The Lure of an Island All Our Own

I recall, back in the 1970s, reading a short article by James Michener titled "Reflections of a Nesomaniac." A nesomaniac, I soon learned, is a lover of islands.

I, too, have always associated a certain romance with island places, though I am more drawn to the more-austere prominences of the north than the lush, ethereal entities of tropical seas. Maine, where I live, has more than 2,000 islands - a lifetime supply of coves, keys, habitats, and cultures to explore.

What is it about an island, especially a smaller one, that tugs at one's wanderlust? I think it must be the sense one gets of being at the fringe of something, of finding a world small enough to feel big in. The Icelanders, who define their identity largely in terms of their island existence, have a saying: "In Iceland everyone is a king." I have no trouble resonating to this.

Once, during an outing to one of Maine's offshore islands with my young son, we found that, for a place only three miles across, and without malls, amusement parks, and video arcades, there were endless sources of fascination. We sampled wild black raspberries, swam at a deserted beach, and visited the charming little island library. Riding our bikes, we soon encountered an old one-room schoolhouse, explored a lighthouse, and - to a young boy's delight - discovered a field of insect-eating plants. When the time finally came to board the ferry for the mainland, it was nothing short of a letdown.

Rivers have islands, too. Behind my home in central Maine is a tiny, rather dclass island smack dab in the middle of the Penobscot. It's little more than a long, flat, barren rock. When my son and I go canoeing, it's a frequent stopping-off place where we can sit, enjoy the silence, and watch the cormorants and bald eagles. Three years ago, when Alyosha and I first set foot upon that island, we found ourselves sitting side-by-side for the longest time. Finally, a question erupted. "Dad," he asked, "what's this island called?"

Too small to have been charted by anyone, I was sure the rock had no name. And so, turning to my son, I swelled with self-importance and pronounced, "Why, it's Alyosha Island." And to this day that is how we refer to it.

IT'S quite something to be in possession of an island domain. Nations, of course, have fought over islands since history began. There is a sense of incompleteness if there is an island that one believes should pertain to one's territory. Note the force with which China, with its enormous land area, covets tiny Taiwan. Or the ongoing dispute between Japan and Russia over the cartographical flecks in the North Pacific known as the Kurile Islands.

Even between my home state and Canada there has been, for years, an ongoing dispute concerning who has jurisdiction over a truly minuscule islet that's a nesting place for the arctic tern, the bird with the longest migratory path in the world. Birders from both sides of the border are drawn there with their binoculars, but never know if they will be received by Mounties or the Maine State Police.

Only once in recorded history has a new island appeared on earth. It was in 1963, just south of Iceland. Without warning the sea began to boil, followed by massive eruptions of flames and black smoke. Iceland immediately lay claim to the island they named Surtsey, long before it was known whether it would survive or be washed away.

So it's pretty heady stuff to have one's own island, in name if not in deed. But Alyosha is handling it well. He is in no way covetous of "his" rocky outcropping surrounded by water. In fact, he takes great pride in showing it off to friends.

A couple of years back, on my son's birthday, I took him and two of his buddies for pizza, and then out in the canoe to take advantage of a bluebird day on the river. We eventually put in at Alyosha Island, where I sat back and read as the boys swam, fished, sunned themselves, and explored every crack and crevice.

It wasn't long before I noticed the sun was descending in the west, and the wind had picked up a bit. It was time to go, but I was reluctant to nag the boys about it, for they were so completely happy. And why shouldn't they be? They were masters of a realm, on the fringe of the familiar, in a world small enough to feel big in.

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