When I moved to Prospect Harbor with my family in the 1970s, I learned about its northern water, working harbor, and spare landscape as I was learning about the painter Marsden Hartley. He had rented the old Baptist church down the road in Corea as a studio, and in the evenings, as the fading crimson-pink sunset spread from the west to the harbor, I saw it reflected in the gorgeous windows of that silent, chalk-white church. It was incomparably beautiful and lonely.
Getting to know my new home as I learned about Hartley helped me understand that I wasn’t just anywhere. Although he was long gone, the afterglow of his presence hadn’t faded. He had painted the church at sunset and the rocks and pitching water at Schoodic Peninsula. The mackerel my son caught were the same as those laid out on a red table by a window with a view of the bay and the islands in Hartley’s Sea Window — Tinker Mackerel.
But all this was already disappearing. The water was almost fished out. We just didn’t know it.
My children and I were learning about a world of seals, sea urchins, fishermen, islands, and tides. Everyone I knew in Prospect Harbor and Corea worked hard, took risks. Those were years of pretty good fishing, good boats without a lot of gear, a fair amount of money to be made on the water, and a coastal culture with a sense of pride and a way of speaking and thinking full of detail and ironic humor, some violence, some restraint.
But all this was already disappearing. The water was almost fished out. We just didn’t know it. What Marsden Hartley had painted made our time in this place seem as enduring as those smooth granite extrusions we crawled over to get to Corea’s beach and to the curve of cobbled shore that led to a low-tide island.
We’d often be invited for tea by two generous elderly women who lived down at the harbor. We ate biscuits with jam and drank tea with milk and sugar, and they told us stories about Hartley. On the wall of their parlor hung a framed photograph of his face: the eyes as pale as a malamute’s, the look wary, private, and, I thought, passionate.
In 1940, he painted a still life of a common eider. The dead bird was a male in full breeding plumage, its head turned to the left, its wings folded tight against its body, one foot held to the side. It could be a sea duck taken last fall or a 1,000-year-old effigy.
We no longer have common eiders rafting in the bay where I live today because, for a number of reasons, we’ve lost our blue-mussel beds, and mussels are their preferred food. But along the peninsula, in the spots where the mussels grow thick against the rocks, these big ducks still gather.
Hartley, who grew up without eiders in the river town of Lewiston, named the painting Black Duck. The title doesn’t matter. The painting, which hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, does. It stays with you because he has honored, in death, the force and the loveliness of an individual life.
When I saw it at the Colby College exhibit of his work three years ago, it awakened in me images of our first years on the coast and of the man I imagined shared them with us. He made them feel timeless — with force and loveliness.