With photographs by David Graham.
In a nutshell:
From 1949 to the 1980s, married couple Art and Nan Kellam lived on a small island off the coast of Maine called Placentia. Though they occasionally entertained visitors and friends, or traveled by dory to nearby Mount Desert Island for supplies, they spent most of their lives with only each other for company – and a couple of cats.
Peter Blanchard III became friends with Nan Kellam a few years after Art’s death. The couple had decided to donate the island to the Maine Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) after their deaths, and Peter Blanchard III met Nan in his role as a volunteer for the Maine Chapter of TNC. In We Were an Island, he tells the story of this couple and the unusual life they chose. He extensively incorporates Nan’s diary and the couple’s other writings.
When I was very young, my family lived in Bass Harbor, Maine, which is on the “quiet side” of Mount Desert Island. We could walk down the road from our house to Bass Harbor Light. Elementary school field trips included excursions into Acadia National Park. I imprinted on the landscape, like birds do after hatching. After we moved away to central Maine, trips back to the coast served to encourage fantasies of lighthousekeeping or of living on one of the smaller islands, reachable only by boat.
I heard of this book years ago after a blogger had picked it up at a BEA conference. Once I realized the book was about “my” corner of the world, I knew I had to read it. Here was a couple that didn’t just idly imagine living on an island; they planned for it and accomplished it. We even overlapped our residencies in that same corner of the world. Though my parents don’t recall hearing of the reclusive couple, the Kellams shopped at Reed’s General Store in Bass Harbor just as our family did. I must have seen their island – Placentia – in the distance while playing among the rocks and tidepools below Bass Harbor Light.
Aside from the personal connections, the book is an intriguing, respectful portrait of Art and Nan Kellam. Blanchard wisely chooses not to order the book chronologically. Though the first couple chapters are about the beginning of the Kellams’ life on Placentia, subsequent chapters are thematically driven: one chapter covers Placentia’s history and the Kellams’ discovery of it; another chapter describes their relationship with local Mainers.
Before their move to Placentia, Art and Nan lived in California. Art worked for Lockheed as an engineer focused on the operation of military aircraft. During World War II, they were already scouting for an island to buy, and in 1949, they moved from California to Placentia and lived there for the remainder of their lives together. (After Art’s death, Nan lived a couple of years alone on the island, but eventually moved to a senior living home on Mount Desert Island.)
In their writings, Nan and Art referred to themselves as the “Bears” and developed their own vocabulary and names (a glossary is included in the back of the book to translate terms used in Nan’s diary excerpts). Though rumors abounded among locals as to the reasons for the Kellams’ isolated lifestyle (including a rumor that Art had worked on the Manhattan Project), they were quite clear in their writings about their motivations. Blanchard sums it up: “freedom from material things; freedom from dependence on technology; independence from others and their expectations; a closer rapport with Nature; development of self-reliance; and a better perspective on oneself, on marriage and ultimately on life’s meaning.”
I cannot imagine wanting to live in only one person’s company for most of your life. At times, I found the insularity of the Kellams’ life to be off-putting. I mean, as an introvert, it sounds splendid to go to an island for a while, as a retreat of some kind, but I also find a lot of value to life in a community. My favorite parts of the book involved the Kellams’ interactions with other people: how fishermen would offer to tow the couple’s dory on bad weather crossings; their signal arrangement with the residents of the nearby Gotts islands; their friendships with both year-rounders and summer people alike.
We Were An Island includes beautiful photos of Placentia as well as archival photos of the Kellams and their home. I found some of the chapters a little slower-going than others, but I enjoyed the book overall. I would recommend it to anyone who loves the coast and islands of Maine or anyone who has ever imagined living on an island.