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The Green Life: A Conversation with "We Were an Island" Author Peter Blanchard

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July 22, 2011

A Conversation with "We Were an Island" Author Peter Blanchard

Island in fog In 1949, Art and Nan Kellam moved to Placentia Island, off the coast of Maine, to live alone for 36 years, in love with the land and each other. The couple loved nothing better than the days when fog enveloped the island, leaving them in complete seclusion. When Art died, Nan deeded the island to the Nature Conservancy. She also granted access to her daily journals, the couple’s “big-book” manuscript, and all their correspondence to Peter Blanchard, the island's steward. In 2010, Blanchard published their remarkable love story, We Were an Island. We spoke with him about what he found alluring in the life of Art and Nan.

Q: Were Art and Nan environmentalists?

A: They are not the pure, back-to-nature folks — they’re really much more middle American in the sense that they were interested in nature at the start and don’t know terribly much about it. They make these wonderful misidentifications in their descriptions but over time they get binoculars and several field guides.

They really were concerned about protecting Placentia from lumbering development. They loved the land intensely and protected it. There is a theme of multiple layers of time, almost like sedimentary deposits of periods of occupation, periods of nature coming back. There is this one moment when they look at the sea from the foundations of this earlier inhabitant, from the 1820s. What was it like for him, standing up on this rise and looking out at everything that was part of his world and his kingdom? However fixated we are in the importance of our moment, there are other moments, more moments. We just hope that the one that follows it is the appropriate recognition of all that has come before — and I’m thinking about nature here.

Q: Much of the story's poetry comes from Art and Nan’s personal reflections. What was your favorite passage of theirs?

A: The one with the "thousand-masted island" because of the island being boatlike. Being in a dory is like being on an island. The island was called Placentia, an English misunderstanding of the original French word plaisance, which means "pleasure," right? But it doesn’t. It translates as this small boat meant for free time, a boat that one gets into to have pleasure. This island looks like a boat, it was named Placentia, then the locals called it Placent, and then the locals used Placent for the dory and then for the couple. They were recognized as their island.

Q: As the island's steward, you brought Nan back for a visit every summer. What was it like to watch her return? 

A: She would say, “I need to go to the house.” That’s where she and Art had their lives. Once she actually went to the sink, and she took invisible dishes from the dish rack, wiped them with an invisible rag, and put them back in place in a rhythmic movement, looking out the window with a great smile on her face. It’s a sense of place. They were not wealthy, and when you buy an island like that, you enter into an engagement. You’re tied to it.

Q: How did you get involved with the Nature Conservancy?

A: At the time of meeting Nan, I was actually looking into my own possibilities of owning an island. In my case, I’ve a history of doing some really difficult, silly things like acquiring islands just before they are going to be developed. There is this one island that had stakes all over it and the survey guys  were all out there with chainsaws, and I said, you know what? This can’t happen here, in an area of Native American settlement that it was specifically known for so I paid the price that a developer would have got. It’s designated permanently wild."

Peter Blanchard lives on Mount Desert Island, Maine, just a few miles from Placentia.

--interview by Juliana Hanle

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