Appreciating syzygy

Whether my bark went down at sea
Whether she met with gales
Whether to isles enchanted She bent her docile sails
By what mystic mooring She is held today
This is the errand of the eye Out upon the Bay.
— Emily Dickinson

Space shuttle Discovery returned to Earth early one morning in August 2005, not where families hoped it would — in the heart of a Florida wetland — but in the safe-enough California desert, among friends. I tried to interest my grandsons in the historic Return to Flight. They were both somewhat interested, the four year-old more so than the one twice his age who seemed more occupied with military aircraft and Star Wars battles.

The Hog Island Audubon Camp is connected to significant threads in American literature, nature study, ornithology, and now, would you believe, space.

I started visiting NASA’s Return to Flight Web site months prior, trying to learn of space shuttle upgrades that showed the learning curve of both aeronautical engineers and human resource people. I downloaded a few images for computer slideshows to be shared with the kids and read what I could understand. In the time waiting for the shuttle launch, we followed the celestial exploits of Martian rovers, the imaging of Jovian moons, close-ups of Saturn’s rings, and the crash landing of an interplanetary probe intent on learning the content of comet dust. All this follows by just a couple years the local and global celebration of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, much of it here in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, where I heard one of my heroes, John Glenn, say that we needed to work harder in the sciences and in aeronautical research because of, at least in part, what we didn’t yet know of the capability of a hummingbird hovering and pelicans drafting, for great distances, only a wing tip away from saltwater.

All this has to do with connections. Syzygy, if you will. The lining up of celestial bodies, or in this case, the lining up of seemingly unrelated significant events that create a meaningful thread of, well, connections.

One of my first experiences with syzygy tapping me on the shoulder was rooted on Hog Island at the Audubon Camp in Maine twenty-five years ago. At the time I was a junior high English teacher beginning work on a master’s degree who was lucky enough to have the Dayton Audubon Society grant him a scholarship to the Audubon Ecology Camp in Maine, as the operation on Hog Island was called then. It just so happened that I was taking an Emily Dickinson workshop that spring when the scholarship interview and application process was taking place. Somebody in my class mentioned visiting Walt Whitman’s house and I came to think how cool it would be to visit Emily’s place on the way to the camp in Maine. I had developed a great interest in Dickinson during the graduate workshop class and so when the itinerary for my family’s travel from Ohio to Down East was finalized, it included a stop in Amhert, Massachusetts for a short visit to the Dickinson homestead.

Although the stop in Amherst was a bit disappointing at first, having learned while we stood on the front porch that the house was closed to visitors that day — a fact that eluded me in those pre-internet days — walking the grounds and observing the flower beds in that private place the introvert poet knew intimately just over a century prior was quite something. I did not get a look inside Emily’s house on that trip, but I was permitted a peek into her family’s secluded garden. And since I must admit there is much in Dickinson’s poetry I have a hard time understanding, just a peek at her “unfading flowers” was plenty to appreciate. Before the day was out, I dragged my wife and two daughters to the Dickinson burial plot a few blocks away. It was there, in meditation with my 35 mm camera and a couple of rolls of black and white and slide film, that I recorded a series of pictures of the shadows setting across her grave stone that still comprise a favorite collection in my personal portfolio.

But back to syzygy. A couple days following my Dickinson pilgrimage, I found myself on the mainland dock at the end of Keene Neck Road in Bremen, waiting for the launch piloted by a very friendly boatman named Joe, dressed in Audubon khaki, to take me the few hundred yards across the Hockomock Narrows to the Hog Island camp. Perhaps you have a personal appreciation for the beauty of the sea, maybe even for the unique waterscape of Muscongus Bay. This Midwesterner was in sensory overload. The texture of the water, the intensity of that August sky, the freshness of the bay breeze, the diversity of hues in the lobster buoys, the strangeness of cormorants and harbor seals, enhanced to the promise of time to be spent on this bay-bound island.

One of my goals during that two-week session was to conjure what my graduate “project” would be. The interdisciplinary humanities program I was working in was to culminate in the creation of some sort of product to be decided between my academic advisors and me. I was leaning toward literature, but also history. In my coursework up to that time, I found myself researching the history of the conservation movement in the United States. Surely the Hog Island muses would provide me with something juicy to chew on back home that could sustain me through the grueling nine hour project that awaited me. Enter my first appreciation of syzygy.

Within a couple of hours of my Audubon Camp arrival, after prowling around the building complex on island’s northern peninsula before the formal program began, I was stunned to realize the ‘savior’ of the island in the early 1900s was none other than Mabel Loomis Todd, the original editor of the Emily Dickinson poetry. Could it be that my academic pursuit in Ohio was connected to both Amherst and Hog Island on an intellectual and metaphysical thread spanning almost a century and over eight hundred miles? Indeed it had. Four years later I presented a copy of my project, The Epic of Hog: The Todd-Bingham Family and the Establishment of the Audubon Ecology Camp in Maine to camp director Steve Kress in a long-anticipated ceremony in the Fish House on the island.

Since that time I have quietly, and in awe, become an aficionado of personal syzygy. Which brings me back to Discovery’s Return to Flight. As it turns out, no comprehensive record of Hog Island history has been attempted to date. The saga of Audubon’s first nature camp, which was, in reality, its first nature center, as well, has been told piecemeal over the last seventy-plus years. The first definitive piece, published in 1936 in Natural History magazine, was authored by Millicent Todd Bingham, Mabel Todd’s daughter. It was Millicent Bingham who, after her mother’s death in 1935, while searching for a university to create a field research station on Hog Island, found National Audubon’s president John Baker. It just so happened that Baker was looking for a new venture in which teachers and students of nature study would be instructed in the new scientific field of ecology. The Point Breeze Inn on Hog Island was easily converted to the Audubon Camp and the seasonal operation opened the following summer. Along with Roger Tory Peterson, the other ornithology instructor in 1936 was Allan D. Cruickshank.

cruickshank.jpgWhile Peterson went about other pursuits by the second summer of camp operations, including establishing his famous field guide series, Allan Cruickshank remained on staff until the early 1970s. The tam-wearing Cruickshank, in fact, became an icon in Camp history. He honed his birding skills as a youth, with Peterson, as a member of the Bronx County Bird Club in New York. “Crukie,” as his friends called him, had an uncanny ability to imitate birds. Such a talent would be popular with campers, as was his heralded headstand on the boat’s cabin roof to alert those waiting back at camp that a new bird for the summer had been sighted on the bay on that very expedition. In Audubon’s employ, he worked as a writer, photographer, and film maker while becoming a popular speaker on the Audubon lecture circuit in the 50s and 60s.

So in the spirit of learning more about the long reach of the Hog Island Audubon Camp, I found myself doing a Google search of Cruickshank on another morning last summer while watching Discovery attempt to launch on NASA TV. Just beside those pre-launch images, in another computer window, I learned that Cruickshank published a handful of books, including The Pocket Guide to Birds, Wings in the Wilderness, and 1001 Questions Answered About Birds. Some of his best photographs, a few hanging throughout the Hog Island camp building complex, were also published, including the images in Bird Islands Down East, written by his wife, Helen.

While all of this was relatively interesting on the day America’s shuttle fleet attempted to return to space, Hog Island syzygy surprised me once again. It turns out that Audubon’s own Allan D. Cruickshank single handedly convinced NASA in 1962 to turn over areas of the Kennedy Space Center not used by the space program to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to incorporate the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Having used those wetlands for bird watching, film making, and photography, Cruickshank convinced NASA, hot into a space race with the Soviet Union, to preserve the unused spaceport buffer zone ecosystem.

trail-sign.jpg By the time the Endangered Species Act of 1973 became law, it was determined that thirteen endangered or threatened species occurred on Merritt Island, now considered one of the most important refuges in the national system. To pay tribute to Cruickshank’s contributions in forming the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a five mile trail there has been dedicated to his memory.

The Hog Island Audubon Camp, moored mystically “out upon the Bay,” as Dickinson wrote of her metaphorical boat, has proven to be a point of alignment along more than one vector of syzygy. Finding connections to Hog Island tethered in various places, including its mention in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, confirms the impact and reach of the program on the island now run by the Maine Audubon Society. The Hog Island Audubon Camp is connected to significant threads in American literature, nature study, ornithology, and now, would you believe, space. Through Emily Dickinson, to Mabel Loomis Todd, to the Hog Island Audubon Camp, through Allan D. Cruickshank, then on to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and finally into Earth orbit. Hog Island syzygy, indeed.

Tom Schaefer is chair of the Hog Island History Project which would appreciate stories of important people, places, or events connected to the Hog Island Audubon Camp. Contact the author for more information.

“A beautiful and special place”

“I learned more in one hour than in one month of school.”

“I can’t say enough good things about every aspect of your program — you care, you listen, you are flexible, knowledgeable, and still run a tight ship.”

“I had a wonderful time — the island is beautiful and a very special place. I hope to return.”

“It was wondeful to have such a fantastic experience. I loved the whole experience.’

“The food was miles beyond what I was expecting — and Janii’s personality and art really add to the uniqueness of this trip. We ate so well — and so healthy!

“Food was the best in the world.”

“Seabird Sue was totally outstanding. Her knowledge, smile and passion was catching. She never tired of our questions and seemed thrilled to share with us.”

“Kate was totally delightful. We were all impressed with her knowledge, enthusiasm and with how well she worked with everyone.

“I’d like to know more about the historic buildings. How were they were made, given the climate and weather and materials available. The stylistic features, and how to preserve them.”

“Food was delicious! Good variety. Abundant vegetables. Salad at lunch and dinner. Healthy options.”

“The staff was friendly, informative, approachable, and knowledgeable. Their enthusiasm was contagious.”

Sustaining the legacy of Hog Island

The Hog Island Audubon Camp will be 70 years old in 2006. There is much in its illustrious past to celebrate, including scores of folks that have contributed mightily to its success.  The challenge now is to create a sustainable future.

“Be careful what you dream, for dreams oft times come true.”
— Millicent Todd Bingham quoting Emily Dickinson

In the Beginning

Located off midcoast Maine, Hog Island has been a national treasure to environmental leaders and nature lovers for nearly 70 years.  In its early years, Hog Island was home to the Abanaki people, who fished in its clam-rich waters.  In the late 1600s, the island was purchased by European settlers who cleared the lands to establish farms, which are still evident today by centuries old rock walls. Like many islands off the coast of New England, Hog Island was named after the livestock that roamed its new-world pastures.

A Family Dedicated to the Natural World

Due to the fortuitous trip of two strong-willed nature lovers, the island was purchased and preserved before it could be settled.  In the summer of 1908, David Todd, a professor of Astronomy at Amherst College, and his wife, Mabel Loomis Todd, a woman accomplished in art, literature and the natural world, visited Hog Island while cruising along the coast of Maine.  Mabel Loomis Todd, appalled by the haphazard timbering she saw, was determined to save the island and took steps to purchase it.

The Todds built a bungalow on the shore of Hog Island, where they enjoyed summers and raised their daughter Millicent. She would soon learn to recognize common birds before she could write.  Her father would explore the heavens and her mother studied the flowers, ferns and mushrooms, and served as the island’s first conservation steward by protecting the area from hunters and careless picnickers.  There were always lessons to be learned about the woods, heavens, and ocean when the Todds were on Hog Island.  It was a magical experience — and one they knew would require a special commitment to ensure that experience for future generations.

In 1932 Millicent Todd Bingham inherited the island upon the death of her mother.  She said,

“When I walked through the woods and listened to the Thrushes, the cry of the Osprey circling over head, or the boom of the Great Horned Owl at night, I could never feel that I owned such a place.  It seemed, rather, the property of all who cherished it and who wished to preserve it for others who would cherish it likewise in years to come.”

early-island-120x176.jpgWith enormous determination, many road blocks to overcome, and the life insurance money her mother had left her, Millicent was able to find a willing partner to protect this great island in the National Audubon Society’s newly elected Executive Director John H. Baker in 1935.  The timing could not have been more perfect, as the leader of this respected group had been looking for a place to launch the organization’s first Nature Study Camp for Teachers and Adult Students.

A Pioneering Concept That Changed Conservation

The Audubon Society has always attracted scientists and environmental leaders who are pioneers in thought, study, and practice concerning the most expansive ways to protect our natural world.  It was this devoted group of leaders who recognized that growing a sustained and genuine interest in the natural world would lead children and adults to support the critical need for conservation of all natural resources.

It was here that teaching about the complex interdependence of all forms of life, from the 150 varieties of birds identified on the island to the ferns, lichens, and mosses of the forest, became a model for environmental educators.  It was the vision of Audubon that all who stayed at the camp would gain this awareness and learn the skills to become responsible environmental citizens.

Hog Island’s Influence – A National Landmark for Learning

What began as a dream has become one of the nation’s and conservation’s greatest success stories.  The teaching staff includes some of the most respected naturalists and environmental educators in the country, and they interpret the special habitats of, and surrounding, Hog Island with care and enthusiasm for all learning levels. Most importantly, even today they demonstrate the interaction of natural systems.  This combination has provided a unique experience for more than 20,000 teachers, who have in turn reached outward to hundreds of thousands of additional students since the camp’s inception.

Many conservation leaders have launched their environmental careers from the Hog Island Audubon Camp.  Several have gone on to make significant contributions to conservation on a national scale. Rupert Cutler served as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in the late 70’s. Roger Tory Peterson became the recognized originator of the field guide and published the Peterson Field Guide Series.  Steve Kress reintroduced puffins and terns to several nearby islands off the Maine coast. Rachel Carson gleaned inspiration in the 1960’s on Hog Island. Few can spend time on Hog Island and not be fundamentally affected by its profound beauty, ecological significance and astute lessons it offers about the natural world.


Hog Island Today

The Experience Remains Priceless

Recognizing the difficulties of operating the camp from a distance, National Audubon transferred ownership of the camp and the mainland Todd Audubon Sanctuary to Maine Audubon in 2000.  The sanctuary is open to the public and enjoyed by many visitors from the local community as well as from those out of state who walk its nature trails or learn about the camp at the Visitors Center exhibits.

Today, camp leaders and participants travel from all over the country to experience the magic of Hog Island. The staff continues to offer first-class instruction that leaves a lasting impression. The length of sessions vary from four days to two weeks, and many are designed with specific people and interests in mind such as teachers, conservation professionals, families, teens or even those wishing to connect with nature through yoga.

But the Facilities Need a Face Lift.

Like many historic and national treasures, Hog Island has a backlog of deferred maintenance. The camp facilities today do not reflect the enormous importance and history of the island and its programs.

Maine Audubon recently convened a Planning Committee — consisting of neighbors, independent camp administrators, current and former campers, and educators — to assess the needs of the facility and to determine what actions could be taken to meet growing opportunities and demands.  Contracting firms were brought out to the island to assist in devising a renovation plan for the facilities.  The objectives were to address all infrastructure concerns, maximize the spaces available and upgrade the entire facility to a level that not only meets the current needs, but celebrates Hog Island’s significance to thousands of former and future visitors from all over the world.

Assuring the Legacy Continues

To ensure the future of Hog Island Audubon Camp and to build a strong foundation for continued programming, it was determined that a multi-million dollar investment is needed for building and equipment needs and an endowment as detailed below.

Rehabilitating the Main Camp, and other Buildings. “The Bridge” — which is the main building that houses the dining hall, kitchen, store, island office, and lodging for student assistants — needs significant renovation.  Also in need of significant renovation are the Porthole, a camper dormitory, and the Wash House, a bathroom and laundry facility, along with general improvements to other buildings.

Creating More Classroom Space. Converting the Crow’s Nest Dorm into a classroom space will allow the camp to take full advantage of both its architecture and spectacular location by emphasizing its views of outer Muscongus Bay.

Adding A New Program Boat. Acquiring a new boat to replace the Puffin IV program boat will dramatically lower current maintenance costs and improve the camp’s ability to accommodate larger groups comfortably.

Improving Energy Efficiency. We wish to replace the underwater electrical cable from the mainland to the island with a modern and efficient source of energy for the island.

Building New Dormitories. We would replace the Crow’s Nest Dorm — with its capacity for 16 campers in one large room — with one new camper dormitory providing modern semi-private accommodations and capacity for 24 campers.  Also, replacing current small staff dorms with one dormitory would be immensely more efficient and cost effective.

Establishing an Endowment. There is no substantive endowment fund with which to address the operational needs, including program improvements, of Hog Island.  Even with a fee structure, in order for the facility to be truly open to everyone, Maine Audubon offers scholarships, and keeps the fees as low as possible.  Doing so does not cover the costs of running the camp. It would be wise to build an endowment for the future of the camp.

Determining What is Feasible

Although Maine Audubon has identified the financial goal to guarantee the future of this conservation landmark, the organization must first ascertain what can feasibly be raised through private philanthropy for the facility and program needs to be met.  We will be speaking with close neighbors and key benefactors of Hog Island to determine what level of support is possible in order to continue the legacy of Hog Island Audubon Camp and Todd Audubon Sanctuary.  It is my hope that you will join in this effort, in the spirit of the Todd family’s founding vision, and help save this island once again for generations to come.

Memorable days of childhood

I attended the Audubon Youth Camp on Hog Island thirteen years ago, when I was just 10 years old. I actually won a scholarship to attend through an essay contest in the Audubon newspaper we received in my fourth grade class.

I have never forgotten the experience I had while on Hog Island … those were the most memorable 10 days of my childhood. The experiences being in the environment, being in nature, were ones I will never again be able to match.

Those were the most memorable 10 days of my childhood.

I specifically remember the fun I had getting all muddy at the mud flat. I also loved the boat ride where we dropped a net and then brought it up to see all the creatures we had collected along the way. But most of all I remember being in the Fish House at night singing all the songs. I met the most wonderful people while at the camp and kept in touch with a few campers after we left.

Now I am about to graduate from college, and I was recently assigned to write a paper on any topic for a leisure studies class. I was trying to think of something that really had an impact on my life, something that I could remember the most vivid details about. The first thing that came to my mind was the camp on Hog Island.

As I revisit my memories — along with looking at the Web site — I thought I’d comment on what a wonderful experience it was for me. I’m so happy to see that it has been such a successful program as the years have passed.

A choice determined long ago

klinger-120-2004.jpgTo employ the vehicle of planned giving to benefit a special place in Maine was a decision in which I had no choice and precious little say — because my gift was determined long before I arrived on the scene.

My gift was determined one summer day in 1908 when Mabel Loomis Todd, sailing Muscongus Bay with her husband, David Todd, first saw Hog Island and endeavored to buy it to safeguard its spruce and fir forests.

My choice was renewed in New York City on a spring afternoon in 1935, when Mrs. Todd’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, enlisted the support of the venerable National Audubon Society in creating a nature camp for adults on Hog Island — a radical concept in depression-era America, but one that opened with acclaim the following year, and has endured for nearly 70 successive summers, now under Maine Audubon’s direction.

My decision was endorsed on an August morning in 1960, when Rachel Carson and other midcoast neighbors joined Mrs. Bingham to witness her donation of Hog Island to Audubon as the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary. “Those of us whose business it is to study the American landscape … know the rarity and value of such areas,” Yale University’s Paul Sears said at that little ceremony alongside a Hog Island path. “Natural areas do not, like jewels or precious metal, remain firmly constant in amount while the generations of man increase. Instead, their abundance, size and condition change inversely in relation to human numbers.”

For me, planned giving is much like the planting of tulip bulbs before the onset of winter — the ultimate expression of faith in better things to come in spring.

Of what good — what lasting import, now — are the words and gifts of these people, without me as the living instrument of their will? In whom does the stewardship of their legacy reside, if not in me and others, compelled by posterity to make good on their initial down payment toward the common good?

For me, giving is an obligation — one cheerfully undertaken, but an obligation nonetheless, to predecessors I never knew and to successors I will never meet. It is an optimistic endorsement of all that has come before me, and all that will follow. For me, planned giving is much like the planting of tulip bulbs before the onset of winter — the ultimate expression of faith in better things to come in spring.

Maine Audubon has given me the choice of participation and involvement, as it has to all who seek to contribute to its mission of conserving Maine’s wildlife and habitat through its varied programs and activities.

But, in reality, I have no choice at all, if I am to remain true to everything that took place before I first trod down a Hog Island trail.

For even though my future bequests to Maine Audubon’s Audubon Camp at Hog Island was arrived at willingly and lovingly, its genesis was predetermined … and the consequences of my action remain a hostage to posterity.

David Klinger is president of Friends of Hog Island. He lives in rural West Virginia, and dreams of Maine.

Photo: Ryan Hagerty

“My expectations were surpassed”

colleen_webster.jpgBefore I even departed for Hog Island, Maine, I had so much to learn. As an English professor come late to the study of natural history, I’ve been playing catch up for three years now, birding with experts, hiking with naturalists. But mostly I’ve been reading. It’s what I do best, so it’s what I did to prepare for my trip six states north.

I read about the geologic events that created the rocky points that jutted out of the water along the state’s southern coast, how their thin soil now supported few trees outside of spruce and evergreens.

I read about the tidal pool homes of various rockweed, arthropods, sea stars, eels, crabs and other shellfish.

I read about Hog Island’s human history of hosting pigs for early settlers’ food supply when it was too cold to harvest fish and lobster and the rocky land prevented successful farming. I read about Mabel Loomis Todd who summered on this 333-acre spot of forest and determined to leave it to a conservation group who would ensure its preservation.

I read about John Wortman, birder and naturalist, whose memorial scholarship had been bestowed on me by the Maryland Ornithological Society to attend this Natural History of the Coast of Maine camp run by Audubon Maine.

Lastly, I read directions and maps, loaded my car, and headed north.

I had no idea how truly unprepared I was to have my expectations surpassed.

The eleven-hour journey gave me much anticipation time. From the information packet I sensed I was going to love this whole week; the What To Bring list indicated nothing electric, no hair dryers, radios or TVs. A whole week free of references to reality shows, rock celebrities and the latest hair-do trends? True nirvana for this anti-pop culture soul.

All the words of great naturalist writers rang through my thoughts. I realized I was not striking rough camp in the wilderness, but I did feel I was going, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “to learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” I was looking forward to expertly led walks, lectures, expeditions and good old camp camaraderie, grown-up style. I had no idea how truly unprepared I was to have my expectations surpassed.

The hilly terrain, light fog and sea air welcomed me to the dip from the mainland to the boat dock. As my bags were loaded onto the transport boat, I received my name tag and peered through a scope at my first life bird of the stay, a Black Guillemot, calmly bobbing among the lobster trap buoys.

Minutes later the first arriving group of campers boarded the Puffin IV only to disembark a few hundred yards away. Sheets and towels all around and we tramped off to various accommodations, mine being the distant Crows’ Nest, an open cabin slowly filling with single women.

After our first of many fresh, homemade dinners, all 43 campers were immersed in our first activity: preparing various rockweeds to be pressed onto watercolor paper, cooking down some to thicken vanilla pudding, adding some to cucumber for seaweed salad.

Over the next few days, we walked a bird trail originally taken by Hog Island’s first ornithology teacher, Roger Tory Peterson; I tried to feel his painterly empathy with the nesting Eastern Kingbird, the flitting Ruby Throated Hummingbird. I imagined the osprey we saw were descendants of those saved by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, her wake-up call to the effects of DDT. We hiked to a cabin where Mabel Loomis Todd worked on the first three editions of poems by her Amherst neighbor, Emily Dickinson. I never stopped seeing, from Harris’ Checkerspot butterflies, to the little cone middens of buzzy red squirrels.

All in all, we spent the week watching birds, or rather looking for them, at 6 each morning, hearing all five of the breeding warblers on the island and seeing many of them: Black Throated Green, Blackburnian, Yellow-Rumped, Northern Parula, and Magnolia. We climbed rocky shores and waded in the bay to find fish, crabs, mussels, dogwhelk and periwinkles. We learned about butterfly mimicy, the migration of monarchs and our human way of tagging and tracking their yearly orange streams north and south. We devoured cookies hot from the oven after standing in fields catching and identifying insects, examining frogs and young eels from the far-off Sargasso Sea.

We learned the significance of each cup of coffee, its relation to the Amazon Rainforest and the wintering grounds of so many of our own summering warblers and other passerines. We boated through Muscongus Bay to visit the now-famous Eastern Egg Rock, an eight-acre island where Atlantic Puffins have been re-introduced to nest by pioneering Steve Kress and his team of steadfast workers.

We watched the sun slipping down over what Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett called The Country of Pointer Firs.

On our last night, drinking wine and eating lobster, we stood around on the still-wet grass and watched the sun slipping down over what Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett called The Country of the Pointed Firs in her famous novel. We had become quite a talkative, chummy crew, from the 20-somethings who worked as Park Naturalists, to the Moms taking some time for themselves, to the couples enjoying a learning vacation. One couple was even there as a gift from their children and grandchildren, celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary.

We had come from Florida, Connecticut, Washington state, Ohio, New York, from jobs, from families, from houses with the demands of daily duty. Some of us had never seen a warbler, some could bird by ear, some hated bugs, some willingly placed butterflies on our noses. But no matter our starting place, together, we learned so much from phenomenal instructors who never failed to inspire.

I am not sure what the other 42 took home, but I know what is etched in my bones, in my awareness.

The sound of a Black Throated Green warbler singing away at the foggy stillness.

The serene presence of Sea Bird Sue who spent five summers on Egg Rock monitoring puffins.

The green significance of ferns, lichen and moss.

The relaxed exuberance of Mark who reels off insect orders and swings his butterfly net.

The quiet circle of kingfisher feathers from a hawk’s kill.

The perseverance of Bonnie who has returned to Equador for 18 years to study the Rainforest birds, carrying what Terry Tempest Williams calls “the grief that dares us to love once more.”

The call of a solitary loon amid morning lobster boats.

The patience of Tom answering each of my myriad questions, “yes, Colleen, the oscines can learn songs” with detail and care.

The glaring whiteness of a Roseate Tern as it returns to its nest.

I have learned to see more in this world and to love it better. I learned I have a lot more to learn, but realize I am rewarded already when I remember Maine writer Henry Beston’s words from 80 years ago: ”The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.” I may not have lived alone on the Cape Cod shore for a year, but I went to a cabin on an island and I forged a bridge from the wild to my tame heart.

I am so grateful for this thickening of my blood that I will be a long time leading others to wildness.

Colleen Webster is a college professor from Havre de Grace, Maryland.


Hog Island has almost always been a part of my life. My journey here started not, like most people, when I was ten or eleven, but when I was seven and I came to drop off my oldest brother. I can remember driving down that hill. It was a sunny day, so the ocean sparkled and the island looked green and bright. I have been many places in my life, but it was, and still is, the most beautiful place I have ever seen.


That bit of summer is still clear in my mind. As we crossed the clear blue-green ocean on the boat, I thought about this lovely, but strange, island-camp. It was strange to me because I had no knowledge of biology or ecology, or even what any of that was! All I knew was that my brother thought he was going to have a terrible time at this “science camp.” How wrong he was…

Camp will come to mind every time I hear the ocean, or feel the breeze, or watch the stars shining in the night sky.

The day we picked him up, he didn’t want to leave. He was so happy. He said it had been the best ten days of his life.

A few years passed, and then it was my turn to experience this wonderful camp. I felt so many emotions as I crossed that bay. I was nervous and worried, but in the back of my mind, I think I knew that as long as I was on this beautiful island, everything would be alright.

Those ten days were amazing, as were the next, and the next. They were filled with too many memories and friends and thoughts and laughs to even begin to put here. I remember great conversations on the boat; warm, happy meals; sitting on the glistening, white rocks during recreation time. I discovered and learned about all these new things: bird life, ecology, the forest — even food waste. I suddenly became fascinated with the world around me. Every hour was fun, and every day was magical.

But now my ten-day adventure is once again ending, perhaps for the last time. I know I won’t lose the island, though. I’ll remember every moment here, good and bad. They are too strong in my memory to be forgotten. And camp will come to mind every time I hear the ocean, or feel the breeze, or watch the stars shining in the night sky. I found them here, and I will always take the with me.

But I discovered more than that here … I discovered myself. And as I sit on this wet rock — gazing at the gray islands in the distance, hearing the familiar ocean crashing upon the rocks, and thinking about past years — I can honestly say that this island, and all its beauty, moments and memories, have changed my life forever.

Julie Seifert was winner of the 2003 Essay Contest.