In areas as defined as islands (especially when the population is small) all residents—no matter how ornery, outrageous or odd—are woven into the community. People greet one another on the street; they know what's going on in each others' lives, and help their neighbors. The metaphor of community as a kind of fabric is well worn, but most places don’t have fluttering surf hems—the isolation of islands, relative as it may be, sets their populations literally apart. You either live on the island, or you’re on the other side of the moat.
I’ve interviewed and consulted with hundreds of people of all stripes in my many years on islands: preachers and preservationists (and even former presidents), farmers and divers, artists and musicians, chefs and rangers, shipwrights and horse carriage drivers…the list goes on. There are far too many storytellers to quote here, but consider the following excerpts as a character quilt—as patches of the conversations I’ve held on 60+ islands across the country.
From left to right: Ron Taylor, State Park Ranger | Antelope Island, Utah; Rob Thornber, Wood Turner | Orcas Island, Washington; Valerie Rupp, Lifelong Islander | Lummi Island, Washington; Colette Nelson, Chef, Ludvig's Bistro | Baranof Island, Alaska
Burgess Bauder, Veterinarian and Commercial Diver | Baranof Island, Alaska
“I dropped into the pokey thing on the Bible Belt’s buckle when I went to Texas A & M to study veterinary medicine. I couldn’t adapt. I had issues with the dress code—I wasn’t going to wear a goddam tie. But worse, I was inflicting discomfort on animals through the research rather than helping them. Working on the ducks broke my heart because I relate to them: calm above the surface, but paddling away beneath. I hightailed it to Sitka, even though I’d only been to Alaska once before. I was a dogcatcher for about six months before I started helping the animals. Now I’m a clinician: I listen, look, feel, smell. I’ll be damned if I’ll taste—although it could lead to definitive diagnoses.”
Dan Clements, Diver | Puget Sound, Washington
"Word got out that a whale was beached just below our house. At first, a small group of us including a NOAA team took turns with buckets of water, keeping him cool and hydrated, all the while watched by this massive immobilized creature. Then a crowd started to gather, including folks in small boats. What happened next was amazing: people came looking for a circus type event or just a photo op, but when they got within about ten feet of the whale, you could see a switch come on and watch their entire demeanor change. Everyone wanted to know what they could do to help; the compassion was wonderful. To this day I think our cetacean relative was giving off some kind of distress signal that reached out to people, most of whom had never been in close contact with wild animals, in a way that made them all want to comfort and support him. It worked: the whale eventually freed himself and swam off."
Captain William Kemp, Fourth-generation Shrimper | Tybee Island, Georgia
“When you’re seven or eight miles out at sea during a thunderstorm, lightning is popping the water all around you. It sounds like an explosion when it hits the surface…then water glows orange. It sort of sounds like somebody’s welding, frying the water. It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. All the rig metals and antennas attract the bolts—they can knock out electronics, depth finders and the radio. Then you’re back in time with fishermen from hundreds of years ago, battling it out, man against the water to see who wins.”
Roger Pinckney XI, Author and Historian | Daufuskie Island, South Carolina
"Root medicine on Daufuskie and voodoo in New Orleans share African roots—both are hybrids of Old and New World beliefs. Where the slaves met the Jesuits, they took the truth they already knew and combined it with Catholicism. Where they met the Baptist and Methodist missionaries, it was the native religion combined with Protestantism. That's why New Orleans voodoo is all saints, candles, incense and parades, while Gullah rootwork is private and austere. The Church was more accepting of these practices while the Protestants in the New World were horrified and attempted—most unsuccessfully—to suppress it."
Livingston Taylor, Singer-Songwriter | Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Throughout Taylor’s childhood, the Vineyard’s beaches provided endless hours of entertainment. Surf-tumbled stones became projectiles to hurl from catapults he built along with his siblings Alex, James, Hugh and Kate. Their driftwood forts faced down the tide, and Taylor’s little fiberglass boat puttered along as he sang against the drone of the 3-horse-power engine. “I’d experiment with how different tonalities felt, going up a quarter or half tone or octave as I motored around,” he recalls, “and I’d listen to the surf at night, to how the rhythmic and also irregular music of it punctuated the silence. Birds, wind and the sea are basic components of my musical development.”