Writers discover Matinicus again, and again, and again"

Eva Murray. Thursday, Oct-30-08

"Go out and get me another 'covered bridge'."

One of my summer bakery customers, a vacationing editor, told me once that this expression is (or was) common parlance in the offices of at least one major east-coast newspaper. If a high-ranking member of the editorial staff realized that column space looked plentiful in a middle section, and a travel, human-interest, low-stress environmental, or arts -and-culture piece would neatly fill the gap, a reporter or freelancer might be dispatched to New Hampshire or Vermont or the Berkshires, sure to return with a pleasant slice of life far from the metro area. He explained how the writers all know the drill: come back with something well-larded with stereotyped quaintness, acquirable antiquity, or that most sought-after abstraction for the hurried urban professional, simplicity. Facts and details were secondary to the folkloric appeal of rough-edged, good-hearted, back-road America. The search would be on for something which might go nicely with the bagels and lox on Sunday. This is an easy task, and there are thousands of writers who can get it done. Oh, and almost anything from Maine would be fine.

As I write, I sit in the cab of a rental box truck on the deck of the Ferry Vessel Everett Libby, about halfway between Rockland and Matinicus. I am headed to the island to quickly load the truck with recyclable trash and busted vacuum cleaners, get right back on the same ferry, and five hours from now, to disgorge my erstwhile garbage truck at the Rockland transfer station. The day is beautiful, the bay is beautiful as well, twinkling in the sun, lobster boats are everywhere, a few pretty sailboats enjoy the ideal conditions, and any travel writer who knew anything about these islands would delight in a day such as this for a ferry ride. Of course, there are none. It is the day after Labor Day. The "season" for maritime vacationing is over.

They're no doubt all up in Woodstock, Vermont by now, bothering those people.

I am not above tourism, and I am certainly not opposed to travel writing. Decent travel writing is good fun to read, especially if one has little chance of ever seeing the particular place firsthand. Self-satisfied nautical snobs, pretentious boors, syrupy diarists, overly-hurried freelancers and, occasionally, run-of-the-mill idiots trying to be journalists are quite another story. Please...make an effort to get it right or mind your own danged business. Having visited a place, especially if only once and very briefly, hardly should grant one the voice of authority. The assumption that the readership will not know the difference anyway between fact and cliche is insulting to those readers and painful to any journalist with a work ethic.

Matinicus Island has been discovered (for the very first time ever) dozens of times in the past few years. This unique, close-knit, independent, windswept (are you bored yet?) and undiscovered haven (of what? Huh? What?) has been brought to the world's kitchen table by the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, CBS Sunday Morning, and a long list of more local publications and broadcasters. Readers often get the same minimal, quickie descriptions of the working harbor, sand beaches and dirt roads, the same brief run-down of Ebenezer Hall, the puffins, and a one-room school (no, it's always "schoolhouse," for some reason, as if it were the architecture that mattered,) and the same smattering of facts about travel arrangements which may well be incorrect by time the piece is published. I am part of the problem, I realize, as I defy every sort of common sense by writing about my home, but here's the thing: I know better than to tell the world that the ferry comes each week.

It doesn't.

A while back, the postmaster and the passenger boat captain were simultaneously harried by a reporter from a major nationwide publication who had in mind to venture here. That year, the big attraction was the "lobster war," actually a fairly routine if unpleasant squabble (or, perhaps, cost of doing business) which was unfortunately part of the local color at the time. It really wasn't anything new from our perspective, although some of the regional press tried hard to make it into a more exciting story than necessary, and some of those involved fed that beast a bit. At any rate, Matinicus was once again to be "discovered," pirates, outlaws, and all. Bullets flying everywhere. Fishermen with knives in their teeth. Tourists diving for cover. Uh huh.

Our reporter, stationed far away, called those two busy public servants and basically suggested that she should be more or less babysat when she arrived to see for herself. How should she get to the island? Who would pick her up and drive her around? "What do you mean, I might get stuck?" "What do you mean, bring a sandwich?" (At that time of course Matinicus had no store.) "You'll point out to me who I should interview, won't you?" Oh, dear. There was also that familiar unspoken assumption that the citizens of this place would be honored to see themselves attended to by the Big City Papers, and that plenty of people would drop what they were doing to assist.

"There must be some cute little store or public gathering spot where I can just hang out for a few hours and talk to everybody in town, and get the pulse of the place."

Sorry.

"I'm going to be awfully busy doing paperwork in the back," said the postmaster.

"I'm going to be under a 4-71 Detroit," said the power station operator.

"I have to go to Rockland that day," said the water taxi captain.

"Oh, for cryin' out loud, not again," muttered a few others.

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First published in The Working Waterfront, October, 2008.


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Eva Murray first came to Matinicus as the teacher in the island's one-room school. She is a freelance writer, an EMT, runs a small seasonal bakery from her home during the summer, is married to the island's electrician and has raised two children on Matinicus.