The Lay of the Land
Off the shores of Maine, across from Northeast Harbor, lies Little Cranberry Island. Little Cranberry Island houses the quintessential “small town New England” Village of Islesford (pronounced I-uls-ferd). The island has a 3-mile diameter, which basically means when you run in the morning, you’re doing laps around the natural Islesford track with the other runners. It also means when you stroll down the street in summer, chatting with friends, the houses have ears. I mean to say that the windows and screened-in porches are open to carry in the choruses of gossip. It is a very small town.
The local store also serves as the post office, the beer distributer (six-packs,) and the wine store. On the day I went in, there was no charge for my cup of coffee. Just for the quart of milk.
The mini-golf sits across from the church, and uses the honor system to collect funds for the charity of choice for the summer:
The Islesford Glue
Now, this is not Grovers Corners. This is a town that encourages its children to get out and explore the world, having every confidence that summer after summer, and in some cases, year after year the children will return to the utopia of Islesford. And here’s a small list detailing why:
- The marsh in the morning on your run or walk
- The meeting of people along the way to the marsh
- Persistent conversation if you want it
- Peace and quiet if you want it
- A safe haven for your dogs to play and swim
- Discussing who’s done what with their house
- What the restaurant is serving this year (there’s only one restaurant on the island)
- The history of who lived where and when
- Rehashing summers past
A Stunning Sunset
View it right from either your deck or your neighbor’s. It’s the kind of town where there are daily invites for the sustenance that brings most people together: food and drinks. On that note, in Islesford, in the words of Homer Simpson, alcohol is surely “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
Watching the Ships Roll In
Most mornings you can take your iced coffee on the deck after your morning run where you can process the gossip you picked up along the way, plan your day, watch the boats come in and reflect on how lucky you are to be on Little Cranberry Island for one more day.
I happen to visit in August of 2013, and happen to be there on August 28th, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. On our morning run, we ran into Suzie and Grizzly, her sweet black lab /pittbull mix pictured playing in the sea above. Suzie gave us the day’s agenda which included an impromptu reading of MLK’s speech by Ashley Bryan in the Neighborhood House. Ashley Bryan is one of the 2 local artists on the island, who happens to be black. I had heard about Ashley at dinner the night before. The man is 90 years old, stormed the beaches of Omaha in WWII, returned to the US and pursued his art and education. He became a painter and a professor at Dartmouth, had a studio in the Bronx. Ashley rented and ultimately bought a house in Islesford where he summered, until he retired here.
Very rarely would I interrupt a run for anything short of having to resuscitate someone I pass along the way (or maybe to pet a very cute dog), but I couldn’t wait for this event on the morning agenda! Ashley led the local children in a reading of MLK’s entire speech. I can’t really convey how special those moments were – seeing the Neighborhood House fill with most of the people who were on the Island at that moment, hearing Ashley’s voice echoing MLK’s in chastising our country for coming up short on the promissory note called the constitution, and hearing the children say those powerful words “Let freedom ring….” There was not a dry eye in the house.
I had the chance to meet Ashley about a half hour before this special event. He was standing outside the Neighborhood house, greeting his neighbors like they were family coming home from time abroad. Ashley welcomed me into his arms and his heart in the same manner. He’s the kind of person you can tell from the first 10 seconds in meeting him, you can trust your instinct that this is a good man. And he makes you want to be a better person, to reach your full potential. In his retirement from teaching at the University, Ashley continues to produce works of art – paintings, stained glass made from local sea glass, as well as teaches workshops, writes books and teaches the kids. In fact if you visit the Islesford website, one of the first pics you see is Ashley instructing a student in his class on the dock. Ashley Bryan is one of those special people, and I knew I had to hear more from him.
Later that afternoon my friend Rosie, one of Ashley’s surrogate daughters on the island, took me to his house. This afternoon visit changed my life. As in, I know life will be a little bit different now that I’ve met Ashley, seen his work, and talked with him about art and life. When we walked in Ashley was having tea and snacks with friends, but he interrupted his time with old friends to show this new friend around. We spent well over an hour touring his home, talking about his canvasses, his books, his stained glass and his marionettes. Up to then, I found all puppetry (much like magic) creepy and avoided it at all costs. But Ashley showed me a different side of puppetry. He described the details of his marionette composition (Rosie even remembered one from her childhood) and showed me the beauty in their movement and how that added so much to stories.
Ashley Bryan is an inspiration, an educator, a teacher and a guide in many ways. I will take his inspiration with me on my journeys. He even guided me to where we should take a picture so that I can always look back at this visit, nestled in the midst of his toys from around the world:
Visiting Maine was a special trip on many levels. Islesford surely falls into my “must come back here” category. But meeting and chatting with Ashley Bryan made that particular trip one for the books.