Olive in the Flesh

Around six or seven years ago, I went with a friend up to Maine. Our destination was a small island off the coast, and  our invitation came from family friends of my friend. I was tagging along, I suppose.

The Maine coast isn’t exactly Nobles County, Minnesota. The former contains a strange mix of tourist-trap fishing hamlets, large vacation homes, and year-round residents who tolerate both the influx of summer people and winter weather.

Coastal islands might be Maine’s equivalent of Minnesota’s lakes. They are varied, plentiful, and provide recreational opportunities. Some are small and private, some large and developed.

The island we were heading to was called Marsh Island, and it was on the smaller side of the spectrum. One mile long, one dock, one house, a couple of sheds, and zero roads.

My friend’s friends were members of the Pierce-Slive family, and living on the island was the matriarch — Olive Pierce.

Olive was a photographer, grandmother and transplant from the Midwest.

I marveled at how she disregarded her old age. While my friend and I played catch, Olive was out cutting back poison sumac.

On our explorations around the interior and coast of the island, Olive would appear in various places — always tending to various upkeep tasks.

I wondered if she used a network of secret trails to be all over the island.

Equally enthralling to me was her photographic life.

Inside the island house I thumbed through pages of one of her books, looking up every now and then to steal a glance of the author in my presence.

But thinking back now, I should have looked out the window instead, since Olive’s book “Up River” centered on the very bay this island was situated within.

In grainy black-and-white pictures, Olive shows us the families who inhabit one particular section of this bay. If their work takes them onto the ocean in lobster boats, then the familys’ lives happen on land, and Olive chronicles both.

“I am convinced that it is only by reducing the general to the specific that we can make room for change in our own and other people’s hearts,” Olive writes, explaining her study of this gritty fishing community that could easily seem inferior or simple.

And, this, I suppose, is why I purchased “Up River” recently, despite having no plans to live in Muscongus Bay, Maine.

To see some of Olive’s photographs, go to http://library.duke.edu/exhibits/olivepierce/photos/

Veasey Conway is the night editor at the Globe. If you have questions about photography or visual media, or have story ideas, contact him at vconway@dglobe.com or on twitter @veaseyc.

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