this single day I've taken a journey encompassing subway, bus, jet,
taxi, ferryboat, van, and finally shopping cart and my own two feet to
wind up on a windswept beach at the tip of an island fifty minutes out
to sea. »|
NOTE DE L'ÉDITEUR
: At fifty, Alix Kates Shulman left a city life dense with political
activism, family, and literary community, and went to stay alone in a
small cabin on an island off the Maine coast. Living without plumbing,
electricity, or a telephone, she discovered in herself a new
independence and a growing sense of oneness with the world that
redefined her notions of waste, time, necessity, and pleasure. With
wit, lyricism, and fearless honesty, Shulman describes a quest that
speaks to us all : to build a new life of creativity and
spirituality, self-reliance and self-fulfillment.
JOAN TAPPER : Take the idea of Robinson
Crusoe. It's virtually an island cliché : a person
alone on a desert isle, solitary and self-sustaining. Though
many of us might fantasize about living like that, few of us
would actually do it. Alix Kates Shulman, however,
embraced that solitude.
Summer after summer for the last
ten years, she has lived alone in an unheated, unplumbed, unelectrified
cabin on a rocky spit of land on Maine's Long Island. Drinking
the Rain is a thoughtful, even inspiring, chronicle of
her experience there.
The cabin had been the scene of 15
years of family vacations with children and friends. But
on May day in the early 1980s, Shulman arrived alone, wheeling
a shopping cart of provisions and gear across « the
nubble » that separates the property from the rest of the
Shulman depended on a cistern of rain-water
for drinking and washing, a cast-iron stove for cooking, an unpredictable
gas-powered refrigerator for cold storage. There was an
outhouse (albeit with a magnificent view of the ocean).
There were apples and berries for the picking. For other
needs, she made a weekly trip to town, buying food,
telephoning home. The rest of the time she kept to
She settled into this hermit's
life, poring through the school texts and odd novels ont the cabin
bookshelves, learning to think the « long thoughts »,
as the called them, musing on age, environment, existence.
But gradually, even in this stripped-down setting,
all extras were sloughed off, as the writer turned to
the foods nature offered : mussels from the rocky pools
along the ocean, crabs and fish, as well as sorrel, dandelion, and mustard leaves, angelica, sea
rocket, and on and on.
All that is described with a deliberate
grace and a delight in the process of insight that
time has not dampened. Shulman is neither an ideologue — she
never proselytizes — nor an ascetic. In fact, she loves
food and revels in the exotic recipes she puts together.
Periodically Drinking the Rain follows the
author out of the island, as Shulman tries to integrate
her Maine lifestyle with her life on the island of Manhattan. Ultimately, she
simply gives each place its due, letting the social
ties of the Manhattan winter enhance and balance the aloneness of
the Maine summer. It's an attitude — an acceptance —
that she comes to apply as a general philosophy, since the
world cannot help but intrude into even a recluse's life. She
worries about the effects of pollution on the wholesome, unprocessed
foods she depends on, and rumors of development
threaten quiet Long Island.
Over the decade of her story, Shulman
grapples with the realities of time's passage : turning 50, the
disintegration of a marriage, new companionships, and new enthusiasms that
range from hiking to New Age ideas. But the description
of the nubble and of the joys of solitude remain the most memorable
passages, infusing the book with a sense of peace and
Drinking the Rain is about conquering fear — of deprivation,
of old age, of being alone. In these pages Shulman has bestowed
a gift on readers who may never be able, or willing,
to nibble a dandelion leaf or gather mussels from a cove, a testament
to the idea that less is more.
And ironically, by sharing her island with others, she
may have made it more thoroughly her own.
☐ Islands, Vol. 15, 4, July-August 1995