Dragon rising

Thu, 09/15/2011 - 1:13pm

The storm came and went and when the sky cleared and the surf subsided there was little damage. We were lucky, more than we realized until the following week filled with reports of mainland towns still without power. Rhode Island is, in some ways, even more insular than Block Island.

When visitors are confused by the directions I provide, “up” to the Southeast Lighthouse, “down” to the North End and Sandy Point, I tell them the conventional up/north and down/south designations do not apply here, that they have stumbled upon a world that ends at the water’s edge, that we rely only on elevations.

The elevation part of that is serious, it is an explanation, but, reports to the contrary notwithstanding, we do realize we are part of a larger world.

I wonder, sometimes, if mainland Rhode Island has ever had such an epiphany. After the storm, when we were realizing how much of the state was without power while we had experienced only minimal outages, we didn’t want to revel — we have all lived without electricity, and it just isn’t nice to gloat.

It was only as I talked to people from Connecticut that I began to realize how truly expansive was the damage caused by this storm, yet Rhode Island talk radio barely acknowledged there were problems to be fixed outside our borders. It is an extraordinarily parochial state; I do not really believe what I tell visitors, I do know there is a whole big world out there.

The damage elsewhere has been evidenced here these past weeks.

The byproducts of it have been coming to our shores, in great masses of seaweed, kelp and knotted wrack and sea mosses loosed from their hosts and tossed up with the tide and molded into pyramids along the east beach. There the quasi-shelters that can be easily constructed with the drift from the sea are easily visible from the road.

This bounty, stumps sawed evenly, gnarled trees fallen from mainland riverbanks, is the stuff that usually collects on the west and south shores of the island, gathering under the bluffs, washing up to lie on rocks, bleaching white in the sun, thrown up like so many matchsticks in all the places the currents and the coves meet.

The Mansion Beach is also strewn with timber, more than usual, beams and pieces of lumber, trunks and branches at the water’s edge, dark with the wash of the sea. There is the usual seaweed, laced with immortal debris, bottle caps and the heavy, wide elastics employed to mute lobster claws — blue, it seems, this season.

There are creatures on the beach. Whether they’re only stopping on their migration route or are here to stay is yet to be determined.

A dragon rises from the surf, its arched back a tree limb from which smaller branches have broken, leaving ragged stubs, a jagged, scaled spine in silhouette. Further up the strand another orphaned limb lies on the rocks, like the dog sharks fishermen sometimes leave on the beach. It is curved, a creature in motion, and there is a knot hole where its eye might be.

A container of sorts, or a section of a conduit, heavy and black, a product of the world of petro-chemistry, is burrowing into the sand, already too deep to easily be moved. It is not large, not like the boiler in the harbor that has become a part of the landscape, a great cylindrical thing salvaged from a wreck lying on the ocean floor off the Southeast Light. It has been there a very long time, once a big rusty tank on the sand just inside the east wall of the breakwater, one that has settled and sunk deeper over time. Now, from a distance, it looks like a big rock piercing the wide sandy beach that was a gift of Irene.

Things were left back then, the machinery that was intended to extract the iron from the black sand on the east beach, some dredging equipment in one of the inner ponds of the New Harbor, and the boiler. There are the remains of boats come ashore onto the rocks in places where salvage was not worth the cost of accessing the relatively small amounts of the heaviest machine parts.

Perhaps the expression “it’s Chinatown” has slipped from the vernacular, or perhaps the concept that things happen without any sound explanation has been lost — or perhaps it’s my lousy delivery — but today, people have an expectation of an answer, be it is the theater closed for good, when will the Surf sell, why was the boiler left in the harbor.

Ten years ago, perhaps, when the Old Harbor channel was dredged, there was an effort made to extract the boiler. It was too large, too full of sand, it had burrowed too deep, and cutting the rusty metal would have created more of a problem than it solved. So it was left. I favor the explanation that it all began many, many years ago when someone left it with the intention of returning for in a few weeks, then a few months, then after the summer, then next year, and then, as happens in our lives, years became decades.

The dragon and the fish and all the other creatures imagined in the wood come ashore will be gone by next season. I have watched more sturdy stuff: a refrigerator spent a winter moving north from Scotch Beach, a deer body caught in the rocks at Jerry’s Point turned from dark leather to Bakelite, a blue bait barrel sat high, filling with trash until it was removed in the spring. There is an occasional timber from a wharf, too heavy to be tossed about by a high tide, and a few smooth trunks that make for good seating, but for the most part the wood has a limited life. It becomes part of a fire, or like seaweed come ashore in great masses, it is simply drifted up and over until it is part of the beach.

There will be another storm and another creature will emerge from the surf, but now there is a dragon rising to catch the earliest and the latest sun, and to command the waves.