Art and Nan Kellam bought an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine in 1949 and lived there for more than 35 years, content with little more than each other’s company. They had no electricity or running water, and heated the house they built with firewood from their forest. To fetch supplies, they rowed a dory several miles to the mainland and back.
New Jersey native and avid conservationist Peter Blanchard III tells the unusual love story of Art and Nan Kellam in “We Were an Island,” a book based largely on journals kept by the Kellams.
For Blanchard, the book holds important lessons about conservation and the way people come to treasure the places they live. “It’s a statement of love for a landscape,” he says.
The isolated kingdom chosen by the Kellams was Placentia Island, a forested 550-acre island a few miles from Acadia National Park. They moved to the island as part of a quest to lead a simple life, free of technology and modern contrivances.
They were pioneers in living “off the grid,” but they weren’t part of any idealistic sustainability movement. Rather, freedom was their cause. “They made a conscious decision to inhabit a world that they had total control over,” says Blanchard.
They aimed toward self-sufficiency — building things rather than buying them, growing what foods they could in their garden — but they seemed motivated more by a desire to stretch a modest income than by serving as a model.
The Kellams weren’t naturalists or conservationists at the outset, but they experienced a growing awareness and appreciation for nature’s power and beauty. In fact, they ended up donating their beloved island to the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
“They didn’t want to see their land destroyed or built on, so they took the conservation route,” says Blanchard. They retained a “life estate” that allowed them exclusive use of Placentia during their lifetimes.
Blanchard learned of the Kellams when he volunteered for the Nature Conservancy, and was inspired to tell their story. Part of his fascination with the Kellams’ lifestyle came from parallels with his own life.
Peter grew up in Short Hills on a secluded estate surrounded by preserved lands. He is now the primary force behind turning the family home into public open space — Greenwood Gardens — operated by a nonprofit organization.
He is often asked whether it makes him sad to see his family’s private estate become public. His answer: No, not at all. “You want to see a property you love have a life beyond that of the individual owner,” he explains.
Peter also owns two islands near Placentia — Black Island and Sheep Island — that have been permanently preserved, and is part-owner of a third preserved island, Pond Island. But he shies away from the term “owner,” believing that’s not an apt description for a temporary position. “I’m the caretaker,” he insists.
Today, Placentia Island is a public nature preserve. All that remains of the Kellams’ modest homestead are some stone foundations — and a square of cement with their footprints.
The Kellams may have considered themselves an island, but their generous donation proves otherwise. Their conservation gift links them forever to all of humanity, allowing others to share the joy of experiencing the place they treasured.
For more information about “We Were an Island,” published by the University Press of New England, go to www.upne.com/1584658603.html. To learn more about Peter Blanchard’s efforts to convert Greenwood Gardens into one of the Garden State’s most environmentally accessible open spaces, go to www.greenwoodgardens.org.
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