan

A Year On Monhegan by Julia Dean

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