The backside of winter

Thu, 02/04/2021 - 5:00pm

January departed cold and windy, but it did provide us its usual parting gift, a sun rising before 7 a.m. and setting after 5 p.m., the last in a series of winter-turning hurdles. The first is always that early December afternoon when the sunset plateaus out, no longer gnawing at the precious daylight, a glimmer of hope come even before the solstice, the rest markers on the way to this last milestone.

We are far from spring but the dark hold of winter, the literal darkness, has been broken.

It feels, this year, we’ve had more recurring spells of severe wind than we’ve experienced in some time. The final report I saw on this last start-of-February blow, from a weather watcher on the exposed south bluffs, was a gust of 78 mph.

One morning over the weekend before this last storm I woke thinking the forecasts terribly wrong, there was no roar of the wind around this old house and the sun had made good on its predawn promise, shining warmly from the southeast.

It was a balmy 12 degrees, some low single digit number with a chill factor with the wind floating around the top of the fresh breeze on the Beaufort scale.

It was cold, I don’t think the day ever made it to twenty, but it was a sunny, hopeful cold. The reach of the tide all around the New Harbor, on the east beach, and most notably on the granite walls of the Old Harbor, was marked by white ice, bright under a clear blue sky. These quiet days I like to pull over in front of the National, or in the almost empty taxi lot, just to look at whatever activity is taking place in the basin below.

The boat was at the landing, emptied of the last run’s passengers and cargo, the freight area relatively calm. A big lift boat sat perched above the water, just beyond the reach of the tide. But it was the breakwater that showed between the vessels, arms of the harbor almost overlapping, that showed the power of the sun. The west face of the east wall still boasted that ribbon of white, while the inner side of the one extending out from below the Surf, open to the sun’s low rays, was bare and dry.

The next day I went out to mail a letter, the sort of thing I do on a Sunday before a holiday or a day of boat-stopping weather, and went on a little excursion to the New Harbor, all the way to the edge of the West Side. The area looks closed for the winter, the frames of awnings, that will be rolled out come summer, bare metal tubing against the sky, floating docks pulled out and stacked on land.

Only the landward piece of the dinghy dock by Dead Eye’s, high and dry, remained in place. The weather, the endless rounds of high winds and storm-tossed tides and ice-making cold were all in that little corner, the way things gather in corners, the stuff of the water made its way to land. On the rough bit of shore, between the rocks and the land, a single gull made his way, a scavenger knowing there was little to scavenge, probably drawn by some primitive memory of a bit of lunch tossed its way on a distant summer day.

It was gray, one of those calm before the storm days, all muted colors under a sky of blue and gray clouds. There are other times of year, especially the fall, soon after everything has closed, that this same emptiness, on the doorstep of winter, feels like abandonment.

Now, what are generally the times of the worst weather, the singular slamming big snow of February, the drear of March, the chill that can consume April, lie ahead, but with the plunge into darkness reversed, now, the land-bound docks and empty bicycle racks, and chair-less lawns and skeletal awning frames, are all resting, bearing witness to winter’s scant sunshine and frequent storms.

Yesterday, Monday, it stormed, and I watched reports from the mainland, of snow from the mid-Atlantic states up the coast, and followed texts from New York City – my mother’s it-will-be-here-in-four-hours gold standard of forecasting that was surprisingly accurate — and the West Side of Block Island where there was so much more snow — while my yard, in the lee but the wind does whip around corners, remained green. It certainly blew, harder than forecast but not really much more than expected, and it relented, sooner than forecast but, again, not sooner than expected.

Today, the south end of the Neck Road looked to have been plowed of the beach sand blown in more than of fallen snow; it was reminiscent of 1978, the great blizzard that slammed the northeast, and hit the shore with a brutal coastal storm as well.

Now, come what may, the days are longer, we are on the back side of winter, no need to hurry spring.