Nantucket Essays


by Robert P. Barsanti

We arrived before the storm. It had spun up off the east coast of Florida, knocked some sea walls down, then aimed to the west of us. The ferry alarmed the ducks and the seagulls as it crossed the Sound, slipping under the deep purple clouds, aiming for the white sands lit by a setting sun.

The storm came as it always did, gray and wet and windy. In the pink afterglow of a sunset, peeking under the margin of advancing cloud, the wind shifted. Hours later, in the dark, the rain came. It filled in potholes, streams, and wide brimming ponds that submerge the streets and float the always funny canoe boys across Easy Street.

By morning, the wind and rain had spun out into the Gulf of Maine. The great blue Canadian sky dried out the pavement, sipped away at the puddles, and the island emerged from another near catastrophe.

On-island, winter doesn’t so much as arrive as is revealed. Summer grows and spreads like a new fashion. The grass glows, the buds pop, and the warm air breathes over us from Surfside and Cisco. The bushes and moors hide their sticks and bristles in coats of green and yellow. In a moment, the boats arrive, the blankets spread, and the corn grows high. In the warm, glowing nights of summer, you can sink down into the season and let it swallow you up. Tomorrow will have waves, gentle breezes, and heavy tomatoes. And it will until it won’t, and summer gets blown off the trees and drowned in the puddles.

When winter arrives, the resort gets folded up, sealed away, and locked. The gates are unwatched, the windows are dark, the driveways are empty. My trespasser wanders in the digital eye of security systems, sniffing at the flower beds, trotting beside the pool, and watering the brown Hydrangea. The deer have been here first.

He trespasses from neighbor to neighbor in pursuit of rabbits and deer. He found a great and delicious dead gull, blown into the wall of a summer cottage. He sniffed and would have done more had not I led him away by the collar.

We see the recovery. The sump pumps are emptying the basements and the branches are getting moved off the roadways. We cross Madaket Road and tuck into the bamboo forest. At the edge of marsh and moor, he goes bounding up deer paths, over old piles of scallop shells, and into deliciously wet pond and puddle. In the distance, the surf pounds.

You come to the winter island with a fleece sweater and walking shoes. The club closed, the tennis net has been rolled up, and that restaurant that was in the New Yorker closed three months ago. The winter island is naked like an animal. You trespass where you want, through the moors, over the beaches, into the woods and back out into the darkened side streets of town. The windows glow like fishtanks, the trees clatter in the oceanic wind, and the sunset explodes someplace far, far away.

In the winter, you wander under the great bowl of heaven. During the night, the stars smear from one horizon to another, dominated my a streak right through the middle. Before and after sunset, the horizon and the clouds take on the range of the spectrum, before winking out into purple. And during the day, the ocean light illuminates the walls and beaches like unblinking moonlight. Even out here in the marshes, your head angles upwards to the great expanse.

During the R months, the island offers solitude, in all its cold and comfort. You walk Cisco in the afternoon, once lit by thousands of human fires on thousands of blankets. Now, the sand, the beach grass, the waves, and the sky all circle one little spark on the beach: you. The winter offers neither comfort nor company, neither judgement nor forgiveness, but it will let you pass. During the winter, we all trespass.

My boon companion and I found a camp. A tarp, a good sized can, a small gas stove, and smashed down grass. He sniffed about, found that spot where everyone had to go, and then found a bag of trash. He looked at me, as if he wanted to take it home, and I assented. The tarp was still wet, but the gas stove was cold. I hoped that whatever workman, mower, painter, or plasterer had found work and warmth off-island. But I left the stove, in case he hadn’t.

We live in a time of ordinary catastrophes. The recovery is ongoing; we either see it or we don’t. Each storm passes over and takes a piece of what we were away. It could be a branch, a tree, a house, or a family. Our catastrophes can be measured in dollars at the Stop-n-Shop, in boat tickets, or in ambulance trips. The island erodes in great clumps or in small bites. A restaurant closes, a family moves, or a house falls into the breakers. We see it, we bear witness, and we recover.

Winter is a time of recovery. During the summer, the visitors and the business offer hope and illusion. We can make it through this, we can make a bit more money, we can go to Fortieth Pole on Sunday and it will all work out. We can camp out until I can find a bed. But in the winter, the hope gets cleaned, folded and put away and the illusion gets locked in a storage shed. In the winter, we recover if we can. We leave if we can’t.

Once back home, I toweled my boon companion clean, then ushered him into the warmth of the wood stove. He found his water dish, then the big dog bed with his name on it, and curled up in front of the flames. Myself, I stood in front of the window, watched, and waited.

Articles by Date from 2012