Swan’s Island

One of my favorite movies of all time undoubtedly has to be Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson. It’s the kind of movie where no matter how many times I drink in its scenes soaked in a yellow tint of childhood nostalgia and accompanied by a soundtrack you absorbed from your grandma’s record player- no matter how many times I never seem to get sick of watching it. I watch Moonrise Kingdom and notice something new every time. As I grow older I relate to different characters and get different subtle jokes, and as my eyes bask in familiarity I realize that I wish to live in the actual scenes of New Penzance Island. When I got the opportunity to work in a small museum nestled on an island off the coast of Maine with a beautiful lighthouse and forests, swamps, creeks, and mountains just waiting to be adventured on- I knew part of my fantasy was coming true. But it wasn’t until I took a cramped ferry off of Mount Desert Island from Bass Harbor to Swan’s Island that I found myself surrounded by Anderson’s fantasy, or perhaps my own. 

When I drove my small Toyota Yaris onto the ferry I thought about how weird it was for a transportation vehicle to be transported by another one. I imagined all the fish and waves and seaweed-covered shells holding this big boat up. Fog surrounded our voyage and even the vision of twenty feet starboard was rare. When we arrived at the island it was only until I drove off the ferry when I realized my phone lacked service and therefore google maps: I really was stranded in a foreign place completely by myself. But it is just an island, right? How hard is it to get lost? I followed the car in front and turned right. Before I knew it I was driving on a foggy-covered piece of land in the middle of the grand ocean. I swear I saw swans fly overhead. 

Eventually, I made my way to the lighthouse where I met Sage. A local teenager born on the island, daughter of lobsterman and badass who swam the six miles in the freezing water to the mainland to raise money. Sage was essentially the lighthouse’s keeper and as we talked our conversation went from lighthouse guardianship to using the credit card scanner square to make transactions for our customers and visitors. I felt like I met a long-lost sister. As I made it to the top of the lighthouse I wondered if the heavens would part and the steeple rupture in a storm- I wondered if we would be left hanging by the strength of our own fingers like Anderson’s greatest scene of conflict in the movie. I ate lunch on a cliff face and listened to the birds rustle in the high grass around me. What is it like to be completely devoid of all constructs you’ve created for yourself on the mainland I wonder? Now I know. 

I went on to explore and eventually made it to the local quarry (Sage’s recommendation). The one-way loop of lobster shacks and small houses felt straight out of a map from a children’s book. I walked to the top of the quarry hundreds of feet above and peered down on the locals swimming and soaking up the fun. Seagulls sprinkled the water like the water was salty, not fresh, and it felt like another scene from a favorite movie: Garden State. I had my Zach Braff moment and screamed all my sorrows into the abyss. Then, I went swimming. I dove into the water which felt warmer than salt but colder than a lake. I swam to the dock and jumped off knowing if I let myself dive too deep I might just reach the Earth’s true core. Where was I? How was this place real?

Next, I went to Sand Beach which required a journey of weaving through a densely green forest. When I arrived it wasn’t tropical like I imagined but blanketed in that same morning fog. I dove into the colder water and realized I wanted to stay in forever. I climbed onto rocks and jumped off like I was a little child. Swimming at a mysterious beach at the edge of the world all by yourself gives you a sense of freedom that is indescribable. I headed back and eventually after a long wait made it onto the very end of the ferry. As I waited at the cove’s edge I couldn’t help but ponder about the places I wondered, reaching farther than the sight of my binoculars. Swan’s Island is beyond beautiful. But perhaps more than that I was enchanted by this idea of my movie fantasy melding into my present reality. As I sat on a rock with the icy water lapping onto my feet I wondered where that mystical fantasy even ends when places like this really exist in the supposed real world. Real-world creations of realities that exclude such beauty seem to me, more made-up than a world full of this much wonder. Why do we live in a construct so devoid of this beauty and call it real life when a made-up world full of true allurement actually exists? But then I remember that I am just a visitor here. I am not a resident whose ancestors lived on this land for centuries only to be brutalized by the hands of European imperialism. I am not the daughter of a lobsterman who does not have enough money for school supplies. This brought me back to the quote I included in my presentation on lighthouses: 

“Caught up in a capitalist economy which concentrates wealth and power in ever fewer metropolitan centers, both islanders and mainlanders prefer to live by the islands they nourish in their minds and hearts rather than live on the islands themselves”

(55, John R. Gillous, Places Remote and Islanded). 

Maybe that is why I loved Swan’s Island so much. Moonrise Kingdom created such a fantasy of this island in my head that when I experienced it for a day I felt in touch with that physicality. Ask me to experience that rawness every day and I might have a different answer. But for that one day, all by myself, I went to Swan’s Island and had perhaps the best day of my life.

Published by ellakotsen

student at Bryn Mawr College

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