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The islanders

Off the coast of Maine where I live there are a number of small islands, some of them occupied only by summer sojourners, some inhabited the year round. The latter are now fewer in number than used to be the case. On one such island the living room of a charming house shows the marks of having been once a post office. The grill from which the postmistress smiled out (I assume she was a postmistress, while the men tended to the farming and fishing) is untouched; but nowadays the owners must go ashore for their mail.

Here and there a schoolhouse may be found, abandoned alike by pupils and by their hardy teachers and with wild roses growing up to the door. The elementary levels of education may still be pursued on the island - and pursued very well, I am sure; but the youth of high school age is shipped inland where he boards for a fee with some willing mainlander. I am familiar with at least one instance where the yearly arrival of such a wandering scholar has saved a household from loneliness and desolation.

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One cannot land on one of these islands without being immediately aware of a difference in scale, in vegetation, indeed a difference in the very air and light. I suppose that elsewhere the sea dandelion and the sea pea may be found, but nowhere blooming with the same glorious hardihood. Island houses keep the stark form and white-clapboard facades of their mainland cousins, but they are smaller. Their subtly diminished size seems to speak of the hard labor with which they were built - of the difficulty of transporting to this remote place the timbers, the bricks, the small panes of glass through which men and women have surveyed sun or storm for generations.

The other day my wife and I sailed out to one of these islands to participate in what had been described as a picnic. The airs were light but abeam, and we made our landfall in less than an hour. We dropped anchor in a sheltered cove and drew up the dinghy upon the rocks. Our friends lived in a relatively large house, which had once been a summer hotel of sorts and in certain of its features - such as numbers upon the bedroom doors stretching down the second-floor corridor - still bore the marks of its former use.

High upon the roof, overlooking the bays and mountains, are two large dormers. It had long pleased me to think that from one an artist looked out, drawing her inspiration from a scene which on some days may have included my small craft, while behind the other a noted Renaissance scholar worked through long hours translating passages of Erasmus from the original Latin. On the wide porch characteristic of such a building a score of friends now gathered, some having come, like ourselves, by sailboat; others by the ferry that makes regular but infrequent passages.

It had been suggested that we each bring our own lunch. Instead of the jelly and peanut butter sandwiches which I had half expected, there were placed one by one upon the table an assemblage of delicacies that formed a veritable feast. The guests had brought salads and cakes, or stuffed fig leaves, rare cheeses, or raspberries freshly picked. Upon these we lunched, while the hours slipped away in conversation and the radiance of the summer afternoon shed its benison on the isolated scene.

Sailing homeward, we heard the marine radio in the cabin below predicting rain and fog for the next day. But it did not seem to matter - we had had our hour in the sun. At evening my mind went back to the island, to its hospitable inhabitants, to the events of the day. We had been given immeasurable gifts - a glimpse into that island life, a moment of sharing in a unique existence. If we had brought stores not readily obtainable, that seemed at least a happy exchange. Perhaps a goodly portion remained over; perhaps they were multiplied like the fishes of old.

Are we not all islanders, I thought at the last - all dwelling somewhat apart in a small world not of our making, all rejoicing to greet the bidden guest, all (if we are fortunate) recipients of a bounty beyond our merits? In return, we give the best of ourselves. That may be much - if we be an artist or a Renaissance scholar!

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