According to off-island enthusiasts, visiting Nantucket was something like a trip to a living history museum. As with Rome, the ancient glory of Nantucket had faded, but its heritage remained. An article in Harper’s Magazine from that time drew a connection between Nantucket’s main product— whale oil for lighting—and the experience of the “good old days” that Nantucket now represented. Between the ages of “lusty barbarism” (lighted by tallow) on the one side and “overstrained and diseased civilization” (lighted by kerosene) on the other, stood Nantucket and the “golden age of reason”— lighted by whale oil. Nantucket’s predominantly Federalist-style homes embodied “all the Renaissance classicism of Andrea Palladio as reinterpreted by Inigo Jones, Christopher Wren, and Robert Adam, and then stripped down to its bare essentials for trans-Atlantic shipment, whence it found its way to the houses of American rum merchants and whaling captains. It was the École des Beaux Arts simplified—the grand formal orders of antiquity that America had long consigned to a cobwebby corner of the national attic and forgotten. Above all, it was restrained and dignified, calming, orderly, and elegant, an architecture worthy of the forward-looking, rationalistic culture of the America of the late nineteenth century.”
On the south shore of the island, downwind of the sewer beds, you can rent a house for $25,000 a week. For that money, you get two master bedrooms and two guest bedrooms. Each bedroom has an “en suite” bathroom and a television set. The master bedroom, of course, features a “state of the art” shower. The house is less than a mile downwind from the beach..
The Maine turnpike goes through a lot of nature. It wanders through hundreds of miles of pine trees, oaks, and salt water rivers. On our way south from Boothbay, with presents in the back, cupcakes in the front, Dar Williams on Spotify, and the air conditioning humming, we came across Momma Duck.
We have had a wonderful July. On a day that a billionaire would have designed for his pleasure, I walked up Pleasant Street and headed to town. This summer, these hydrangea have bloomed, as have the hedges. Somebody loved them. Somebody pruned them by hand, fertilized the dirt with the right acidic mix to get bridal white blooms, and gave them lots of water.
I found myself, this spring, defending my summer reading list. Now, as an old white man, I am used to a certain sort of academic battle, and I have generally chosen the prudent retreat over the final climactic fight. The years of assigning Huckleberry Finn for summer reading, or John Steinbeck, or even Agatha Christie have gone with purple photocopies.
The Least Terns are hatching. Residents of the Endangered Species List, the Least Terns get special fencing, some observers, and the path to Great Point blocked. The birds are delicate and fragile things that swoop and dart in constellations over the water. It happens every year. Drivers in Ford 150s, in Expeditions, and in Discoveries find themselves flummoxed at the gatehouse in Wauwinet when someone does not know Who-I-Am. That happens every year, too.
A young man with a famous last name died recently on island. Sudden deaths have become unfortunate and common in the last few years, not just on Nantucket, but throughout the country. Every death is as unique as a fingerprint. The reasons are opaque: the results caustic. We hear of the death and we pause, then we ask ourselves why and what could we have done? Every answer we find is wrong.
There are certainly some interesting sights to be seen on Nantucket beaches these days. Now hold on just a minute…I’m not commenting on the new law that allows everyone to run around topless. It’s still a bit chilly for that anyway, don’t you think? No, the interesting sight that I saw is good, G-rated and beautiful (um, not that the other won’t be, perhaps). Just let me explain before I dig this hole any deeper.
Too many years ago, I saw the Beethoven frieze when it reappeared in Vienna. The painting is a remarkable work; Gustav Klimt depicted each of four movements of the Beethoven’s Ninth symphony along the top of four walls, climaxing with a chorus of angels singing the “Ode to Joy” atop the final wall. Young as I was, I understood that I was in front of something that I did not understand. The work ascends beyond beautiful to an awful sublime, especially if Beethoven’s work still shakes in your bones. We spent an hour there, and moved on.