As summer winds down we cannot help but start noticing who leaves and who stays. The week before Labor Day begins the exodus, and over the next four months, people will continue to leave this island, until we are down to our three or four dozen who might snowshoe to work or go to haul once a week.

Our tiny outpost has benefited from the recent addition of a few new people. We’re lucky this time; these particular new neighbors know how to do stuff. They have tools and know how to use them. They have skills, and all sorts of work experience, and are disinclined to panic. They have been through a few emergencies already and whatever happens, they’ll manage, and there will probably not be a nervous breakdown. They are reasonably self-sufficient, as much as anybody is, which doesn’t need to be 100%. (Total self-sufficiency probably means you live in the bush and cut firewood all day anyway, and isn’t really conducive to warm friendships, or bean suppers, and is, if you think about it, really rather odd.) Our new neighbors know about things like oil trucks and cows. It doesn’t matter what the specifics are; they are not what you’d call “high maintenance.”

I would suggest that being a good neighbor, a welcomed member of the community, is not about where you were born (opinions of a few cranks notwithstanding). It may have just a little bit to do with whether or not more than 50% of your conversations with other people begin with “I need …”

It’s about a balance, and whether you require far more than you contribute. We’ve all encountered the folks who move to a small town in order to be left alone except when they need something done by “locals” who they view as a foreign culture. That’s their problem. Not terribly neighborly, them.

It is troubling, this idea that it is alright to “need” people to do things for you, but to feel no obligation to somehow assist, or serve, or bring some skill set to the community in return. A good neighbor is in a two-way relationship with others, need-wise.

I’ve been questioned most earnestly by people who worry about the very idea of living among so few. They swear they’d “never sleep” if they resided in such a remote place, for worry about who might do various things for them — rescue them, tend them if they’re sick, repair things, etc. Without articulating it quite so simply, they perceive “community” as a pool of people they can call for help. I am amazed at how many people have described their anxiety about our “remote, rural lifestyle” in those terms. They ask me, “But what if you needed …?”

Wait a minute. Isn’t that an awfully one-sided perspective? I should have plenty of neighbors so they can rescue me? Shouldn’t that mean I might also have to rescue them? I doubt my hand-wringing critics thought of that side of the equation. Such Nervous Nellies tend to be a little light on the get-involved, heavy-lifting, go-out-in-the-snow scale themselves.

By the way, neighborly reciprocity is not the same thing as paying for services. Those who have neither wrench nor rolling pin, but who can afford to hire all sorts of labor, should keep in mind that “bringing a  boost to the local economy” is all well and good, and worthy, but hiring local folks to do things for you is not exactly the same thing as being a friend. It is exactly the same as being an employer.

We all have to make a living, and some of us make a living tending to our seasonal neighbors. But particularly in the summertime, when the neediness quotient on the coast of Maine skyrockets, we grow to appreciate the neighbors who don’t need much. By this time of year, after a long summer of responding to others, it’s refreshing to have a conversation that’s little more than, “Nice evening, huh?”

Actually, the usual non-emergency “I need” phone call is often over-the-top friendly — “Hi there! How are you? Good! How’s your summer going? Busy, huh? How are the wife and kids? What grades are your kids in, again? They graduated three years ago? Heh heh, goes fast, doesn’t it? So listen, I need …”

The recipient of the communication might wish the caller would skip the pleasantries and get to the point, because the inquiry is clearly a business transaction. There is nothing at all wrong with a business call; it’s just not easily mistaken for a friend calling to chat.

The old expression goes, “Good fences make good neighbors.” We have hardly any fences here. Possessing some of your own tools makes good neighbors, though. Knowing how to do a few things on your own is always a plus.