Surprising December

Thu, 12/05/2019 - 5:15pm

It is more than two weeks, yet, until the Winter Solstice, but the afternoons do not get much shorter than they are these first days of December. At four-thirty on Monday, the incoming afternoon boat passed, its west facing side drawing from the fading sky whatever sunlight was lingering among the clouds.

The field was white from snow that fell in the night and into the morning, enough to cause slippery roads and delay the start of school, to make the first part of the day dreary, with no promise of sunshine and dry air. By the time the clouds started to break in mid-afternoon parking lots were slush, side roads such as mine were slush, Mansion Road had been plowed but was still wet and dreary.

The Neck Road from the corner of Beach Avenue to Scotch Beach is high and wide, with little protection from the wind. A few years ago an unusual heavy, wet snow fell, the temperature dropped, and that stretch of pavement remained white, the skin too thin to be caught by the plow, resisting the warming sun for at least two days.

This first storm could have been a planned test run, at least on Block Island.

It was a good opportunity for the road crew to be out plowing, being sure all the equipment was in proper order before a longer, harder snowfall. Despite decades of hearing of this or that piece of farm machinery breaking during the height of the finite haying season it took a line in a novel, a “well, it's not going to break when you're not using it” for that simple reality to settle around me. Sort of like something going wrong when we're running late: no, it is only when we haven't allowed extra time that a misplaced set of car keys matters.

The wind howled — every week I seem to be asking if the wind is worse this year, relentless earlier, with fewer warm, calm respites — before the snow fell. Monday night foam was flying across the Neck Road where it runs so close to the ocean. The same was happening, I later learned, up Spring Street, where the pavement is edged by riprap, but its climb is much higher. They are the two places storms have devoured whole chunks of the road and made them impassable.

We do live on the edge of the very hungry sea.

Still, overall, it was not a major storm here, the snow did not fall and drift and fall and drift and then drift more even after the sun was as high as it gets in December and the sky almost too bright. I did not hear of a power outage, perhaps the advantage of all these testing winds as well as tree trimming and pole replacements.

Then the sun came out, late and long and golden. Clouds were still dark overhead, that blue-gray cotton batting which is a part of the low sky of so many winter days and white snow clung to rooftops and lay in patches along the wide shoulders of the Neck Road. Less than a hour before sunset the wind and warming temperatures had shaken the cover from the brush in the plain between the pavement and the dunes but it remained where there was only sand, untouched by footprints.

The colors are not unfamiliar, I was sure I had a photo of Mansion Road and my cleared front lot, the same blue and gold, but at the end of winter, just before the first wash of new, defiant, determined green begins to show. It was, I found, taken in mid-January, three weeks after the Winter Solstice.

It is winter, now, by all reason and by the meteorological definition which divides the year into four parts, three whole months each, beginning the first of June, September, December, and March, that commonly least favorite month, but a definition of spring is at best elusive on Block Island, golden days trying to push aside the Velcro tentacles of March.

In winter, we see the dunes growing as the sand from the shore blows up and over them, spilling into the parking lot at the pavilion, and creating great bald spots on the west side of the wall that is the back of the beach. The action is not so visible in summer, when it is erased from view by the slender grasses and seaside flora growing green and bountiful and the leaves on the roses and bayberry and beach plum are open and wide. It is only when someone produces a photograph taken from the hill of Indian Head Neck, or a rare aerial view of the area 60 years ago, that the difference between then and now becomes strikingly apparent.

Or someone like me one day realizes the flat ground at the end of Beach Avenue, the site of a former bathing pavilion, was, in reality, flat only in very distant memory, or that the first marked beach access, directing visitors over a high dune at the first curve on Corn Neck, was once a level path between low mounds of sand.

The white cover did remain on the fields through the night, a gift in December when the days are so short. I was awake long before the dawn, unable to get back to sleep, and saw the first bands of rose out over the ocean, and felt the snow drawing to itself and magnifying the first pale light that would have been swallowed by the earth on another day.

This morning, I looked at a photo from a year ago, the yard almost aglow in the sun, and thought of the striking contrast the view beyond my window provided. The day never turned bright, but neither was it terribly cold, and as sunset draws near, there are lingering spots of that snow cover on the grass, green as it always is, always surprising me, in December.