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Bare Ruined Choirs

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The summer leaves Nantucket as a lover would.  He lingers through September, makes two or three brief forays at breaking up during September, then he tries to work things out during October.  Finally, he gets in a fight during Halloween, and moves out sometime deep in November.  Sometime after the Vineyard game, the island takes a long bath, puts on sweat pants, watches old movies, and eats pint after pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

To know Nantucket in the winter is to know her alone.  The people, the stores, the colors, the flowers, and the leaves have long since walked away and left her.  And that’s okay.  Without the beauty of bloom and color, the island reveals handsome vistas and open sky.  Huge clouds of birds pass off the south shore, implacable gray waves thunder along the beach without even the dream of surfers, and the winter sunlight glows gold on the sand and brush.

Winter has little patience with foolishness and illusion.  The island lies naked on the water; the practical and lucrative images of summer have dropped to the ground.  Gray waves continually roll in from the horizon.  The empty sky opens up through the dark fingers of trees.  There are no flowers, no leaves, no charming green grass or great deep blue ocean.  Beneath the cunning paints of summer, the island is as it always was; brown, wet, and sandy. The wind does not blow for golf balls or sailboats, the waves do not curl for surfers to ride, and the sky does not glow for the painters and photographers. Nantucket is cold, handsome, and indifferent in the winter.

Our summer visitors never get this.  When they stand at the beach in Shimmo in July, the land and the water blaze with light and sound.  In November, the only human sound comes from the church bells across the harbor.

In the winter, you are left with your thoughts and your pulse.  Sooner or later, you walk a street or a path in the moors and find yourself.  There you are; cold, alone, and standing on a sandy trail amid the bare ruined choirs of scrub oak and elm. You can’t get cocky about your latest memo or your latest sale while you stand in front the eternal onslaught of waves. 

I met winter on the boat last night.  I stood alone on deck and watched the winter sun set over Nantucket Sound. Bright and clear, the sun dropped behind one line of cloud before it moved inexorably beneath the horizon.  The last sprinting low clouds caught the final golden light and glowed.  Remarkably ordinary, I witnessed it alone on the boat.

I was alone for the previous sunset as well.  I had been waiting at a light on Route 44 in Connecticut behind ten other cars and ten drivers.  The sun set between Staples and Petsmart, with NPR on the radio and a destination in mind.  Off-island, it’s easy to get blinded by routes and deafened by noise.  Just because the radio says that you are a valued listener doesn’t make it so. 

The central irony of winter living is that while you are alone in nature, you aren’t alone. During these winter months, Nantucketers reaffirm the spider web of tradition, consideration, and fibs that connect us to one another.  Without all of the summer visitors cluttering up the stores and the streets, we can finally see each other eye to eye, whether we want to or not. Nantucket, in the winter, becomes the ultimate New England small town.

Forgiveness and humor are more important in the winter than heating oil and DVD’s.  We are all naked.  The misfortune that amuses you today could be your own tomorrow.  The sin that you can’t countenance this week is spread across your face next week.   So you wave and smile. 

On that same boat trip, long after the sunset, I walked down to my car.  Midway up the platform, a knock startled me.  I looked up and a former student was waving.  Two cars up, it was a former co-worker.  A little further along, someone I only vaguely remember.  But they waved and smiled and I waved back.  Each wave reaffirms the spider web that connects us.

Unfortunately, that spider web is burning.  As costs and prices rise, young families leave the island for the land of Home Depot and Costco.  The logic of living on a lottery ticket escapes them.  Meanwhile, many of the high paying jobs fly over with full lunch buckets in the morning and fly back with empty ones in the evening.  Our leaders turn the calendars back to 1997 and can’t imagine why there isn’t another ten years of building boom left.  Then they look to the fifth grade to pay for it.  When the island sells one billion dollars in real estate by October, more of it should stay here.  Yet the money slips away faster than the sand.  Nantucket loses community as it becomes a commodity: the pig does not profit by the trade in pork bellies.

Selling Nantucket as a commodity means selling it as an illusion.  A realtor comes to an empty spot on the moors, erects a two story platform, and asks his clients to imagine a house there.  “Sure, the land looks ugly naked, but imagine a nice 10,000 square foot neo-colonial.  And we can cover up that unsightly bulge with a putting green.”  The clients go downtown and see themselves as caught up in the same spider web of island community that their money burns away.  Perhaps it will be replaced by another web of clubs and tennis matches or perhaps not. 

In the end, the island will still exist, whether there will be community or not.  The visitors come, the visitors go, but the earth abideth forever.  The enduring, abiding truth of winter is that we have no more permanence out here than snow men.  The sun will set, the wind will blow, and the waves will break long after the putting green has grown out and the viewing stand has fallen.   Winter on Nantucket is living without illusions.  And loving it.


Bob Barsanti's novel, Milestone Road, was published this summer.  His previously published book of essays about Nantucket, Sand in My Shoes, is available here.

(Photo credit:  Ryan Midgett)