ENTER THE 2021 DOWN EAST READER PHOTO CONTEST!

Never Say No to an Island

Ralston took this photo, titled Thorofare, in 1986, flying in a friend’s plane at dawn over the Fox Islands Thorofare, in Penobscot Bay. “I’ve been on virtually every island in this photograph,” he wrote in his book Sightings: A Maine Coast Odyssey.

Peter Ralston took this photo, titled Thorofare, in 1986, flying in a friend’s plane at dawn over the Fox Islands Thorofare, in Penobscot Bay. “I’ve been on virtually every island in this photograph,” he wrote in his book Sightings: A Maine Coast Odyssey.

By Philip Conkling
Photograph by Peter Ralston

The first island I stepped foot on changed my life. I didn’t think then that I knew everything about how nature works on islands, but as an aspiring ecologist, I thought I knew something. It turned out everything I had been taught about islands was, in Maine’s case, wrong. Back then, the abiding idea among conservationists was that when left alone, nature, on islands and elsewhere, tends toward long-term stability and that people wreck this balance. This notion led to conservation policies that discouraged human presence on islands, lest it thwart nature’s grand design.

That first island I landed on was Flint Island, nearly three miles off Harrington, and it was unquestionably wild. Rare Arctic plants clung to its rugged cliffs, seals and their pups hauled out on low-tide ledges, and a pair of eagles patrolled its rugged shoreline for food. But in the center of the island’s dense forest were the remnants of a building foundation. Who had lived on the island, and what had become of them? Over the succeeding years, I began researching as much island history — and prehistory — as I could find, and I gradually learned that Maine’s islands have been inhabited since rising seas first isolated them. Put another way, it turns out humans have been an integral part of island ecosystems since, well, almost forever.

It turned out everything I had been taught about islands was, in Maine’s case, wrong.

Maine has more habitable islands than any other state in the Lower 48. Louisiana has a lot more islands, but most are bayou islands surrounded by wetlands, less habitable with every inch of rising sea level. Maine’s bedrock islands store water in their fractures, and the coast’s rain and fog constantly supply moisture, meaning our islands can support many different kinds of life — including human life. Larger islands can support complex human communities, where connections with the past run deep.

Soon after that first visit to Flint, I developed a credo: never say no to an island. I began “collecting” them, even kept a life list, although I stopped counting after reaching 1,000 islands. No matter how busy I thought I was, when presented the opportunity to visit an island, I learned to just say yes. I have lived by that dictum and never been disappointed.

Of course, there are many kinds of islands. Mountaintops are islands of specialized habitats that attract their own colonies of creatures, two-legged, four-legged, arthropoid, and avian. Patches of old-growth forests are islands. Remote communities can be islands. And, as we learned within some of our lifetimes, planet Earth is itself an island when viewed from space.

Last summer, I added two islands to the life list I no longer tabulate. One was a 50-acre, privately owned beauty once used to pasture sheep close to a coastal fishing village. It is up for sale, for a pretty price, and with conservation orgs interested, it may, for the first time in over half a century, find a balance between “forever wild” and limited local access. The other is nestled in shoal waters inside a mini-archipelago, in a remote cove of Vinalhaven, Maine’s largest inhabited island. I’ve spent more than 40 years exploring Vinalhaven and had never been to this island, with its majestic stand of massive old-growth red oaks atop a black-granite bluff.

May you be fortunate enough to assemble your own island collection, where you might recharge the batteries of your life, connecting with the beauty and mysteries of nature.


Philip Conkling is a Camden-based environmental consultant and the author of Islands in Time: A Natural and Cultural History of the Islands of the Gulf of Maine. Photographer Peter Ralston lives in Rockport and operates The Ralston Gallery. In 1983, the pair co-founded the Island Institute and its keynote publication, The Island Journal.


BUY THIS ISSUE