This is Morgan Witham’s second year as the Island Institute’s Willoughby I. Stuart Fellow on Isle au Haut. She knew that things were going to be different this year. She had been told when she came to the island that the first year on an island is the all about the romance, the second year is the reality, and the third year is when you figure out whether or not you have it in you to stay.
Now in her second year, she is starting to better understand and know the island (recognizing that she still has only scratched the surface), but she has seen enough that she definitely knows she wants that third year.
Morgan almost left Maine’s islands far behind. She grew up and attended school on Little Deer Isle, but left high school on the island at the age of sixteen to attend the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone. She went from there to Grinnell College in Iowa, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in theater. The lure of the theater was unmistakably strong, and Morgan was fully engaged in several productions during her senior year. She came home to Deer Isle the following summer, and it was then that the island connection took hold.
Morgan remembers that summer as beautifully idyllic. She spent her time swimming, rowing, and hiking, and she volunteered to work at the Stonington Opera House. The productions at the opera house that summer were exciting and professionally challenging, but mixed feelings were stirring.
She was finding increasing reluctance to sacrifice the beauty of the Maine coast and the vitality of her island life with family and friends for the improvised sets and re-created relationships onstage. The theater is a demanding and all-consuming lifestyle, and professional theater usually draws actors and technicians to big cities. Morgan knew that she did not want to leave Maine, and it was getting harder, literally and figuratively, to step inside the darkened opera house and leave behind the breathtaking view of Isle au Haut just outside.
A decision to pursue a different career on the coast of Maine meant a lot of hard work. Morgan worked for several years as an ed tech, working one-on-one with students in Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor. She applied to the Island Institute’s Island Fellows Program hoping to find creative use for all her skills, and a chance to live on one of Maine’s islands. Coincidently, Isle au Haut was seeking its first Island Fellow, to assist in its school, particularly in building physical education curricula and in implementing new technology. The island’s Revere Memorial Library needed help cataloguing its collection and was looking for ways to fill a local need as a winter gathering space for residents. Those informal weekly gatherings are a highlight for Morgan.
Morgan teaches health and physical education to a class of eight students at the Isle au Haut School who are in grades kindergarten through eighth grade. Though the groups are small, it’s a challenge teaching brothers and other siblings at different levels of development. The advantage, however, is that you get to know your students very well, and it’s great when you can give them a chance to truly shine.
This year, Morgan was able to use her theater skills in a Christmas play, “Christmas at the OK Corral.” It was a great challenge handling all of the blocking, dialogue, choreography, and singing with her young students, but their performances were “just fabulous” and the capacity audience, many of whom had ferried over from the mainland, just loved it. Morgan hopes that the students will get a chance to perform again this spring in a review.
Her work with the island’s Comprehensive Planning Committee has been an unexpected learning opportunity. She was invited to participate last spring at a time when the state placed a moratorium on funding. Committee members are now charged with finding creative resources and methods for analyzing current land uses and planning for the island’s future.
Morgan hopes that Isle au Haut will remain an important component of her future. She said, “I’ve learned how connected I am to the island itself-its beauty varies with the seasons and the weather, and I never get tired of it. I love the autonomy of island life. I’ve got lots of room to roam-step outside my door and there’s the wilderness!” The parts that may seem like hardships-no cable TV, no reliable car, and exposure to the elements-are the very parts that Morgan most treasures. “When I have to walk or take my sled to get to the store, it can be an adventure. If I traveled by car, I might miss the sunset or the deer.”
Right now, she is exploring possible ways that she can support herself on the island next year while continuing to work on some key projects. She’ll be completing a master’s degree in American and New England studies at the University of Southern Maine. She would love to find funding to improve the lighting and technical capacities of the town hall gym/auditorium, for it is the island’s only venue for performances or large gatherings, and she would like to participate in the planning for alternative energy sources for the island. She has taken her cue from other islanders who juggle several different jobs and combine several sources of income to support themselves. Life on the island is well worth it, for while some may find it hard to understand the island connection, for Morgan, living on Maine’s coast is non-negotiable.
Kathy Lane is the grants coordinator at the Island Institute.