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Island
Essay
Volume 39 Issue 19 • Sept 10-16, 2009
now in our 39th season

Island Love

by Robert P. Barsanti

Down the street, a maple tree is beginning its turn.  The outer leaves, on the eastern side of the tree, have started to catch fire, while the rest of the leaves wait to burn.  Otherwise, yellow leaves have started to fall from the elms and they fill in the gutters by the side of the road.  I pass by these as I walk to work and, like the perpetual truant, I kick them up into a flurry of color.

It’s hard not to love the Berkshires.  The crowds, such as they were, have left.  The color begins the change at the top of the Adirondacks, and then slowly seeps lower and lower.  Pleasant surprises arise around each corner, whether it be the quiet bubble of the Housatonic, the gentle rise of Mount Greylock, or the pine primeval darkness of Monument Mountain.  Great Barrington and Lenox hold historic and architectural treasures, as well as remarkable Chinese food, a variety of micro-brews, and golf courses with greens fees less expensive than a downtown cocktail.  There is a lot to love.

And yet, I don’t.

With an inward eye, I look back on the moors turning russet in Madaket, the view of the ocean from Ram’s Pasture, and the sight of the fog bank crossing the first hole at Miacomet.  Outside, the Berkshires throws herself at me in a wanton display of color and glory, but my heart keeps crossing that vast Nantucket Sound to my old, dear friend.

I think many people fall in love with the island.  Some of our summer visitors have her as an exotic and exciting mistress, with extravagant gifts of fish and golf.  Other visitors perceive Nantucket as an old lover who was too wild and impractical for a long term, but who holds so many rich memories.  Natives may see her as a mother who nurtures but demands.  They may only feel her love when they leave.

I remember when I fell in love with the island.  One morning in late September two decades ago, I woke up early to bike to school.   Standing outside of the rented house on Meadowview Drive, I stood in the violet of early morning.  The ducks circled the pond, the Canadian breeze stirred the hedges, but otherwise the air was more still and silent than I had ever heard before.  And in that silence, I recognized the distant roll of waves onto the beach.

Those who have chosen to live out here can probably pick a moment when they realized that they had fallen in love with the island.  More likely than not, I suspect those moments came as glances or quiet moments of grace rather than the splendor of a Sconset sunrise or the starry whirl of a December night.  I remember the love tokens the island has sent me.  She sent me pockets of early fog on the Madaket Road, when the car would dip under and above the clouds.  She gave us a pheasant to visit our backyard at 4:30 every afternoon and a Snowy Owl to swoop over me out on the cranberry bogs.  The island dropped a small fish in a puddle in front of me and watched one with a gentler  heart than mine run to drop it off in the ocean.  On what proved to be my mother’s last visit, she sent a freak snow squall in October to whiten my Mom’s clothes while she stood atop Altar Rock.  She turned to my father and said “I have to spend another night.”  And so she did.

Over time, I developed deep, marital love for the island.  We have been troubled by the gray swells and heartened by moments of glad grace; our pleasures have become routine but our routines have become pleasures.  I no longer stop to listen to the storm waves pound the beach but let it follow me as if it was a song I heard her sing in the morning.  I have become accustomed to her public beauty of August, but surprised by her hidden and private splendor in December.  I remember her green youth and see it glowing under her browning age.

For many, Nantucket is too demanding a spouse.  You must forgive the greed and the development. You must forgive her brushing old friends off and welcoming the flashy on their jets.  She demands money and time and energy.  You have to change so much, as she changes.

Separation and divorce seem easy.  You sell the house, get a new job, have one last party for your January friends and you leave with your bags and a future in a more reasonable and less fickle land.  When you think back on the island, you laugh and joke at it all.  Regret melts in your drink.

Long love demands the strength of geology.  Beneath the art of wind, and the passion of the waves must lie bedrock.  Time, tide, snow, and houses pass overhead and leave the substrata fixed and unbroken.  Everything else changes.  Families change, jobs end, houses and developments are built, trees and scrub grow, but the island, beneath it all, remains the same. And so we age.

Nantucket cannot love me.  It existed long before I trudged its sand and it will exist long after I have been buried into that very sand.  

That which I love I have projected out onto the sandspit of scrub pines and beach grass.  The waves are not generous, the wind is not graceful, and the cold winter light bears no gentle touch.  They are what they have always been: fundamental, immutable, and inhuman.

Yet, the truth that the heart knows is that I may still love.

In the Berkshires, Robert Frost is buried in a simple grave in the Old Bennington Cemetery.  A hero in a tragic life, he buried most of his children, and his beloved wife, Elinor.  Under her name, Frost put his tenderest view of marriage; “wing to wing and oar to oar.”  Under his name is written “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”  The old widower loved a world that would never love him back.  The woods of New Hampshire and Vermont would never work oar to oar with him as Elinor had.  Yet, he still loved, and quarreled, with those hills.

I hope I bear the same love for the island.  I know I can quarrel with her.  The prices, the real estate, the development, the greed, and the blind self-destruction of hedges and houses feeds my fighting fire. 

But at the end of the day, I will still stand underneath her stars and hear the low roll of waves off to the south.  I have sand in my shoes.  Long may it stay.

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