The Block Island Times
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Dunes of December

Jan 23, 2013

We have altered the shore over time, in great strokes where flowing rivers have been dammed to create lakes, where cities have been built on land too close to the level of the sea and need walled protection; and in smaller script, that becomes dramatic in its own context, here with the construction of the breakwaters that created the harbors.

On the west side of the island there was a breach into the Great Pond, ineffective, dug through sand which has a tendency to act like sand, slipping through fingers, borne on the wind, carried by the tide. Then, over a hundred years ago the channel was cut, through a hill of earth that lay between the stretches of barrier beach on either side of it, the gentle rises where the Coast Guard Station and the Sea Scout Camp would later be built.

Among my favorite books in the Town Hall vault is the Breach Report, little more than an old-fashioned composite notebook, filled with pages from other reports, contract details, financial summaries, all pasted in place. It is not really all that interesting but I love the financial statements including the sum in the Old Breach Account as well as the New, the former not closed when the new cut was opened lest anyone be accused of jumping to conclusions that it was going to stay open.

The older account was, eventually, closed, and it is too easy to imagine a group of solemn men sitting about a table making that august decision, a great leap of faith that the New Breach would last. The first time I read it I thought it typical and funny, that reluctance to admit success, but one seems ever to understand my mirth.

The breakwater south of the New Breach began catching sand that was drifting north, as it is wont to do, and land, acres of it over a hundred years, accrued before it began rounding the end of the wall and filling the channel. It first made unusable the Boat House ramp, then the dock, then the extension of it, all unintentionally chronicled on maps and photographs, confirmed by the dredging operations that have become increasingly commonplace in my lifetime.

It raises the question as well, where was all that sand headed: was the length of the West Beach, now so often stone, a sandier place in the nineteenth century? Would there be more to Sandy Point?

Across the island the Old Harbor began as a simple landing, Pole Harbor, a forest of spears rising from the sand, above ground moorings for the simple boats two hundred years of island fishermen used to harvest the waters around their home. Then the great granite arms that embrace the harbor were built, the basin dredged, and a long insular community turned and welcomed the rest of the world.

There is an aerial map, a satellite image, of the whole island, lacking the tell-tale lines in the water of older, composite photographs. It was happenstance that it was in the room when representatives of the Army Corps tried to explain the currents coming from the south, wrapping around the end of the jetty that held a green light before the storms of this past fall, carrying sand, filling the channel. The photo map was there, the dark water curling around the harbor, the picture that was worth a thousand words.

They were preparing to dredge, perhaps that was the time they put great conduits on pontoons and shot the sloppy sand over ocean bed just off the beach, creating a great sandbar that did not long last. My father talked of a similar effort decades earlier, filling the inner part of the Crescent Pond, land where most improbably a post office would be built years later, fill he said that told tales of the harbor, laced with broken bottles and scraps of discarded metal.

Today yellow mechanical creatures are moving on a newly formed beach, something we see in news reports of restoration efforts along the South County shore, not a usual Block Island scene. The harbor is being dredged, again, with odd mechanical arms, one with a scoop that looks too small to be accomplishing what it seems to be managing; it makes me think of the story of the discovery of the cities of Troy in our elementary school reader, civilizations uncovered as centuries of earth were removed with a teaspoon, or so I remember it.

The scoop lifting sand out of the harbor looks tiny, the sand it lifts then drops into a growing pile appears insignificant and but for the markedly different appearance of the shore I would not believe anything were being accomplished.

Truckload after truckload of sand has been moved to the Neck Road, dumped on top of the sadly ruined instant dunes of December, and now carried out onto the beach so narrowed first by the storm, then by the stone riprap placed to buttress the rebuilding of the road. It is yet another attempt to fight the rages of the ocean, and in January one has to wonder what will remain come summer.

There used to be a beach there, Sanchez’ Beach we called it, for the family who owned the tall house beside it. Unlike so many local designations, the name slipped away quickly when the property was sold and years later I wondered if it had been widely used or if it was just within my own family.

The black sand that is layered on the beach this winter, as though collected by great magnets and released in a dense cloud, was thick then, hot underfoot, something we never experience further north. When the tide was high we could jump off the rocks into the water; when it was low it was, as it remains today, a long walk out.

But there used to be a beach. This afternoon, the new shoreline appeared already to be eaten away by the tide. It is nothing but sand, like the land through which the Old Breach was cut.

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