If once you have slept on an island,
you’ll never be quite the same…
For over ten years, the opening two lines of Rachel Field’s iconic poem took turns as working titles for my book. Rachel reported that she almost didn’t include the poem in her collection for Branches Green; it felt like a throwaway. How surprised she was to discover the power those simple lines wrought over readers from all corners of the globe. Almost 100 years later, they haven’t lost their potency, especially for those of us who have slept on Rachel’s own Sutton Island, in her very own house on a cliff overlooking the sea. But really, there are islands physical and metaphorical everywhere. These lines reach people.
When my publishers at She Writes Press asked me to change my title, I despaired, but soon saw the wisdom of their suggestion that I choose something more descriptive of the book’s story. So I chose, The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine. The poem was relegated to the status of epigraph, not included in full (as I’d hoped) because of uncertain copyright status. I’d like to share the full poem here in two different forms. I hope both will delight you as much as they do me.
The first is page 62 of Branches Green – with Rachel’s complete poem and the “decoration” she drew herself. The original poem was published in St. Nicholas Magazine, then republished in this collection by a series of publishers, beginning in 1924. Tracking down a poem’s publication history can be a complicated endeavor.
The second was an unexpected gem sent to me by Sophie the librarian. “If Once You Have Slept on an Island,” she told me, was her son Teddy’s favorite poem when he was little (he is now 7). This video is one of his earliest attempts at a full recitation. Sophie said Teddy would be thrilled to be famous!
Enjoy! I know I do, every time.
All my life I have found love in the library. First there was that thrill of personhood when I was about 11 years old and got my first library card. It had a tiny, stamped metal plate incorporated into the cardboard, my own personal number. I could take out any book I wanted; they’d slide my card through a machine – kachunk! I’d take my books home and fall in love with wise animals, other worlds, heroic children, and fantastic adventures.
I met my husband in the tower of Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. He spotted me, surrounded by closely packed stacks of books at a tiny desk next to a leaded glass window. It was a fortuitous launch to a relationship. I love the smell of libraries – a whiff of dusty archive, the fragrance of fresh print on new pages. I like to sit in the silence of the stacks, feeling the weight of history and thought heavy all around, grounding me to reality and lifting me toward possibility.
When my four children were small, my favorite outing was library day. Each of them chose five books to take home. We’d return with our colorful stack of 20 new discoveries or old favorites and have “bookfest,” a smorgasbord of reading, aloud or on our own, all afternoon.
You might be able to imagine, then, my thrill last week when I saw my own book, The Field House, on the hold shelf of my local library. “Yup. We’re getting requests. It’s been all over the state,” the librarian told me.
Libraries of clapboard or chrome, stone or stucco, quiet and steadfast, have been my refuge, my fantasy, my celebrants, my champions. How wonderful to find a place here. Thank you for giving us a home.
(cake decorations by Nadia Rosenthal)
HAPPY BIRTHDAY RACHEL FIELD!!
Rachel Field was born on September 19th, 1894. That may be part of the reason she loved the coming of fall, but I think more of it had to do with purple asters and goldenrods, meadows a-whir with cricket chorus, wild geese in V-formations on their way south, ripening apples, and the smell of wood smoke floating on the breath of a darkening evening. Her poetry and prose sang of all these things and more – leading to multiple national awards and academy award nominations.
I’d like to share six archival photos with you (courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute) which were not included in the book about Rachel’s life: The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine. They have been seen by very few living fans!
In honor of Rachel’s birthday this year, can you help to give Rachel’s biography a celebratory boost? The book has surprised everyone with its successes:
Books need chatter to sustain their momentum, and what could be a better birthday gift than to share Rachel’s story with new readers? Can you think of five people who might not have heard about this uplifting story of two strong women who connect through an old house on an island in Maine? Though they never meet, these two writers, born 66 years apart, form an uncanny alliance, helping each other fulfill delayed destinies.
Everyone could use a good boost right now – how about an inspiring story of perseverance under hardship, generous friendship, personal triumphs, and a bit of uncanny synchronicity with the past?
Here’s what you can do:
Rachel Field gave me so many gifts. One of them was the sustained motivation over nine years to get her story back into the world. So many thanks to all of you for reading her story, and for helping me present Rachel with a few more gifts of recognition during her birthday month.
Happy Birthday, Rachel! And many happy returns.
photos below - courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute:
1. Rachel and her Scotty dog (not sure if it’s Spriggin or Trotty), in the tide pool on Sutton Island.)
2. Rachel in California, ~1938
3. Rachel and Trotty (?) in a boat off Sutton Island
4. Can anyone help me identify this young girl in Rachel’s arms?
5. Rachel, Arthur, and Hannah, California ~1940
6. Rachel on a dock on Sutton Island
I am typing on a sunny window seat, in a small cabin made of logs, cradled in a patch of blueberry, bay, and cranberry. How quiet it is, this first day of solitude. It’s the kind of quiet that roars in the ears, emerging from a long stretch of not-quiet. After a two-year build-up to a stalled, altered, adapted, improvised, and ultimately glorious celebration of marriage, I am in let-down mode. The last child’s wedding. The calm after the commotion.
“My youngest daughter has been married three times,” we’ve been saying. Married to the same man, that is. It is a covid tale: the called off wedding, the secret City Hall elopement, the tiny family event to replace the dream wedding. In our case, the dream vision came to pass at last, 18 months into the marriage, fraught by compromise but embraced at last in full gratitude.
Tessa wore my wedding dress, which was also my sister's dress 40 years ago. My sister, who I hadn't seen in two years, shared the day with us too. Tessa and Chris's dogs walked us (dragged us…) down the grassy aisle on a day of Maine September perfection. We danced, sang, toasted, hugged (vaccinations required). No one fell off a boat. The four-hour power outage during the island rehearsal dinner became an adventure rather than a disaster. Parents managed baby meltdowns deftly. Lost keys were found. Love prevailed, all around.
I am here on my dear island alone, appreciating this temporary suspension in solitude. The last contingent of family departed Sutton Island yesterday; Jonathan has returned to work. I can’t imagine greater happiness than bathing in my daughter’s joy amidst all the people who love her. I went full immersion – a shameless Grandma flinging herself around the dance floor, weaving around crowds of celebrants. But also, there’s this happy that I’m feeling now, fulfilled, returned home to myself, in quietness. I suppose that’s where we all land eventually, no matter the size of the crowd.
I’m not always content in solitude, but this one is blissful. Life's unpredictable veerings so often disappoint, throw our plans out the window. So I will try to immerse gratefully in every present tense: my arms around my daughter in a cacophony of joyful music; my empty cabin, empty arms, empty ears, overflowing heart. Beauty, I see you, in the roar and in the silence.
Checking social media activity and book stats became an unhealthy preoccupation for me this summer. The hyper-communication of book promotion had my brain stuck in overdrive. I was pretty exhausted. How lucky I am to have Maine’s summer at my door to provide respite.
Robin Clifford Wood is a writer and writing teacher. She lives in central Maine with her husband and dogs, loves to be outdoors, and enjoys ever-expanding horizons through her grown children and their multi-species families.