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They didn't know they were lonely

Fellow here had an offer lately to go down the bay and live on Pound Island - to ''tend pound.'' A lobster pound is made by closing off a tidewater cove with a barrier that water can pass but lobsters can't. When the price is down the dealer dumps his lobsters in the cove and nurtures them until the price goes up, and he needs a caretaker-guardian. Not all Maine lobster pounds are on islands, but the keeper of one that is leads a lonely life and lacks certain comforts. This fellow didn't take the job, although it pays well, because his wife refused to participate. She wouldn't give up the sociability of town. Then, too, there's no electricity down there, and while bottled gas will provide heat, lights, and refrigeration, it won't run a TV or vacuum sweeper. The house is tight and comfortable - but ''Not for me!'' she said.

Which is interesting, because at about that same time another island, not far from Pound Island, changed hands, and the buyer passed over $700,000. Somebody likes the lonely life. It might be that the difference lies merely in the fact that the new owner will come just for July and August, with his yacht and retainers, which is not really like staying year-round.

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Affairs in Maine began out on those islands. Historians seem to feel only permanent settlements count, but a scrutiny of Maine's earliest days tells another story. The Europeans who came to catch and cure fish didn't know they were on lonely isles. They could look up any day except in fog and see what, from their point of view, was ''The Maine'' - the mainland. They saw no reason to go to the main, and for a long time they didn't. A few of them pulled out for the winter to return come spring with the run of shad. Mostly, they were Maine's first summercaters, a hardy lot willing to endure hardships for the prosperity of good fishing.

In 1622 the Pilgrims of Plymouth, in an extremity of hunger, sent a boat down to Maine's Damariscove Islands to cadge food from the fishermen. Their journal expresses their astonishment at the activity and tells about sails flitting among the islands as the Mainers came and went about their business - an evident prosperity that contrasted poignantly with the desperate situation down in Maffachuffetts. It was even so, and for a long time Maine lived on her islands.

Many of the larger islands came to have substantial villages. Long Island, just off Friendship Harbor, had some 40 locations in its three miles. Homes, school, church, cemetery, quarry, fish houses, boatyards, and at one time a small boardinghouse. Many islands had hotels and post offices. But in those days the islands faced the sea, and the mainland was always to people's backs. Traffic was by boat. And then after many years things changed, and the word ''off-islander'' was added to Maine speech. Island life ceased to be attractive, and the main offered new livelihoods.

Eleanor Mayo once told me of an experience with a pang. She was island born, and grew up during those last years of island life. There was one old-timer (accounted odd by some) who stayed on, but all others had moved. Eleanor found her career elsewhere. Now and then folks would boat out to the old island for a lobster picnic, but otherwise the old-timer had things to himself. Then came the island lovers from ''away'' who began buying islands and island property. These 400s and Blue Bookers are listed in the Non-Resident Tax List. Eleanor's island became exclusive.

It was on a Memorial Day recently that Eleanor took an armful of lilac blooms and outboarded to her native island to pay respects at the cemetery. Lovely day, with the fringe of wild roses about to burst into June - they waft their perfume to sea for miles. Here she had picked field strawberries. Hardhack and sweet fern now, but once that was her mother's posy bed. The tree was gone, but once there had been a tree with a swing. The hotel looked poorly. The cemetery was bushes, with moss-hung headstones. Eleanor was interrupted in her memories - a voice told her she trespassed and ordered her off her island.

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