By Philip Conkling
Photograph by Peter Ralston
From our June 2022 issue
As we anticipate the pleasures of summer, many of us are in the business of scrambling to turn the water and power back on, return the boats and floats to the water, and more — not just for ourselves, but also preparing to meet the complicated needs of people coming to experience the simple life in Maine.
For at least a century and a half, families here have been taking in guests who come looking for the qualities we tend to take for granted — clean air, the play of sunlight on the water, a chance to catch a real live fish. They used to be called “rusticators”; now, we call them “summer people” or people “from away.” When you’re in the summer-people business, as many Mainers are, you inevitably become a caretaker, asked to assist with arrangements and logistics. Visitors need canoes and kayaks for adventures, firewood and directions and shuttles, tips on restaurants and shopping. Generally speaking, the more remote the Maine setting, the more complicated the arrangements. And while local frustrations can rise with the demands of each summer’s influx, the caretakers tend to be happy to see fresh faces in Maine’s small towns after the long winter. We look forward to hearing new stories about life in the fast lane, if only to confirm our allegiances to our own communities, which somehow didn’t seem quite as wholesome in February and March.
Occasionally, our caretaking relationships are multigenerational. One such relationship was between the summer owners of Bear Island, off Little Deer Isle, in Penobscot Bay, and their caretaker, Jim Hardie, who spent 36 years tending to the property and needs of the extended Fuller family, including its most illustrious member, the multitalented futurist, Buckminster Fuller. Hardie fascinated Fuller. The theorist was especially taken by Hardie’s native intelligence, which enabled him to accomplish something few people can do on their own. Without any formal schooling, Hardie taught himself to read and write, and he exchanged letters with the Fuller family during the long, isolated island winters.
When Buckminster Fuller wanted to understand how Hardie had accomplished the intricate mental challenge, Hardie explained that his strategy was to listen to news stories on the radio, then find the same story written up in a local paper. By matching the sounds of names and places he recalled from the radio with words in the newspaper’s photo captions, he developed a phonetic lexicon. Hardie’s letters to the family were recently collected and published by a Fuller family member, part of the fourth generation to spend summers on Bear Island. They serve as a remarkable tribute to the desire — and the ability — of summer folk and caretakers to communicate across vastly different experiences, thanks to a shared love of place.
The state’s license plates started advertising Maine as “Vacationland” in 1936, and every year since, excepting periods of wars and pandemics, the number of summer people has increased — more people milling around, driving slowly down our back roads, admiring scenery or scouting real estate. Decades ago, a clear-eyed island sage reminded me to be patient, not to generalize summer folk as oblivious or ungracious, since fools can be found anywhere. Or, in his wonderful, winking phrase, “Summah people, some ahn’t.”