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Return to an island

To come off-season to a Maine island that one has known in summer is to find everything the same and yet everything strangely transformed by time and the weather. It is barely spring and the people and the land are in a changeable, expectant mood. Only the sea, except in the small covers and inlets where the ice lingers, seems not to know or care what the season may be. It is as gray now as in summer when it lies under a week- lon fog, and yesterday it was blue enough to tempt the unwary sailor upon its depths.

At the inn where I stay, the "unknown inn" about which I have written in the past, Mrs. M. keeps a faithful vigil by the radio to alert the few guests to impending meteorological changes. Even if she were less quick with the news -- warnings of gales, of mini- hurricanes and flash floods -- I would be prepared to face the worst, for my life has telephoned from New York with ominous reports. I am to be "careful" -- whatever that means.

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The violent alternations are less taxing on this island than might have been supposed, or else people here are more apt to take them in their stride than elsewhere. Yet it is all wonderful and dazzling enough, with sheets of rain setting up Niagaras in the woods and along the roads, first freezing solid and then letting go with a rush. For a few days it seems as if all creation were crying with the prophet Isaiah: "Behold, I am doing a new thing."

Everyone agrees it has been a good winter. As one friend explained to me, she likes snow, but she didn't really miss it. Another has found pleasure in never using quite enough heat to be comfortable -- though she admits that now spring is in view she will be extravagant. At the desk in the town library I remarked on a fine branch of an apple tree in bloom. It had been brought indoors and "forced," I was told. But the people don't need to get hurried along in this way. They just go about at their ordinary pace until somehow, deep inside, their natures put forth once more the clemencies of a warming season

One islander is not seen on the street of the mostly boarded-up town. As a matter of fact, she is not often seen even at best. She lives apart, given to long researches and lonely meditations, and is known only by the exquisite writings that issue periodically from her vine-covered house. I would normally not dream of mentioning her name or referring to her whereabouts for no one so respects the privacy of another as a Maine islander. But Marguerite Yourcenar has recently seen the literary world making a trail to her door, as she was elected the first woman to be a member of the French Academy in the three hundred years of its history. Forty members -- forty so-called immortals -- and now one of them lives on this remote island, in a town of approximately three hundred and eighty souls!

But Mme. Yourcenar, as I was saying, is not even glimpsed these March days. Characteristically, she is off to study some facet of human existence on a southern continent, unreachable, for all the world as if election to the Academy were one of the normal events of a lifetime.

As for myself, I have my own mission that brings me to this outpost so unseasonably. I am a printer by avocation. Like the craftsmem of earlier centuries I set the small, intractable pieces of lead by hand, and the impressions, glowing on handmade paper, come off the press one by one. To print in this manner is to risk being seized by an obsession and to have one's whole life monopolized by the quest for perfection. Therefore I restrict my printing to the summer months, and even then to days when fog or storms at sea make sailing a dubious pleasure.

Some chores to be done necessitated opening the printing house this week in March. For a day or so the work went ill. I slid upon a cement floor that had become coated with ice; I struggled with machines that had been doused with oil. But the worst is the disposition of hand and eye to lose, without constant practice and use, the exactitude essential to the art. An Elzivir or a Benjamin Franklin would have been clumsy in my circumstances, I told myself and looking out of the befogged window of my printinghouse, toward the garden that lay under a protective blanket of pine boughs, I dared to hope that when I returned in June my senses would have been quickened and made response. A man's hand, no less than the stem of a flower, waits to feel the sap rising.


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