As a conversation piece, nothing beats it. There’s nothing touchy about it. It’s not politically, religiously, or ethically controversial. It’s not town gossip. These days there’s quite a bit to talk about since weather patterns have been completely out of whack. And it’s always happening.

When there’s nothing left to say to someone, you can always bring it back to the present, what’s happening around you as you drum up something more interesting to say. If the sun is out and shining after a morning of shadows, you can say something like, “Goodness, some change from this morning, isn’t it?” And you’ll likely get a response that goes, “Like night and day. Wasn’t that fog thick?” Yes, it was.

Before I ended up on Frenchboro last fall, weather was simply a bit of information. I grew up in New England, but still, I felt the change of seasons and climate to be a constant and something that could, more or less, be relied upon. I would ask my father in the morning, before I put on clothes to go to school, what the newspaper or the weatherman had said for the day and I dressed accordingly. If it was June and the morning was muggy, I’d probably be safe wearing a pair of shorts. If it looked like rain, I’d bring a rain jacket.

But it’s different out here, as I expected it would be. The weather, especially the lousy kind, plays an enormous role in the way island and coastal communities operate. I realize that more, the longer I am here, as the skies and seas continue to fluctuate with great fickleness. Lobstering, any outdoor work, and the whole of the town’s economy can suffer a major blow for however long the weather chooses to be defiant. The gloom can have a profound effect on individuals’ and a community’s well-being, usually resulting in some prickly relationships when the winters are especially long. And sometimes the cold can be more than any human being can bear.

E.B. White, the state’s most blessed transplant, knew it the first few years he was living in Brooklin. He was tending to a saltwater farm throughout the year and his favorite subject was, of course, how windy it could get, or how the rain hit against the barn, or the different ways his much adored farm animals responded to the change of seasons. But where the cold weather in Maine was concerned, he was humbled and enthralled.

“There is a fraternity of the cold, to which I am glad I belong,” he wrote in January of 1943. “The members get along well together: extreme cold when it first arrives seems to generate cheerfulness and sociability. For a few hours all life’s dubious problems are dropped in favor of the clear and congenial task of keeping alive.”

I felt this way a few months back, when the tail end of Hurricane Noel hit the coast. Over that weekend on Frenchboro, power lines and pieces of roofs went down, along with skinny (and not so skinny) spruce. I was awake most of the night, listening to massive trees collide into one another in my backyard and hoping that if they fell, they’d do it away from the house. The morning was bright and clear. The winds had died down almost entirely and the air had a quality as if everything had been cleansed. The whole town was out, surveying the damage, and although we knew what had happened over the course of the night, it was the thing to talk about. Everybody had their stories they wanted to share, how many trees they thought went down, what they did to cook their dinner when the power went out. And although dealing with the powers of nature from time to time is nothing new to the islands, or anywhere, there is a recognition that it’s something that happens to an entire community — for better or worse, something to be shared.

But there are times when you want the nastiness of the weather to yourself. My favorite is the rain: how it starts and stops with both a ferocity and a gentleness. The trick is to know when it’s coming, so that you may be inside to appreciate it. Everyone, including those living inland, knows the old saying, “Sun red at morning, sailors take warning; sun red at night, sailor’s delight.” But I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who knows about some of the other “sure signs” of the coming weather, as graciously borrowed from Richard Dorson’s Buying the Wind. For example, did you know that if you kill a snake and hang it on a fence, it will rain? Or if a cock crows before three o’clock in the morning, it will rain or be bad weather for three days? It will also rain if a cat eats grass, the fire pops, the smoke floats west, if there is no dew, if a tame swan flies against the wind, or if a pigeon washes itself. It seems to me they were just trying to come with reasons why it was raining so damned much.

In the past year or so, my relationship with the elements has changed considerably. I no longer pack just the rain jacket, but several layers for when the change comes, no matter what it is. I expect strong winds to push against the walls of my house every few days and I wonder why it’s not when it doesn’t. I like to see how the fog can envelop a place and then present it as something new when it finally decides to burn off. I take walks in blizzards, my face wrapped up in scarves like the Invisible Man. The guy who works the plow truck this year stopped me as I came out of the woods and offered me a ride. I declined, telling him I was almost home after walking for a few hours. He called me crazy. Maybe, but in a way I feel obliged to sacrifice my good sense for experience. Even if it means walking waist deep through snow that doesn’t stop for days.

However basic this sounds, navigating and existing in a world with the changes in weather we have here is not only learned from experience or what we notice, but felt — in our joints and at the base of our skulls and in the way a deep breath inhaled can tell the tale of the day or the week to come. And because, being on the coast of Maine, we live by the push and pull of the tidal and lunar calendar, we are in a constant state of flux. How’s the weather? Well, I guess it depends on when you ask.

Scott Sell is an Island Institute Fellow on Frenchboro.