winter dunes | Nantucket, MA
Nantucket Essays

The Mind of Winter

by Robert P. Barsanti

One must have a mind of winter to live year-round on the island. To stand in the driveway of a rental house in Madaket, watch the gulls high overhead, and then see the clouds of starlings descend from a power line to the grass, and then, schooling at a sound, dart over to a roofline across the street. They wait for the yard to be clear again, as if the current will wash myself and my boon companion away and leave them to the midges and whatnot at the roots of the brown grass. They were right.

We left and headed to the beach. As long as the seals have stopped on some other piece of sand, the November beach is a fine place for my boon companion. He won’t steal any cookies from babies, kick sand in a bikini’s face, or excite some other species. He can sprint downwind after an errant water bottle, race back, drop it, and then race back downwind after it. Ten feet away, the surf rolled and thundered, the gulls circled high above and, far out on the horizon, a line of Old Squaw flew west to settle in the lee of Muskeget for the winter night.

You have to live out here year-round not see the beach and moors and houses as empty. The waves just come rolling in, and they don’t want for surfers. The wind does not howl or moan so much as it just blows and blows and blows. You can stand on the edge of the bluff, look out to sea, lean into the wind, and pose for nobility. Your pose will be unseen, unremarked, and unremembered. Pretension and hypocrisy get blown away; nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.

Not yesterday, I learned to love the bare thrashing of the long Nantucket November. You must love winter, because it will not love you. Your heating bill will balloon, your window frames will warp, and your income will drop. The nice kindergarten teacher will move away, the Brotherhood will close, and the stars will not blink in that cold, still November air.

But the island is sincere—it is the most sincere Pumpkin Patch around. The wind does not lie to you, and the waves do not prevaricate. They do not want your good wishes, your happy smiling photos, or your five star Yelp review. They do not want anything and won’t even tell you that.

My boon companion had disappeared into a dune. He had found something of interest. No doubt, this thing of interest was dead and smelly. Something ancient and primal had ticked off into his Labrador brain. I called for him many times until, somehow, his name cut through the wind and his instinct; his head popped up out of the seagrass. His ancient eyes saw me without recognition. And then he ran to me and hopped into the passenger seat. We headed home.

In the dark of winter, there is time. Time enough for knitting. Time for Netflix. Time for the new Philbrick book. In the summer, the phone never stops humming and jumping. Guests are arriving or clients are arriving or workers are coming, and everyone needs a handshake, a smile, and an invoice. But the phone stays quiet through the first three episodes and it will stay quiet through the evening.

Tonight, there is time for scallop chowder. I had been invited over for dinner while I was drifting through the produce at Stop and Shop. No one was celebrating a birthday or an anniversary or an arrival; we were toasting to Thursday. So it would be. Cards would appear along with a cribbage board, or the Bruins game, or nothing at all but Budweisers, the past, and the sofa.

Nantucket has taught me how to be good company. You never turn down an invitation, you never go with empty hands, and you never stay past the first yawn. The cold sincerity of November drives us all into the social fuzz of “Fine,” “Great,” and “This tastes amazing.”

I’m told that most people on the mainland don’t celebrate Thursday. They drive home from work, eat sausage pizza in the kitchen, then watch “The Walking Dead” in bed. Dining rooms are out of fashion, as are big tables, silverware, and guests. Work has expanded to fill the social aspect of the day— drifting in e-mail and server links, travel, and after-hours cocktails. The kids have soccer or hockey or dance, and the day ends when you turn off the ignition.

We celebrate Thursdays. Or Tuesdays. We learned to cook in our first winter, because you have to return the favor. If you were invited over for apple pie, you had better bring them over for a better apple cake. If they place broiled scallops on your plate, you should make them Coquilles St. Jacques.

Tonight, we have gone past that. They made dessert, I made dinner, and someone else would bring a salad. Or they wouldn’t. But we would all be there, on the Marine Home Center sofas, in front of a silent Bruins game, and trade gossip about who owns what, who sold what, and who is leaving.

Late, I will walk back to the truck in the raw night. Orion and the rest of the constellations see but don’t recognize. In the ancient blue dark, the Milky Way stretches horizon to horizon. The old light travels millions of light years and casts a shadow from a bare scrub oak. If you stare at the blue shadow long enough, the slow grind of rising and setting ticks on. The pines whistle in the wind and something squawks at dinner, either where it eats or is eaten.

But there is other light, of course. From kitchens and clean up and the ten o’clock news; from the bathroom light going on and alarms being set and from the welcome still burning over the dining room table. The night burns with these nearer constellations. One has to have a mind of winter to live on island year-round. One has to see the light that cares for you and the one that does not.

Articles by Date from 2012