Muskeget: Raw, Restless, Relentless Island by Crocker Snow Jr., Snow Publishing, 2020.  

Muskeget Island is a small scrap of land roughly a mile long, half a mile wide, sitting a few miles west of Nantucket. Its highest point is only a few feet above sea level. It has some saltwater marshes, no trees, plenty of shrubs and an abundance of poison ivy. It’s home to vast numbers of terns, brant, herring gulls, and roaring, squabbling colonies of gray seals.

At first exposure, and maybe at second and third exposure, it’s a bleak, unprepossessing place.

And yet, is has a bard. In 2015, Crocker Snow produced a wonderful, passionate book about Muskeget, and he’s recently produced a new and revised edition, continuing to sing the praises of this “small, sea-washed, uninhabited slab of land” — and to educate people about this place that’s so clearly captured his heart. He cites many scientists and experts in the pages of Muskeget: Raw, Restless, Relentless Island, but it’s pretty clear nobody on Earth knows the place better than he does. His father purchased most of the remote island in 1949 and today the family owns the island in partnership with the town of Nantucket and maintains a small camp there.

“Muskeget’s merely a gnarled shelf of poison ivy, bayberry, and beach grass carpeted with seal scat nine miles from the big island by boat through churning, shoal-riddled waters with no shelter and services,” he writes. “What’s the big deal?”

One big deal is very small: Microtus breweri, the Muskeget vole, Massachusetts’ only endemic species, a tiny, humble creature that has been studied extensively and stars in Mr. Snow’s own book The Mouse That Owns an Island. This little beach vole is quiet and unassuming, content to scurry around in the eelgrass and avoid the spotlight.

The same can’t be said for Muskeget’s most attention-grabbing inhabitants. For long periods of time every year, the island is home to one of the biggest breeding colonies of gray seals anywhere in America. The female seals haul out in the depths of winter and are soon surrounded by little pups. The 800-pound bulls arrive later and commence establishing their territories and harems. 

Like most island aficionados, Mr. Snow has little patience for loud, pushy tourists. “They dominate the landscape, pushing over barrier bluffs and across dunes, leaving slides in the sand, like beavers, flattening small saltwater swamps and marshland,” he writes about these pushy pinnipeds. “They pollute the island’s shallow, tideless lagoon and finger freshwater ponds with their droppings and unhinge other wildlife and unseen small creatures in unaccountable ways.”

This antagonism on Mr. Snow’s part toward the seals that increasingly hog his island (at another point he mentions their “way of moving, slithering along when on land like huge green Anaconda snakes,”) springs from the protectiveness that anybody would feel for their special place. Mr. Snow has been coming to Muskeget for many decades; he’s known the island in all of its moods and shapes (tides and storms routinely reshape the island’s contours), and he can spin stories out of the smallest bit of detritus he finds on the beach.

Not everyone who’s encountered the place has been so enchanted. The travel writer Paul Theroux, for instance, hardly found the bare shelf of the island worth the considerable trouble of navigating the shoals and currents in order to get there. But Mr. Snow affectionately calls the place “a work in progress,” and he’s well aware of the gloomy prognostications about its future. This sometimes prompts him to become irritated with all the scientific attention Muskeget gets. “Almost all of [those researchers] seem to care about the island as a laboratory,” he writes. “Many fewer reflect — or express — a living love of it. To many, the island is a job, not a relationship.”

Above all, Muskeget: Raw, Restless, Relentless Island is the story of a relationship. Mr. Snow has a great deal to say about the history and the nature of the island, but there isn’t much history — Muskeget has never really been inhabited by humans — and the nature is changing. Since seals are federally protected, and since Muskeget’s shoals and shallow channels are inhospitable to cruising great white sharks, the location is an ideal location for a seal rookery. As long as all those factors stay true, Muskeget’s loud, smelly, intrusive seal-population will continue to grow. And while that’s happening, the oceans are rising — and Muskeget isn’t all that tall. 

But if Muskeget: Raw, Restless, Relentless Island is therefore partly an elegy, it’s mostly a celebration, an illumination of a strange little place even most Nantucketers and Vineyarders will never visit. If you don’t want to risk those tricky shoals, treat yourself to the book instead.