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  • During a downward turn of family events, there was a silver lining opportunity for my brother Ben, while he was home, and I, to meet with our neighbor, fellow Cowbird author and now, friend, Peter Ralston.
    His gallery is situated along the coast between the towns where I live - when I am home - and where Ben’s wife and daughter have settled while he completes his tour of school duty overseas.
    We had gone from a vague, “Let’s meet sometime,” to the specific, “Next week is good.”
    We shook hands, and looked around before settling down on chairs in the front of the gallery with the sun warming the room.

    We looked around the gallery, at the print lined walls. The iconic portrait of Andrew Wyeth dominates one wall and his eyes watched us, looking at a boat full of sheep, and then at a familiar place, one of many Islands off of the coast of Maine.
    There was a selection of books on a long table at the front of the gallery, photos with prose and prose with photographs. Peter’s work with his Island Institute has generated volumes of stories and images. I recognized my neighbor’s book right away, the connection that had led us to visit with the photographer on this afternoon in late fall.
    The book’s cover shot was taken from the old cemetery, from behind an elaborate grave marker, a luxury, for New England. In the picture, as in life, when you look up the hill at the village you look at a cluster of white clapboard houses with large attached barns that survived a century and a half of Nature’s seasons and whims.
    The angle of the shot cuts off the entire panorama and the urn sits balanced between two houses on the hill.

    “What do you notice about the cover?” Peter asked grinning, and with a hint of mystery.
    “Oh, I know,” My brother, Ben grinned back at Peter.
    I looked at the photograph, taken from the cemetery, looking up at the hill that you see first from the water, as you approach the harbor.
    There were two houses in the photograph but there should have been three.
    The Jackson house was gone.

    When the book came out the first I heard of it was from my Father.
    “One of the pictures in the book was taken from the old foundation,” he said.
    “Oh, nice,” I replied.
    “Well that means he was trespassing,” my father continued.
    “Who is ‘He’”? I asked.
    “He” was Peter Ralston, photographer and co-founder of the Island Institute.
    “You’ve heard of him,” my husband, Jeff, reminded me of a glowing description of one his books as told by one of our clients.
    “Oh yeah! She called him a rock star!” I exclaimed.
    “But he was on our land to get that shot, and that is trespassing.” My father persisted. As far as rock stars went he had sided with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez over the debate about going electric.
    “He was just taking pictures,” I said. But then I realized that to a mind trained in legal thought, the word “taking” constitutes theft. To a mind educated in legal language and then fermented in a more primitive force of Island thinking, “Taking pictures” implies some intent to make away with an image during an invasion of tribal space.
    Jeff and I gently rolled our eyes at each other and let the topic go.
    Trespassing, boundaries and turf wars are the stuff that Islands are made from.


    Yesterday afternoon an old family friend was visiting in town, arrived at my parent’s house while we were preparing lunch. She declined an offer to stay, she just wanted to visit my father, briefly, so as not to tire him, and so we gathered in the living room.
    She leaned in towards my father, gently brushing his knee. He leaned towards her, caught by the excitement of her voice.
    “ The kids spent Thanksgiving out on the Island,” she said
    “Oh!” my father said, and his eyes lit up, “Who’s boat did they get out on?”
    There followed a long description of who still had a boat in the water and who had gone out that weekend, and then began the latest news.
    “Well the Martin’s are not talking to the Littlefield’s, “ she said.
    I had been invited to go out for the holiday weekend by another old friend and neighbor, but had declined so I could be with my family. They had planned a potluck Thanksgiving with everyone who was out there. It must have been awkward when they all filed past the one house to have dinner at the other. This is typical of life in a small community.
    The two families have houses right next door to each other. A discussion about how they were and were not related ensued. But what was the feud about?
    “It has to do with the hunting arrangements and that might have something to do with your land,” our friend said.

    We have a good stand of apple trees that are on the edge of the forest and hidden from the road. A spot that the legendary hunter, Granville Norton had favored for years, once surprising my husband, at the well, at sunset, the winter we stayed on. Jeff had waved his bucket and called out, “Don’t shoot,” when Granville shone the spotlight right on him. Later Granville brought us some packets of moose meat from the lottery on Indian Territory, so there were no hard feelings.
    “Oh they like to hunt up by our trees,” my Father said darkly.
    “Well don’t you worry about that now, your job is to stay calm, and not worry about what they do on our land when we aren’t there. We can’t stop what goes on out there, in our absence.”
    “No we certainly can’t” my father agreed and we all nodded, glad to smooth over the trespass.
    “Michael,” our friend said, and leaned in and again, touched his leg. This was going to be good I thought. She had a sparkle in her eye.
    “I heard they might be hunting on the Jackson’s land, close by their barn and his apples!”
    We all took that in for a moment.
    “He could come up there anytime,” Rachel added, “But I don’t think Littlefield minds.”
    Littlefield had it in for Jackson because of Jackson’s feud with his wife’s Uncle. Littlefield took the side of the Uncle who had sworn he would never return to the Island. “What kind of man runs his uncle off the Island?” he had asked.
    “They have guns out there,” my father said. “Someone could get hurt.”
    After lunch and my father related an early encounter with Jackson.
    “It was when we were fixing up the room downstairs and he helped us,” my father said, and I remembered. “He was always a quiet man, a good worker.”
    They had loaded up Lyle’s barge with mortar mix for a new chimney.
    “The tide came in, but the barge didn’t.” my father said. It was overloaded and sank.
    So they tried again.
    When all the materials were finally assembled and my father expected that the work would begin, Jackson threw down his tools and ran out.
    “Why?” I asked.
    “He said, “I can’t do this!” and he threw down his tools and left. He didn’t know how to build a chimney!” My father reported. ‘That’s the first time I got the idea that there was something not quite right with him.”
    The photographer was in the field on an overcast morning, the clouds moved fast and the wind came from the direction of the cameras gaze.
    He had been in the cemetery for a while adjusting the legs of the tripod on the uneven ground. It was a small cemetery and so it felt that anywhere a foot went down there was a grave below.
    The Cemetery sits in an open area at the base of the village, but up above the harbor pool. To get to the village, or the harbor you have to pass the white fenced graveyard. The scene is a Memento Mori, a reminder of the shortness of our days, the brief season of summer and of life.
    A man from the Island approached the photographer and what should have been polite curiosity became, or always was, a confrontation. The man was angry and accusatory and when he had said his piece, the photographer watched him walk away, up the hill to his home, and close the door.
    Later, when the picture was processed on the screen, with the sureness of a surgeon, the photographer removed the house, along with the closed door, and the man inside it, from the picture.
    It was a vanishing, and an artist’s right, even a duty, to present a varnished truth.
    “He got in my face,” said Peter about Jackson, as we looked together at the book cover.
    “He does that with other people too.” I said, and was sorry that it should happen to a welcome guest. It did not speak well for the community to have an ambassador like that.
    Ben and Jeff and I sat and talked with Peter for several hours. We talked about Cowbird and story writing; we talked about Islands, and the idea of tribes and neighbors and the links that stories make through communities.
    Later that afternoon, as Ben, Jeff and I drove back to the hospital, to see my father again, we agreed that it had been a very special afternoon.
    “Just think,” said Ben, “If Dad had been the one to come out while Peter was taking a picture.”
    “Oh god!” I could see it all too clearly. Peter in the old foundation, standing knee deep in the wild marjoram, with a tripod set up, adjusting his settings and my father standing above him, on the edge of the foundation, maybe getting a little heated. Maybe demanding that Peter be aware that he was trespassing was on private property and ‘taking’ the liberty of ‘taking’ pictures.
    “If he had met Dad first, instead of us, then our meeting and our friendship might never have happened,” I worried.
    “Or they might have become friends,” Ben mused.
    In the privacy of one’s home many things can be said that melt away when you walk out of your door. In the face of another human being you confront your own humanity and the civilized man will override the primitive instinct to attack a stranger. In the spectrum of behavior the variable is self-awareness and intelligence, and in the spectrum of compassion there is remorse and reconciliation.
    A man can stride out from his home, spoiling for a fight but then come away wagging his tail after sniffing the stranger, like a dog.
    Or a man can stride in his certainty and leap for the jugular and try to destroy the stranger, like an animal.
    In any small community there are animals amongst us. Most of the time life goes on in steady stream of days, unremarkable but for the passing seasons until something provokes and the surface ripples and a storm is upon us.

    On an Island the differences between a friend and an enemy for life can come down to a fine line of perceived slights or transgressions on the interpretation of a line set in shifting sands.
    If you are lucky only a house gets removed from a photograph, and the man inside is only metaphorically erased.
    Given the cast of characters and the history out there, I wonder if will the luck will hold.
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