MONHEGAN, Maine -- This island is all nook and cranny: Black rock piled against pounding surf. Mud-choked trails that lead to Atlantic overlooks, or to shingled cottages tucked in coves. Fairy houses huddled beneath tall pines.
An outsider quickly feels the island's intimacy. Nature's whole reduces, with even a bit of observation, to specific parts: That bobbing bird is a duck; the duck is an eider . That sunken shell holds a snail; the snail is a common periwinkle . There, in the bending alder branches, perch so many migrating warblers, including the northern parula , the black-throated green, and the bay-breasted .
Monhegan's many layers have long inspired creative minds at escape, from plein air painters to poets. During a week of high sky and lazy breeze in late May, six young women, soon-to-graduate seniors from South Hamilton's Pingree School , came to craft their own worlds from Maine terrain and imagination embraced. The students, guided by Pingree teachers Ailsa Steinert and Ed Kloman and Jay Esty, a timber-frame carpenter who once taught at the school , settled in cottages, hiked, and then settled some more, notebooks and pens in hand.
The teachers encouraged the reading of "Landscape and Narrative," an essay by Barry Lopez . In describing what he calls the "exterior landscape," Lopez takes details from a Southwest setting, swapping warbler for sparrow, alder for paloverde bush. But his point, that the external landscape is the one we see and sense, holds at the outer edge of Down East.
"One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it," Lopez writes, "but by perceiving the relationships in it -- like that between the sparrow and the twig."
That was one goal: Take the students away from the frenetic pace of lives about to turn inside-out with graduation to consider calmly a natural world away from home. Steinert and Esty have led the course in years past in the land-locked Adirondacks and in coastal Schoodic , farther Down East from Monhegan. This year, Esty invited me to join them.
When we arrived on the ferry from Port Clyde the week before Memorial Day, Monhegan was in transition. The island's six-month lobster season was days from ending. Boats were hauling in thousands of lobster pots, and Shermie Stanley , who operates a fish shack, had large, hard-shelled lobsters (excellent steamed over a bed of rockweed and ale) for sale on short notice. Hotel staff members were unloading detergents and food. The earliest of the summer residents were carting lamps and lumber for cottages tended through generations.
Our days held time for exploration, with hikes to spot harbor seals giving the name to Seal Ledges, to scale the granitic heights of Gull Rock , and to plumb the thriving tide pools of Lobster Cove , not far from the rusted wreck of the D.T. Sheridan, a steel tug that washed onto the rocks in 1948 .
With wildlife books in hand, the students identified the details at their feet. The seaweed is rockweed and sugar kelp . Next to the common periwinkles lurks a green sea urchin .
"A writerly reminder," Esty called out while standing on the rocks of Lobster Cove. "It's worth taking a moment to contemplate the relationships your species may enjoy in this pool with other species. Why is it here?"
There was, though, a deeper goal: To tempt young writers to consider what Lopez calls the "interior landscape."
It is, Lopez writes, "a kind of projection within a person of a part of the exterior landscape. . . . The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes."
On the second afternoon of their visit, the students gathered on a pine platform not far from Dead Man's Cove , and Steinert, a 41-year veteran of Pingree and a published poet, read one line from Amy Clampitt's "Low Tide at Schoodic":
Force, just here, rolls up pomaded into vast blue curls, fit for the sun king.
She asked each student to use that line as a starting point for a series of short pieces, with each piece building on a particularly evocative line taken from the one before. There were no other rules. That evening, beneath kerosene lamps and alongside a fire, the students read.
Excerpt one, from Kara Seigal : "That force then glides on past egotism, past power, past grasping hands, and into the mouth of an elderly man. His wrinkled hands weren't grasping for anything, but instead curled up like the shape of an unborn child and situated themselves into creased navy blue pockets. . . ."
Excerpt two, from Barbara Santos : " . . . Baseball calls for unique athleticism that one cannot translate. Being able to throw a ball seven different ways without a noticeable change in motion. Being able to track a fly ball knowing that the field will end with a painful, unforgiving wall. Being a catcher."
Excerpt three, from Hilary Wallis : " . . . The winds, the tides, nothing is absolute. A lesson in early childhood, crouched and broken. Things die, she said. My grandmother told me it was stupid to be sad. Her mother was dead. I would see mine in the morning. She wasn't crying, was she?"
The next day, the students would wander off for an exercise in which they were to consider "home landscape." Each writer's thoughts would be inspired as much by memory and emotion as Monhegan's physical setting. But it was on the first afternoon, after unpacking a bit and hiking wooded Burnt Head Trail to the east side of Monhegan, that the most direct connection to this place was made.
"Pick an object, a part of an object, a something visual," Esty said. "Then write about it descriptively."
After five minutes, Esty would whistle, and the students were to write "associatively" about the same object. The idea, Esty said, was to merge these two landscapes: the descriptive exterior, and the associative interior.
"It's an opportunity for metaphor and symbolism," Esty said, "for wanderings of the imagination."
I walked to a granite slab at the edge of the sea and wrote quickly, a jumble of images and ideas later sorted in the comfort of a cottage:
"How close to get to this chute of froth and foam?
Between crashing waves, it is a gentle pool, clear, cool water, either still, or fleeing. Lichen 12 inches beneath the surface sits behind a frame of glass.
Arriving water often sneaks and curls into this V-shaped bowl of black rock, like a cat into a lap. Purring. Pawing toward the back, gently. Then it comes with force, a lion bluff-charging, withdrawing, then charging again, meaning it this time. It fills the bowl to the top, a tub measuring 10 feet across, depths and currents unknown.
I want to slide down into it, to sit and be washed, watered, in its newness. But I know that it also delivers cold and chaos. That it, too, is caught between one world and another. The sun beats hot on my shoulder. That is because I am dry.
I think of difference. Of water and rock. Of collision and coexistence. What do I fear? What do I love enough to struggle for, surging forward again and again?
Then I am so far from this, kneeling in a patch of dirt, 3 feet by 15. The dirt is cold and clumpy. I scoop a hole, and my son sets in a small plant of acorn squash. My daughter squats down with us, and our fingers push and pat the soil around.
It is already raining."
Tom Haines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.