What is island culture?

By Philip Conkling | Dec 08, 2011

Massachusetts can and does boast of the “Cape and Islands” region with its three year-round island communities of Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Cuttyhunk; Rhode Island has its year-round community of Block Island; Connecticut has its Fisher’s Island; Maryland has Smith; Virginia, Tangiers; and so on, around the coasts of America to Puget Sound, in Washington, which can boast of six year-round communities on the San Juan Islands. But none of these states in the lower 48 has anything close to the 15 year-round communities that form the heart and soul of Maine’s extensive archipelago of 5,000 islands.

Part of the reason that Maine islanders are justifiably proud of their heritage is the recognition that as far as islands go, Maine is at the center of the universe.

With the emergence of the digital age, where the boundaries enforced by geographic isolation are, for the first time in history, receding into cyberspace; islanders from around the country routinely contact Maine islanders to better understand the successful strategies they have developed for sustaining their communities.

When Hurricane Irene was off the North Carolina coast pin-wheeling her way toward the islands of the Outer Banks, a number of Maine islanders emailed island friends on Harkers and Okracoke islands to send their hopes and prayers that the islanders might be spared the worst of her fury. One Harkers islander wrote back a scant hour before Irene made landfall that those expressions of support from Maine islanders 1,000 miles away were a huge emotional support for her, because islanders everywhere recognize their vulnerability to nature’s fickle furies.

When Peter Ralston and I founded the Island Institute, we used to say, “Maine islands have a lot in common,” a statement that, at the time, most islanders considered to be absurd. Those islanders across the way, they would tell us, are nothing like us; in fact, we don’t want to have anything to do with them. Slowly, however, the discourse changed as we learned to say, “All islands are different, but have a lot in common.” This subtle alteration in language meant we were generally not invited to leave on the next boat.

In the years since, Maine islanders often now celebrate their island connections as their collective impact has been amplified through such organized efforts with mainlanders as the Working Waterfront Coalition and the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition. More recently, islanders from different regions in this country have come together for an annual Sustainable Island Living Conference, where the shock of island recognition has begun to spread outward.

Through those contacts, Maine islanders have repeatedly seen their issues reflected back from elsewhere — from the ongoing and constant challenges of maintaining small island schools to dealing with the high cost of food, energy and housing, to the importance of maintaining healthy marine-based economies. At the same time, Maine islanders have seen that their approaches to these challenges eagerly embraced by islanders from far away.

To overcome the barriers of their small and isolated situations, Maine islanders have developed a series of innovations, such as the use of video-conferencing technology to link one-room schools, energy efficiency and energy independence strategies to reduce their costs, and branding of their local seafood to increase value. With such innovations developed here off the Maine coast, islanders elsewhere have developed a keen interest in learning from Maine’s island leaders. Instinctively, islanders recognize that they share a deeper connection with each other than they share with mainlanders.

There are at least a couple of reasons to suppose that there might be something like an “island culture.” Most importantly, the isolation of small places simply creates different ways of being. Nothing kills island culture quicker than a bridge. Where bridges cannot go, you have to learn how to develop patience (because you cannot always go wherever and whenever you want), you learn humility (because Mother Nature cannot be over-ruled) and you develop a deep tolerance for individuality — even eccentricity — because when you are left to your own devices, you have the freedom to explore different ideas.

You also learn other skills on islands, sometimes as basic as to how to carry on a conversation on a ferry ride. Or how to share a sole source aquifer with your neighbor. But more often, the skills you develop are more highly involved, such as learning that the shortest distance between two points when wind and sea are opposed is not necessarily a straight line. Or figuring out how to use the limited resources at hand when the store-bought solution is inaccessible across the bay.

Some of these similarities of an offshore point of view can, and do, coalesce into an island culture, regardless of whether the island is as big as a nation or as small as a single community. Perhaps this notion was best summed up recently during a recent interview with a young island woman returning home after four years of college.

“The island – it is my home," she said. "It’s where my family has always lived. It’s just part of me.”

This is not the kind of comment that most young people in Maine, or America for that matter, make about their hometowns. So it seems a very good idea for Maine islanders to continue sharing their stories with other islanders to celebrate their culture, which though rare and separated by great expanses, is increasingly relevant on a shrinking planet.

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