Nantucket Sunset in Snow
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Community Erosion on Nantucket

by Robert P. Barsanti

On Nantucket Island, winter weather is an entertainment.  In the rest of the world, nature doesn’t perform as often or as colorfully as it does out here on God’s Favorite Sandbar.  The good people of Wellesley and Darien don’t drive out at sunset to take another portrait of a sun, setting through bars of purple into the Atlantic.  They turn their headlights on and look for the right exit. 

On Saturday, a Canadian cold front blew through.  This week had been a top ten list of winter weather, including ice, snow, storm force winds, and temperature that rose into the sixties and sank into the single digits.  Then the front came through.  At Cisco, the blue clouds advanced in a line from the west, while the kite boarders leapt over the waves and the retrievers chased them down the surf line.  On my way home, the snow squall flung itself again the western edges of doors, posts, and trees, before it bore down and flowed over the marsh and pines.  Then, in meteorological instant, the skies broke into orange, and the sun set through the windy island snow. 

Winter confers rights and responsibilities, costs and benefits. Out to sea, just beyond the mainland’s view, we receive the natural performances: the sunsets, the squalls, and the waves.  In the fog bank of bills, invoices, and shopping lists, the goose-feathered clouds pass unnoticed.  And then, paused at a stop sign or with a bag of garbage in my hand, the island blazes. On any given winter night, the Milky Way stretches horizon to horizon in Canadian sky.  Such are the rights and privileges of an island winter. 

And the beaches retreat.  The pleasant expanse that spread out at Labor Day gets eaten and cut down to a few yards and a ripping tide.  The cliffs and the dunes drift away in chunks before the current shifts in May and the sand begins to build back up. 

Downtown, a familiar face stood in a white dress, holding a bouquet, and shivering outside of Nantucket Looms.  A photographer orbited with a camera, a husband swung close, and we watched from across the street.  I stood with two former students, an old co-worker, and a book clerk who sold me two new novels.  We waved and stayed inside of Mitchell’s.  No wedding was going to warm us. 

Outside of town, on my way to the dump, the first Toyota pickup flashed its lights at me just as it passed Sanford Farm, then a Ford Explorer blinked as it passed the turn for Cliff Road, and the last car flashed just beyond the bike crosswalk–fifty yards later, Johnny Law waited for those improperly tied-down loads.  I waved at Johnny as well. 

The island shrinks to a set of familiar faces, smiles, and scowls.  They pass you in the produce, you pass them at the dump, they flash a warning of cop car, you find their wallet in the Chicken Box parking lot.  Every day, when we step out of the car door, the cobwebs of Nantucket wrap around us.  They are not only our rights, they are our responsibilities. 

Unfortunately, community of Nantucket is about as resilient as the south shore beaches. They grow, they fade, they shift, and, every June, they appear to be the same as they have always been.  But we can look to the dunes and see how much has gone and how much remains.  The community wears away and washes up in Marstons Mills.

For as long as I have lived on Nantucket, I have heard of its impending doom.  Building, cars, drugs, greed, power were all going to end the island.  Town meeting and elections came with headlines and pamphlets of impending doom.  And most of them were right (anybody else wish we had the Westmoor land right about now?).  Just because the beach looks the same as it always does, it doesn’t mean that a house or two hasn’t been floated off into the rolling surf or flat-bedded off to a drier building site. For many, the island looks as it always has.  The past is the future.  For those who see and who remember, the island keeps slipping away.  The fact that it hasn’t become somewhere else owes to the far seeing actions of various responsible people. 

And here we are again, living on a lottery ticket.  We can rent out the bedrooms for a thousand dollars a night, we can work at twice the pay that off-island plumbers charge, and the jobs keep leaving messages after the beep.  Unfortunately, our kids can only live here if we don’t AirBnB their rooms.  Too many islanders make decisions with their wallets and not with their calendars.  We don’t just have rights to the island, we have responsibilities. 

Our responsibility isn’t just to Bank of America and Visa, it’s also to our kids.  The island has been squeezing the future in exchange for our short-term rental present.  For as long as I have been a voter, I have heard about the loss of rental housing stock and the lack of affordable housing in general.  On our lottery tickets, we shook our heads and smiled.  Something needed to be done, by someone else. 

Today, we have town jobs, with sizable paychecks, and nobody to work them because they don’t have any place to put a pillow.  We don’t have enough police or fire fighters, and we can’t pay them enough to buy a house on Mizzenmast or Bartlett. Right now, the middle school teachers and the cops are willing to live five to a house, but they will never own their own driveway. 

As we becoming a temporary stop on the career path, the winter community wears away.  We have lost the bank presidents, the hospital directors, the phone company and electric company workers, the lawyers, and the doctors, and the realtors.  We traded their homes for seats on the boat.  So this year, as it has for every year, we have a responsibility to the next generation. 

Otherwise the great sunsets of the island will only be seen from a ferry bound for Hyannis.

Articles by Date from 2012