Photography and Writing by James McCarthy

Return to Newagen


Sitting on the wharf
at Newagen I am of two minds.

One places me in the here and now of a bright June sun creating shimmering sun glitters dancing on the calm waters of the harbor at low tide. A seagull harks. A soft breeze from the ocean tempers the warmth of the blazing sun.

A distant lawnmower introduces a discordant sound to this otherwise quiet harbor scene, but I don’t mind. After all, it’s a Saturday. Given all the rain we’ve had this spring and early summer, it’s a wonder more homeowners aren’t out mowing their lawns on this sunny day. A counterpoint to the quiet I knew I’d find here, it’s the pivot point from the here and now that puts me in mind of the summer of 1974, when I first came to Maine and immediately fell in love with the quiet that envelops Southport Island with the mystique of a place where time seems to stand still.

The lawnmower, then, is a reminder that even here time passes. There’s work to be done and with that activity inevitably comes the sounds of power saws, hammers pounding nails, the thrum of a lobster boat pulling into the harbor.

I give myself over, then, to memories of that other time so long ago, when I lived in a basement apartment below the Newagen post office. I’d been hired by Marvel Wynn, a Cleveland artist in her 60s whom I had met in a life-drawing class taught by Shirley Aley Campbell at Cuyahoga Community College. Chatting with Marvel during a break from our drawing, she surprised me with a question: Would I like to work at her art gallery in Maine for the summer?

It was my lucky break … and a dream fulfilled. At that time I wanted to be the next Winslow Homer or Andrew Wyeth and Maine was where I wanted to go, but I didn’t know how to make that happen. Even now, almost 40 years later, Marvel’s job offer seems fated. I don’t know how else to explain the right timing of that out-of-the-blue offer.

I worked in the gallery three days a week and got paid for it. I lived in the apartment below it rent-free. I had four days a week to discover the coast of Maine, which gave me time to head out to Monhegan as well as explore a number of peninsulas that were down east from Southport Island. I fell in love with Maine and its people and resolved that summer to make it my home.

I spent a fair amount of time at the Newagen town wharf that first summer. It was only a short walk down a dead-end road from the gallery. From its upper deck I could watch as lobstermen hoisted from their boats the dripping crates carrying that day’s haul of lobsters. They paid me no heed.

But I soon learned my presence as a newcomer to the island had, in fact, been duly noted when one of the Newagen lobstermen, Leland Snowman, stopped by my basement apartment late one afternoon with a mess of mackerel he’d caught.

“They’re a bit oily and you gotta keep an eye for the tiny bones, but they’re awful good to eat,” he said.

That night I cooked them on my two-burner hot-plate, the fillets sizzling like mad in the Teflon skillet I’d brought from home. They were everything Leland said they’d be … a taste of wildness and a far cry from the breaded fish-sticks I’d eaten back home to avoid the eternal damnation we’d been taught would be the final torment of our souls if we ignored the Pope’s commandment against eating meat on Fridays.

Quite often, from my observation post on the wharf, I’d watch young Timmy Sherman in his punt chasing a small wooden sailboat he had made. It moved across the sheltered waters of the harbor surprisingly well. Like the lobstermen, Timmy paid me no heed. He was immersed in his own small world -- captain of the seven seas within Newagen Harbor. A decade later it didn’t surprise me when I learned Timmy was now working at a local boatyard.

At extreme low tide, I’d walk the steep ramp to the dock so that I might view the barnacle-encrusted pilings supporting the wharf. Strands of seaweed dripped from their cross-braces. I felt as if I were in a foreign country, a cool damp refuge from the summer sun, a place that would magically transform itself every eight hours with the change in tide, a place primeval, with everything being tied to the cycles of the tides and the arc of the sun from one horizon of the ocean to the other.

Just before sunset laughing gulls would fly back to their roost on a nearby uninhabited island, filling the air with their raucous calling. On one such occasion, I remember diving off the dock with Jeanie and Chuck, two new friends I’d made that summer. It had taken me all of the summer to gain the courage of diving into the ice-cold Atlantic. The shock of it was like a bolt of lightning through my body. The three of us quickly swam back, hoisted ourselves onto the dock, shivering and laughing but oh! so alive!

Once, as the sun set, I watched Leland clamber carefully down from the Dolphin, his lobster boat, and step into the bobbing dinghy tied to a mooring in Newagen Harbor.

I hear a hollow thunking sound as the two boats swing together.

Leland is neither in one boat nor out the other. He’s suspended between them — just a moment — then he’s safely in the dinghy. He makes sure Dolphin is secure at her mooring. He puts the oars in their locks. He rows without hurry toward the dock, feathering the oars. With each smart pull, water drops fall from the oars. The setting sun casts the scene with a deep gold tinge. Time slows. Seaweed drips from the dock’s exposed pilings, there’s a gentle lapping sound as the tide advances. A seagull harks.

Now Leland ties his dinghy to the lower dock, nods to my greeting as he climbs the ramp up to the wharf and then heads home.

That was almost 40 years ago. I don’t see his boat in the harbor. I wonder if he’s still alive, and where his boat might be if he’s gone to the great beyond.

here and now
— or long ago –
boats turn at their moorings