Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 17 • August 21-27, 2008
now in our 37th season


by Robert P. Barsanti

The bluff walk survives. On a late August morning, the path hummed with bees, swallows, and the slow and idle roll of the Atlantic. No one walked the path besides me and the sun. Even the fishermen were away. One dark blue hull pulled in stripers in the shadow of the lighthouse.

You don’t walk as far any more. One section of split rail fence heads you off more than halfway down Baxter Road. Beyond it, the path wobbles forward between the beach roses before dropping over the edge and down to the sand. These days you have to ask the fisherman to know how many months or years those houses have left.

Like the rest of us, the path has changed. The ocean carelessly slices off piece after piece of bluff. The same water that listlessly stirs the seaweed on this morning will be whipped into a brown fury and send ten-foot waves thundering in. The ocean will pull off sand, beach roses, and four-by-fours, somersault them in the surf, and then stretch the debris down the beach.

The path begins near the town with a magnificent view of the open Atlantic, unimpeded by a row of houses now washed deep and deposited into the shoals and cobbles offshore.
Pictures, dressers, beds, and silverware were brought out into the brown water, spun, sunk and spread over the underwater fields. This winter, the waves will take more.

Time has nibbled the path down. Around many houses landscapers and their check-writers have framed the path with rosa rugosa. The flowers glow, the fruit hangs red in the green foliage, and the spikes are sharp on wandering ankles. Several bushes have grown into walls, and then into roofs. Most of the path remains grassy, however. Walkers have become rare, apparently. The houses along the bluff walk have also been tugged into the present. The pristine Architectural Digest mansions have faded and sagged ever so slightly. Swingsets have dropped into side yards and towels hang from clothes lines. One multi-million dollar teak decks featured three sippy cups. Another had a small, plastic wagon waiting for a little hand. Inside the French doors, mothers and fathers were oiling up the kids for the day. One boy in tennis whites ran in front of me, dragging his racket behind him in the grass.

Other houses sat dark. The grass was emerald green and precision cut, the gardens weeded and blooming, the shades drawn, and windows closed. How, at the very peak of summer, when everything has reached the fever pitch, could you not be in Sconset overlooking the ocean? And how could the path not be walked by at least one other person?

The Sconset Bluff Walk travels the path of an older Nantucket, where no seats are reserved for the mighty. The Hedge Fund and Trust Fund geniuses may sit inside, behind the picture windows, but the rest of us can walk by, eat some fudge, and see the same view that they see. Out in Sconset, their world is not gated away behind the privet and the gate posts but out in the yard. We can’t stay, drink a gin and tonic, and use the facilities, but we can share in the investment that makes those homes so valuable.

It might be that we just don’t want to walk. Walking requires time and energy. Setting aside time means making room, not just for the actual travel but also for the shuffle. The hour spent on the bluff is an hour that we can’t bill to anyone. We have to shuffle our duties to our kids, our friends, and our golf partners so that we can look at the sea. If you lay that out in a cost/benefit analysis, the efficiency experts will frown.

Moreover, we are used to seeing the world through glass. Our cars and our computers take a 360 degree, sweet smelling, gentle sounded experience and filter it into a square of glowing glass that we look at from an air-conditioned, silent, bubble. The world we live in has become landscape and desktop background. Perhaps the island, in August, is too beautiful for us.

By the time mid-August comes to the island, we are bored by beauty. We drive past the houses, the moors, and the beaches and no longer recognize them for what they are. In fact, we only we see how beautiful our island is when we our houseguests drag us around on a tour. Most of the time, the flowers and the views have become moving wallpaper for our errands. One ball of Hydrangea blooms looks just like another and soon we pay as much attention to them as we do to trash cans.

Around every corner, we find something that is remarkable, so that if we travel around enough corners, the remarkable is no longer worth a comment. Instead, if we comment on anything, we see the negative. That bloom has gone a little brown, the siding is starting to weather on the east side, and the water felt warmer last week. Our most recent visitors from Fitchburg are correct to look at us as if we are spoiled and crazy. In August, we live in a calendar of beauty, but we keep looking at the dates. We compare holes, not donuts.

Poets have been trying to kick us out of this rut for years. They write about getting us to stop and smell the roses while we are on our way for a fill-up, a sandwich, and the evening shift. Had we spent two weeks in Fitchburg, we would return to the rosa rugosa and the beach grass with hugs and kisses.

Time will get us to Fitchburg, eventually. While we are dropping off the kids and picking up dinner, the waves roll, the bushes grow, and the path will lose another yard to the shoals and the stripers. Soon, August will be over. The Sconset market will close and the croissants, the bread, and the fudge will slip away into the winter. Those homeowners who spent this August in Greenwich or Aspen and left the Baxter Road house for the realtors grew poorer by one summer.

As will we. As the sand sifts away, some of our own common wealth will slip away as well. We should enjoy what we own before it’s gone.

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