From the sky

Tue, 08/21/2012 - 3:23pm

Cloudy skies turning over to rain hasten the sundown. It is nearly dark at eight, which makes me think of December, four short months away, when the sun will be setting three and a half hours earlier, unfathomable in mid-August.

There are no geese flying over in the near dusk, the Canada geese, so beautiful as long as they remain but a few, their black velvet necks outstretched as they revel in flight returned to them in mid-summer, their feathers grown back. It was awhile ago I first heard them, euphoric as they regained their place in the sky, passing overheard at day’s end, dark shapes against the deepening sky.

The heat has been breaking in the night, with a wind or a thunder shower, last night or this morning, gone before I was up and about. It had been heavy, a downpour, and the talk on Providence radio was of flooded streets and conditions still calling for caution. Sun was shining on wet grass here; it was a bit before I realized the storm had not yet passed over mainland Rhode Island.

There were big puddles in the road when I went out, the legacy of off-and-on-again rain over the last couple of weeks or more. We’ve been lucky, the day of the church fair was gray and cool, the rain not falling on the big circus tent until later, a cycle of drenching rain and drying sun until finally it was dry long enough that the old canvas could be packed away. I heard the ringing of metal on metal as the big pegs were knocked out of the ground and the pink and white creature that had lived just above the turn in Water Street collapsed onto the grass that was better served for having been as long in the shade.

We were lucky, also, the day of the house tour, when sunny warm is always better than the pouring rain that has made other years so memorable for their difficulty in transport and in keeping wet feet from doing damage. I am the worst of volunteers, always wanting to determine when and where I will be located rather than simply taking an assignment, and this year I was on the shore of the Great Salt Pond at one the few places left from the century-ago attempt to create a second town around the New Harbor. There had been other hotels, the great sweeping Hygeia, to which the present inn was an annex, on the site of the Fire, Police and Rescue facility, and the less remembered Crown.

It’s odd, looking at the old photos, not always because of the open land but sometimes because of the buildings that are no longer in place. They tell of history beyond Block Island, of modes of transportation shifting and people no longer coming on steamers for extended stays. The first hotel by the name Narragansett was in the Old Harbor, next to the old National, both fallen to fire in 1902. The National was rebuilt on site in the course of one winter; the new Narragansett came 10 years later across the island in the burgeoning New Harbor; the Hygeia, burned four years after that, was not rebuilt, nor the Crown, lost years later. A big store burned, a smaller cottage built in its place and a commercial fishery has changed over to recreational boating.

At the Narragansett we remember high school working summers but also one of those terribly cold winters in the late 1970s, when it took an afternoon for the little oil tanker to make its way through the ice to the fuel depot in the Hog Pen, a clay tennis court long since vanished, and a floating red dock with — at least in my memory — white piping. The view is still extraordinary and the dining room may be the least changed of any on the island, plain painted walls and a ceiling of wood sheathing still in the original varnish.

I remember the summer the Providence Journal did a piece on the summer work force on Block Island, then still primarily college kids from this part of the country. Some of us were sitting on the swings by the tennis court, deciding what to do with all the time stretching from after breakfast to before dinner. We had some great clay-gathering adventure in mind, one that sounded interesting to the reporter until he asked, “Where are you from?” and we told him that we were all from Block Island. The reporter, I realize all these years later, was very young and artless, and he closed his little notebook and told us we were of no interest, we lived here. Perhaps it is why, all these years later, I still take great umbrage when the follow up to “Do you live here?” is “Do you live here year-round?”

Foolish young reporters aside, it was a sleepy in-between time, after the burst of hope at the turn of the century, before the marina activity expanded and the summer harbor was filled with pleasure craft.

Looking at the buildings and the bustle in the photos on the walls of the Narragansett dining room, one does wonder what would have happened had the channel to the sea been cut 10 or 15 years earlier. Would there have been a greater shift of commerce to the shore of the Great Salt Pond? New Harbor is an odd place, though, lying on the cusp of the West Side.

It has been warm, warm and humid, many days disconcertingly no cooler than Providence. The water is summer warm, its temperature a bit higher than average, always a concern as summer passes and the activity of hurricane season heightens. Rain after rain has failed to cut the heat and humidity that will be the hallmark of this year.

They’ve been telling me there was especially odd weather last week, something resembling a mini tornado, the neighbor swears, off along the shore, across his sister’s bank lots. There was something strange in town, leaves falling from the sky, not blown down the hill from Spring and High streets, or even from the little park below the church, but crinkled bits of brown falling straight from the heavens.

My cousin will not call it climate warming, he insists it is more: climate weirding, he says, sure the end, wrought by man, is at hand. Now there are crickets louder than the surf, and a decided chill in the air. The puddles must be steaming in the dark.