Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Allure of the Isles of Shoals

Why am I writing about the Isles of Shoals?  Because, after hearing for years about these lowlying fogbound rocks, seven miles out to sea off the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire--a time during which, in my imagination, they acquired the allure of mystery, beauty, and tragedy--now I finally get to go to one of them, Star Island, to teach art for a week.

Have you ever heard of them? If you've spent any time on the coast of Maine or New Hampshire, as I have, you'll know them as the place from which the National Weather Service broadcasts its forecasts.  That's how I first heard of them.  Listening to those forecasts coming in on my weather radio from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Isle of Shoals station, , I pictured a chilly place with a bell buoy tolling in the background.

Then I started learning, haphazardly and without specific intention, about the reality of the Isles of Shoals.

First I read The Weight of Water, a haunting novel by Anita Shreve, focusing on a murder that took place among the Isles of Shoals, on Smuttynose Island, in 1873.  That enigmatic story told me that the Isles, barren as they are, are lived in and on, and have been.

Later I learned that they were even a popular resort in the 19th century, with the Oceanic Hotel operating on Star Island, the Mid-Ocean House on Smuttynose, and Appledore House on Appledore.  Appledore House, presided over by Celia Thaxter,  daughter of a light keeper, attracted luminaries including Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sarah Orne Jewett, William Morris Hunt, and Childe Hassam.

As I gardener, I learned that Hassam, one of my favorite American Impressionists, had painted Thaxter's stunning garden on Appledore.

In fact, Hassam's paintings, and Thaxter's writing, have been published together in a slipcase volume called An Island Garden, which I was lucky enough to receive as a gift from my friend Laurel.

Thaxter's gardens have been restored as part of the University of New Hampshire's Shoals Marine Laboratory, and people who plan ahead and make reservations can still visit them. 

I also heard about Appledore from my friend Andy, who visits that island at least once a year.  Andy is an HR professional who is also a birder, and the Isles of Shoals are the focus of her bird-banding trips.

Then, when I started going to a Unitarian church, the Unitarian Society of Hartford,, I learned about Star Island.  I heard people talking about the island as a beloved destination for family visits.  The Oceanic Hotel is still standing there,

and in the spring and summer seasons, it's the site of themed conferences and personal retreats administered by the Star Island Corporation, which is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ  In administering these programs, the Star Island Corporation seeks to create an environment that "frees all who come to renew spiritually, explore matters of consequence, and gain knowledge about the world as it might ideally be."

Still, I'd never been there, to Star or any of the other Isles of Shoals, when the story of a life-changing experience on Star Island made a profound impression on me.  The story came from one of my co-congregants at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, Karl Peters, a Professor Emeritus of Religion at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida, speaking from the pulpit.   Peters describes this transformative experience in his book, Spiritual Transformation:  Science, Religion, and Human Becoming, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006, but that day he told the story at a Sunday service.

Peters said that he had been on Star Island attending a session of the Institute of Religion in and Age of Science, when he experienced what he calls a "thin place"--"a Celtic Christian metaphor for coming in contact with the sacred, which is present all around and in and through us, but which often is hidden from us."

Thin places can also be places of worship, Peters said. One of his most memorable worship experiences took place in a small stone chapel located on the highest point of Star island.  "Each night on Star Island," Peters writes, " the conference day closes with a simple candlelight service. Conferees carry candle lanterns from the porch of the hotel up the path to the chapel. Once inside they hang the lanterns on sconces, bathing the chapel in its only source of light. It’s a beautiful setting.

"One time in the early 1970s the Star Island chapel became for me a thin place. The conference had been a wonderful week of exciting ideas and meaningful conversations. I felt good as I walked up the path to the chapel in silence, carrying my lantern. Ahead of me I noticed that some were looking north at the sky. When I turned, I saw the most magnificent display of northern lights I had ever seen. In the chapel I sat in the back corner. As was customary in those days at our religion and science conference, the Friday night candlelight was a Jewish Shabbat service, conducted by Rabbi Jerome Molino and his wife Rhoda Molino from Danbury, CT. The service was all in Hebrew. I did not understand a word. But as I sat in this candle-lit stone chapel, listing to the sacred sounds of the service, something came over me. I can’t describe it. The whole week, the aurora borealis, the chapel all came together in an absolutely thrilling way. I sat there in silence, tingling, emotionally moved to tears at the beauty of what I felt. Today, I would say that I was experiencing a thin place."

Peters' words never left me.  They, and the lonely words from the National Weather Service, The Weight of Water, Celia Thaxter's garden, and my friend Andy's birding, all gave the Isles of Shoals a sharp allure in my imagination.

And now  I get to go there.  I've been invited, by the Star Island Corporation, to teach at Star Arts Week this year from June 17 to 24.  I'll be teaching The Felted Landscape, and I'm thrilled to be seeing the grand old Oceanic Hotel and the stone chapel.  I'm told there will even be a trip to Appledore Island to see Thaxter's garden some time during the week.

I'm excited.  And I'm going to read The Weight of Water again.


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