Find me on Substack »
A Love Letter to Monhegan Island
Dear Monhegan Island,
Because a heart attack kept me from making my annual visit this autumn, it would far too easy for me to write that my heart aches or that I’m heartsick about missing you. But you, Monhegan, do not tolerate cliché. You defy predictability.
So I will not dwell on how I miss your migrating songbirds, which drop at dawn into the village and woods each fall. Yes, I long to see your warblers and vireos, your Monarchs and darners, your castaways, human or otherwise, who have no business being lost 10 miles out to sea.
But what I miss most is the Monhegan melting pot.
In the fog before dawn, when I would be walking your gravel roads, I miss the distant moan of gray seals and, breathing at my back, the roar and rumble of a pickup lacking its muffler. I miss the smell of run-over apples on the cul-de-sac near Lobster Cove and the scent of burning garbage near Fish Beach.
I miss the unkempt, weedy stacks of lobster traps and my evening pint of Trap Stacker Special Ale (8.9% ABV) at Monhegan Brewing Company. At that nano-brewery each evening, I miss the banter and laughter from the island’s year-rounders and from the visitors who’ve had one or two too many, all gathered besides Matt and Mary Weber’s flashy buoys and neatly stacked traps, all of us beneath Monarchs alighting to spend the night high in the spruces overlooking this outdoor saloon.
I miss Monhegan’s split personality — its most welcoming residents, who even after a long season of tourists blowing in and out like Nor’easters, greet me each year as if I belong, as well as the residents who, for ample good reason, need not be bothered with interlopers like me. I even miss not knowing whether to wave or smile at some of you; it reaffirms for me that Monhegan is not my home but rather an adventure in human character, defying convention or stereotype: a mix of artists and outlaws, retired professionals and hard drinkers, entrepreneurs and slackers — all packed onto an island barely a mile-and-a-half long and a half-mile wide. Now there’s a community I want to know.
And in my two decades of journeys to Monhegan, I have been lucky enough to come to know some of your wonderful people. This fall I miss Lisa Brackett’s smile and sandwiches, and, oh, how I miss her warm donuts. At the Black Duck, I miss Pam’s spunk and attitude and wisdom, not to mention her life-saving espressos, along with Barbara’s welcoming apartment (where Ruth and I stay) and her general view of island life — and beyond — from behind the counter. And I miss shooting the shit with Ray or whoever else sits there in the Black Duck, where I still learn so much about island life and its small-town politics.
I miss Donna’s irreverence, lovely smile, bird feeders and hair (this island’s second lighthouse). I miss drinking Scotch whisky with Jane and Kate on the porch of Pitkin Cottage, where each fall I rekindle my undying crush on Jane Curtis (if only I was 40 years older — Ruth understands, at least I think so). And just across the way, I miss Bill and Jackie at the Lupine Gallery, where they allow me to browse wistfully at paintings that make me weep, and where they embody this island’s artistic heritage and so much of its pride. Yet another expression of that pride is the Monhegan Museum of Art and History, where you can spend a lifetime and learn but a fraction of this island’s secrets.
At my longest-standing island refuge, Monhegan House, innkeepers Holden and Sue Nelson have welcomed me and my birding groups with so much comfort and skill and hospitality for so many years. They are business associates and friends. I miss Mike’s mastery in the kitchen (best food on Monhegan) and Nick’s transport services. I miss needling the yoga-and-knitting group each fall at Monhegan House, and talking baseball and life with Joey in the dining room.
Among the many other hard workers on this island, Angela and Travis, always so welcoming, manage to blend island civic pride, hard work and just the right amount of rebelliousness. Kathy, Sue, Ronnie and a few others have managed to coax an astonishing bounty of vegetables from this island — from granite to plate. John and Winnie, whether they’re being innkeepers or fishing for lobster, also exemplify the island’s work ethic — when they will slow down I do not know. Same goes for Kole and Tara, from whom I have also learned about everything from the lighthouse to the firehouse. And like the rest of the island, I will miss Victor Lord, a sage and leader on this island, whom I regret to say that I did not get to know nearly well enough.
I am certain that I’m omitting far too many other people here. For that I apologize. (Wait, Tobey, at long last I must get a massage!) And in some ways, this is a risky blog post on my part. It might appear that I know enough people and enough of Monhegan’s idiosyncrasies to feel a part of this island community. Yet I am only a small part of Monhegan’s wild nature and human nature. For the past two decades, I’ve come to you, Monhegan, for your birds and other flying things — and then I’ve left. Yet during those fleeting visits each year, I’ve come to appreciate most of all the Monhegan community. And I’ve not even mentioned your artists and birders, many of whom have sent me the warmest wishes for a recovery, nor have I forgotten Tilly (Tilly, please don’t kill birds!).
So forgive me, Monhegan, for what I assume or do not know about you. Monhegan Island, for all the pastoralism and iconoclasm it projects to the world, oddly enough does not always define itself. We do that. We define you. Perhaps unfairly, we visitors harbor our own notions of your turf and community. Maybe that explains some of Monhegan’s seduction — maybe that, along with the plain truth that this island is one of the most beautiful places on Planet Earth. I hope to discover more of your beauty and secrets next spring when the warblers fly and melting pot simmers.
Wistfully and with a healing heart,