The Block Island Times
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Winter Storm Athena?!

By Martha Ball | Nov 14, 2012

It was a week between trips to the Mansion Beach, the first the morning after the storm that brutalized the shore from Cape May to Block Island, the southern counterpart of the Eastport-to-Block-Island marine forecasts of my childhood.

We always heard the one from Eastport, it was not until I went to college in New Jersey that I even learned of this other segment, and people from New Jersey learned that Block Island was, in fact, an island, although Rhode Island seemed to them even more remote than Maine did to me.

The morning after the storm the tide was high, chasing white foam up the beach, such as it was, to the base of the ravaged dunes.

A week later it is still astonishing how far up the road there is the stuff of the sea, tree trunks and bits of lumber, endless quantities of Styrofoam, empty plastic bottles that once contained oil, twine and buoys all wrapping around my feet, the yards of beach grass roots liberated when the dunes were sliced by the surf. A little brown bird hops among the trash, surprising me by not flying until I get closer and realize it is a little brown mouse, ambling across the drying piles, disappearing into the mass. It is midday, a bold time; I think of the rats I used to see in the parking lot, feasting on the oil soaked gravel at the end of a fall day.

They were bold, the mouse seems disinterested.

The foot-wide plank that had been wedged into the dunes, blocking the entrance, has been moved and lies on the sand, recognizable as the side of a stairway, probably one that had been torn from the bank out toward Scotch. The beach, though, is back, there is sand stretching out on either side of the gap, up toward the rocks at Jerry’s Point and a bit to the south where the shore is stone. The sheer, raw, perpendicular faces of the dunes are already softening, sand fallen down, gathering at the bases.

The damage, though, is unmistakable. Years ago someone told me beach grass roots do not have to reach down, they need only stay in place while the sand gathers around the stalks that grow up and up. These after-the-storm beaches are a great lesson in the importance of these grasses, they do so hold in place the dunes that in turn hold back the sea.

It is different, south of Mansion, than out between Scotch and State, where the dunes rise from the beach, their backs to the road. South of Mansion, they have gradually built up against the low bank. After this storm, they are sliced, grasses long in the dark hanging loose, and there are also ledges of earth and clay, a few feet high, exposed to the sun and air — a newly visible part of the landscape. As always, I look for some pipe I imagine I saw once when I was a child somewhere up here, a drain from the old Mansion, perhaps, and, as always, I do not find it.

It is hard to understand exactly what is happening with the shore. There are rocks, I know, an outcropping that came to light in a winter of storms, a group I carefully noted the way the fisherman used to note their ranges offshore: the Southeast Lighthouse at the end of the Spring House roof, and the gables of the two houses above the beach, one of which has since been razed and another built in its place.

They are nowhere to be seen. Part of the confusion of the level of the sea is the ever-changing level of the beach, which I one day realized when I could see my neighbor’s kitchen ell and thought, briefly, that the dunes had shrunk, before realizing I was standing feet higher than I had a few weeks previous. I wonder if the elevation I have been giving as long as I can remember for Beacon Hill is still accurate.

The shore turns stony and I turn back and walk to Jerry’s Point. I can see my neighbor’s kitchen ell, but this time I know it is the dune that has been compromised; a week ago I looked down from her yard and saw where the ocean had breached the dune and carried the beach landward, onto the plain at the foot of the hill.

Somewhere I have a photograph taken after 1954’s Hurricane Carol; this dune was flattened, but it wasn’t as large then as it is now, it had been less than twenty years since 1938. The ocean had flowed back to the Mansion Pond, now nearly hidden in the hollow between the old farm and the site of the Searles Mansion.

The bank is cut at Jerry’s in a way that is weirdly familiar, leaving a spit of earth and clay that reminds me, as does all the flotsam and jetsam washed ashore, of those photos taken after Carol. There is one in particular I cannot find, of my older brother and me standing on a similar spit just a bit to the north. It created a tiny alcove where we went once a year for a beach party, when relatives were visiting.

Over the years we made note of its disappearance, waiting for a particular rock to fall to the beach; I used to be certain which of the boulders it was, but now they seem alike, bleached by the salt and sun.

A day later after another storm rages, rattling the windows and surely battering the beach, a named winter storm: Winter Storm Athena. Hurricane season is not over, we have the possibility of overlapping named storms, all because the Weather Channel decided it would be fun to come up with names. AccuWeather decries the lack of criteria, but I have to wonder if they’re just annoyed they didn’t think of it first.

Next thing they’ll be trying to sell naming rights. Some things just are not right.

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