Next Week It Will Be May

Tue, 05/03/2011 - 1:50pm

It wasn’t before there were houses, simply before there were so many, 1970 when we were closer than we realized to the encroaching world.

There were a few places where fields were burned in late winter and grew brightly green in the spring. The walls around them were clearer than even the most careful clearer can make them without chemical assistance.

My father had died in January and from college in New Jersey I often talked with my mother on Block Island. News was generally sparse, by today’s standards; most of the committees whose actions fill the pages of this paper did not even exist. I heard over the phone line of the shenanigans down Cooneymus that particular year.

It is a story often told. Someone with an interest in a large tract of that part of the island procured a fire permit, with the locale casually noted as “the West Side.” The siren blew, the firemen dropped whatever they were doing and headed for that far and distant land. They called, my mother said, for the older boys in the high school, any teachers who could assist, then they called for anyone else who might be able to help.

The firestarter was not to be easily deterred. As the department quenched his flames, he stayed ahead of them, kindling new sparks, nurturing them to life, fulfilling the terms of the permit that had become a mandate until a friend caught him and convinced him to stop.

Hillsides were still blackened when I came home over spring break, some of them seemed to hold that look for years. Perhaps they were only places where my dad always insisted nothing grew anyway. I never did know if the fire raged out of control or if it just became a thing of too awesome a beauty to smother.

There were houses then, but not as many as there came to be in the years after. The fire moved beyond them or past them and perhaps it was this lack of substantive damage that made the day a part of Island lore, living long after the major players, the then so familiar names, had passed on.

Years before that we’d go up to Cooneymus Spring and fill water bottles, glass jugs. I do not remember there being anything wrong with our water, it was just one of my father’s adventures. There were occasional summer evening drives to the ends of those alien West Side Roads, Cooneymus, and the two coves to the north. I remember a white gate at the end of one, signs at another, ill-fated, short-lived attempts at limiting the access to the shore at both Cooneymus and Dorry’s.

They were nonsense, treated for what they were and done with and relegated to the memory bank. Never, though, in those years of excursions to the far and distant West Side is there a memory of a broad and even boulevard leading to a smooth and sandy beach. There were, as there should be, simple paths to a shoreline of gravel and rock than finely ground quartz sand.

Myths grow tall around far away places.

The grass is truly green today and splashes of yellow brighten the landscape. Hedges are ready to burst open, turning to opaque walls that all winter have been a mass of bare branches. The field has been cut and the low places are wet, the earth looking sick and black and decayed one day, bursting with new life in the guise of pale flag iris spears the next.

Last year the field was clear and the Sand Hill Cranes came, but it happened Easter weekend and Easter was earlier last year. Now the deer edge out of the brush and move tentatively, staying near to the stone wall. I watch them from my kitchen window, wondering, before I realize it is the lack of grass, even scruffy and sparse and briar laced as it was, that provided some sense of cover. They become less timid in the days following but still dart and dash more than ramble.

When I first saw the neighbor out riding around the field on his tractor of the moment I wondered whatever he was up to, there was no even fall of tall grass to give away the fact of the sickle bar cutting. I don’t always try to make sense of what is going on, sort of like the Easter sunrise behind the clouds, you just have to believe it is there.

The field had only been chopped down from scrub brush a year ago, the grass hadn’t quite returned, but what was there lay on the ground until it was raked, and raked over again, anemic windrows folded together, rained upon, sand sun-dried, looking abandoned. It was happenstance that I was washing dishes below that same kitchen window when I heard the clatter of machinery and looked up to see the same neighbor and whatever tractor pulling a baler, scooping up the dregs, spitting out tightly formed bales. It was hay good enough to be staked at the edge of a construction site, and the land was clear to feel the rain and bask in the sun.

When it was cut more regularly it would be pliant and verdant, running in the wind the first week in May but the shad would also be in bloom. It is showing patches of green, proving the resistance of the land.

There is a plot of land on the Mansion Road, turning to green field when brush grew thicker and thicker for years. It was cut, chopped, cleared, then as the grass grew it was mowed. It isn’t yet a lawn but it’s getting there, every year a bit better. This spring it is not as underwater as it was last.

The spring has been like much of the winter, not really and truly bad but so far from good. It has been long and raw and wearing. I know the sounds of spring are out there, the peepers and the rolling surf, but the sound of the wind is greater and it is hard to believe next week it will be May.