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Profile: Marcus Kaasik, a natural Islander

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Marcus Kaasik and one of his hens.
Marcus Kaasik and one of his hens.

You can tell a lot about a man by his chicken coop.

Marcus Kaasik’s is a wooden masterpiece made entirely by his hands, with a chicken-sized ladder for entry, and windows and doors fitted with black iron handles and latches — it’s like something from a German fable.

The hens seem to love it, and if I had any doubt, I set it aside when one of his Buff Orpingtons emerged from the laying area cackling with pride at her accomplishment, bringing the interview to a halt while she celebrated.

“They always do that when they lay an egg.” Marcus explained.

He grew up foraging and fishing on Shelter Island, activities that many summer visitors consider leisure pursuits. To Marcus, they are also meditative, spiritual practices. His decision to run for Town Board is partly motivated by the belief that a naturalistic view of Island life is largely missing from local government.

“All that time spent in the woods and fishing, I realized that Shelter Island has its own soul. And my soul is very close to that.”

As a young man, he hated to miss the first bluefish run of spring off Menhaden Lane, but on a sparsely populated island in the days before cell phones and Facebook, it was easy to do. One year, he decided to fish every day starting April 1, no matter what the conditions. Finally, on May 1 he caught his first fish of the year.

“I fished every single day of April and caught nothing,” he said. “From that I learned not to expect anything.”

The story of how Evi and Joannes Kaasik, a pair of Estonian immigrants, found their way to Shelter Island in 1966 with six children in tow is a family legend.

Marooned on Shelter Island by an unexpected car repair, Marcus’s mother liked what she saw. They bought land on Cartwright Road and in 1968, Joannes built their house in six months.

The family moved in that June and in March of 1969, Marcus, nine years younger than his youngest sibling, was born. His brothers John and Karl, and sisters Marian, Marika and Veronica still live on the Island. His sister Alice passed away a year ago.

Estonian was the language spoken at home, and Marcus learned English when he started attending the Shelter Island School. His mother, who didn’t drive, walked him to school and home again to Cartwright Road after school. She died of cancer in 1981 when Marcus was 12.

His mother’s illness and death was a dark period of Marcus’s life — the memory of his father doing the laundry and taking care of the house still makes him emotional.

Marcus and his father spent a lot of time together, going out to spear eels, to smoke or freeze them. “That’s how we survived,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in the woods, getting close to nature, analyzing it and questioning things. That’s when my spirituality grew.”

After graduating from the Shelter Island High School, Marcus spent time at the University of Helsinki in Finland, where his siblings had gone before him. His father wanted his children to spend time near Estonia, but there was another reason — it was practically free. He studied psychology, but after enduring two Helsinki winters, decided not to go back for another.

In 1990 at a New Year’s Eve party at his sister’s house in Philadelphia, Marcus made a resolution to go back to college. Alice encouraged him to do it, and offered to put him up if he got into college in Philadelphia. Marcus went to classes at Temple University during the week, traveling to Shelter Island on weekends to work as a carpenter.

He thought he’d go back to his original major until he asked a professor, “When do you think we’ll get to the good stuff in psychology?” and the prof responded, “We’re never going to get to any good stuff in psychology.” He changed his major to finance and economics, studying for five years, but gave it up two courses shy of a degree to move back to Shelter Island and make his living with his hands.

Marcus had developed a construction business and became a skilled wood worker.

He now has a circle of customers he’s worked with over the years, doing additions, renovations and woodwork.

In 1995, Marcus met Eda Volmer, an Estonian working as an au pair taking care of his brother John’s children. Eda and Marcus married in 2005; their daughter, Johanna, was born in 2007. “We grew to be great parents,” Marcus said. “With the Kaasiks, the kids come first.”

For over a decade, he’s assisted his brother John with the annual Shelter Island School musical, doing lighting and set work for a cherished annual event that seems to involve every student at the school from January through March.

Marcus began to think about running for office in 2015, when he realized he had never heard of two of the candidates running for the Town Board that November, and one of them, Jim Colligan, won a seat.

When Ed Brown resigned his seat, too late for the November 2015 election, Marcus decided to join the list of candidates lining up to be interviewed by the Republican committee for the interim position. Marcus wasn’t chosen, and the experience convinced him that town government was not working the way it should. “They picked the least qualified person, with the least experience,” he said. “That process got me involved.”

He describes himself as “not really a party person,” and is currently registered as an Independent, but plans to switch to the Republican party seven days after the November election.

“Shelter Island needs somebody local, who is open to the new people realizing their value and their contributions,” the candidate said. “Otherwise we get broken up into two camps.”

Marcus has strong opinions about Jim Dougherty, seeking his sixth term as town supervisor, and Councilman Jim Colligan, who he sees as promoting excessive regulation.

“Jim Dougherty is very divisive,” Marcus said. “I see him playing both ends of it. He tries to cozy up to the new people saying the local people are a bunch of buffoons and he tries to cozy up to the local people saying, we have to keep things low key. I see Jimmy Colligan doing the same thing. They say things that curdle my soul. This is Shelter Island, this is not the Bronx. We don’t need all this heavy-duty regulation.”

On affordable housing, Marcus said, “When I was 20 years old, a person with two hands could make enough money to buy land. I’ve been to every Town Board work session on this. Nothing is going to happen with Jim Dougherty at the helm.”

He agrees, however, with the supervisor about new regulations on short- term rentals. “I see the law bringing a lot of headache to good people who just want to pay their mortgage and I don’t see it bringing any relief to people who don’t want noise,” he aid. “I really don’t like laws that could turn honest people into criminals.”

For Marcus, the brown tide of 1985 was the worst thing that ever happened to Shelter Island. He remembers trying to get eels at Burns Point and not being able to see the bottom. He said, “We were crying. At the dump people were throwing out their scallop dredges.

“No one is exactly sure why the brown tide happened,” Marcus said, adding that he suspects that heavy use of pressure-treated lumber on docks, an accumulation of copper from boats, and the release of sewage from a facility in Riverhead could have been factors in the brown algae bloom that wiped out scallops, clams and other living things. “Our defense against the brown tide are shellfish. We need a robust seeding program.

“Shelter Island is a provider,” he added. “It wants you to dig the clams, it wants you to go fishing, and if you participate in that you become blessed, get a deeper communion with the Island and its soul.”

Lightning Round — Marcus Kaasik

What do you always have with you?  A picture of my daughter.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  The porch of the Taylor’s Island cabin looking north toward the second causeway.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  Montauk.

When was the last time you were elated?  When Johanna was born, looking into her blue eyes was like looking into the universe.

What exasperates you?  Those sticky labels on fruit.

Last time you were afraid?  Seventy miles off Shinnecock in a storm at night, the boat next to us was hit by lightning and caught fire.

Best day of the year on Shelter Island?  The day the striped bass come in.

Favorite movie or book?  “The Meditations,” by Marcus Aurelius.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Dick Petrie. Calm, thorough, level-headed.  He lives in a trailer near his hotel, the Pridwin.

Most respected elected official alive or deceased?  Thomas Jefferson.