FLOTSAM + JETSAM
MATINICUS ISLAND, NOV. 2017
We have flown in for the day to this small island, and the pilot informs us that should we need a ride back to Owls Head sooner or later than the time we have agreed upon, we need simply call them from the telephone box next to the dirt airstrip or from the church a few hundred feet up the road. The pilot asks again to make sure that we have brought water and a snack since there are no stores out here.
Naturally, this all seems terribly exciting. I imagine dire, non-religious scenarios in which Sal and I might need to make an emergency call from a church. A call like a prayer, asking for someone to swoop down from the sky and pluck us off the beach. I have heard exactly one story about Matinicus Island, the same story everyone else has heard; about a lobstering dispute, a gun, and some questionable conflict resolution skills. The story is easily Googled, and it litters Matinicus's reputation like unwanted debris. I can imagine that the handful of people who live here year-round are sick of it.
The tree-lined road that slices the island in half belies our geographical position twenty-two miles off the Maine coast, and if not for the tops of the pines that are blown out to sharp points from the salty, ocean wind, and the eerie autumn silence, we could be in any bucolic, coastal neighborhood on the mainland. This entire island is only 2 miles long, and one of the first buildings we meet is the church, its white exterior indeed marked by a blue telephone sign. The building is silent and empty, but the door swings open to reveal a small group of pews as well as a cross made out of flotsam and jetsam with a plaque under it which reads:
"We are all found objects drifted here
To become something better, something more."
Sal has a connection here on the island, a friend of the family who has an old house not far from here. She has been kind enough to let us use it as something of a base though it has been shut down for the winter. Guided by written instructions, we dig around for quite some time to find a hidden key. We not so much open the house as unfurl it, opening a time capsule of ephemera, keepsakes and utility items within its walls. Calendars line nooks and read ancient dates, a faded print of a surly George Washington stares at us as we carefully take it all in and marvel at the unbelievable amounts of arranged details; collections of tiny seashells and handwritten valentines; a no-bullshit, honest-to-god organ; delicate collections of china cups; photos from every decade of the last century lining every available space on the wall. There are globes and Baedekers, and hand-printed wallpaper featuring vintage airplanes artfully peeled by time. There are so many things worth admiring that had you walked into a large, fully stocked antique store, you would be hard pressed to find a more eclectic spread of beloved things simply curated by the passing of time. Today, in an age where we can easily live happily with nothing -- where any odd item we might need is conveniently located at a local store -- Sal and I realize that this isolated island's life speaks to a reality where anything may become useful. Keepsakes take on additional value as an emotional connection to the greater world at large and it seems that mementos -- imbued with memory and nostalgia -- can also provide a tether to the mainland.
No sooner have we discussed this between ourselves than we hear someone drive up outside. We haven't seen or heard a living soul since we got here, and we are somewhat dumbfounded that anyone would know we are here. It seems that a friend of the homeowner, seeing that the house has some activity, has hoped to find her friend, and finds us instead. Friendly and warm, she is soon joined by another woman in another car who has stopped to see what all the fuss is about and it briefly occurs to me that we are now literally talking to something like 8% of the poulation.
We learn, among other things, that the recycling station is the place to be today. Everyone swings by there on Saturday mornings to sort the garbage to be taken back to the mainland. Money earned from bottles and cans will be put away to buy something for the community.
"Not everyone's fully onboard with the whole recycling thing, but they're getting there," they assure us.
It seems that if there are things no longer worth having, someone else might need them. And if they have lost their use or are straight-up garbage, they leave the island on the boat. There is no place here for the things that no one wants or needs or loves. I vaguely remember that the difference between flotsam and jetsam is that flotsam is the unintentional waste from a shipwreck and that jetsam is the debris which results from deliberately lightening a load from a ship to save it.
The women give us directions to South Sandy Beach and they are as vague as you'd expect from a place where the ocean is 10 minutes in any given direction. Go down as far as you can see, they tell us, and you will find a path through the field where the road splits. Sal and I pass a small school house, a cemetery full of both repeating family names and anonymous headstones, and we explore a tiny library the size of a small shed. We find the path and follow its snaking route through the tall grasses and past old pines tangled in the detritus of spidery moss, still somewhat lush in the unseasonably warm November air.
We beachcomb for a good while, focused intently on discovering the relics that will catch our eye and be suitable keepsakes for us. The even smaller island of Tenpound to the southeast seems close enough to swim to from where we stand, foraging on the sand bank. I find a small piece of whale bone and a serpetine piece of dried bladder wrack. Sal finds two rocks that are covered with intricate and delicate knit patterns of dried sediment. For lack of anything else to take home with us, we pocket these mementos and imbue them with memory and nostalgia from this particular island. Maybe they will tether us to this place somehow. At home on the mainland maybe they will become something better, something more.