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Volume 37 Issue Two • April 19-May2, 2007 now in our 37th season

Swept Away

by Robert P. Barsanti

The forecasters are all a-twitter at the prospect of a big nor’easter for the weekend.  They have their flashing graphics, their rain gear, and their mini-cams ready to go out and record the destruction. 

I am throttling my joy.  The weather folks tease me so.  All winter we have heard about this gulley washer or the next, forming off of Hatteras and “bombing out” just south of us.  The snow dervish would fling feet of snow at us sideways.  It would sculpt ten-foot-high geometric, artistic drifts across the Milestone Road.  It would hurl twenty-foot waves on the south shore and push the harbor “over the curb” and into the streets downtown.  When the hour drew near, the wind shifted, the storm dove inland, and we got left with fog, drizzle, and a full day of school.  Anticipation seeped out into the drizzle of disappointment.  The island is due for an Old Testament storm, but it only gets CCD classes.

I look for the definitive storm, of course.  I want one storm that will break Great Point off of the island, sweep houses into the sea and reconnect Tuckernuck to the island.  I want to take pictures and movies and see the Weather Channel shivering on a dock downtown.  Nature works in a different scale, and with different tools.  Sometimes she uses waves, sometimes wind, sometimes fire.   Always, she uses time.

We got a taste of that on April Fool’s Day.  Since the downfall of the roving gangs of marauding sheep, the moors have been filling in with scrub pine, oak, brush, and anything else hardy enough to cling to life in the sand.  All of that new growth gives forage and cover for the deer, a wind break for the houses, and kindling for fire.  On that Sunday, the conservation folks started a controlled burn near Altar Rock.  With the shift of the wind, the controlled became uncontrolled.  The smoke curled up out of the moors and we all looked to the water. 

Technology and money have brought the island closer to the mainland.  TV shows come by satellite or cable, not by rabbit ears.  We can buy lamb from Greece, steak from Argentina, and cheese from the Hebrides.  Waitresses and carpenters take a one-hour boat ride and the lawyers fly.  You could probably order delivery from Dominos this summer.

But when the weather turns, geography pulls back the cover and shows us the reality.  One thin line of diesel fuel connects us to the mainland.  That line breaks in the wind, in the ice, and in the storm.  Even when the weather is crystalline, it still remains a long fragile thread that connects us to hospitals and fire departments.

With the moors burning, the fire chief made the call and brought four trucks over from the Cape on the 2:45 boat.  By 5:30 the fire had come back under control, a light rain began to fall,  and the native species had 75 blackened acres to refill.  The Cape crews had a good laugh, used their brush-cutters, and rode the boat back.

We tend to look out our windows and see calendar photos.  We watch the ocean roll, the gentle fog rolling in, and the moors rolling under the dark green pines.  We take pictures either for the cubicle, the refrigerator or for old age, and we don’t see.  We don’t see how fragile it all is.  We don’t see the moors filled with kindling.  We don’t see the beach retreating into the dunes and we don’t see whipping winds of the nor’easter.  We only see right now. And right now, we have cold beer, striped bass for the grill, and a DVD for the evening.  We are sitting on the edge of a girder, enjoying the view. 

The folks on Baxter Road have the best view.  They wake up each morning to the sun over Portugal and the Atlantic, and to the rolling sound of their time slipping away.  They know it.  They are willing to drop the money and spray the sand and plant the brush and hope that it can keep time and tide away.  They pay millions to rent a few more Augusts.

The Sconset Beach Preservation Fund causes more than a few polite coughs and rolled eyes around the worksites and breakfast plates of the island.  Everyone has become an oceanographer, engineer, and sport fisherman.  We all have our opinions.

And we all should look to our own houses.  The only difference between spraying sand onto a beach and fixing the draft is the money spent and the Selectmen.  We all know about nor’easters parked off the Jersey Coast, but we don’t think about the fire rolling through the moors or the hurricane that fills the Hyannis channel with tons of sand.  The bean counters in the insurance companies know how fragile it is.  Insurance rates keep on climbing as year builds on year.  Hurricanes will come.  Ice storms will come.  Fires will come and that thin thread of diesel oil will snap. 

We don’t live in geologic time.  The slow moving tragedy of Nantucket may not come to the fifth act anytime soon.  The storms may keep missing, the fires fizzle out, and the rest of the natural curbs may keep holding.  More to the point, we can’t do anything about the bad ending, other than spraying more sand on the beaches.  As George Carlin says, we don’t need to protect the earth, or the island.  It will do very well without us.

Instead of looking forward fifty years, maybe we should just look forward one or two summers.  Plant the chair on the beach, open the book, crack a cold one, and watch the waves slowly roll into the shore.

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