WHEN I tell the story, I usually give myself the credit, but I suppose it really belongs to all of us. We were cruising along the coast of Maine in our old, leaky catboat: my wife, our son Patrick, and I. We had stopped in Stonington to do some chores, and I was on my way back from the laundromat when, more to rest than anything else, I went into Shepherd's real estate office and asked if there happened to be any small islands for sale. Living on your own island was a romantic, family dream that had so f ar eluded us. Small islands were hard to come by: usually expensive, inaccessible, uninhabitable (a large ledge); or there was some other hitch. We'd looked at a great many over the years.
"As a matter of fact, one just came on the market," Mrs. Shepherd said. "Crow Island. Seven acres." She pointed it out on the chart. We would be sailing right by. "I've got some pictures." It was beautiful: open fields, pink granite, sand beaches.
"How much?" I hardly dared ask. She mentioned a figure. "I'll call you," I said, and rushed out. We looked at it that afternoon and got in touch with Mrs. Shepherd that night. Now all we had to do was find the money. The price was low, but I was a low-ranking college professor, and no price would have been low enough. We needed a partner. My brother-in-law seemed the perfect choice. On the phone, Phil and Katharine sounded ecstatic. We arranged to pick them up the next day.
"But there're no trees," my sister said.
"Wait till you see the harbor," I said. "And the sand bar. Wait till you walk around it." (We were still a mile away.) And I was right. Within the hour, we had settled on the house site.
So, in one sense, I deserve the credit. But it was Patrick who pushed us to look in this area. (I had thought that since it was the most beautiful, there wouldn't be anything here.) And Lucy had strongly agreed. Without their insistence, I might have rested from my laundry labors on somebody's lawn. And of course there were Phil and Katharine. And our boat, which got us there.
Buying Crow Island changed our lives. We built a small house on it that had a 320-degree view, lived there summers for the next 10 years, and eventually moved to Maine, following our married son Paul who hammered a house out of the wilderness on some land nearby. Patrick settled in the area, too. The island had proved to be a magnet that held us all.
Living by yourselves on a seven-acre island a mile from shore in one of the most beautiful areas in the world is a very special experience. Living on any island would be. You're forced, by the weather, to develop a younger-brother attitude toward nature. You go ashore when the wind lets you. What start out as chores end up being the elements that stitch the whole experience together: having to carry everything twice - into the boat, out of it, up the hill, into the house. Building the house itself. Balan cing those sheets of glass.
Without electricity your "entertainment center" becomes the island itself: the gulls that swoop, the sails that glide; the grass stems that swirl in the rain; the mystic impenetrability of fog. Tides: the ceaseless rise and fall of the view. Time slows down. Whole days pass in wonder.
It spoils you. It's hard to settle for less. Every fall, when we were dragged back to school or college, to our home in Long Island, we felt cruelly deprived. "If only ..." we would say. We gladly endured the 12-hour weekend drive for the 24-hour reprieve the island gave us. And eventually we made the move. Not to the island, but nearby.
It's not the same, of course. Electricity, plumbing, the telephone. No need of a boat to get to the store. Conveniences rob you of excitement, yet on the mainland you would not be better off without them. For you would still be on the mainland, among the civilized; you would be able to turn your back to the window, willing and delighted to forget about the storm.
Living in our cozy farmhouse seven miles as the crow flies from the island, we take the view almost for granted. It's there all the time. It's not going to go away. Romance has been replaced by continuity. We're where we want to be, so we're always at home. Our arrangement with nature is a more equal one.
Still, the island experience is part of us. It's why we're here. It continues to mold our lives. All winter I carry firewood that I've cut up and stored - armful by armful, into the house. Each piece of wood warms me four or five times. Probably I wouldn't do all that - or be lying on my back in the woods resting from my labors, watching the clouds - if we hadn't spent those 10 summers living so intensely on Crow Island.