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Loving an island, a ‘piece of territory set apart’

Eva Murray of Matinicus Island is shown in this 2002 file photo.
Leslie Barbaro | BDN
Eva Murray of Matinicus Island is shown in this 2002 file photo. Buy Photo
Posted Aug. 12, 2013, at 12:20 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 12, 2013, at 6:18 p.m.

Travel & Leisure magazine recently ranked Mount Desert Island the 25th best island destination on Earth. How does this Matinicus Island resident feel about that designation?

As far as I’m concerned, we may skip the obvious — and by now almost cliché — barb offered by some that an island with a bridge might not even count as a real island. Let me suggest that the operative word in Travel and Leisure’s applause is not “island” but “destination.”

MDI is a beautiful place, an American icon and a worthy part of a trip to Maine, assuming you don’t mind standing in line a bit, but an island, by my lights, is a piece of territory set apart.

The word “island” implies a physical separation from the main body of land and, by extension, of people, of society. Many other Maine islands are every bit as scenic as MDI, but getting close enough to enjoy a peek at that craggy beauty can take an awful lot of work. Unbridged islands aren’t well suited to being held up as destinations for the masses.

That water all around, so inspiring to poets and painters, tends to become a general nuisance to the efficient traveler. Islands are difficult. They require such exertions as slow ferry trips over rough seas, four-seater airplane rides with bush pilots, or hitchhiking with a lobsterman while you stand in the cold spray between a barrel of bait and a very strange dog.

On the particular enigmatic and defiant rockpile upon which I have lived for 26 complete and uninterrupted years, the thinking is that you can tell it’s really an island because, upon arrival, you feel like you’ve already put in a hard day’s work just getting here.

I was asked recently to give some thought to this question of “Why?” Why live on an island, and why Matinicus, which, at 23 miles out to sea, is unarguably one of the more demanding options if one merely wants to hear the waves as one falls asleep. People ask me, “Do you love it?”

It’s a reasonable question. Why live in a place where creativity, upheaval, the bitter end of patience and some considerable expense is required to access things most Americans take for granted — from law enforcement to fresh milk, from a high school education to an ice cream cone? I have written at length about the hassles we endure dealing with every sort of logistic, but we don’t see them as privations. They are simply the routines of island life.

Should I reply, “I love living here because it’s hard”?

My particular island barely even qualifies as a small town. We have fallen below a sort of demographic critical mass, and much does not get done. The population in the wintertime bottoms out at around three dozen, and we are desperately short-handed in many ways.

It might be prideful, but I could tell myself, “I live here because it feels good to be needed.”

If you carry in your mind’s eye a watercolor image of Maine’s more popular vacation spots, Matinicus Island might be best described by what it is not: It isn’t perfect. It isn’t a condominium association where everybody agrees to keep a neat lawn. It isn’t a commune where work is shared equally. It isn’t a planned community where all typical needs — like a grocery store, for instance — are met. It isn’t an artist’s colony, a national park or nostalgic little village unchanged by the passage of time. For darned sure it isn’t quaint. It also doesn’t strive to put on a different face for the summer season.

Can I say, “I love it here because it’s authentic”?

The price of authenticity is nonconformity, and this island town is what you might call a rough neighborhood. We make fun of our reputation for lawlessness. (“Well, if I wanted to shoot a seagull, ain’t nobody here going to stop me.”)

But there is an interesting, generally invisible flip-side to this rebelliousness. Community activism for constructive purposes is much easier when you don’t have to get authorization at every turn. On an island, where it’s more or less “just us,” we don’t have the luxury of waiting for somebody with the right certification to come along and save the day.

We are all firefighters. We don’t ask a lot of permissions. “I love it here because nobody stops me from doing good”?

One local wise-aleck says, “Come for the scenery, stay for the anarchy.” Perhaps it is just that simple.

Eva Murray is a year-round resident of Matinicus Island where she serves as an emergency medical technician, local emergency management director, solid waste and recycling coordinator and school board member.

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