This is one of the landscapes I love most in the world.
I was born in Maine, though I only lived the first year of my life there. Not enough time to leave a conscious connection to the land. And I’m far from the only tourist to feel drawn to the waves stroking the granite coast, to wonder if perhaps life would be better there than it is at home, wherever home happens to be.
I love my home too. I love the wood frogs in the vernal pools, and the dead leaves strewn over the forest floor in the fall. I love the texture of the light in late summer, the sound of the insects continuing to call as the birds lose their colors and prepare to fly away. I love the stone walls, and the abandoned apple trees forgotten by all but the deer and the porcupines and the yellowjackets. My heart also belongs here.
Still, there is something in Maine that speaks to me in language I’ve heard nowhere else. It is the sound of the waves, yes, but also the sound of bare feet on stone, of wind through shortened coastal pines. It is the smell of rockweed when you lift it up to look for crabs when the tide is out, and the sound of a porpoise breathing just off the rocks where you sit.
We’ve returned to this island to hike year after year. There is a sense, now, that time has been folded and layered like a pastry for us. That around the corner of the trail, beyond my line of sight, Big Kid and Small One are running along, just six and three years old, while their seventeen and fourteen year old versions stroll beside me. We walk among the roots of the trees, and on the stone that pushes up through the soil everywhere. For someone like me, who makes her way through life with a mind that is never fully quiet, there is something magical in this stone. A kind of respite, an acknowledgment that the constant noise is actually temporary. That this stone will outlast me and everyone I love, that this stone can hear everything within me and simply absorb it into silence.
It is where I find peace.
At the risk of telling the same story twice, this is the island where I found a message in a bottle one year. It was a hard summer, and it was not a message I wanted to find, but one does not ignore those sealed bottles one finds left behind by the tide. It carried the story of a woman who had recently died of cancer after a late diagnosis and a relatively short illness. Please, the writer asked, please always remember that you can’t know what will happen in life and please live fully. For someone like me, someone who struggles constantly with the idea that there is nothing certain or safe in life, it felt like confirmation of my fears. It was very hard to read, and I thought perhaps it was meant for someone else to find.
There is a stone at the entrance to the trail. This is plaque on it:
I know nothing of J.T.’s story, beyond how short it was. I like to imagine that he had family who loved him, or friends, or both, and that they come to walk the island and think of him still, sixteen years later. I imagine that there are spaces between the loss now, where it is possible to walk and feel that love, not only the sorrow. I also think of him while there, of who he might have been. I’m in a different place than when I stopped for the bottle on the shore. I understand much more clearly how those bottles we find are, more often then not, a request for us to be witnesses to the lives of others. Please, the note might have said instead, please know that we did not have enough time, and that I wish more than anything that we could have had more. Please tell me her life will not be forgotten.
This year a dead seal lay at the end of the shoreline. The carcass had been there for days, I would guess, the smell discouraging any close examination. Small One studied it anyway, looking for clues to its demise. I focused on its teeth, large and doglike. We found a dead seal once on the Cape, a much fresher one. It had clearly been attacked by a shark. I touched a patch of its fur, so much softer than I could have imagined. This body, though, I had no desire to approach. It will take time for it to break down, but it will be thoroughly absorbed by the island by the time we visit next. Nothing but a few bones, perhaps. Maybe not even that.
We are here, until we are not. We are laughter and stubbed toes, deep breaths of salt air and skin chilled by cold water. We are starlight on the ocean, sunlight through the leaves. We are memories held by loved ones that will last no longer than those brief human lifespans. We’ve been taught that by grabbing, clutching, crushing, we will somehow extend our lives into something greater. It is a lie. We extend ourselves only the length of love, only the distance our connections can reach.
What we are is here. What we are is now. What we can become depends entirely on how we care for one another.