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The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island

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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.


The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island
by by Linda Greenlaw

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 0786885912
  • ISBN-13: 9780786885916