Living with Less and an Island Love Story

Lately there have been a lot of stories about the “new” minimalist movement. American homes are getting smaller. Couples are downsizing and getting rid of 80% of their stuff and adopting a minimalist lifestyle http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2010/
08/portland_couples_extreme_downs.html
 The Small Home Movement has replaced the desire for “McMansions” and come at a time when many people can’t afford a big home. Jay Shafer founded his Tumbleweed Tiny House Company on the notion that people really only need 89 square feet to accommodate a two-person household. By downsizing this dramatically, he eliminated his debt and now lives more simply. His house designs range in plans from 65-835 square feet, a lot smaller than the average American home.http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/ He’s not alone. Others are promoting the same idea. Tiny House Blog http://tinyhouseblog.com/ Not So Big Househttp://www.notsobighouse.com/

The trendy minimalist movement reminds me of the back-to-landers of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. City dwellers, driven by a desire to lead a better, simpler life, migrated to rural areas, including islands off the coast of Maine. But this wasn’t a new thing in the 1960s. It’s been a recurring phenomenon over the centuries, according to the poet Gary Snyder. Homesteading is another name for it. Urban problems such as the energy crisis, water pollution, lack of environmental protection for the natural landscape—these were the issues that prompted the “back-to-landers” of the 1960s and ‘70s to leave the city in search of a pure lifestyle and to work the land. Often this required fetching water from a stream or pond, or digging a well, and growing food.

Helen and Scott Nearing are two of the most recognized “back-to-landers.” They lived on a rural farm in Vermont until 1952, when they settled their “Forest Farm” in Maine. The couple authored a number of books on what they called, “the good life.” The Good Life Center in Harborside, Maine carries on their mission. http://www.goodlife.org/

My favorite love story played out on a beautiful Maine island called Placentia. Arthur and Nan Kellam, an aviation engineer (who worked in Wisconsin http://www.allbusiness.com/environment-natural-resources/ecology/14528751-1.html) and his wife, moved from California in 1949 and settled on the 500 acre island. They built a house in a little clearing and left love notes for one another every time they separated for the day—to explore different parts of their beloved island. Placentia Island has a number of ephemeral streams, seeps and forested wetlands, mainly Spruce fir and sphagnum moss, with wild chanterelle mushrooms and cherry trees.

Art built a great bandstand overlooking the sea, for his wife, a romantic spot. He also had another little building he called his “retreat,” which had ingenious Murphy-style furniture, when folded out one way, became a table; when adjusted, became a bookshelf or storage. The Kellams had two wells, one near the house and one near the bandstand.  They didn’t have running water, electricity or any convenience that the mainlanders enjoyed. They grew vegetables in their garden. They rowed their dory to the nearby Great Gott Island for supplies like kerosene.  Sometimes friends, including the Rockefellers, brought fresh milk and oranges, but the Kellams sustained their private life together on very little from the outside world. Fog encircled the island on most days, preventing casual visits from neighboring islanders.http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/13/garden/living-to-the-power-of-two.html?pagewanted=all

This past spring author Peter Blanchard III published a book about the Kellams entitled,We Were an Island http://www.bangordailynews.com/detail/143608.html partly based on Nan’s writings and unfinished book that she started with her husband. She described in her journal that they had searched for a place, an island that would fulfill their “dream of peace.”

I visited the house in 1999, just a few years before Nan passed away. Inside the house, it is easy to picture how everything had its place; they each had their spot for sitting, a single desk, stacks of TIME magazine (so they kept up on current events!) It inspired the poem, “If I Were an Island,” which was published on the New Maine Times.  The Nature Conservancy manages the uninhabited Placentia Island. The only way to visit the island is to sign up to volunteer to work in one of TNC’s nature preserves—with Placentia Island, a nesting site for bald eagles, being on the list for September 2010: http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/maine/volunteer/art24384.html

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