Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 1 • April 10 - 23, 2008
now in our 38th season

The Pole Star

by Robert P. Barsanti

I took the trash out the other night, as I often do.  I had one of my trashcan moments when I stood outside, my back to the house and looking over the stone wall to the marsh, the trees beyond, and the stars overhanging all.  

The stars rule in the spring.  They hang about us, casting centuries-old light in the silent, gin-clear Canadian air.  The spring constellations glare downwards.  In the evening, Orion sinks low in the western sky, Gemini stands high with the twins Castor and Pollux.  Leo is to the south, Pegasus to the north, and overhead the Big Dipper spins.

The stars dance, heel and toe, to the music of the waves. They spin about the pole star as they have for millions of years, before there were trees, names, or even beaches.  In winter, I get philosophical staring down the well of time.

Until I smell the garbage.

My family makes a lot of trash.  The boys drink milk gallons by the day, eat grapes, bananas, and apples by the bucket, and snack on bags of popcorn.  Their lunches, with all the bags and pouches, fill half of the trashbag with waste.  It’s hard not to look in a trashbag with an accountant’s eye.  That much for take-out, more than that for the pizza, and I can’t believe I paid that for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.  The grace of family is paid for by thousands of acts of contrition in the check-out line.  I see the Big Dipper dump all of its contents into the Little Dipper and think that that constellation must be a parent.

That’s how winter feels, most of the time.  The press of time and nature push against the need to keep little boys in hormone-free milk, strawberry yogurt, and juice pouches.  Nature measures time in waves and lunch-boxes. Fortunately, I do not have to fill the waves.

It’s been a hard winter for filling lunchboxes.  The weather was the least of our troubles this year.  Instead, the nail guns fell silent, the Downyflake closed for months, gas hit four dollars a gallon, and the politics got savage.

Winter starts in November with a raw south-west wind and the closing of Main Street.  Then it continues without the pleasant distraction of snow and ice until April comes with the sixth straight month of drizzle and Polarfleece.  Taxes are due, the money is running out, no one has rented the house for the summer, and the kids are stuck inside for another weekend of wind-driven rain.  No wonder why the letters-to-the-editor page drips in venom and anger.  No wonder town meeting is a ritual stoning. 

This winter, in particular, has brought a particularly cold light.  In the cloudless pale blue day, we pass by idle job sites.  The court report features miscreants who are “formerly of Nantucket.”  We don’t recognize the contractors’ vans anymore.  The bills to come just seem so fabulous and unbelievable we can’t see how any of our children can pay for sewers, schools, and a public safety complex.  It seems that we are building for an island that stopped existing seven years ago and that we hope, with crossed fingers, will come back in time to give our kids great jobs and buy us new boats.

And it won’t.  That island left several Autumns back.  It has taken us this long to realize that it isn’t returning.  Neither is Congdon’s Pharmacy, Tonkin’s, or dollar-a-gallon gasoline.  We can wait at the boat in our Carhartts and our painter’s caps, but those days have slipped into the museum, along with sheep-shearing, candle-making, and scrimshaw.  Sometime in the next ten years, the NHA will have an exhibit on the master carpenters of Nantucket’s renaissance and we will all know that those days have passed into acid-free paper for sure. 

In spring, however, we should stop looking at what is setting in the west and start looking for what is rising in the east.  Nantucket’s destiny is to be at the whip-end of history; our downturns snap lower, while our upturns kick higher.  The same Big Dipper that showered so much wealth upon our kids is also a Plow, tilling the spring soil.  Somewhere on island, someone is thinking about what to plant. 

Who knows what we will re-invent ourselves as?  Perhaps we will return to selling the world power and light, with hundreds of wind turbines dug into the sand off the south shore of Tuckernuck.  Perhaps we will look to Europe and Asia for rich tourists to come, play golf, sit on the sand, and look beautiful.  Perhaps one of these great manor houses will fall through the economy onto a group who wants to found a private school. 

Unlike so many other places in the world, Nantucket falls on the ley lines of wealth, luck, and industry.  The instruments and tools of success remain all around us, just as they have been for centuries.  The island is our Lego box; our old creations have grown creaky and weak—what shall we make now?  Somewhere on this island is someone who thinks “I don’t want to move.  What can I do to make money and keep my kids in hockey skates?”

Winter presents clarity.  Summer and spring, with their fogs and their hustle allow for procrastination, delay, and excuse.  No one has time when guests are coming, the cell-phone is ringing with “care-taking emergencies,” and Little Timmy has to get to Maria Mitchell.  The fog settles in over us and time slips away in a pile of post-its, receipts, and e-mail.

On the mainland, time walks away with averted eyes.  Stuck in Newton, the night is roofed by the orange glare of the streetlights and overwhelmed by the buzz of automobiles.  All of the day-to-day busy-ness crowds out the stars and the surf, leaving only deliveries and e-mails.  Anyone can find themselves beguiled by the television, texting 99 cent votes for America’s Next Top Model and American Idol.  The whisper of the stars is quickly overwhelmed by Comcast’s Triple Play.

When we stand apart, holding a bag full of melon rinds, milk cartons, and chicken bones, time gazes at us from the stars and walks with the waves.  Eternity is hard to hide from on a winter island.  It surrounds us, challenges us, and guides us.  Orion sets, the plowman Bootes rises, and the pole star stays fixed above the brown grass and scrub pines.  In the rolling silence, they ask what we are going to do now.

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