Myth of the Star & Truth of the Constellation

by Robert P. Barsanti

The great lid of winter has been sliding over the island. Over a few days, the last visitors of summer danced and tumbled, but then they slipped away and left us with the gray, the cold, and the damp. The leaves have fallen and blown into drifts and piles, then to be stomped, soaked, and frozen. Behind the bare limbs, the neighbor’s windows glow. They have a new TV set and, starting at 4:30 in the afternoon, Fox News dances through the glass and across the stone patio. The R months have emerged as the blossom and bloom of summer has fallen away; the brown and gray foundations reveal themselves again.

It’s just us, again.

The R months bring their own pleasures, some of which taste best with butter, white wine, and touch of garlic. The Old Salts, the ones we learned from, like to eat the scallops raw and pronounce them fit, but the performance does not live up the the truth after two or three. You don’t often see the Old Salts popping the scallops back like pop corn. The truth will out, no matter how strong your faith.

I have stood among the eel grass, hip deep in the Atlantic, raking for scallops. I have trailed a floating basket and walked further out in still water. For a new islander, on their first winter, no activity brings you into the island more than scalloping. You stand in the footsteps of those who came before you, up to your hips in nature, and pull delicious food from the sea. When you go raking for scallops, you discover yourself in the middle of this horizon of water, underneath a rolling set of clouds and held in that inhale of the tides. You are an island of one, amidst a quiet, giving, and dangerous world.

But you aren’t.

Instead, the lone scalloper out in the eel grass of Madaket stands at the end of a long train of responsible people. The dinner he spreads before his friends, complete with story, pictures, and drying waders on the line, isn’t his own. Instead, the meal owes itself to the generations of scallopers that came before and did not overfish the beds. It nods to the landscapers and homeowners who cut down or eliminated the fertilizer. And it smiles on the other scallopers, out in the harbor, who kept silent watch and took attendance of everyone who is upright and warm in the cold Atlantic waters. We have lost too many people in quiet of a December morning to the weight of cold water. We live in constellations, connected by invisible lines of trust, character and responsibility.

Scallopers, alone between the land and the horizon, forget those invisible connective lines. One of the unfortunate aftermaths of family scallop season is the family scallop dump. We love the muscle that holds the shell together, we don’t care much for the life that created it. So, the cleaning of the scallops invariably creates a large pile of death along with a small pile of delicious. (I don’t apologize for it; carnivores should know what they are eating). But we have piles for the dead; you can either put them in the pile at Jetties Beach or out by the old road into the dump. But, you shouldn’t put them in the back yard, your neighbor’s back yard, Sanford Farm, or a dumpster. The shells will not magically dissolve into the landscape, instead they will be picked at by gulls, feasted on by rats, and decomposed into a ripe odor. Your freedom ends someplace between the rat and my nose.

I understand why people dump their scallop shells into bushes and lawns: they don’t know the problems, and they don’t care. In America, we learn the myth of the star and ignore the truth of the constellation. It takes years to unlearn the myth of the solitary and free man and more years to absorb the wisdom of the crowd. Everyone of us was told, over and over, that we were the special one…we had the lightning scar, the hidden family, the Promised Present. When we became stars, we would shake the dust from our feet, empty our shoes of sand, and go to our Great Expectations. What does the lottery sell, otherwise? Then, as the years wore that myth into the mud, we find ourselves tied to the rest of the world through the gray lines of responsibility.

Freedom isn’t free: it is licensed. We can go and scallop because others have made it possible. They have given us the license to do it. If they had not been responsible and had vacuumed up every scallop they could find, fertilized their lawns to a glowing green, or done any of a number of “free” things, the scallops would be no more.

Freedom arrives in June, with a fat wallet and four-wheel-drive. Responsibility emerges in the R months. In our thinner numbers and without the blooms and the bushes, we see those lit windows. During these months, we count, we measure, we plan. The island, as lovely a place as it is, doesn’t exist without responsible people to shepherd it away from the selfish, the greedy, and the Free. The Land Bank, the Trustees, the Conservation Foundation were all built with that gray cement of responsibility. And every dime we take and every scallop we rake comes from responsibility, not freedom.

In the winter of disease, when calamity and catastrophe shop for turkey and stuffing, we should put our hands to that responsible gray cement. We can’t blame the New Yorkers, or the ferries, or the college kids. The disease preys on the “free.” We are the ones who were free to have church suppers, free for Halloween parties, free for puppet shows on birthdays. And we are the ones who will have to be responsible: we will have to wear the masks, to keep the family off island, to bravely sit on the couch. In the R months, it’s just us—just us living or just us dying.