Owning an Island

You take the Laura B from Port Clyde, as if you were going out to Monhegan, but five miles out, your captain backs the boat into a tiny wharf off an island named Allen, in a narrow cut between it and Benner Island, dodging some semi-permanent moorings. You’ve arrived at what was once the summer home of Betsy Wyeth, wife of Andrew, daughter-in-law of N.C. Wyeth, and mother of Jamie.

Betsy, who died in 2020 at the age of 98, purchased 500-acre Allen Island in 1979, then Benner in 1990. She spent summers here, sometimes with Andrew, sometimes not.

Much is made of the fact that the Wyeths were not the “typical” summer people, whatever that means in an age when people work remotely and the season extends from Mother’s Day to Thanksgiving. Betsy did create a lobstering wharf on Allen, which is still in use today. She also expended a great deal of money and effort on restoring the buildings found on the island, creating splendid gardens and pastures, dug freshwater ponds. And she was notoriously protective of her solitude on both Allen and Benner, where she lived. (Not all Betsy’s impulses were pro-preservation. She allegedly built a long straight road the length of Allen so she could drive her Mini from one end to the other.)

The islands were originally “owned” by the Abenaki. A British explorer landed on the island in 1605, and a cross with his name commemorates the site of one of the first Anglican church services in North America. Allen Island supported a vibrant fishing community for many years, until the resident population declined.

In 2022, Colby College acquired the islands. I got to visit them a couple of months ago, and listen to the college’s Island Fellows talk about their work. Vaults for Andrew’s paintings are now laboratory space for trematode research, and while I’m not completely sure what they are, they’re not as cute as the puffins. Another researcher is cataloguing the soundscapes of the wind and the water. But since the Gulf of Maine is warming so rapidly, Allen Island is a useful place for environmental research.

While I appreciate Betsy’s preservation instincts, something in me quails at the notion that this beautiful land, the views, the harbors, were the sole preserve of one small privileged family for so long. It pleases me that the arc of Allen Island’s history is bending back to a communal respect for its possibilities, not a restrictive ownership. And what makes me struggle a bit less with the notion of private ownership is that you cannot truly own an island, can you? Long after you’re gone, the granite, the trees, the birds, the wind, and the water, abide.

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