We Were an Island

Reviewed by: Amanda Hooykaas
Categories: Activists
We Were an Island book review A\J AlternativesJournal.ca We Were an Island \ Peter P. Blanchard

The Maine coast is a wicked scene, as abruptly harsh as it is serene. It is foreboding and kind, majestic and dull. It is here that two young eccentrics chose to retreat – almost totally – in hopes that homesteading on their very own island might afford more than society could offer.

We Were an Island is a quintessential back-to-the-land story from the not-so-distant past. Peter P. Blanchard – founder of Greenwood Gardens, a New Jersey-based non-profit dedicated to horticulture and environmental education – recounts the livelihoods of Art and Nan Kellam as if they were settlers of a another era, entwined in love and endowed with phenomenal gumption. The pair kept detailed journals in hopes of one day publishing their own books, and while that day never came, Blanchard has given voice to their words.

Meandering through seasons, hardships, discoveries and triumphs, the book follows two regular people who journeyed from California to Maine in 1949, aiming to live extraordinary lives by creating “Homewood,” on the 552-acre island of Placentia. Art and Nan’s tremendous love and admiration for one another resonates, and the reader is inextricably drawn into their grand intention of simplicity. Placentia was first seen as an opportunity for isolation, but it became a meeting ground of sorts. The Kellams forged strong ties with the locals, who checked in on the people “from away,” first with concern, then with curiosity, and finally (for some, at least) with admiration.

Art and Nan lived a life of comfort, taking pleasure in “unnoticables” – a new flower, a deep snowfall or a deer appearing from the spruce forest. “Without a doubt, there could be pleasure in frugal living; satisfaction in building things for ourselves with materials at hand […] full compensation for making do in also being free,” explains Art in one quoted passage. For the couple, Homewood was fertile with lessons and mysterious revelations. Rhythmic in nature, We Were an Island follows the pattern of the seasons and indeed the rhythm of the island-dwellers, whose own actions were largely dictated by their surroundings.

After Art passed away, Nan found that living on the island as an independent senior citizen was too difficult. In 1991 she donated Placentia to the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy, in order to “continue to sustain both Nature and the human spirit.” Today, the island looks much like it did when the Kellams first arrived.

Those who consider homesteading appealing will no doubt find this a fascinating read. But so will those who know New England. Sitting with strong cup of tea as I read, I couldn’t help but taste the salty air on my lips, hear the clamour of lobster traps being hauled off the beach, and see the winds picking up off the water. This book takes you to Maine alongside Art and Nan as they try to turn a dream of homesteading into reality. They sought and found a simplified and more essential life with inspiring authenticity, and they exude hope for other ways of “being” – both with ourselves and with nature.

The book’s photography, from both the Kellams’ day and the present, is stunning. The layout is simple, although the story is anything but. There is a love of place expressed in these pages that is familiar to many of us, but that so few dare to pursue to the fullest.

Perhaps we do not need to pack our bags and leave for the ocean. Perhaps rowing our dories many hours to the mainland to retrieve our mail is too much effort. Perhaps many of us are not made to live as the Kellams did, but the prospect is made endearing by this book.

We Were an Island, Peter P. Blanchard, Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2010

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Reviewer Information

Amanda Hooykas is an adjunct faculty member of the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo.

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