Quiet island provides change in perspective

At night, the only motorized sound you hear on Monhegan Island is the low moan of the foghorn warning ships away from the 1-mile-square piece of rock that lies 10 miles off the Maine coast.

As dusk settles in, a hush descends on the island, which has no street lights or streets, for that matter. A narrow lane with a smattering of gravel connects the wharf with a handful of hotels, stores and restaurants and the homes of the island's 70 permanent residents.

About the only sounds you hear are conversations from the porches of the hotels and residences — mostly tourists willing to brave the mosquitoes out in full force on a September evening.

My wife and I were on our third trip to Maine. The first introduced us to the beauty of the coastline, Mt. Desert Island and Acadia National Park, which surrounds the town of Bar Harbor.

The Maine Coast is not a major agricultural area. Farmers once cleared fields of trees and rocks and planted corn and potatoes that fit the short growing season. Most have been crowded out by tourism and residential developments.

That's not a drawback when you're looking for a break from the pressure of covering field days and WTO negotiations. The closest most visitors get to agriculture is the blueberry pancakes in area restaurants.

This was our first trip to Monhegan Island, made famous by artists Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. The afternoon we left, the hillside behind the wharf was dotted with painters and their easels.

Monhegan boasts four or five pickups mostly used to haul tourists' luggage to the hotels. No other vehicles are permitted. Everyone else walks — to the store, the restaurants, the island's library, or the 17 miles of hiking trails to its spectacular headlands.

I'm not advocating that the rest of the country adopt Monhegan's mode of transportation. It would be like trying to feed the U.S. population from the dozens of organic farms that dot the highways around Maine.

One farm near Ellsworth looked like a patchwork quilt of corn and vegetable plots, probably the most one person could handle with a hoe and two bricks. The farm, probably three acres in size, might keep the town of Ellsworth in squash and zucchini for a year, but how anyone could expect such farming to feed Portland, Maine, for example, escapes me.

It's obvious the idea of organic or low-input farming has an appeal to residents of Maine, which has two or three state forests and a tidal pool named for Silent Spring author Rachel Carson. That appeal may help explain the anti-pesticide mentality that seems to pervade the Northeast.

Two weeks in Maine can change your perspective, but then you have to come back to the real world. On the flights from Portland home, flight attendants thanked soldiers returning for brief leaves from Iraq. In both cases, other passengers applauded. A soldier's wife and three small children met the Atlanta-Memphis flight.

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