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Chapter One: LOBSTERS
In terms of status, the lobster has come a long way. Homarus americanus, or the Maine lobster, ascended from humble fare to fodder fit for royal banquets in a relatively short one hundred years, a true success story. Prior to the nineteenth century, only widows, orphans, and servants ate lobster. And in some parts of New England, serving lobster to prison inmates more than once a week was forbidden by law, as doing so was considered cruel and unusual punishment.
Lobsters are Arthropoda, the phylum whose membership includes insects and spiders. Although lobsters are highly unsightly, the sweet, salty, sensual delight of a claw dipped into drawn butter more than compensates for the lobster's cockroachlike appearance and the work involved in extracting meat from shell. Yet in spite of prestige and high standing, the fishermen of Isle Au Haut still refer to them as "bugs."
Isle Au Haut (pronounced I-LA-HOE) is a small inhabited island off the coast of Maine in an area regarded as "the lobster capital of the world," Penobscot Bay. In a lobster fishing community such as Isle Au Haut, the calendar year can be best described as a two-season system: the lobster season and the off-season. Because this is true of all fishing communities up and down the coast, and because residents rarely refer to their home by name, Isle Au Haut will be referred to throughout this book as simply "the Island."
Friends fear the exploitation of our Island, and worry that any mention of its name will result in increased traffic to our precious and quiet rock. However, many travel articles in magazines and newspapers (not to mention television features) have run over the years, all touting the wonders of various aspects of life and events on Isle Au Haut, and all this attention has thankfully failed to transform u into the dreaded Coney Island. So I suppose I should be flattered that my friends think it possible that my readership might do just that. Oh, I admit that years ago, when I read a Parade magazine article about the Island's three Quinby children, who the journalist claimed were all geniuses, I briefly feared that every parent on the planet desiring gifted, talented, exceptional offspring might attempt to move here, hoping that this concentration of brains might be the result of something in the air, or the water, rather than the Quinby genes. Happily, nobody came.
Still, as a way of placating my nervous friends, family, and neighbors, I want to make it clear that in addition to the reasons stated above, I am calling Isle Au Haut "the Island" because it really is representative of any piece of land surrounded by water that is inhabited by hardworking, independent people, most of whom are lobstermen. If by chance, in the course of reading this book, you should fall in love with, or become consumed with curiosity about Maine island life, I promise you that visiting Mount Desert Island, Bailey Island, or Monhegan will surely satisfy both lust and curiosity. People there welcome tourism. They have hotels and restaurants. We have nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing. The list of what we do have is shorter than that of what we do not have, and those of us who choose to live here do so because of the length of both lists. We have what I believe could be the smallest post office in the country, and a privately owned boat contracted to haul U.S. mail on and off Island. We currently have forty-seven full-time residents, half of whom I am related to in one way or another. (Family trees in small-town Maine are often painted in the abstract. The Greenlaws' genealogy is best described in a phrase I have heard others use: "the family wreath.") We have one general store, one church, one lighthouse, a one-room schoolhouse for grades K through eight, a town hall that seconds as the school's gymnasium, three selectmen, a fishermen's co-op, 4,700 rugged acres of which 2,800 belong to Acadia National Park, and 13 miles of bad road. And we have lobsters.
We do not have a Kmart, or any other mart. We have no movie theater, roller rink, arcade, or bowling alley. Residents can't get manicured, pedicured, dry-cleaned, massaged, hot-tubbed, facial-ed, permed, tinted, foiled, or indoor tanned. We have neither the fine dining nor fast food. There is no Dairy Queen, Jiffy Lube, newspaper stand, or Starbucks. There is no bank, not even an ATM. No cable TV, golf course, movie theater, gym, museum, art gallery . . . Well, you get the picture.
Lobster season for most of us on the Island begins in early May and ends around the first of December. Some fishermen extend or shorten on either end, but in general, we have a seven-month fishing season, and five months of off-season. Each lobster season is typical only in that it is different from every preceding span of seven months in which lobsters have been fished. There are trends, pattersn, and habits that are observed by every generation, but each individual season has its own quirks, ebbs, and flows of cooperative crustaceans. Still, there seems to be in the fishermen's credo a tendency to be amazed that the lobsters this season are not acting the way they did last season. And each season every fisherman will attempt to think and reason like a lobster in hopes of anticipating their next move. A lobster's brain is smaller and simpler (in relation to its body mass) than that of nearly any other living thing in which some form of brain resides. So some fishermen are better suited for this game than others. I am not ashamed to admit that I am not among the best lobster fishermen on the island.
Although the individual members are for the most part hardy, the year-round community on the Island is fragile. This winter's population of forty-seven people is down from seventy residents just two years ago. There are multiple threats to the survival of the community, most notably ever-increasing land values, corresponding property taxes, and extremely limited employment opportunities. The Island, for most of us, is more than a home. It is a refuge. What seems to sustain the community as a whole is lobster. Every year-round family is affected by an abundance or scarcity of income generated by hauling and setting lobster traps. Other than the fact that we all live on this rock, our only common bond is lobster. Island fishermen are presently enjoying the presumed tail end of a lobster heyday, a boom that has endured several seasons of tens of thousands of traps fished and yearly predictions by biologists of sure and pending doom. Our own little piece of America hangs on by a thread to the fate of the lobster.
A small community bears a heavy load. Elderly Islanders move to the mainland when isolated life becomes too strenuous. Why do we not care for our old folks? Small-town politics creates rifts and scars so deep that some individuals, in fact entire families, have found reason to seek opportunity off-Island. Some who remain are nearly hermits, reclusive family units, couples, and individuals preferring seclusion. Man-made problems are inherent in Island life. Yet in our minds, all boils down to the lobster.
Lobsters are tangible. Lobsters become the scapegoat, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that all threats to our ability to catch lobsters become scapegoats. We have no control over Mother Nature, so she is the easiest target. A major storm could wipe us out, boats and gear gone. Disease has been held responsible for catastrophic lobster-kills throughout the fishery's history. Runoff of chemicals and insecticides has devastated stocks in distant grounds quite recently. I moved back to the Island for many reasons, one of which was my desire to make a living fishing for lobster. Upon my return, it became abundantly clear that the greatest hindrance to my happiness and financial welfare would be what all Islanders perceive as the most palpable threat to our livelihoods: the overfishing of our Island's fishing grounds by outsiders. The threat from the mainland lobstermen was both real and present, and was increasingly exponentially with each new season. It dwarfed any threat Mother Nature had recently made. At the time of my joining the game, it was clear that the situation would culminate in war.
Posted May 6, 2006
My daughter lives on a very small island off the Rhode Island coast. I bought this book for her with no intention of reading it myself. I read it and was amazed. Linda Greenlaw knows how to write well. She creates a real and fascinating story of the lobsterman's life in Maine. She also shines through as a thouroughly likeable person. I took this book to work every day so I could read it at lunch. You won't be disappointed. She captures everything about small town life. Her story is real and I am so glad she took the time to tell it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 23, 2003
I kept waiting for the story to pick up and get going. I also kept waiting for the author to get a backbone. She fails to put her foot down on 'the twins' who borrow and then sink her boat. Then she repeatedly cannot find the words to refuse the 'assistance' of the 'The Island Boys', despite their well-known reputation for destruction. Anywhere else, these guys would be out of business. I can see WHY they stay on this island, as no takes the initiative to sue them for incompetence. But I guess this is a learned passivity, as she describes her parents laid out on the living room floor, hiding from the neighbor. I did appreciate the author's candor about the anger and frustration of trying to live with one's life-decisions, and trying to make them work. She lends voice to the situation in which many women find themselves--- big city OR isolated island.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 7, 2002
My wife and I were meandering around the idylic state of Maine when we chanced upon the quaint little town of Stonington...Having just started reading The Lobster Chronicles..I figured the only way to get a true flavor of what might be forthcoming was to hop on the small ferry for the 40 minute ride to Isle Au Haut....what a ride....what a place...Linda Greenlaw and her relatives have found true paradise!!!! And she captures the essence of this simple way of life through her anecdotal stories intertwined so gracefully throughout this book. I strolled into the little country store and there sat Aunt Gracie..just as she was portrayed by her niece. Proudly displayed were three copies of the Lobster Chronicles....right next to the local apples. Pick up this book, read it in a quiet place and enjoy!!!!!!! Linda Greenlaw's Lobster Chronicles reduces life and 'what's important' in life to their simplest terms.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.