A Life Remembered: Tuckernuck Island's Most Devoted Guardian

Apr 6, 2015

Tuckernuck Island off Nantucket feels like a place out of time. With just a few dozen homes connected by grassy roads, it’s held onto its wild character and sense of the past. That’s probably in part because it’s pretty remote. But it’s also thanks to the efforts and presence of Bam La Farge.

"He served, y’know, he watched over the place," said Jim Tyler, a friend of La Farge's dating back to the 1960s and right up until La Farge died in February.  "He was the caretaker, curator, guardian. I don’t think anybody who ever knew Bam could go look or hear about Tuckernuck without bringing him right in with it."

La Farge was a big man, physically and emotionally. And he really didn’t care what other people thought of him. As evidence, his daughter Cate La Farge Summers says he had a distinctive smile.

"He had had one of his front teeth knocked out I think in a baseball accident when he was a kid," Cate said. "And through most of his life wore a fake tooth, but in later years, just decided like screw it, I don’t need that tooth. It’s uncomfortable and I don’t have anything to prove. So he would often have a missing front tooth."
   
He didn’t care about how he looked. What he did care about was conservation. La Farge was a mariner and self-taught naturalist. He volunteered on Nantucket’s Conservation Commission and Harbor and Shellfish Advisory Board. He helped put together the Madaket and Nantucket Harbors Action Plans. And he donated his time to build Tuckernuck’s fire station and served as fire chief. When it came to his beloved Tuckernuck, La Farge did not hold back his opinions. His friend Chris Westerlund says it was tough to get there anyway. The channel between the islands is riddled with shoals. And once he did get out there, La Farge would be waiting.

La Farge always rose early to meet friends for breakfast, so he would leave notes for his wife Nini. In this one, he explains he's leading his Sunday morning fire drill on Tuckernuck and instructs his son Owen (in high school at the time) to read a passage of a book.

"So you would go, 'Okay. Bam’s on the beach. So we gotta like, yknow, chill, y’know.' And it’s, it’s me that we’re talking about here," Westerlund said. "I mean this is not like some stranger. And he will just stand there with this vibe. Like, what are you doin’ out here! And then you know before you know it you’re digging clams and quahogs and makin’ dinner and spending the night... but he was, that was the deal."

La Farge’s presence might have been intense, but he also shared his passion for Tuckernuck. He led plant talks for the island’s Land Trust, including this one recorded in July 2013.

Bam: "Anyway the other thing that people think about Tuckernuck is that all the oak trees here are scrub oak."
Student: "Can you hold that up so we can see the points?"
Bam: "That’s well. They’re ... you can pick one up outta here! What are you doing giving me a hard time! Here’s a good example!"

La Farge spent his life outside. He was a carpenter and first encountered the trades as a kid. Born Henry Bancel La Farge, he’s always gone by the family name Bam. He grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut and spent summers on Tuckernuck. Like his father, he went to Harvard. He studied Anthropology and graduated in 1971. A few years later, he moved to Nantucket permanently. That’s where he met his wife, Nini. In 1981, they married on Tuckernuck. Their children—Cate, Owen, and Oliver—are the family’s seventh generation to spend summers out there. Cate says La Farge was a devoted father.

"My dad would take it upon himself to teach me the Latin names of all the butterflies that we spotted," she said. "We’d pick asparagus in the early spring, these long stalks of asparagus. There were berries. My mom made all these beautiful pies. It was really a part of, I think, the kind of childhood he wanted and the sort of knowledge that he wanted us to learn as children."

Bam La Farge with his grandson, Henry Bancel, last summer.
Credit Courtesy photo

Last year, La Farge became a grandfather to Cate’s son, Henry Bancel. Cate was excited for their summers together. La Farge was a fount of information not just on the natural world. He had diverse interests, many of them pretty obscure. But he especially loved music: Cajun, ska, reggae, the blues, and American roots.

He surrounded himself with it. One winter, when Chris Westerlund organized an evening of local music, he asked La Farge to emcee the event.

"The next guy who’s gonna come and perform most of you know," La Farge can be heard saying on the tape. "And if he seems a little under the weather, it’s because a couple weeks ago his wife had an extravaganza birthday party for him. And I think he’s still recovering from it.  The songs he’s gonna sing are two of the greatest folk songs of the sixties..."

Music stayed with La Farge for his entire life until a few weeks ago, when a sudden stroke landed him in a coma. The whole family gathered around him in his hospital room in Boston. His old friends Paul Rishell and Annie Raines made it up too. And they brought their instruments.

"When Paul came, the nurses realized we were gonna have some music," Cate La Farge said, "and so they said go ahead and shut the door and make as much noise as you want. So it became really true to my dad, just like a really lovely, fun—not fun, but, good spirit gathering. And, and then he died."

Bam La Farge — Tuckernuck’s most dedicated guardian — passed away on February 26. He was 65.

Bam La Farge on his boat.
Credit Courtesy photo