This summer Mark B. Odom left Finland again for a tiny island in the northeastern United States - where he struggled to disconnect from the rest of the world.
It is summer, the time of year I look forward to most. For those of us living in Finland, the lucky ones at least, summertime is synonymous with heading to a lake or seaside cottage. Not that I feel comfortable complaining about it – the nearest cottage I have access to happens to be located thousands of miles across the Atlantic, on Eagle Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine.
Eagle is a unique place, not only because the roughly mile-long, narrow island has remained virtually untouched by 20th century modernities like electricity, telephones and (for many of the roughly dozen cabins here) indoor plumbing.
My parents bought five acres of land on Eagle in the early 80s, but we’ve been coming to the island since I was a baby. Eagle is a unique place, not only because the roughly mile-long, narrow island has remained virtually untouched by 20th century modernities like electricity, telephones and (for many of the roughly dozen cabins here) indoor plumbing.
Many of the surrounding islands in the Penobscot are summer havens for old-moneyed families. Somehow though, Eagle Island’s summer feels a little more down to earth, and while a few here surely have more money than others, the island has a middle class feel, at least that’s my perception.
That has a lot to do with the fact that the island was owned by a single family until the late 70s, when they decided to sell off some of it in order to be able to continue living there. The Quinns have lived, worked and loved the island for more than two centuries. To this day, that same family – although the population drops to two Quinns in the off season – lives in a farmhouse on the remaining 103 acres they kept for themselves. During the harsh, long winter months the senior-aged couple perform island caretaking duties and live in an insulated section of their humbly majestic farmhouse.
We began clearing our western section of the island in the early summer of 1983. Our land creeps up a hill that overlooks a long sandy beach with a comforting tide that washes in and out. Our western wedge of the island – and much of the rest of the island at the time – was thick with spruce trees. The edge of the beach is lined with rosehip bushes, footprints of deer and the odd dismembered lobster buoy wedged in the sand.
At the time, I was thirteen and mostly listened to Zeppelin tapes and read short stories by Stephen King, but I actually did help my parents cut down trees and remove brush to make room for a modular kit house which became our clan’s rickety refuge.
It has now been more than 35 years since my parents started all of this; they were about my age when they started. The island’s criss-cross of muddy tractor trails and footpaths can pose a challenge for both young children as well as the old.
As my father nears 80 years of age, I wonder how many more summers he’ll be able to climb off boats and stumble over rocks and tree roots in the road without coming to the conclusion that it’d be easier to stay on the mainland with the comforts of cable TV, chocolate ice cream and an internet connection.
Thanks to the already-installed solar panels on the roof and satellite technology we could have a TV here but it never occurred to us to bring one.
Those are just three perks of modern life that we mostly don’t think about on the island. Living without the option of television is hardly a hardship. Thanks to the already-installed solar panels on the roof and satellite technology we could have a TV here but it never occurred to us to bring one. Well, that and cost. My parents and younger sister, who live on the island much more than I am able to, are on somewhat fixed incomes these days.
However, mobile data technology has changed how things work. A quarter of a century ago, in order to announce the birth of their first grandchild in the early 90s in faraway Finland, I had to make an expensive phone call to Edith, a kind, elderly lady with a lovely Maine accent who relayed the message on the CB radio from the mainland.
It was an exciting announcement for other islanders listening at at 8:30pm too, because that was when everyone turned on their CB radios every night to listen to news and gossip. Usually the talk over the crackling radio was more mundane, like grocery orders and mail boat passenger reservations. When my dad went to the mailboat the following morning in July 1991, as he did most every summer day back then, he received hugs and congratulations from those who’d heard Edith’s radioed announcement. He hadn’t tuned in the night before, so it was all news to him.
Yesterday my mother said that she doesn’t walk the mile or so to meet the mailboat in the mornings anymore because calling on the phone is so much easier.
Nowadays if we have something we want to tell my parents across the Atlantic we call for free on VOIP, but it doesn’t end there. Smartphones have made many things possible that not very long ago were unimaginable.
Nowadays if we have something we want to tell my parents across the Atlantic we call for free on VOIP, but it doesn’t end there. Smartphones have made many things possible that not very long ago were unimaginable. Try ordering stuff on Amazon and have it magically delivered to an island by a bearded mail boat captain a day or two later and you’ll know what I mean.
But the access comes at a cost, and I’m not sure it’s all good. Before, being on the island meant you were inaccessible – not to mention email and chatting apps – you were off the grid and could not be reached apart from a postcard or letter.
Last summer I made the mistake of getting a local SIM card on my iPhone so I could access the web without bothering better-connected neighbors for coveted – and expensive – hotspot access. But the ability to get online filled me with an unease that I could access everything the internet offers but really didn’t need – or want to.
It’s better to be entirely offline when you are here, if that makes any sense.
It’s better to be entirely offline when you are here, if that makes any sense. I’m writing this on a breezy day, with whitecaps on dark waves. The fast-moving clouds tone down the sun some, so it’s not too hot in the bunkhouse to sit with my internet-free laptop to write this down for you.
In a little while, I may pack the computer in a bag and walk up island to a better-connected neighbor to send this piece to Helsinki and I’ll probably send an email and one or two chat messages too. I’ll check social media, which almost always is bereft of anything that matters but especially so after a few days’ absence from it.
Sadly, my voracious – but generally fleeting – interest in all subjects on the web has robbed me of the ability to get through a whole book anymore.
I’m not trying to sound like a wanna-be luddite, I’m obsessively connected to the web most of my waking hours in civilization. Sadly, my voracious – but generally fleeting – interest in all subjects on the web has robbed me of the ability to get through a whole book anymore. Who am I kidding? I can’t even get through a New Yorker article.
Usually these days when I read a sentence that raises questions, I feel like “hey I should Google that.” Generally, I do look it up – but even if I don’t – I promptly forget what I was reading in the first place. Like many others in these modern times I’ve become somewhat attention deficient, I suppose.
But maybe that would change if I gave up the internet when I’m not on Eagle? I get all kinds of these silly ideas when I’m here, because almost as soon as I step foot on the uneven paths of this beautiful place I forget what “real life” is like.
Real life these days, at least according to the radio news announcers that reach Maine’s Midcoast, has a lot to do with social media. The United States is tits-deep in the most embarrassing election season in at least a century and there are mass shootings across the country; increasingly these tragedies are documented on social media as they occur.
On the island, the mass shootings and torturous campaign season seem distant and bizarrely remote
On the island, the mass shootings and torturous campaign season seem distant and bizarrely remote. If the weather clears up I’ll try to enjoy the breeze, maybe climb into the hammock and have a little nap while listening to the seagulls fight instead of our future world leaders.