Close friends of mine are lucky enough to live in one of the right addresses. As a result, nine months out of the year they have no neighbors within a well struck two iron. In the summer, the street is a hive of activity. They tell a funny story of the new Nantucket. As the story goes, a new owner was visiting the house next to them and stopped by for a conversation. It was very brief; “We are going to grow the hedge two more feet. You’re swing-set is too loud.”
My friends related this story to me with a smile and I returned the favor. I have gotten used to this sort of behavior in May and June. The visitors come to look at their million-dollar sand and immediately establish a fortress of rights and privileges. They will park here, they will keep the music up loud, and they will mark off where they want the hedge to go.
The well-kept hedge symbolizes all that these people see. It marks their property line with a thorny wall. It hides the house, people, and view behind a natural barrier. The height of the wall indicates the depth of the checkbook. A neat, thick, healthy, and impenetrable hedge requires a lot of care. Care is measured in dollars. Inside these green walls, assumably, the visitors can now watch television in peace. The final step in building a house on the new Nantucket seems to be encircling it in a hedge.
Hedges are nothing new out here, but they are the opposite of what Nantucket was. Nantucket has never been a private place. All of those Quakers were forever checking on each other for “disorderly walking.” Those in-town houses were built tight to the street so that they could see everyone on the street and, conversely, everyone could see them. Good fences did not make good neighbors out here. Walking up Fair Street on a warm summer night was to tour through the families of all who live there.
The new visitors would call us “Nosy Parkers” and worse, but they aren’t giving us credit. Nantucketers care about their neighbors. Visitors don’t. The visitors come to the island with the belief that they have paid for the Gold Deck and should get all the privileges due them including the drink cart and the Captain’s table dinner. Their neighbors on the Silver Deck or in steerage just don’t matter. Cutting in line at Stop and Shop has no consequences to a visitor. They just get back inside the hedges sooner.
The beauty of the island has always been that visitors never last too long out here. It’s an island; the people you snub will serve you soup or will come out to unclog a toilet. You will need the good humor of the folks in steerage sooner than you think you will. The visitors quickly learn that the way to get the plumber to come to your house quickly is not to cut him off in the check out line. The visitors either learn this or they leave and go to the Vineyard. They love hedges over there.
Another friend has a neighbor who loved his lawyer. The neighbor sent over a legal cease and desist order to prevent my friend from picking the blueberries that grew between them. My friend laughed and sent over a pie. That winter, one of the visitor’s skylights collapsed under the ice. Instead of laughing at the misfortune, my friend called the owner in New York, recommended a contractor, and plywooded the hole himself. During the next summer, they were barbecuing together. The Nantucketer’s best quality is a concern for others. He teaches it as best he can.
I am afraid we have too few Nantucketers these days and are putting up too many hedges. Those two close friends have both sold their lottery tickets and have moved on to the woods of western Massachusetts and Vermont. Dozens of others look around, listen to the realtors and sell while they can. If history is any judge, many of them will regret giving up what they had. However, the island that they had has drifted into the past. The island of the future could be and island of more and more exclusive clubs where the richest of the plutocrats whittle down the membership lists into a platinum razor’s edge of greed and jealousy. Each club will be its own green fortress, walled by hedges, and serviced by an off-island staff kept in employee housing. Edouard Stackpole saw it in 1961. It will be an island of “caretakers, contractors, gift shops and lodging houses.” Even he couldn’t see the money getting so steep as to buy up the lodging houses as well.
If Nantucket is to remain distinct from the Hobe Sound-Aspen axis, we need to fight those hedges. The wheeling flock of seagulls will always circle for the next best thing. When the island is appropriately parceled off into hedged in squares, they will move onto the next open space and parcel that off in thorns. Our fortune doesn’t come so much from the beach as from each other. As long as we keep looking out for each other, we will be Nantucketers no matter how high the shrubbery gets.
Bob Barsanti's novel, Milestone Road, was published last summer. His previously published book of essays about Nantucket, Sand in My Shoes, is available here. He will be featured with local authors on Saturday, June 22nd, as part of the 2013 Nantucket Book Festival.