Lessons on Community — And Its Fragility

For lack of one person in one critical role, a whole community can disintegrate.

On a visit to Eagle Island, in Penobscot Bay, in the 1980s, Ralston took the photo he titled “The Lesson,” of an abandoned one-room schoolhouse. Eagle Island was once home to a robust year-round community, but no longer.
By Philip Conkling
Photograph by Peter Ralston
From our January 2022 issue

Maine, as many people have remarked, is one big small town, with some 500 mostly small towns scattered across our expansive landscape. We may be a state with a small population, but we are proud of our vast and varied terrain — we can rightfully brag that all of the rest of New England can fit within Maine’s borders. About half of Maine’s 20 million acres are unorganized, with few if any local services. I used to live in Washington County’s Township Number 7, proud to be the state’s southernmost unorganized township. As one of my neighbors was known to quip, “There’s no government like no government!”

During the past four decades, while working on sustainable development strategies with many of Maine’s smallest and most remote towns, I was often struck by how big an effect a few people could have on the well-being and continuity of their communities, both for better and for worse. The smaller the population, the bigger the influence each of us has on whether our communities flourish — or even survive.

The most dramatic example comes from the history of Criehaven, Maine’s outermost inhabited island, which for the lack of a single person became the most recent year-round island community to go extinct. During World War II, the island couldn’t find a teacher for its one-room schoolhouse. Without one, the women and children had to go ashore during the school year. Without the women and children, the island’s store didn’t have enough business to stay open. Without parcels for the women and children and store, the mail boat couldn’t afford to run. Without the women, children, store, and mail boat, the men eventually came ashore as well.

It takes an unfathomable amount of volunteer effort to keep Maine’s small communities going. I recall that the island of North Haven once added up the number of unpaid jobs that needed filling to keep the island’s institutions functioning. Between the select board, planning board, appeals board, school board, library, church, historical society, and all the other bodies that keep a town functioning, North Haven needed 90 citizens to volunteer for the crucial but often thankless work that makes community life possible. From among a population of fewer than 400 — half of whom were under 18 or too advanced in years to volunteer — many signed on for multiple roles.

During our defining months of winter, when it is difficult — and often unnerving — to venture out, when our family budgets are most strained and our stores of goodwill most depleted, we begin to work on priorities and resolutions for the new year. As darkness constrains our days and the nights seem endless, it becomes especially important to be neighborly, wish each other well, and do our small parts to support the institutions that help keep us all going. Maine’s smallest communities help shine a light on what we know in our bones to be true: when we lean in together, we cannot only survive but thrive.