We survive a week alone
Americans take too many showers anyway. By the fourth day without running water on Smuttynose Island, the itching desire to be clean has faded, along with any need for computers, electric lights and refrigeration. Last night however, I had a touch of food poisoning, and for a brief period, found myself coveting the luxurious life on nearby Star Island, where hotel visitors get two showers a week and there are real flush toilets.
At Smuttynose, a midnight trip from the Haley House toward the outhouse 100 feet away is always an adventure. This time the flashlight has gone dead, so I manage to light one of the glass lamps after fumbling for matches. The hurricane lamp teeters and the wick stutters in the cool darkness. What moon there is is nearly obscured by a cloud. The lamp glow is so bright I cannot see around it. I stumble on the rocks and, nearly falling, I clutch the burning glass globe -- and shout. Muskrats skitter, gulls protest.
According to one Isles of Shoals legend, 14 Spanish sailors are buried in the darkness just a few dozen yards to my left. Their storm-tossed ship wrecked among the rocks on a frigid winter night. Samuel Haley, whose very cottage Maryellen and I are borrowing for the week, discovered the frozen bodies the next morning. A few had crawled to within sight of the house, drawn by the single lamp glowing in the window.
I summon their spirits now, holding the oil lamp higher. But there is only the deep silence of the island. Not a motor or a TV set. Not a passing car or siren. Not a frog, an insect or a dog. Not even waves sound here in the sheltered harbor. The island is mute except for the perpetual breathing of the wind across the land and the distant toll of the bell buoy that speeds and slows to the cadence of the sea.
Another hot day. When John Smith visited here in 1614, he remarked on the lack of shade trees among the barren rocks. Then he named this place Smythe Isles after himself, called the whole region "New" England in order to impress his king, and never came back.
Not much has changed on the Isles, shade-wise, in four centuries. There are a few tall bushes and scraggly plants that barely pass as trees. We have learned to plan our chores for the cool mornings and evenings. Today Maryellen cut the tall grass by the house with an old wooden two-handle scythe while I fiddled again with the gas-powered weed whacker. Hundreds of tugs on the starter cord and it finally roared to life.
There is something deeply satisfying about walking the island with a motor strapped to your back. Whacked my way out to the tall grass at the Spanish sailors graves, then spent two hours clearing the little Haley cemetery. The vegetation was so lush that I seemed to be sculpting the gray tombstones and the little stone wall from a slab of solid green. Tomorrow I will whack the foundation of the Hontvet House, scene of the 1873 murders.
My intention was to do steward chores, then row to Star each day before the noon heat. There I would find an unused electrical outlet in the one-room library, plug in my laptop, and work on my "endless novel". I attempted that only once, on Monday, and woke up two hours later, drooling like a drunk. Now I just nap in the house on Smuttynose where it is always cool.
This afternoon friends with a boat from Kittery stopped by bringing us two glorious blocks of ice. Maryellen and I struggled to recall the art of conversation as we sat on the rolling lawn slathered in #45 sunblock, the little bowl of salsa nearly boiling in the heat.
Later Peep-peep, our favorite baby gull got a grand piece of fish from one of his parents. I watched out the cottage window, barely four feet away. When they are hungry, the chicks peck at a red dot on the parent's beak. That stimulates the adult to regurgitate food for the baby. Older now, Peep-peep was nonplussed, unable to eat such a gigantic slab of food. So the parent picked it up and pretended to take it back. The chick complained, and grabbed a piece of fish guts, ripping the red rubbery goo into edible bits. It was a great bit of parenting, a Polaroid moment.
Later I tried giving another chick a hot dog that was turning too white, even for my taste. An adult blackback swooped down and took it. Then another gull appeared and grabbed the first one, literally swallowing its head right up to the eyeball. They stumbled and danced back and forth across the lawn in a violent tug-of-war.
The best and worst part of being an island steward is meeting the people who find their way ashore. The island regulations are posted on a wooden box at Haley's Cove -- no smoking, no camping, no fires, no radios, no restrooms. Dogs can poop on Malaga, but not on Smuttynose. Nothing found on the island can be removed.
There are little booklets in the box with an island walking tour. You can take one for a small donation. I find that, the smaller the visitor's boat, the bigger the donation. Last year I watched a guy with an Aristotle Onasis-sized yacht stop in Gosport Harbor. The back of the boat opened, James Bond-style, and a speedy powerboat lowered itself into the water. A group of four well-dressed world travelers zoomed into the cove, took a copy of the tour booklet, and left without leaving a nickel.
Today, some jerk parked his double in-board smack in the entrance to the cove, pulled out a six-pack, and pushed a half dozen kids into the water for a swim. I told him he was welcome to tour the island, but not to block the cove. He told me he'd leave when he good-and-well felt like it. I scribbled a few notes on my clipboard, snapped a few photos of his boat, and pretended to dial a cell phone. Suddenly, he felt like leaving.
Celia herself lived, for a spell in the one remaining old house on the island, the one most people know from the label of Shoals Pale Ale. Her father Thomas Laighton bought Smuttynose from, I think, the son of the man she called "King" Haley. Back then Haley had his own sawmill, grinding mill, rope walk, a fruit tree orchard, and a distillery. Lemuel Caswell, who is buried in the little cemetery on Star Island, built a great long fish pier on what is now a barren stone foundation here. The Laighton's took over a 60-guest summer hotel on Smuttynose in the 1840s called the Mid-Ocean House. Nathaniel Hawthorn, Richard Henry Dana and a young Franklin Pierce were among the guests. A young Celia Thaxter filled the hotel rooms with flowers, wore flowers in her hair and on her hat, and raised parakeets on the island. Laighton also built a grocery store that stood at the top of the cove near the old fish house. I've spent many hours wandering the stone foundations, staring at old photos, trying to imagine all the sounds, bustle and scent of those busy days.
The lilies came out at last, after a week of straining to appear. They are everywhere about the house. Maryellen left the island yesterday to see a Celia Thaxter exhibit of painted flowers in Portsmouth. There's something ironic about that, but I can't imagine what. My brain has been running darn close to empty for days. I feel great -- callused and sunburned, rested and dumb.
This morning I swept the house, trimmed the lawn, washed a nasty pile of old dishes, mucked the outhouse and stowed the tools. I rowed across the harbor to Star and exchanged notes with the incoming stewards at the dock.
People tend to ask two questions when they learn that you've been marooned on an island without luxuries for a week. They ask -- Wasn't it hard? I say, no. You get used to it. Then they ask -- Didn't you hate leaving? No, I say. You get sick of it.
More than once I found myself counting down the intervals between the flashing of White Island light, or the moan of the automated fog horn. One day is much like another, except for the gulls, who seem to speak in endless ways. They can sound like crying babies and laughing children, like braying mules, clucking hens, moaning ghosts, howling cats, bleating lambs. They make sounds like dogs, owls, parrots and monkeys, like rusty door hinges and screeching brakes, like trains and cows, people praying, people singing, crowds murmuring at cocktail parties. They sound like boats arriving and boats departing, like clocks ticking, like bloody murder, like birth. Then the sun disappears, the gulls go silent and there is nothing but the island breathing.
For more information: Smuttynose Theme Site
All photos by J. Dennis Robinson
Copyright © 2001 by SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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