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At Home in the Wild: What I Learned as Poet-in-Residence on the Boston Harbor Islands – by Brian Sonia-Wallace

Just beyond the skyscrapers, there are wild islands in Boston Harbor. A series of “drowned drumlands,” they are peaks formed by glaciers during the last ice age and are now sunk in the Atlantic. Today they are a dazzling archipelago of blackberry thickets and quaint New England cottages, with the Boston skyline looming on the horizon during sunset. Shortly before the pandemic, I served for two weeks as the islands’ Poet-in-Residence.

The islands are only accessible by ferry, with just a handful of trips a day, or private boat. At high tide, they comprise 1600 acres of land, swelling to 3500 acres at low tide. With constant erosion from wind and waves and perpetual threats to parks system funding for restoration, every day they disappear a little more. I’ll spend my two weeks on the islands alongside painter Robin MacDonald-Foley, whose long-term artistic projects is photographing the trees on the eroding bluffs through the years, documenting their descent down the mountainside and into the sea. The islands themselves are slowly disappearing.

When I step off the ferry onto Peddocks Island, one of the largest in the archipelago of 34, Robin greets me on the docks. She has been living here for two weeks already and has a weathered, outdoorsy look about her, blond hair pulled back into a no-nonsense New England ponytail under a Harbor Islands hat. There will be no ferries after this one, the islands become inaccessible at night. Robin tells me she’s been fretting about my arrival, though she’s in no way responsible for me. But she’s appointed herself my minder, and as she leads me inland she tells me about the comings and going of rangers and guests on this island, like she’s the mayor of Peddocks.

I am disappearing a little more each day while I am here, too. Over the next two weeks, I’ll spend my evenings sitting lonely on the docks, while my newly ex-lover drives across the country to grad school. This ex with the panic attacks, the academic mind, and the video games. I’ve always been the one to leave my relationships — but he beat me to the punch. In my time on the island, we speak for hours on the phone. Our voices pressed into the robot seashells on our ears, me watching the sun set on the water, him behind the wheel. We both ask: what are we doing with our lives? No answer comes from the bonfires, the twinkling skyline of city lights above calm water. By the time he arrives on the east coast, I will fly back home.

But now, I’m just arriving. Robin marches me proudly through the historic grounds of Fort Andrews to the yurts we’ll be staying in, near the gun batteries. The islands are littered with abandoned forts that served in the revolutionary war and civil war and second world war, a testament to the perpetual arms race against an enemy that was always a threat but never came to Boston. These forts never saw gunfire. On Peddocks, the brick buildings have largely been demolished through a mix of arson and planned demolitions, and more crumble past the point of saving every day. As we walk, fireflies start to emerge.

We’ll be staying in yurts, permanent cloth tents with two bunk beds apiece by the grills and picnic tables. Everything we have we’ve had to carry with us on the ferry. “I’m down to canned tuna and lemon for dinner!” Robin tells me, a little gleefully. My spoiled LA sensibilities balk a bit at the sweat and bugs and slowly warming turkey lunchmeat, but the hardships of island life seem to invigorate Robin. “Hey, I’m an islander!” she tells me gleefully.

Over my bologna sandwich and her canned tuna, Robin tells me her family’s history on the island. They weren’t wealthy, growing up in south Boston, but her parents and their siblings pooled resources to get an island cottage here on Peddocks, which became a glorious summer escape and a community they rooted into. She calls herself a “second generation islander.”

After dinner, we walk down the beach at sunset, and Robin reminisces about going clamming growing up. They’d pump water from a well to boil the clams on a pot-belly stove. “Now you can’t even pass the cottages down between generations,” Robin says, sadly. As a national park, when the landowners die their buildings are returned to the state via eminent domain. As we pass site after site, Robin points out the bare ground and scrub which are all that’s left of her youth’s bustling cottages, now demolished as the individuals who owned them died and the land was reclaimed. But when we come to a pink house on the inner part of the cove, she gets excited: “That was the party house!” she tells me. “When I was a girl, you could hear the chips slamming at all hours of the night from poker games.” It’s boarded up now.

The islands were reclaimed as a National Park in 1996, after decades of clean-up that converted what was once one of the most polluted harbors in the world into one of the cleanest. The park system is trying to write a new narrative on the islands, which for centuries served as asylums and trash dumps, places to put the refuse of the city that no one wanted to see. Through the 20th Century, boaters could watch the methane-spewing trash heaps on Spectacle Island spontaneously combust, leaking toxins into the water the whole time. Boston Harbor was once considered one of the most polluted harbors in the world until a massive clean-up and restoration effort in 1996, opening the islands, which had been largely abandoned, up an urban public desperate to get back into nature. But at the end of the day, what has saved these islands are the ghost stories.

Writer and journalist Edward Rose Snow wrote a series of short stories about the islands in the 1900s which sparked the public’s imagination about the old forts on this former trash-heap. Reading wild flights of fancy set in a place that they could easily touch, but never really thought about, people decided they wanted to visit. The ferries followed, and tourists, and funding, as people came not for any real history, but for a history that had been invented.

The speedboat whirs me, white-knuckling my typewriter case, across the water to Fort Warren, another artifact of the islands’ military history — and one that’s said to be haunted. I leave the typewriter to go on a fort tour, where the ranger turns on a flashlight in one dark tunnel to recount, to squeals of horror and delight for visiting kids, the legend of the Lady in Black. The islands are full of ghost stories and the rangers are master storytellers, spinning the yarn of a Civil War-era wife who died trying to jailbreak her husband.

“Is the Lady in Black real?” a little kid asks their mom, tugging on her shirt.

“Everything the ranger says is true,” the mom sighs tiredly without looking down.

Out of the tunnel, the ranger grins and says that of course there was never even a woman imprisoned on this island, let alone a grizzly execution and a haunting. But if no one visits, tempted by the ghosts, then public use itself would be cut off from the islands, since the people who have lived here are becoming ghosts themselves. If the ghost stories are what keep Boston Harbor Islands National Park alive, my writing residency is part of the park’s grand enterprise to create a setting that tempts people out here to inspire them to write new stories over the old.

“People mostly come here to swim and recreate,” the ranger who orients me on my first day at Spectacle says, and I’m struck by the way that recreation, our word for a whole range of outdoor activities, breaks down into “to create, again.” What is being recreated, I wonder. The land? The people? Both?

“I don’t have a cottage but I can come book these yurts and spend time here,” Robin tells me. Before she knew she’d been chosen for this residency (our cohort is 3 people — the two of us and a native choreographer, who I never meet), Robin had actually booked another yurt for the same week. When she got her residency yurt, she invited friends out to take it over and spend time with her. She complains about having constant visitors, that it makes it tough to get her artwork done, but I can’t help thinking that she’s enjoying holding court over her own world. “My brothers and sisters live in other states and have families,” she tells me, “they don’t care about the islands anymore. I’m the one who keeps the tradition alive.” It runs deep for Robin – I later learn that her father’s ashes are scattered on these islands.

When Robin was a teenager, she lost her mother and her father moved to California, and the family lost their cottage. There are just a few more folks left who she knows. She’s constantly talking about “going into the village” and then deciding against it. “I don’t really know many people there anymore,” she says at one point, and at another, “they don’t really know me anymore. I’m kinda an outsider.” But still, fiercely, “I’m an islander. I don’t have a cottage, so I carry my cottage on my back with me wherever I go.”

Robin, a visual artist, is working in her residency on what she calls a “quilt” of drawings she’s invited people to make on each island, which has spread out on the second bed in her yurt when I first arrive. I realize the profound importance of being an artist “in residence” for Robin. It’s an official stamp that she has a place on these islands, still, an honor and an acknowledgement of her heritage and belonging on these islands. In some ways, I think, Robin is a displaced person. It wasn’t the state buy-outs that did it for her, but her own family’s turbulent history of sickness and migration, a history that could have affected anyone. A history there’s no coming back from, though that doesn’t stop her from trying.

My project is a quilt too, of a sort, though I’m not promising to organize it into anything coherent at the end. For years, I’ve had a practice of writing poems for strangers on a typewriter, interviewing them to make poems from their life stories. That’s what I’ll be doing during my time here, when I’m not pining — writing about other peoples’ loves.

As the public practice of my residency, I set up my typewriter on various islands and offer to write poetry for anyone who asks, and to let kids play on the keys. Mostly I write for tourists, excited to have an island summer 30 minutes from downtown Boston. The tourists mostly fall into three camps: local families with their kids (and a surprising number of grandparents with grandkids), foreign visitors, and old friends and family coming in from out of town and reconnecting with their Bostonian hosts in nature. An older woman comes up to me on George’s Island and tells me her brother is visiting from out of town, and she’d like a poem to celebrate the occasion. Like so many New Englanders I speak with, they grew up on the water. I write, for her:

You swam in,

Shirt over your head, and we were kids again

Growing up on the water.

The currents still connect us

Thought I don’t see nearly as much of you

                       as I’d like.

Let the numbers rest for these days

While we explore, while we wild ourselves

With hikes & harbor air,

While we remember

Family is a sort of vessel, too.

You have always been

a savvy navigator.

From this deck, with you as crew,

All harbors look like home.

What can home mean? The islands are a site of perpetual displacement, by the tides, by separation from the mainland. The other Artist in Residence, who I don’t meet, is a native person, and I wonder how much more profound is their displacement. What does it mean for a person to be an island, I wonder, to be cut off, submerged, removed from the constant exchanges and trends of the mainland.

A profound loneliness sets in each night on the island. Families make driftwood bonfires on the pebble beaches as the sun sets. The fields in front of the white church are full of geese. A buck gallops across the field, pauses, and then is gone, into the forest on the other side. Every 10 minutes, airplanes trace curves overhead, loud jet engines dispelling any illusion of quiet every time it tries to set in. A rainbow, a holdover from the summer thunderstorm that just passed, streaks the horizon and disappears.

I write poems for adults about family and loss, new beginnings and disconnecting in nature. But the typewriter is the biggest hit with kids. Kids always race up to the typewriter to hammer at the keys while their parents and grandparents hang back and reminisce with me about the typewriters they used in earlier days. The typewriter, like the island forts, is something that’s been put out of commission. In two generations that have spanned the typewriter to the iPad, my machine becomes a way for grandparents to talk with their grandchildren, an anchor to the past that promises to keep tradition alive for the future.

Deni, the DCH Regional Manager, says of the islands, “At the start of every year, I tell my staff that this place is going to change them. It’s gonna be hard. It’s going to show you what you can take. The islands engrain in you. Maybe it doesn’t change you – it becomes part of you.”

Like so many of the island staff, Deni started mowing lawns here 30+ years ago and never left, climbing up in management to the point where she isn’t on the islands much anymore. She tells me, “I have to book a yurt every summer to come out and get the island back in my spirit.” As I speak with her, she is getting down and dirty, pulling invasive vine weed that’s strangling a beach plum bush outside the visitor center. She offers me a beach plum to taste. It’s tart and sweet with a large pit, a cherry with a nautical twist.   It’s nearing the end of summer, and boats stop running to the islands after Labor Day until the next summer. “This is the time of year when we start to say goodbye to people,” Deni says sadly.

 There is nothing pristine about an island in full view of the downtown skyline, with jets booming constantly overhead. But there is something wild, a way of life so close to the city yet at a remove. I think of Thoreau at Walden Pond, how his supposed seclusion all happened in walking distance of amenities. Harbor is a noun but also a verb — to harbor something or someone. A harbor keeps safe, protects. Boston Harbor still protects the city from the forces of nature, and protected it militarily for 150 years. In an era of climate change and upheaval around the role of the national parks, what’s being protected is also a concept of nature itself.

So often, we view nature with humanity de-centered, displaced, given a role only when things go wrong. We sing the oil spill, the wildfire, the hurricane. At other times, for urban folks like me, the natural world fades into the background. The effect is a lack of bonds, of caring — how can we care about a place, an ideal, in which we do not see ourselves? Growing up out west, the “leave no trace” ethos was firmly instilled in me camping in the vast, empty deserts of Death Valley. I remember, growing up, my dad’s patient explanation for why we couldn’t take a rock home with us. “If everyone did that, there’d be none left,” he’d say.

But on Spectacle Island, day-trippers comb the beach for interesting pieces of sea glass to take home, and it’s littered with the stuff: centuries of human detritus worn smooth by the Bay, somewhere between natural and man-made. Or rather, like something man-made that’s been reclaimed by nature. A sort of ghost, another link to the past that is not part of the land, but has been shaped by it — worn smooth. The islands are carry on, carry off: whatever you bring, you have to bring back with you.            

We don’t always have to live somewhere for a long time to be *from* there in a meaningful way. This idea is encoded in the National Parks, in the notion of public lands. These islands belong to everyone who visits. To all of us. Even when we cannot come, they will always be there, held in trust, to return to. We are all a little wild. The wild is the home we long to return to.

Brian Sonia-Wallace

Brian Sonia-Wallace is an intimacy worker who creates collaborative public poetry about hopes, fears, memories, and dreams, mediated by the technology of the typewriter. He is the West Hollywood City Poet Laureate, a 2021-22 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow, and the author of The Poetry of Strangers: What I Learned Traveling America with a Typewriter. He runs a queer open mic in a trashy gay club and just lost his housing for the fourth time.

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