“No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote  John Donne.  And yet, Art and Nan Kellam bought an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine in 1949 and lived there for more than 35 years. They were quite content with little more than the company of each other. And they thought of themselves as an island.

I have been reading several books that I’ll share here about people who dis their own Walden kind of expereinece and it’s very easy to Romanticize those experiences into some kind of idyllic fantasy.  Though the story of the Kellams is appealing, you have to keep in mind that they had no electricity or running water, and heated the house they built with firewood from their forest. To fetch supplies, they rowed a dory several miles to the mainland and back.

They goal was self-sufficiency, so they were building things rather than buying them and  growing whatever foods they could. But that was more to stretch their limited money than it was to serve as models of good living or inspire a book.

Their story is told in We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art and Nan Kellam by New Jersey native and conservationist Peter Blanchard III. The book is based largely on journals kept by the Kellams.

Their island was Placentia Island, a forested 550-acre island a few miles from Acadia National Park. They moved to the island to lead, like Thoreau, a simple life, free of technology and modern contrivances.

These are not Caribbean desert or deserted islands that are along the coast of Maine. More often than not, they are rocks in a cold ocean.

They lived there year round for nearly forty years.

The story is illustrated with historic photographs and recent photographs by David Graham. As much a story of a relationship that grew in isolation, it is also one of those tales of “living “off the grid” that I find appealing.

Don’t confuse them with anyone who has some idealistic, environmental, survivalist, sustainability movement behind their actions.  “They made a conscious decision to inhabit a world that they had total control over,” says Blanchard. And though they were not naturalists or conservationists when they took to the island, it would be hard not to say that they had a growing mindfulness and appreciation for not only nature’s beauty, but its power.

And in the end, they didn’t want to see their land destroyed or built on, so they turned to conservation and donated the island to the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy after retaining a “life estate” that allowed them exclusive use of Placentia during their lifetimes.

Blanchard learned of the Kellams when he volunteered for the Nature Conservancy. He  himself “owns” two islands near Placentia – Black Island and Sheep Island – that have been permanently preserved, and is part-owner of a third preserved island, Pond Island.

If you visit Placentia Island now (it is a public nature preserve), all you will find of the Kellams are some stone foundations and a square of cement with their footprints.

We Were an Island  is published by the University Press of New England

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