The Isle of Circe by Phillip Conkling

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By Philip Conkling
Photograph by Peter Ralston
Excerpt from our April 2022 issue

Imagine being part of the crew of a ship in 1605 that crossed the stormy North Atlantic, on an expedition to map the New World for King George of England. After grueling weeks at sea, the ship Archangel, commanded by George Waymouth, made landfall at Monhegan Island. But Waymouth, along with the ship’s surgeon and naturalist, James Rosier, recognized that Monhegan was an exposed anchorage, so they sailed cautiously to the mainland, taking soundings as they went. The crew anchored off 450-acre Allen Island. We know all of this because Rosier left a detailed account of their journey, including comprehensive observations of the flora and fauna and early inhabitants of pre-colonial Maine.

Rosier’s account – “A True Relationship”, its title described it – of their two-month exploration of the midcoast fascinated the late Betsy Wyeth, the wife of artist Andrew Wyeth, after he purchased Allen Island in 1980. Betsy had heard that the island had a grove of ancient yellow birches, possibly dating back to Waymouth’s time, and since I had found and described these trees for Maine’s Critical Areas Program, she told me contacted and asked me to take him there.

For much of the next 40 years, Betsy created strikingly beautiful landscapes, not only on Allen Island, but also on adjacent Benner Island, across the narrow gut that Waymouth named Pentecost Harbour, for the holiday during which his men observed the first Anglican service in the New World. . When Betsy bought Allen, she found an island that had gone wild. By the turn of the 20th century, the once thriving community of Allen and Benner fishing families had migrated ashore. Pastures that had once supported large flocks of sheep were a tangle of stunted white birch, gnarled spruce and alder. Betsy reclaimed old pastures and opened new ones, reintroduced sheep, rebuilt the docks, and built dormitories, libraries, and barns on both sides of the harbor. She built a wharf for the lobster boats that fished around the coasts of the islands. His vision was to create a diverse working community that would honor the islands’ (and region’s) past, a community that would welcome and create meaningful experiences for generations of scholars, artists, fishers and students.

Allen and Benner is also where Andrew Wyeth painted many of his most fascinating and haunting late works. Betsy, like the Homeric enchantress Circe, created a magical new world, and Andrew followed and fell for the spell she cast there. It was just as she had done with him on Southern Island, in Tenants Harbor, where he painted in the caretaker’s house she had renovated, and at her family’s Broad Cove Farm in Cushing, where the couple had met when Betsy was 17 and Andrew a sensational young artist of 21.

Several months ago, Colby College President David Greene and Jamie Wyeth, Betsy’s son, announced that Colby would take over ownership and management of the two islands. They are to become an environmental science research station and a place where students from all walks of life can find inspiration for their studies. The natural history, human history and aesthetic beauty of the islands are richly intertwined, creating a stunning microcosm that will be an inspiring natural library for students to explore, with the pieces of creation spreading out before them, around them. and on them. Worlds within worlds are revealed in places like these, small parts of Maine that have always captured the imagination of its sailors and artists, locals and visitors – and will hopefully do so as long as the island land will continue to spin.


Philip Conkling is a Camden-based environmental consultant and the author of Islands in Time: A Natural and Cultural History of the Islands of the Gulf of Maine. Photographer Peter Ralston lives in Rockport and operates the Ralston Gallery. In 1983, the couple co-founded the Island Institute and its flagship publication, The Island Diary.


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