Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: Cardinals, cows, and computers – A few things have changed in 30 years

Wed, 08/30/2017 - 8:30pm

THIS SUMMER we’ve had Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal fly in for breakfast every morning. Actually, I haven’t seen Mrs. Cardinal in the bush by the kitchen window for a while — perhaps she’s busy with youngsters; but, earlier this summer she stopped by daily, and several brilliant males start eating our little bucket of seeds every morning as soon as the sun comes up. One of them seems to think he’s a rooster. At the crack of dawn, Mr. Cardinal starts his morning racket.

That is an example of something that has changed on Matinicus Island. Cardinals used to be a rare sight.

Eagles, likewise, were something we’d certainly have noticed 30 years back. We might even have worried about where their nests were located, given the environmental regulations limiting human impact around any eagle’s home base. Nowadays, a bald eagle flying overhead, while not quite as routine as a seagull or a crow, is no big deal. They’re all over the place.

This week I realized I have lived on this island for 30 years.

In late August of 1987, having been hired to teach kindergarten through eighth grade, I moved here lock, stock and barrel, and bicycle, aboard the passenger vessel Mary and Donna. It was a cold trip. I sat on a pile of two-by-fours and shivered through the two-hour crossing. That ride, on that boat, could have been, I later learned, much worse.

In 1987, the captain of the Mary and Donna (also known, with some affection I suppose you’d call it, as The Time Machine) was the island’s postmaster and storekeeper. Matinicus had supported a well-supplied general store for many years. The year I arrived, that store was on its way out. Stock on the shelves was minimal and attitude was, shall we say, in surplus.

By the next year, milk had to be specifically ordered and there was no guarantee that it would be kept cold for long if you didn’t pick it up on time.

People still entertain themselves recalling this particular merchant and his somewhat grudging customer service. Since that store closed, a couple of other islanders have tried running small grocery/convenience stores. Each found that transportation and logistics challenges make it impossible to keep costs competitive with the mainland, and these days, most islanders have pretty easy access to the mainland.

The harborside building that housed the historic Henry Young and Co. store and its subsequent iterations, along with the island post office, burned down in 2008. The Vinalhaven VFD came over to help us put the fire out, the postmaster managed to get the mail through without any sort of official premises and a post office was eventually built up in the middle of the island at the parsonage, but no store was rebuilt.

Before the fire, yet another group of islanders was renovating a portion of the old building, in hopes of trying again to open a little shop. Rumor had it they were going to carry ice cream. I’m still sad that didn’t happen.

These days, we get our groceries a variety of ways, none of which involve patronizing a local grocer. More’s the pity, most will admit.

One mechanism involves sending our orders by fax or by e-mail to the Rockland Shaw’s, where somebody packs our order into banana boxes, which are sent to the island on the airplane.

You might try not to order ice cream when it’s 90 degrees out, and it does no good when you require something in a hurry, but as a rule that system works and we are grateful.

Very recently, online mail-order type services, such as Jet, have allowed people to order even perishable groceries, although at least one customer recently had an email indicating that Jet was no longer sending “fresh goods” to this zip code. We’ll see what happens next.

In any event we carry food by the boatload, we stockpile, we buy in bulk, we share, we bum and we borrow, and everybody knows who might be likely to have what on hand when we run short. I, for example, can be counted on for flour and molasses, for Band-aids and WD-40, and for chocolate chips by the hundredweight, but don’t call me looking either for kale or for Cheez-Whiz. People know.

Speaking of kale, there are some gardeners on the island, but we no longer have regular vegetable growers who provide fresh produce for sale all summer at the Farmer’s Market, like Betsy Burr did 30 years ago (and others did before her). On the other hand, we now have a couple of neighbors offering eggs of all sorts—chicken, duck, and turkey—and there are cows, and pigs and, as described earlier this summer in the Pen Bay Pilot, several hives of honeybees.

It might be noted that the original little herd of dairy goats which, or rather who, grew to become the beloved local business known as Appleton Creamery actually began on Matinicus Island. That was a bit before my time.

When I first moved here in 1987, all sorts of people asked whether I was happy drinking powdered milk. “No, actually; can’t stand the stuff.” “You’ll have to get used to it,” some said. Not a chance. We no longer fall back on powdered milk so much, which I see as a tremendous improvement in the quality of life around here.

That business of cows on Matinicus is no small thing. The last island cow as far as anybody knows, prior to Mary and Millie and their calves Wanda and Darlene, born here last year, was back around 1950. For years, we’d endure the Smarter-Than-Thou types lecturing us on how, if we haven’t got an island store, we “should get a cow, so we could have our milk for free.” I’d say a math lesson was in order for those folks, but I say that a lot.

There are fewer people here much of the year than when I first came to the island, and fewer community events like graduations and church suppers, but despite the shrinking winter population the residents of this place support and invest in their community. The airstrip has been resurfaced and the one-room school’s interior has been renovated. We have the internet, and the one-room school makes heavy use of computers. There is a playground, a municipal recycling and trash system, a tiny library with wireless internet hotspot, and the still-functional remnants of an EMS service, which we had officially for 22 years and now support as an informal aid network.

I have grown better at doing some things required of island life just by virtue of years of practice. I can unload a truck faster than you can say “Hurry up, the ferry’s leaving!” But some skills cannot be refined by time and experience. Pacing the floor while waiting for a telephone call from the air service saying that the ceiling has lifted and it is now “flyable,” or waiting for the fog to clear while muttering “I can’t see the telephone tower,” or waiting to find out whether the state vehicle ferry will make the run when the sea conditions sound miserable and, frankly, marginal—those long waits are just as hard for me as for a newcomer to this community. Sometimes, all we wish for is a straight answer about the trip off or the ride home. That has not changed. 30 years of practice has not made it one bit easier.


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