“Summah People, Some Ahn’t”, by Philip Conkling

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By Philip Conkling
Photograph by Peter Ralston
Excerpt from our June 2022 issue

As we anticipate summer fun, many of us are scrambling to turn on water and electricity, relaunch boats and floats, and more – not just to ourselves, but also to prepare us to meet the complicated needs of people coming to experience the simple life in Maine.

For at least a century and a half, families have welcomed guests here seeking the qualities we tend to take for granted – clean air, the play of sunlight on the water, a chance to catch a real live fish. They were formerly called “rusticators”; now we call them “summer people” or “far people”. When you’re in the holiday business, as many Mainers are, you inevitably become a caretaker, asked to help with arrangements and logistics. Visitors need canoes and kayaks for adventures, firewood, directions and shuttles, restaurant and shopping tips. Generally speaking, the further away the Maine setting, the more complicated the arrangements. And while local frustrations may rise with the demands of each summer’s influx, Guardians tend to be happy to see new faces in Maine’s small towns after the long winter. We can’t wait to hear new stories about life in the fast lane, if only to confirm our allegiances to our own communities, which somehow didn’t seem so healthy in February and March. .

Sometimes our babysitting relationships are multi-generational. One such relationship was between the summer owners of Bear Island, off Little Deer Isle in Penobscot Bay, and their caretaker, Jim Hardie, who spent 36 years looking after the property and of the needs of the extended Fuller family, including its most illustrious member, the multi-talented futurist, Buckminster Fuller. Hardie fascinated Fuller. The theorist was particularly drawn to Hardie’s native intelligence, which allowed him to accomplish something few people can do on their own. Without any formal schooling, Hardie taught himself to read and write, and he exchanged letters with the Fuller family during the long isolated island winters.

When Buckminster Fuller wanted to figure out how Hardie accomplished the complex mental challenge, Hardie explained that his strategy was to listen to radio reports and then find the same story written in a local newspaper. By matching the sounds of the names and places he remembered on the radio with the words of the newspaper photo captions, he developed a phonetic lexicon. Hardie’s letters to the family were recently collected and published by a member of the Fuller family, who is the fourth generation to spend summers on Bear Island. They are a remarkable tribute to the desire – and ability – of summer visitors and caretakers to communicate through very different experiences, thanks to a shared love of place.

State license plates began advertising Maine as “Vacationland” in 1936, and every year since, with the exception of times of wars and pandemics, summer numbers have increased – more people take a walk, drive slowly on our back roads, take in the scenery or scout real estate. Decades ago, a wise, clear-eyed islander reminded me to be patient, not to generalize summer people as oblivious or unlovable, because fools can be found anywhere. Or, in his wonderfully winking phrase, “People of Summah, some are not.”

Island Man: The Life and Letters of Jim Hardieby Lucilla Fuller Marvel, will be available in bookstores this summer.


Philip Conkling is a Camden-based environmental consultant and the author of Islands in Time: A Natural and Cultural History of the Islands of the Gulf of Maine. Photographer Peter Ralston lives in Rockport and operates the Ralston Gallery. In 1983, the couple co-founded the Island Institute and its flagship publication, The Island Diary.


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