At the end of August in 1977 I spent five days on a 30-acre island in Taunton Bay on the Maine coast not far from Ellsworth and Bar Harbor. My friend Steve Perrin from the Andover, Mass., writers' workshop, a poet and writer, photographer, teacher, and all around capable guy in his forties, had invited me to stay on the island, which was owned by his family going back decades. He was in the midst of building a small cabin, and gave me a chance to be a carpenter's assistant for part of each day. Otherwise, I was free to roam around and see what I could see from morning until night. I kept a record of the experience and wrote drafts of a few poems, but mostly I explored the land and edges of the bay. Steve drew a map of the general area to orient me, which is reproduced below. A red X marks the island. I'm almost sure I left my car in Andover, and we drove to Maine together. I was 23 years old. The version of the log below has been edited for length and corrected where necessary.
Burying Island Log, Taunton Bay, Coast of Maine (Aug. 29 - Sept. 2, 1977)
8/30. Hancock, Maine. Arrived at 4 p.m. yesterday, after stopping in Ellsworth for supplies. First view of the island: BIG. 30 acres. Quarter mile from shore. The cormorants, primitive-looking birds, pterodactyl-like, slap madly off the water in a great clatter to get altitude. The island has ospreys, seagulls, and one time had a bald eagle nesting. Blue herons are all about the island, one of three known Maine heronries, says Steve. Tall spruce with nests are defoliated. The birds stay all summer and are gone now. Last night, a loner, Joe Heron, patient as ever, stood on the rocks, squawking and waiting hours for a fish.
When we came over from the mainland at low tide eelgrass nicked the sides of our boat and lapped the bottom. The bay water was so calm I heard the oar drip water before it dipped down again.
The moon surfaced and lifted eastward. We could almost follow the rise of the amber moon, a large yellow stone, eyeball, spotlight path-ing the bay, a full melon-moon that went up on a string and hovered, framed by a pair of dark gray cloud-banks. Through binoculars, we picked out continents on its face, maybe the Sea of Tranquility where the Eagle landed in 1969, and white-blue mountain features.
Steve's cabin-in-progress looks east. Close by is a stone structure built by his father in 1940-41 where we camp out on this trip. There's another house on the other end of the island occupied by a cousin of Steve's, also a writer. She was sunbathing when we arrived and asked us to wait above the beach.
On a mussel bank, a bald eagle fights with two crows over food. Swarms of eelgrass could be mermaid and mermen hair, lilting on the surface, oscillating below.
The east side cliff is speckled with clam chips, white shards of a shattered bone plate. Native people dug clams and ate them on the sandy cliff. Diggers have found arrow heads, spear points, and tools. Five thousand years ago, the Red Mound People lived on the shore of the bay. The civilization vanished without much of a trace, the private dramas of individuals in a civilization gone by. Local historians believe there are burial grounds in the area. The island name is a three-pronged fork: Burying Island, Berrying Island, and Berring Island. Clammers and blueberry pickers come to the island.
On the northwest end of the island a bubbling fresh water stream runs all year, close to the beach, the fresh and salt water within fifty yards.
Horseshoe crabs empty/stars move 30 degrees in a month/dogs sleep in the sun/wood snaps in the forest/ducks dive to fish/terns skim the bay/downed branches feed a fire/the house gets built/squirrels chatter-cheater/spruce can't root into the glacier-scraped surface/moss hides hornet nests/sand fleas keep the seaweed beach a-jitter
9/1. This morning worked on the cabin, sawing, hammering roof boards. Tongue-and-groove boards on the walls. At 9 a.m., crossed to the town so Steve could call his wife, then returned to work until noon. After that, wandering, reading, meditating. We've had two marvelous star-watching nights. Another huge moon last night. In the dark, crabs water-walk near shore, clawing at the light. Andromeda. Cassiopeia. The Chair. The Swan. Northern Cross. Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis. Dolphin Constellation. Bright Arcturus, 36-light years away. Vega, another bright one, and the name of a cheap car, Chevy.
Looking up has been good for me because I need to calm down and stop thinking about being adrift in heart-land. I'm not better yet after a bad break and need to change my mind. Night is the worst time.
Once you reach a certain awareness about life you can feel anxiety from what you see that you think others may not see. You can get extra enjoyment as well. A good carpenter cares, is a craftsman, and therefore a poorly made thing can give him or her anxiety whereas the guy who doesn't give a damn for quality isn't bothered. A finely made tool will feel satisfying to a crafts-person, an artist, in a measure far superior to the kick any hacker might get from handling the same tool.
9/2. Up at 8:30 a.m. Wash and then eat toast with peanut butter and raspberry jam. After breakfast, I fetch water, filling two galvanized steel pails from the spring, and walk back with dead weight water yanking my arms from their sockets. Sun will be patchy today. Last night, no stars, no moon, fog on the bay. We stared at the fireplace flames from rockers and talked about books and birds, classical music on the radio from a Bangor station.
The heron stands/like a sinister old goat,/a crook in an overcoat,/chin tucked in,/legs stem-thin,/skinny neck, collar up close,/to a frown and hooked nose,/stuck in the mud/in a standing doze.
Friday afternoon. Very still day. Blank sky. Even the rain is a quiet rain. The dogs, Molson and Dolson, follow me to the point each time I trek down to see the tide, sky, birds, weather, whatever. Molson is just like Toto from Kansas, chases yip yap after red squirrels. This is the Year of the Squirrel on the island. There have been years of the rabbit, hornet, deer, and fox. Each passes and gives way to another, sometimes returning as the season's theme. Sounds drift over from Route 1, truck gearing up hills, hammering in town, lobster boat motors with men checking traps or pots. The other night from the cliff we saw the Bar Harbor hills, car lights going up Cadillac Mountain. Mt. Desert Island's name is from the French "desert," meaning deserted, not pronounced "desert" like the Sahara, but rather "dessert" around here.
Rain patters on the roof, tips through leaves, every now and then increases. Soon, we'll put shutters on the stone cottage and pack to head back. I heard that kelp is full of trace minerals from the sea, and if you hack it up and swallow the slimy guts-colored weed it'll make your hair grow.
Note: Two poems emerged from the Burying Island notes and turned out to be keepers, both published in literary magazines and later collected in my books. The image of the moon like a large yellow stone surfaced in another poem. During the Seventies I traveled to Maine about 20 times to visit one friend in particular who had gone north to start over in a geodesic dome on land in a forest. He wound up in a small lakeside house near Ellsworth and started a business in glass installation and repair. My latest book, Union River, includes a series of poems set in Maine that were begun and sometimes completed in those days. Here are the two Burying Island compositions.
Marking tide levels, Steve bucks home routines.
Above the rockweed cove he built a cabin,
An all-weather den ferried piecemeal in his dory
And hauled up a cliff on his back. Spruce root sideways.
In shallow soil, trees are straw to nor'easters.
He picks up splintered sea-snails gulls drop onto rocks.
Clam chips speckle a sandbank where the Mound People ate fish.
Sand fleas jitter the seaweed beach at noon.
Cormorants clatter into flight, wings slapping madly off water.
Bright eelgrass oscillates at high tide. Moss pads a rough ledge
Where a head with quartz eyes stares like an Easter Island giant.
At night, Bar Harbor hills, a hump serpent on the coast,
Show a necklace of traffic, part of the turnpike herd,
Still roaring out of the tollbooths like thoroughbreds.
A blue heron waits an hour,
Shows patient power
In a one-man soup line,
In favor of a single mind --
The key to catching fish.
The heron squawks,
Shoves off with awkward grace,
Gawking into flight,
Pole legs folding,
Kite wings holding,
Whacking light wind
Past feathers like
Blue-gray saw-toothed fringe.
The heron stands like a sinister old goat,
A crook in an overcoat --
Chin tucked in,
Skinny neck, collar up close
To a frown and long nose --
Stuck in the mud in a standing doze.