Nantucket Essays

Lover’s Tree

by Robert P. Barsanti

January and February passed the island this year. It took the jet stream north over Canada and took the ice and snow with it. Unfortunately, March and November swelled to fill the missing months and filled the weeks and days with polar fleece and puddles. Without snow, winter strips Nantucket naked. Snow drifts don’t build up in the moors, the ice pond off of New Lane never forms, and the great frozen sheet never gets swept up and over. Without leaves and grass, the island remains what it started out with: grays, blacks, a tuft of red, and a deep wash of gold in the evening.

In most years, spring slowly dresses the island. The snows melt into fog and the fog eventually burns into clouds and daffodils. By the time the hedges fill in and shade covers downtown, school is out and the Sox are ten games back. In a year without fog, when the daffodils started blooming on President’s Day and crocuses were up by Epiphany, the spring wrapped the island in its robe early.

So, on an April morning, the Windswept Bog blinked in the sunlight and warmed in the windless hollows. We walked up and around Stump Pond in the sudden summer of spring. We found a good sized perch stationary in the slow current into one bog, a few bee outriders from June, and two pair of Common Eiders drifting and looking for ice. The Canadian Geese looked just as confused with the sun as the rest of us were. Deep in the middle of the hidden forest we came upon a beech tree that had no right to be there. The trunk was good sized, the branches low to the ground, and a dozen hearts and initials on the tree over the years. Which made perfect sense, the tree was completely hidden, a moderate walk into the woods, and appeared to be on pretty comfortable ground. A lover’s tree.

Nantucket is a wild place unlike the other wild places on the map. In Maine, you can walk along paths that no human has travelled for hundreds of years, if ever. If you take the wrong turn off the map in the Hundred Mile wilderness, your shoes may not get found for generations. On Nantucket, we made it wild. We brought the trees in, dammed up the creeks, and drew the maps and made the laws to keep the subdivisions and golf balls away. Stump Pond came about because someone wanted to have cranberry bogs and needed water to fill them. The pine trees arrived as an experiment and who knows what tick-loving landscaper brought the scrub oak to the island.

I like to think (and could almost believe) that the beech tree near Stump Pond came to the island by a boy who wanted shade out in the fields. He had to sit for hours in the hot sun while he (and his dog) watched the sheep chew the landscape. Then, after the shepherd had moved on, the tree got larger and larger, the scrub oak grew up around it, and, in its secluded shade, some current residents of Our Island Home carved a heart into the bark two generations ago.

Or not. The island landscape is heaped with the faded and failed dreams of someone. Someone stood at Windswept Bog and thought “You know, I could make a nice living growing cranberries out here.” Someone stood on the bluff in Sconset and decided to build a hotel big enough to need a train to service it all summer. In town right now, someone is looking at their new menu or at their new sign, someone is wishing their line of credit was larger, and knowing, deep in their soul, that this will be THE summer.

I wish all the best to the owners of the new restaurants that are moving in this season. But I know that in a year, or two, or ten, they will be gone, leaving an ornate sign and a stack of take-out menus. That sign will wind up on the wall of the Rose and Crown or some other establishment that decorates with ironic trophies. The registers will travel to a different bar, the workers will move on, and there will be, in the end, a sale of everything that can move. Everything that can’t move will get cleaned, a new wooden sign will go up over the door, and someone else will stand in the doorway with a dream of spring. At this point, every store owner should go to some unused back room and carve his initials in the wall. Then, like some doddering alumna at his fiftieth reunion, he can walk in the store and point them out to his grandchildren.

We stand on our grandparents dreams. Our lives sprouted from a carved heart. They may be gone, their home sold, their business collapsed, and still a tree that Pop-pop planted blossoms in April. The daffodils that Nanna planted in the front yard still come up, even if it is someone else’s house now. That beautiful hand-painted sign for the restaurant still exists; its just hanging in the Rose and Crown.

The great irony of living in a midden of memories and souvenirs is that, all around us, the raw wilderness swirls and spins. No forest, no savannah, no desert is as wild and inhuman as the rolling ocean or the twirling skies. We may initial and annotate every log and stump on the sand, but twenty yards off shore, wilderness drifts by unnamed and unnoticed. We carve our initial all the deeper because we can see how easily it disappears in the curl of a wave and the turn of the stars.

In spring, we begin again; the winter waves and constellations are forgotten. The island has turned puddle-wonderful and the realtors are fielding calls from all around the world. The dreams start to move and grow in spring. And soon there will be leaves and customers. When the sun finally comes and the winds swing southerly, we will reach high and dig deep and endure.

Articles by Date from 2012