If you are ever lucky enough to be invited to sit on the deck at photographer Mark Weller’s home, you may notice a small planting of marigolds. Flowers on a deck are nothing unusual and you may not give the potted flowers a second thought. But look again. These flowers have more than beautiful blossoms: they have a story.
“I am a lighthouse man,” Mark Weller says. “Over the past decade, I and a team of talented photographers have traveled to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to photograph the Milky Way behind some of the park’s famous lighthouses. We sell the images to support the Friends of the Apostle Islands.”
But this story isn’t about photography or even fundraising. It is about remembering.
The Lights of Devils Island – Mark Weller photograph
Sand Island light was automated in 1921, Michigan in 1943, Raspberry in 1947, Outer 1961. Long Island light was last lit by human hands in 1964. In 1978, a five-man Coast Guard crew lowered the flag on Devils Island and stepped onto their boat to leave. That simple act marked the end of over a century of lighthouse keepers in the Apostle Islands.
The lights remain, still blinking out over the long blue horizons of Lake Superior and safely guiding ships. But all the lights are now completely automated. Some might argue that it is more efficient, cheaper, even safer than having humans on these remote and rugged islands. But something is still missing.
What was lost as the keepers of the lights were replaced with automation can be difficult to articulate. It is a feeling perhaps best captured in poetry.
The Lighthouse Keeper Wonders
by Edgar Guest (1881 – 1959)
The light I have tended for 40 years
is now to be run by a set of gears.
The Keeper said, And it isn’t nice
to be put ashore by a mere device.
Now, fair or foul the wind that blow
or smooth or rough the sea below,
It is all the same. The ships at night
will run to an automatic light.
The clock and gear which truly turn
are timed and set so the light shall burn.
But did ever an automatic thing
set plants about in early Spring?
And did ever a bit of wire and gear
a cry for help in darkness hear?
Or welcome callers and show them through
the lighthouse rooms as I used to do?
‘Tis not in malice these things I say
All men must bow to the newer way.
But it’s strange for a lighthouse man like me
after forty years on shore to be.
And I wonder now – will the grass stay green?
Will the brass stay bright and the windows clean?
And will ever that automatic thing
plant marigolds in early Spring?
“I’ve been fortunate to spend lots of time at these lighthouses,” Mark Weller says, “and I can’t help but wonder how a Keeper, his wife and children survived the loneliness, isolation, and back breaking work. It was a different era, I guess.”
The keepers are gone. But the tradition lives on. And so each year about this time Mark Weller reflects on that “different era,” a time when the lighthouses were looked after and cared for by human keepers and their families in the Apostle Islands, and then he pays tribute to those hardy people in his own simple way.
He plants marigolds.
For information on how you can help preserve the lighthouses of the Apostle Islands go to the Support Us page and join us at Friends of the Apostle Islands.