Book Excerpt: 'The Lobster Chronicles'

In her new book, The Lobster Chronicles, lobsterwoman Linda Greenlaw writes about life in Isle Au Haut, a tiny island off the coast of Maine where she jokes that the 70 year-round residents know just two seasons: lobster season, and the off-season.

"Fisherman will attempt to think and reason like a lobster in hopes of anticipating their next move," she writes.

Here is an excerpt from Greenlaw's book:


In terms of status, the lobster has come a long way. Homarus americanus, or the Maine lobster, ascended from humble fare to fodder fit for royal banquets in a relatively short one hundred years, a true success story. Prior to the nineteenth century, only widows, orphans, and servants ate lobster. And in some parts of New England, serving lobster to prison inmates more than once a week was forbidden by law, as doing so was considered cruel and unusual punishment.

Lobsters are Arthropoda, the phylum whose membership includes insects and spiders. Although lobsters are highly unsightly, the sweet, salty, sensual delight of a claw dipped into drawn butter more than compensates for the lobster's cockroachlike appearance and the work involved in extracting meat from shell. Yet in spite of prestige and high standing, the fishermen of Isle Au Haut still refer to them as "bugs."

Isle Au Haut (pronounced I-LA-HOE) is a small inhabited island off the coast of Maine in an area regarded as "the lobster capital of the world," Penobscot Bay. In a lobster fishing community such as Isle Au Haut, the calendar year can be best described as a two-season system: the lobster season and the off-season. Because this is true of all fishing communities up and down the coast, and because residents rarely refer to their home by name, Isle Au Haut will be referred to throughout this book as simply "the Island."

Friends fear the exploitation of our Island, and worry that any mention of its name will result in increased traffic to our precious and quiet rock. However, many travel articles in magazines and newspapers (not to mention television features) have run over the years, all touting the wonders of various aspects of life and events on Isle Au Haut, and all this attention has thankfully failed to transform us into the dreaded Coney Island. So I suppose I should be flattered that my friends think it possible that my readership might do just that. Oh, I admit that years ago, when I read a Parade magazine article about the Island's three Quinby children, who the journalist claimed were all geniuses, I briefly feared that every parent on the planet desiring gifted, talented, exceptional offspring might attempt to move here, hoping that this concentration of brains might be the result of something in the air, or the water, rather than of Quinby genes. Happily, nobody came.

Still, as a way of placating my nervous friends, family, and neighbors, I want to make it clear that in addition to the reasons stated above, I am calling Isle Au Haut "the Island" because it really is representative of any piece of land surrounded by water that is inhabited by hardworking, independent people, most of whom are lobstermen. If by any chance, in the course of reading this book, you should fall in love with, or become consumed with curiosity about Maine island life, I promise you that visiting Mount Desert Island, Bailey Island, or Monhegan will surely satisfy both lust and curiosity. People there welcome tourism. They have hotels and restaurants. We have nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. The list of what we do have is shorter than that of what we do not have, and those of us who choose to live here do so because of the length of both lists. We have what I believe could be the smallest post office in the country, and a privately owned boat contracted to haul U.S. mail on and off Island. We currently have forty-seven full-time residents, half of whom I am related to in one way or another. (Family trees in small-town Maine are often painted in the abstract. The Greenlaws' genealogy is best described in a phrase I have heard others use: "the family wreath.") We have one general store, one church, one lighthouse, a one-room schoolhouse for grades K through eight, a town hall that seconds as the school's gymnasium, three selectmen, a fishermen's co-op, 4,700 rugged acres of which 2,800 belong to Acadia National Park, and 13 miles of bad road. And we have lobsters.

We do not have a Kmart, or any other mart. We have no movie theater, roller rink, arcade, or bowling alley. Residents can't get manicured, pedicured, dry-cleaned, massaged, hot-tubbed, facial-ed, permed, tinted, foiled, or indoor tanned. We have neither fine dining nor fast food. There is no Dairy Queen, Jiffy Lube, newspaper stand, or Starbucks. There is no bank, not even an ATM. No cable TV, golf course, movie theater, gym, museum, art gallery … Well, you get the picture.

]Lobster season for most of us on the Island begins in early May and ends around the first of December. Some fishermen extend or shorten on either end, but in general, we have a seven-month fishing season, and five months of off-season. Each lobster season is typical only in that it is different from every preceding span of seven months in which lobsters have been fished. There are trends, patterns, and habits that are observed by every generation, but each individual season has its own quirks, ebbs, and flows of cooperative crustaceans. Still, there seems to be in the fishermen's credo a tendency to be amazed that the lobsters this season are not acting the way they did last season. And each season every fisherman will attempt to think and reason like a lobster in hopes of anticipating their next move. A lobster's brain is smaller and simpler (in relation to its body mass) than that of nearly any other living thing in which some form of brain resides. So some fishermen are better suited for this game than others. I am not ashamed to admit that I am not among the best lobster fishermen on the Island.

Although the individual members are for the most part hardy, the year-round community on the Island is fragile. This winter's population of forty-seven people is down from seventy residents just two years ago. There are multiple threats to the survival of the community, most notably ever-increasing land values, corresponding property taxes, and extremely limited employment opportunities. The Island, for most of us, is more than a home. It is a refuge. What seems to sustain the community as a whole is lobster. Every year-round family is affected by an abundance or scarcity of income generated by hauling and setting lobster traps. Other than the fact that we all live on this rock, our only common bond is lobster. Island fishermen are presently enjoying the presumed tail end of a lobster heyday, a boom that has endured several seasons of tens of thousands of traps fished and yearly predictions by biologists of sure and pending doom. Our own little piece of America hangs on by a thread to the fate of the lobster.

A small community bears a heavy load. Elderly Islanders move to the mainland when isolated life becomes too strenuous. Why do we not care for our old folks? Small-town politics creates rifts and scars so deep that some individuals, in fact entire families, have found reason to seek opportunity off-Island. Some who remain are nearly hermits, reclusive family units, couples, and individuals preferring seclusion. Man-made problems are inherent in Island life. Yet in our minds, all boils down to the lobster.

Lobsters are tangible. Lobsters become the scapegoat, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that all threats to our ability to catch lobsters become scapegoats. We have no control over Mother Nature, so she is the easiest target. A major storm could wipe us out, boats and gear gone. Disease has been held responsible for catastrophic lobster-kills throughout the fishery's history. Runoff of chemicals and insecticides has devastated stocks in distant grounds quite recently. I moved back to the Island for many reasons, one of which was my desire to make a living fishing for lobster. Upon my return, it became abundantly clear that the greatest hindrance to my happiness and financial welfare would be what all Islanders perceive as the most palpable threat to our livelihoods: the overfishing of our Island's fishing grounds by outsiders. The threat from mainland lobsterman was both real and present, and was increasing exponentially with each new season. It dwarfed any threat Mother Nature had recently made. At the time of my joining the game, it was clear that the situation would culminate in war.

Excerpted from The Lobster Chronicles by Linda Greenlaw, Hyperion, Copyright 2002 Linda Greenlaw