Crumbling relic

Mon, 07/30/2012 - 5:12am

Unusual in any season, unheard of in summer, I went away for part of the day, an absurd luxury of the summer boat schedule and the happy coincidence of friends going off to do errands the one day of the week I could tag along. Returning in mid-afternoon, it was impossible not to be struck by the extraordinary beauty of this island, green and shining in the blessedly clear summer day.

That impression was quickly pushed aside, not by summer traffic — the absurdity of our complaints about it are never so clear as when returning from the mainland — but by the fact it had been a day of mowing and the lawns along the Neck Road were silently shrieking in the aftermath. May’s expanses of verdant velvet draped over the gently sloping yards are long gone, we are approaching August and the sporadic showers have been no match for the heat and sun of the last weeks.

The grass has been turning hard underfoot and the clips that a month ago would have been fragrant and soft, green into the day following, are crisp before they are cut. From now until September, when the cool returns, the strongest growth in my yard will be from the chicory, the tall weed with the long tap root.

It is July, yet, but I can already see the blue of the sky through the green of the maples, tiny gaps where the summer storms have loosened brown-edged leaves. It is a surprise, it is a surprise every year, and I have a moment of mourning for the passing of the season before I decide it is just too early for such nonsense.

There have been this week first-hand reports of rain from people coming to the island, from Connecticut and Rhode Island, both, weather systems that have slipped past just to the north. Another day I think I must have slept through the wild lightning I heard forecast on the radio, but by day’s end realize it just wasn’t here.

Every week there are these funny little storms, mini-microbursts, rain down the Neck or even on the east beach that doesn’t quite fall in town, threatening clouds and spatters that send me scurrying to close windows against the shower that does not materialize, in the process sealing out the bit of breeze that makes all the difference on a hot, humid day. In the grand scheme of things we are fine, it is summer, we do not expect much rain, and we are so much better off than so many places where serious droughts are seriously impacting lives.

The road is summer dry, the grass along it had grown tall and so left a brown shoulder when it was cut. It is dusty, now, every passing car is trailed by a gritty cloud, and the trees and brushes lining the passage are coated with a soft brown film.

I walk up the road in the morning, not early but before the beach traffic has started in earnest. There is a green field, a tiny lot that on the old maps was clearly once  a part of the parcel across the way, before the Searles Mansion was built. The access was created through acquisition of segments of land, each the same defined width, from Corn Neck Road to the building site. This little lot was the oddity, not falling, as did the others, evenly along the edge of a west-to-east course.

Decades after the Mansion had burned, the town, with an assist from the Block Island Conservancy, finally purchased the property, a series of abutting parcels and the former house site. The fact of this additional triangle, running along the south boundary of the road, seemed largely forgotten or unknown until its ownership was transferred and the brush cut. There are spots like this around the island, where the ground has been reclaimed by no more than a first chopping cut of heavy brush followed by routine mowing.

The stone tower marked the way into a house that no longer exists — it surely comes a surprise that for all the structures that have been built over the last 50 years, there remain these former sites, still largely hidden, places where barns and houses stood, where there are traces of stone foundations and the occasional cistern. Some of them are camouflaged by the way they were originally built, barn foundations set into stone walls, given up only by bits of old mortar, something just a little more than expected.

The Poplar Cottage, a pretty house, was back there where there is nothing now but an outline, and that hidden until the land behind the triangle on the Mansion Road was also cleared. They are there, these ghosts, traces of foundations.

The road ran differently, and now is easier to locate, from the stone tower at the west end of that little parcel on the Mansion Road.

It is a part of my earliest memories, the castle-like tower with the two “windows” of stone, one solidly white. In a series of photographs taken when the Mansion was new, before it fell into its sad pattern of a dream house never fulfilled, the stone tower is taller than I ever saw it, with a finished top, ringed with the appearance of a parapet.

Now, it loses a stone or two here and there, and is increasingly covered with the overpowering vine of the year, and I wonder if everyone who travels that road in hot pursuit of a parking place — or reverses that course after a day at the beach — even notices it, especially now that there is only one half of one of the three pairs of brick piers which once defined the access to the Mansion (with a pair of squat stone pillars, still intact).

There is still the chunk of white quartz embedded in the tan stones, at just the right height for me to put my palm against it, a sort of talisman that is activated only if I say aloud “touch the tower,” such as is the crumbling relic on the road to the shore.