Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 40 Issue 1 • April 22 - May 5, 2010
now in our 40th season

Nature's First Green is Gold

by Robert P.Barsanti

I had, somehow, forgotten how Nantucket is.  I drove back to Hyannis in the heart of a mainland spring.  The magnolias and crabapples were a-bloom, the forsythia glowed with nature’s first green, and the crocuses had faded and folded in the heat.  I had rolled the windows down, had the Sox game on, and was starting my truck driver tan.  When I parked at the Hy-Line, the workers were still in their winter parkas and polarfleece, but I was late and crutching and ignored the warning signs.

As the last guy on the boat (and the reason they pulled back into the slip), I limped and scurried up the gangway and into the only open seat, outside in the back, with a view of the plumed wake.  With me and my shirt sleeves were the advance scouts for the Collegiate Beer Pong League, who had gone my foolishness one step further with shorts and flip-flops. 

Twenty minutes later, I remembered the essential character of the island.  I was huddled in the lee of the cabin as the high speed ferry raced through damp, gray fog.  When my shivering got to be too much for me to manfully stand, I did my lopsided wobble indoors, dried myself, warmed up, then struggled back outside into the gray.  The college boys had decided to just suffer manfully in the cold.  I wished them well and hoped they get their merit badges soon. 

When we rounded Brant Point, the fog was so thick that the wharves and town were obscured in a legion of white.  The sun flashed above briefly, but I could see nothing further then ten feet away.  I crutched off the boat, found the children in their winter coats, and finally put mine on.

At core, every story we tell about our island should start with the most obvious, dull, and elementary fact; Nantucket is an island surrounded by sea water.  Two hundred years ago, a hundred years ago, even twenty years ago, the fact and the barrier of water entered into even the most mundane of conversations.  For most of Nantucket’s history, the most valuable beverage on island was not French Champagne or Australian Cabernet, but American Milk.  The preserved and well-built moors provided poor forage for the island cows and milk did not come over, daily, on refrigerated 18-wheelers.  The bitter character of the island announced itself in your black coffee each morning.

Today, islanders can be forgiven if they think of the island as some sort of cobblestone and cedar Hingham with a harbor.  The groceries arrive on trucks and boats and the hospital patients leave on helicopters.   The electricity stays regular (no more exploding transformers), the TV signal comes over the cable, as do the movies and newspapers.  In the summer, the evergreen cocktail party chatter about missing the paper due to the fog has faded, along with the newspaper itself.  Instead, we Twitter social espionage to our double crossing, double posting friends.

Much of modern life is spent around a glowing screen of some sort.  The TV, the computer, the Ipad, the Kindle, and the Droid reduce our address to a string of digits and  The distance between an apartment complex on Preston Road in Dallas, a call center in Bangalore, India, and Racetrack Ave on Nantucket is the width of a wire-as long as you stay indoors and stare at your glowing screen.  From the safety and security of our screens and sofas, we can wear short sleeves and fight ancient battles.

Until, we walk outside.

Those short sleeves will do you well in both Bangalore and Dallas, but on Nantucket, you will find the cold immediacy of the North Atlantic on your skin and hanging ten feet over your head.  The real world, in its cold, wet, and salt, will intrude on our electric dreams and rouse us.

This winter has been a remarkable one for weather and the island.  While very little snow fell, the wind and the wave raked us over and over again.  In many winters, the island moves down to North Carolina.  The temperature dips into the fifties and forties, the clouds race overhead, and you need to remember to wear your ski hat on the golf course.  In other years, when we are in the north of the Weather Channel’s affections, we move north to the coast of Maine.  The rain pounds, the temperature hovers around the upper edge of freezing, and the power lines hum in the wind for days in a row.  This winter, the island was moved somewhere between Labrador and Greenland.  Fifteen foot waves pounded Sconset for weeks, houses in Madaket fell onto the sand, airplanes and boats were tied to solid ground, and children were sent to an electric Texas for the weekend.
The weather eventually breaks.  On that Saturday, the fog retreated back to the cold of the deeper ocean.  It massed in blue regiments and brigades out with the shoals and sandbars, but the island warmed in the still air and the April sun.  Like a daffodil, this first Saturday bloomed gold amid the brown and gray of an island winter. The boys and I took our coats off and drifted down to Children’s Beach.  The harbor held no boats, other than those of the Coast Guard, the inns were closed, and the stores were just emerging from the salty dust of the winter.

But life had pushed its way out onto the playground and the beach.  The swings were heavy with children. They budded on the wooden ship and bloomed in the jungle gym rigging.   A few older and more optimistic sorts lay on their towels and unfurled the first swim suits of summer.  The adults, mind you, had the sweaters, jackets, and polarfleece ready to go in the back of the car or underneath the stroller.  We found our sunglasses and our sneakers, nodded to each other in the warmth, and soaked it in. This, too, was the essential nature of the island; we live together in the mote of the sea.  Alive in their pale pink, the children roller bladed, scootered, ran, hopped, swung, and played in the first gold of the season.

In the words of the poet, that remains her hardest hue to hold.  That evening, the blue cavalry rode over the island in puffs and clouds.  That night, an Adirondack cold front invaded from the northwest, the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped back into the thirties.  At ten o’clock, when I took the trash outside, the night could have been in November, January, or even March.  Orion, however, winked at me.  He was diving into the surf at the western horizon.  Summer was coming, he promised.  It will be here soon.


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