May 27, 2018
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Island tour celebrates life, work of writer

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN
By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff

TREMONT, Maine — Fog hung as thick as a wet blanket Sunday morning over Bass Harbor as a group of about 50 people boarded a tour boat at a marina.

With a twist of the captain’s wrist, the engine of the R.L. Gott cranked into action. A few moments later, the boat pulled away from the dock, rumbling softly as it plied the still water between moored lobster boats toward its damp, unseen destination.

Specifically, Great Gott Island was where the boat and its passengers were headed, but in a broader sense, they were delving into the life of Ruth Moore, a native of the island who during her lifetime became a nationally known poet and novelist.

The morning trip out to Moore’s former home was part of Ruth Moore Days, a series of events planned this week to celebrate the life and work of Moore, who died in 1989 at age 86. There will be events focusing on Moore’s work at 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday at Bass Harbor Memorial Library in the village of Bernard. Writer Christina Marsden Gillis, who with her husband, John Gillis, now owns Moore’s former island home, state Sen. Dennis Damon, authors Sven Davisson and Sanford Phippen, and poet and publisher Gary Lawless will participate in readings and discussions of the island writer.

On Sunday morning, Mount Desert Island artist and performer Joe Marshall gave readings of Moore’s work on the tour boat as it glided through the fog to Great Gott Island. The passengers, clutching cups of coffee and munching on muffins, sat in rapt attention as Marshall’s voice rose and fell with the passing swells, reciting a verse about a fisherman who mistakes a whale for a German submarine.

“Where’s old Sam? He’s still living. Round eighty-seven. Don’t seem to fail,” Marshall read from Moore’s poem “Old Sam.” “He’s a wild talker. Tells a good story. But he never says nothing about that whale.”

Great Gott Island has not had a year-round population for several decades, Marshall told the passengers. New technology combined with the hazards and difficulty of living off the sea and surrounded by it eventually resulted in all of the islanders moving to where they had road access to the world at large, he said.

“Do I leave the place I love for a secure income or do I stay out here and work, work, work?” Marshall said was the driving question for most island residents. As did all of them eventually, Moore left, moving to New York City in the 1920s and then back to the Mount Desert Island area two decades later after finding success as a writer.

On Great Gott, the group spent about an hour browsing through the local cemetery and, at the invitation of its current owners, Moore’s former home. People took photos, marveled at the scenery, which became slightly more visible as the sun climbed higher in the sky, and strolled through the rustic house that, according to Marshall, also served as a boardinghouse, a store and a post office during the island’s days as a year-round community.

Christina Gillis said Sunday after the tour that she and her husband are happy to help support the Bass Harbor Memorial Library and the Moore series. She said that as a former administrator for the Townsend Center for the Humanities at the University of California in Berkeley, she and her husband are used to acting as hosts to events in their home.

“We totally enjoyed it,” she said of the tour. “I think [Ruth Moore Days] is a very nice idea. There certainly seems to be a lot of interest [in the event].”

Clara Baker, director of the Bass Harbor library, said Sunday that it is her goal to have Ruth Moore Days become an annual festival. Moore’s work, full of the salty language associated with fishermen and other hardscrabble New England island residents, is closely connected with Great Gott Island and the surrounding communities, she said.

The goal of the festival is to celebrate Moore’s local legacy and to help raise her profile, which has fallen slightly since her early success in the 1940s and 1950s, according to Baker.

“She’s part of that history of women writers,” Baker said. “It’s a rich legacy for people who live in Tremont. There are a lot of people who are passionate about it.”

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