September 26, 2012
Some mornings I wake up at home in New Jersey look out my bedroom window, and know it is going to be a “Nantucket-y Day”. Islanders and off-islanders alike know what this phrase means – the crystal clarity of an Indian summer morning, with a sky as blue as the seat of a sailor’s pants, low humidity and a perfect reading midway on the thermometer. From my bed, I reach for my cell phone, checking the “temp”, a cool 62, with promises to rise toward 78 by noon. Eager to see for myself this too good to be true day, I hurry to dress and am out the door into this beautiful morning, fleece zipped half way up over a short sleeve tee-shirt, dog on my heels
From my old farm house in the Somerset Hills of New Jersey where I live when I am not flip-flopping through the month of June on Nantucket, I head out onto Cedar Ridge Road, a mile long dirt lane that connects to, and crisscrosses with, a labyrinth of other unpaved by-ways stretching through the township’s many hayfields and farms. Established almost a century later than Nantucket, Bedminster remains an area for working cattle farms dairy cows, pleasure horses. Abundant in peaches, apples, Jersey tomatoes, silver queen corn-we are indeed a garden state. However, the township was not as quick to preserve its character through land conservation as Nantucket was, and the boom of the 1980’s brought the division of many once grand farms and estates, now buildable lots sprouting clusters of houses like so many mushrooms in a glen. The white-tailed deer, nudged out by swing sets and swimming pools, feast on our flower beds and perennial borders, abandoning their established paths through the once open space.
As my dog and I walk we take in the briskness of the morning. A school bus kicks up dust as it passes and pushes Petal, my Westie, and me off to the edge of the road and into the scratchy brush. ‘Up, Up!” I say to her and she sits dutifully at my side while the big yellow carrier of noisy, excited school children lumbers by.
Now, as October finds its way toward Halloween, I think about my early morning walks last June in Squam Farm behind my rental cottage in Polpis—no busses, no cars, and only an occasional pass from a Ranger’s four wheeler to push us off the beaten path. Hawks overhead dive and cry instead of the New Jersey jets now whining overhead on a flight path out of Newark Airport. I miss the shoulder high ostrich ferns lining Wauwinet road, the bubbling, clear blue waters of Eat Fire Spring on the way to the farm. Blackberry, blueberry, and scrub oak line the trails through the swamps and I catch a whiff, on a day like today, this quintessential “Nantucket-y Day”.
I do live in a still-beautiful part of New Jersey (yes, there is such a thing). My husband, daughter and I own a piece of heaven in this garden state--a small non-working farm, anchored by a colonial revival house and barns dating back to 1745. Once a haven for my Grandfather, a gentleman farmer, for cattle, chickens, goats, pigs, and a brace of pheasant, my husband and I are in the process of carving out an easement to protect our precious 30 acres from future division. Our Van Gogh-like hayfields ripple in the wind, late spring and early fall reminding me of the rolling surf at Quidnet beach on a summer morning. Not unlike our walks through Squam, Petal and I can trek for hours through Bedminster’s back roads and see more flora and fauna than people or cars--sometimes fox dart from the brush, a surprised coyote ducks for cover and trots toward his den for a day long nap. On Nantucket, I would be looking for red-tailed hawk, osprey, seals on the beach, an occasional whale breaching in the ocean - a sight that never ceases to awe and amaze me. The views are different here, yet equally as thrilling-- seeing the back end of a New Jersey black bear rooting in a late blooming berry bush, thrill us too, but make us do an about-face and head home to tell the tale. Such utopia, both places overflowing with beauty, wild grace, and a unique natural order to offer two nature loving morning walkers.
As grateful as I am to be home, as much as I love my Cedar Ridge Farm with its meandering dirt by-ways, outcropping of grey barns and sheds, perennial beds and wide open spaces, with old chimneys with fires to keep me warm in the winter when I read and write and dream -- a big piece of our hearts, Petal's and mine, live in Nantucket all year round.
But. We are designated “just summer people”, and until 2010, frequent house guests of my in-laws’ Miacomet home. Here is our best-kept secret. We are “islanders”, full time, year-round in disguise. For Halloween we will don our waders, dig out our surf-casters and scalloping buckets and pretend we are back. But really, we never leave. Twice, in the early 1980’s, I managed to stay on island for more than a year, before marriage and work and school schedules kept me tethered to one place when the summer was over and everyone else – including me – goes back to their off-Island homes and lives. That first glorious full year, I took in the breathtaking westerly winter sunsets melting into Tuckernuck, the harbor seals coming up for air in dark March waters, the clanking of halyards on sailboat masts, the rawness and isolation of life on sand bar so far out at sea. .
Being on island in the darkening days of the fall and winter months that then bloomed right into summer without so much as a wink at spring, was a special privilege. The physical change of seasons on the landscape, the hunkering down of the wildlife, the home fires lit and glowing, filling the night air with the smell of apple wood smoke remain strongly ingrained into my senses thirty years later. Hearing the winter winds howl, feeling the rain slap and witnessing the snow fall on the beach like so much sea foam was such a remarkable contrast from the Nantucket I had known for so many years before—a summer place, a place to prop my surfboard.
I remember grateful winter dinners at La Languedoc, which stayed open the longest, (bless you, wise owners Alan and Neil) with parking spaces right out front and good food and the promise of conversation inside. Icy mornings, two layers of down on my chest and fresh blueberry muffins for breakfast at Condon’s or Nantucket Pharmacy (long before The Bean was around the corner ) Then lunch, a sandwich from Something Natural, while parked off- road in Cisco or Surfside , watching the Atlantic roll and thunder and February’s flinty sun reflecting off the water’s navy blue surface. I’d often spot a wet suited surfer catching one more ride before returning to their van parked near-by, the one advertising their day jobs -- carpenter, mason, electrician.
There is not a day that passes in the off season that I don’t think about Nantucket. Sometimes when I dream through the dark and cold of New Jersey winter nights, I think I can smell the salt air and the summer’s rosa rugosa blooms, the ones on the path to Quidnet. In the grey morning light, I wake up confused, just for a second, and then I see the hint of a Nantuckety-day out of the window, the softening sky a Tiffany box blue, a sign of winter beginning to release her hold, and I say to Petal, who has curled around me for warmth, “Soon, girl, we’ll be back soon”.
Ryder Ziebarth is a writer based in New Jersey whose heart is based on Nantucket.