The Block Island Times

A Fading Pluto

By Martha Ball | Aug 03, 2013

Earlier this week I wrote the numerals “7/29” and thought in passing — as I do every year — that it was my mother’s birthday, forever engrained from the year I was in junior high and decided to make a cake at a friend’s house on Connecticut Avenue, one since completely renovated. It was a wonderful house, with an old-fashioned pantry, a small room sharing the footprint of a tiny square ell with a back hall, a situation about which I still marvel when I drive past. I had it in my head that her birthday was the 28th until, thankfully, my father intervened because we were not getting the cake made that afternoon.

This year it was with a start that I looked at “7/29/13” and realized it would have been my mother’s 100th birthday, these 26 years after she died on a cold morning in early February.

She was among the group Rob Lewis collected when he set out to bring Block Island Conservancy into being, people with whom he had established working relationships on the Planning Board, at the Harbor Church and the Historical Society [there was nothing exclusive about it, at the time there did not exist the plenitude of non-profits that keep so many programs going today, the connections I never noticed until looking at the list years later]. Others he knew to be conservation minded, or at least open to the idea of conservation.

Green space was not an alien concept, the long-overlooked Nathan Mott Park had existed for over 30 years, since the death of Lucretia Mott Ball in 1941, but neither was it a driving force. The development pressures of the turn of the century had gone the way of the grand hotels, carried away on the wind but for some faded documents in the Town Hall vault; speculators of the fifties remained under the radar, a vague threat lurking in the fog.

Then Rodman’s Hollow was openly threatened. It is odd, today, hard to imagine it would even be a desirable property for such purposes, that initial parcel that became the keystone of a movement that would reach far beyond Bock Island’s shores. It is not even that large, that first chunk of land, but it had the potential to be a gateway to the loss of everything running out to the sea.

My mother was by nature a cautious woman — or perhaps she spent her life’s ration of recklessness moving to Block Island in the late 1940’s — and I remember her, in those early years of Block Island Conservancy, weighing every potential acquisition. Then the floodgates opened and she came home from a meeting having decided what could be gotten should be while it was possible.

This summer I am talking to people who watched the destruction of Sandy and all the following storms on line and are amazed that Block Island is whole, was whole in such good time. I think how Rhode Island we are in that respect, drawing out every detail of what isn’t finished apace as we ignore all that has been accomplished. People who work in government in other states have said, “Wow, your governor really came through for you!” and it has come as a surprise and I remember the governor and Senators touring the devastation. They, these visitors, tell me of roads fixed only in time for summer and others still in ruins, and the tales of the status of the Jersey shore are as varied as local cab drivers’ versions of ... anything.

A few have remarked that “We never thought poor little Block Island would be open for the summer.” We were lucky, I continue to say, we had sand in parking lots the way folks elsewhere had sand in house, that losing a couple of sections of road was not in the grand scheme of things that catastrophic.

Other years it has been development, listening to similar comments on the land conservation and realizing we, Rhode Islanders whether we care to admit it or not, see the buildings scraping the sky and the land covered with asphalt.

There is a viewing of the night sky scheduled for the Hodge Preserve, one of the parcels gotten by the combined efforts of Bock Island Conservancy, Block Island Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and The Town of New Shoreham, a sometimes-forgotten player in this arena. When we set about to secure that land, someone with wide experience in the field told me it had been his experience that much could be accomplished if everyone left their egos at the door, sound advice in any venture, so obvious once someone gives voice to the words.

The air has changed, the horizon was sharp today, the mainland a lumpy line of muted blue but the air clear enough that the white towers on the other side of the water shone in the sun. The east wall of the Old Harbor still gives me pause, nearly level but for a few bumps here and there then suddenly turned ragged, its end dissolving in a sad ever diminishing pile of boulders. Saddest of all, a little green can bobs on the surface of the channel, blinking dejectedly.

The roads were fixed, the parking lots restored, the main one to a better condition than it had been in prior to Sandy, the worst of the harbor has been dredged, there are definitive plans to secure the East Dock, and the beaches are steadily rebuilding themselves.

The green light seems to be no more than a footnote in the paperwork of the government agency to which it is assigned. A handful of visitors notice it is missing, the rest are either in their cars, anxious to drive off the ferry, or on deck, looking at the old hotels that still line the front street. My lost night candle is no more than a faint blip, a fading Pluto in their individual solar systems.

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