The Block Island Times

Where Am I

By Martha Ball | Apr 20, 2013

It has been a question I have been asking since Sandy swept through last fall. I know, of course, where I am, but in so many locales touched by that hurricane and the string of storms that followed, nothing feels quite right in a way that is difficult to quantify. Is the beach really higher, did the dunes shift as much as it seems, is the breakwater in the same place?

The beach has been rocky and I have been cautious, not going north past Jerry’s Point where the shore is often difficult to traverse in any winter. It is a remote spot and dangerous and, like scaling the cliff, it is something I decided several years ago was not worth the risk.

There has long been a drain from the big pond behind my house to the beach, a holdover from the days of lowering water levels to access peat bogs. The drain has, over the years, filled in, and often the stream running to the ocean is at least in part subterranean, running under rocks, emerging to cut tiny canyons through the sand. There is no dune with a path thought it, none of the funnels through which the ocean roared last fall and the level of the pond stayed constant, low over much of the winter, rising only with the spring rains. I never thought of going down to look at the damage until someone mentioned it.

Today, in the bright April sun, I remembered not to turn reflexively at the Mansion Road, rather to continue on to the road to the Clay Head Trail. The parking lot was full, a puzzlement until I remembered school vacation. The path to the beach, to Riley’s Harbor, winds through the maple-dotted meadow that was once planted with rye that grew six feet tall and continues down a slope, worn before summer’s start.

I’ve been here in the spring decades past, before the trails were so well traveled, before there was a boardwalk across swollen stream, part of a network starting far up the hill, ending, in theory, at the drain to the beach. It was slick, wet earth here when I was young and careless and went home with blue jeans caked with mud.

It isn’t until I look over at the pond from this perspective, all sunny blue with its rim of decodon no more than woody stems barely piercing the April high water that I remember the end of this path is usually submerged in springtime. It did not begin that way, but as the area where there used to be, a clear pool and an open stream, filled with sand and drift and stuff of the sea the pond simply spread, pushing its way north.

Today I continue along, past a little place where a patch of cobbles appears without easy explanation, by the spot where the path almost touches the pond, the two separated only a wall of scrub brush gown tall, still in winter undress. A tennis ball floats in the water, bright and yellow, a reminder of happy dogs and I walk over more boards, headed now for the sound of children’s voices and the beach.

And then I am there, knowing full well what happened but still hearing in my head the same question I’d been hearing since the autumn, “Where am I!?”

The cliffs do not look so different but the ocean has obviously come higher, pushing lumber and great clumps of dead vegetation ahead of it, as though it cleared then filled that old pool and stream. At the foot of the bank there are the same ledges of exposed earth that lie south of Mansion but these are dark, almost black, instead of tan. They’ve been here for years, but much less exposed, a foot or two grown to yards.

It is so, so familiar, in the same way the morning after Sandy at Mansion Beach was, all this flotsam and jetsam that are in my earliest memories of this particular spot, probably the result then of Hurricane Carol. Oddly, there is more water than I have seen in years, although the stream is anemic. It is only when I am turning around, trying to get my bearings that I realize the path was not underwater, not even wet; it is all sand, unless it is completely gone and the one I have walked was the alternate, the old way around when the water was high become the only route.

On the way back I see other things missed earlier. A branch is down here and there and when I look over at a split tree I gasp so loudly one of a trio of boys having just passed the same spot confirms what I am seeing: “dead deer.”

It is spring today, finally, and at home I open a window to let in the sum warmed air.

The position of the sun is shifting every day, it has moved so far it shines on the warmth starved shingles of the north side of my house at day’s end. It illuminates the maze of snow fencing installed along the dunes and touches walls and fields and confirms that it is spring. It was only a week or two ago that first light showed the dew had turned to frost and cold mist rose white from the ponds. In a week or two more the grass will be so green it will make the angels sing. Last year the shad was coming into bloom, now it is barely beginning to bud.

A sound startles me as much as the sight of the dead deer, a sort of poof from the yard. It is a cock pheasant and the noise of him ruffling his feathers will become familiar as the noise of the wind abates and the windows are more often open.

Here I know where I am.

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