Staying Loyal to the Land And the Rhythm of Island Life

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I don't mind the ferry lines. I view them as an opportunity to get some reading done, to write in my journal. And when the summer people are here, it just means I can indulge myself for two hours (as opposed to only a half hour during the off-season) while I await my boat ride to the mainland. But today the fellow in the Volkswagen next to me has his tape deck blaring. ''Break on through to the other side,'' it screams, while he nonchalantly reads a paperback. I roll up my windows, but it's no use. I can't think, let alone read or write. Last week it was Jefferson Airplane thundering from a smoked-glass, slope-nosed van. This wouldn't have happened 20 years ago, I tell myself. When we first came here - a young family on a weekend getaway from the city - it was the island's quietness that immediately captured me. We began a search for land, finding a patch of woods on a small bay. I remember summer nights in our tent listening to waves roll on the beach below. Only occasionally did a car pass on the gravel road above. But the truth is, the off-season gets shorter every year, and the coming of the summer people changes the look, feel, and sound of the island. Once this place was peopled with farmers and fishermen. Now tourism and telecommuting drive the local economy, bringing newcomers and growth. Rising property values threaten to replace the island's rich diversity of back-to-the-landers, artists, working people, and retirees with only the wealthy. ''All this money isn't what these islands are about,'' a friend says. His history here goes back further than mine, and he's seen enough. ''I'm moving to New England in the fall,'' he says. Others speak of Idaho or Montana. Here we are, I think, farther west than the western edge of this continent. Has the great migration, the search for the next best place, turned back on itself? And though each member of our family feels a deep bond with our land, my wife and I sometimes talk of moving on. The wet northwest winters, which nourish me as a writer, are long and difficult for her. Our children have fanned out across the world - to Denmark, California, Seattle - and are starting families. Perhaps we should be closer to the grandchildren, we think. Perhaps California. We observe seemingly isolated events - the appearance of a home in the middle of a treasured pastoral view, a petition by new neighbors to pave our road - and understand that change is inexorable. ''What will the island be like 10 years from now?'' we ask each other. But we also know that change is positive. A local land trust has successfully created low-income housing where new homeowners invest their own sweat equity and forego future land appreciation. County and private land preservation organizations are setting aside some of our most prized natural areas. And though old-timers say, ''Farming in the islands is dead,'' a new breed of specialty farmer has appeared, raising herbs, berries, and flowers. I think of the words of another farmer (and writer), Wendell Berry. A recent magazine article quotes him on the idea of living with loyalty to place, of promoting the health of that place. He points to our society's tendency to pick up and move to the next place, or spouse, or job. ''There's another approach,'' he says. ''You commit yourself and hang on.'' Some things on this island have not changed. The ''Letters to the Editor'' section remains the most interesting read in the local weeklies, as islanders forthrightly voice their opinions - a reassuring sign that we are still a community engaged. I am awakened at 2 a.m. - as I have been for years - not by Jefferson Airplane, but by a western screech owl. The call, an ethereal whistle that picks up tempo like a bouncing ball, penetrates in some ancient and physical way. I listen closely. The owl moves on, but I can hear waves on the beach below - our patch of woods, our patch of solitude in tact. ''Good luck,'' I tell my friend bound for New England. ''We're going to see it out here.''

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