Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 41 Issue 2 • May 12-25, 2011
now in our 41th season

Ten Thousand Year Picnic

by Robert P. Barsanti

When you return to the island, the changes throw themselves at you.  The police station is no longer downtown, but out in the suburbs.  The Dreamland is taking shape again, in a skeleton of steel and cement.  The bright spray of stores has shifted again, as if a wave has come in and pushed the shells around the beach.  Some have been swept out to sea and some have just been tumbled in the tide-line; Zero Main is no longer at Zero Main.

This winter has been one for the lawyers.  Divorces, long rumored, have pushed through the bluff and rolled out onto the sand.  The insurers write a check and the firefighters burn it all down.  The children spend the night in his apartment for a night or two before returning to the old silent house for the rest of the week.  Nothing to hear but the click of the keyboard on and the roll of the waves out at Surfside.  The lawyers have roosted in the foreclosures.  The banks have finally lifted the perilous houses off their foundations and the birds have come swooping in, to the tune of five or six a week in the paper.  But even the lawyers have their heads into the wind.  They perch on the power lines, hunch their wings, and wait.

To us, the island seems to change fast.  The long sweep of history lasts about three months out here.  Families have moved off-island to Concord and Connecticut, others have moved on and are in need of "affordable" three bedroom housing.  This recession has eroded and abraded the island so that we all hang onto the edge of the sand as best we can, and keep an eye open for anything that floats. 

Some of this change comes from the changing fortunes of Wall Street, but some of it, surely, comes from the perspective of five months away.  We see the change because we look so carefully.  Out in Newton and Hartford, we hold the island pristine in our mind.  It is a place of calendars, screen savers, and coffee table books.  We want what we had: Let our future be yesterday.  But when the sand shifts and the winds blow, our yesterday disappears deep into the waves.   We trudge backward into a future without the Opera House, the Atlantic Cafe, and Cambridge Street.

After Daffodil Day and after dinner, we drove out to the beach in Sconset.  No lights lit the houses in Codfish Park or on the bluff.  The ocean rolled in heavy and eternal.  Each wave followed another wave, lifted, rolled, and crashed.  In a few months, boys will run into that surf at two o'clock in the afternoon and let it lift and fling them.  I will probably take pictures of it.  But the same waves roll in at night, every night for the last ten thousand years and for the next ten thousand years. 

In that geologic night, the stars inched themselves westward.  A flight blinked overhead, as did a satellite, but for the most part we were alone with the waves, the stars, and the fog bank two miles offshore.  While I know some constellations, more fill the sky than I, or any other could name.  They are our hieroglyphics; we can puzzle over them, copy them, and try to project them, but we cannot read them.  We do not have the mind of God. 

On the island, we live amid the infinite.  It surrounds us, rattles the windows, and roars through the dark.  General Electric and National Grid light the night out in Boston, and cover the suburbs in a blanket of its own importance.  But in this geologic, island night, we live stripped and naked.  In the words of Melville, we are oysters looking up through the water at the sun. 

Or we are the fishing boats.  A mile off of the beach, three fishing boats floated in the darkness.  MIllions of stars glowed over them.  Millions of animals swam under them.  And in the midst of all those millions, four men played cards and watched videos in a lit cabin.  A moment from now, they will be gone, as will I, the houses, the bench, and everything else but the stars, the waves, and the far off fog.  We live in this moment and no other.

But this is our moment.  Brief and inconsequential as oysters, our moment is still ours.  On the way back to town, down the Milestone Road, we passed the animals of the Serengetti, and, for this year, a velociraptor.  Lit for a second in our headlights, he was in mid-leap, lit up in a savage grin.  He was joke for the ancient starlight and an amusement for the taciturn wind.  He was our joke, our laugh, in our moment.  We may not be here as long as you, brother, but we had a lot more fun.

It will be a good summer out here.  There will be more babies and there will be jobs and the bluefish will run right after the stripers.  Weddings will begin this spring, even among the divorced.  The daffodils will give way to tulips which will bend their heads to the roses and it will be summer.  And yes, the buildings will have new names and people will shuffle about.  New friends will slowly slip, respectfully, into the barstool where the old friends once sat.  And Facebook will unite us all into one giant cluster of energy while we drink a mojito and eat the blue corn chips.  All should be well.
On the next morning after Daffodil, I walked up Brant Point to the light house.  The wind blew hard out of the northwest, but the sun was warm and the season was edging closer to changing.  When I heard the familiar whistle blow, I expected to see the Nobska churn around the point and head north.   Brant Point Light sported the Daffodil Wreath that the Coasties had made. The whitecaps flecked the harbor, the current raced in, and all had been as it had been for ten thousand years.

In the rocks at the base of the lighthouse, an infant seal had washed up.  The seal was still white and furry, with its umbilical cord attached.  A photographer was clicking pictures and the Marine Mammal Rescue Team had been summoned, but the animal remained alone and shivering in the rocks.  We watched and hoped for a mother to come swimming up to catch a pup lost in the tide.

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