How many islands are too many?

By Philip Conkling | Feb 16, 2012

Andy Warhol famously predicted that in the future everyone would be famous for15 minutes, but now that the future has arrived, it is more like 15 seconds.

I was startled to find out that I recently reached my 15 seconds when I was unexpectedly mentioned in the British Manchester Guardian film blog. The film critic was discussing the new release of the Jules Verne classic, "Mysterious Island." In reviewing the film, the author describes the many island settings of previous films — "South Pacific," "Jaws" and "Dr. No," among them. He also mentioned the literature that islands have inspired – Shakespeare’s Tempest, Swift’s Gulliver, Golding’s "Lord of the Flies," and, of course, the most famous of them all – "Robinson Crusoe." The author even covered some of the actors who bought their own islands – Marlon Brando, John Wayne and Mel Gibson. You begin to get the idea that films and islands and fanatics all go together.

Did you know, the film critic asks, that there is a poet who has lived on 43 islands, an outdoorsman who camped on 163 islands and a “conservationist,” Philip Conkling, who has visited more than a thousand islands? So there you have it. There’s my quarter of a second of notoriety.

Why, you might wonder, would someone spend the better part of a lifetime visiting so many islands? Thirty years ago, after I was hired to collect baseline ecological information on several hundred privately-owned islands Hurricane Island Outward Bound School had permission to use, Maine’s islands began to haunt my psyche. I went to my first 200 islands, innocently enough in order to compile a natural history guide for Hurricane Island instructors to use teach students the finer points of island ecology, like what could you eat, what was their history and where was the poison ivy?

I was possessed of a graduate student’s arrogance that Maine’s islands would reveal themselves through the species lists I compiled – flowers, shrubs, trees, birds, marine life and so forth. Foolishly, I thought that these spruce-covered domes of rock were all about the same – that if you had seen one you had seen them all. But I discovered to my amazement that each island was different. And it was the island’s human history that had set them off on different ecological arcs. The uses of the past were literally etched in their landscape.

Nowhere was this lesson more apparent than on Hurricane Island itself. On this steep-sided dome of granite, there had once been a town that had supported more than 1,000 workers, who had cut granite from its magnificent south-facing cliffs. Everywhere on the island, spectral voices whispered their stories. There were initials etched in the rocks and tools laid down in place on the cliffs now covered up by new growth. Across Hurricane Sound, on Vinalhaven, I learned about a handful of houses that had been constructed from the lumber from the “company town” that had been abandoned on Hurricane in 1914. Many Vinalhaven quarries had once lived and worked on Hurricane and had vivid memories.

When I finished the natural history guide to the islands Hurricane Islanders used between the Cuckolds off Boothbay and Cross Island off Cutler, another offer came knocking. Maine’s Bureau of Public Lands had recently discovered it owned Maine islands, a lot of them, in fact. These islands included those that had never been recorded in the Maine Island Registry of Deeds, along with a number of others had been sold by unwitting or unscrupulous agents even though they actually belonged to the people of the State of Maine. I was hired to survey several hundred more publicly-owned islands between Kennebunkport and Cobscook Bay that belonged to all of us to determine what was on them and what they might best be used for. It blew my mind that I might be able to get paid to go from island to island and simply keep notes of what I found. Wow, what a concept!

At the end of this second two-year project, I had been to perhaps 500 Maine islands. By then, I knew that Maine has more than 5,000 islands, including at least 1,500 that are big enough to be habitable. I don’t recall ever saying to myself I want to visit all 5,000 islands, or even the 1,500 habitable islands. It was too much like a birdwatcher keeping a tedious life list. But other island owners and island towns were interested to know how their particular islands related to all the others. So I went to more islands to find answers to new questions. Was this colony of Arctic flora rare? Was there enough water on the island to drink? What was the history of this or that island?

To answer those questions, I began to ask islanders for their help. Island libraries, schools, and historical societies began turning up more and more pieces of information that begged for a central location where all kinds of island information could be collected and disseminated. Thus almost three decades ago, we launched the Island Institute, partly to fill that need. And new questions kept coming up and have not stopped since. Is the lobster fishery in danger of collapsing? How can island communities attract new settlers? How can we keep our communities affordable?

In the last 10 years, I have been to many more islands. I stopped counting after about 1000. Most of the islands I have visited are in Maine, but I have also been lucky enough to travel to islands on both sides of the globe and in both hemispheres. The great lesson I have learned from islanders is that although all islands are different, they have a lot in common.

As to the question of how many islands are enough, I recall what my friend Charlie Cawley, who brought the credit card company MBNA to Maine, once said about another subject: “You know what I call too much of a good thing? I call it fantastic!” When it comes to islands, I agree.

 

 

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