Wind tossed and salt-bitten

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 7:30pm

Listening to the news I hear of great winds in Southern California, 80 miles an hour, great by even our jaded weather standards, fanning the flames of terrible, all-consuming fires, which easily could consume the whole of Block Island as a snack.

It is raw here, the days are shorter, winter, mild or dreadful depending upon the source, is coming. A cousin used to travel to California on business and would return talking of the houses, $350,000 houses, then a princely sum even here, built on slabs, seeming to invite the mudslides and certain destruction that followed fires and rains.

That Golden State remained, to us, a land of earthquake, wind, and fire our otherwise sensible uncle had chosen over the cold of New England winters.

When we speak of buildings out here, great hotels in particular, which burned to their foundations, visitors often remark “you had so many fires!” I think of how cities have been defined by fire, how revisions to building codes and labor laws, were the result of so many urban disasters.

I was sitting where I am now the night of the Station fire in Rhode Island. The television was on in the other room, I listened but did not get up and go watch. Later, I realized I should have known, the very thing that caused me not to move should have been a signal: the newscasters were speaking calmly, without the dramatic inflections that are generally there to inflate news, they were, faced with a horrifying reality, matter-of-factly relating events in time.

Now, I look at the photographs and videos of the wind-driven California fires, and read reports of widespread power outages and think how fortunate we are to not live with that specter always hanging over us, and wish we could send some of our dreary October weather, the damp, cold, not the windy storms, to the far coast.

The land, here, wherever the grass was cut late in the season, seems greener as the fall deepens, fed by rains and an occasional burst of sunshine. We do not need any more rain.

It is nearly November, I was reminded when going to town and being able to slow enough on the road to safely glance over at the boat making its way through choppy water. The cars in the Solviken parking lots were work vehicles, with drivers paused at lunch break, adhering to a tradition they might not even realize stretches back decades.

A lull in traffic never lasts long, even in deep winter, and soon enough another vehicle appeared in my rear view mirror, emerging from the other side of the spot where the dunes dip and the ocean and harbor entrance become clearly visible from the road.

The green of the field around my house does not extend to the little berm built up since Sandy took that section of the Neck Road away at October’s end seven years ago. The wind blew, it rained, but the ocean was the main character in that storm, a hurricane downgraded by the time it reached us, a determination apparently never made clear to the water.

There was nothing unforeseeable, sand filled Ballard's as waves poured out the front door, but I have photographs taken after the 1938 hurricane showing destruction there; it is an almost an expectation. Spring Street was undermined where it had been ravaged in the October’s end Perfect Storm of 1991; at the North End it's generally not a question of damage, but the degree; and the Neck Road had been gnawed to the pavement in a series of spring storms in 2008, the repair quick but insufficient to stand Sandy's surge.

The Mansion Beach was as damaged as I have ever seen it by a single storm, but I spent the next summer telling people even losing so much of the dunes we had more left than we had had in 1954, when there had been so much less to start. It was a confirmation my mother had been right all along, the dunes were growing, every year.

There were probably miles of beach grass roots below Littlefield Farm, the one thing that made me look twice to be sure the barn, so high and so exposed, was still in place as the roots on the rocks looked like loads and loads of hay had been dropped on them.

That was the same year the Weather Channel started naming winter storms, by some supposed criteria, which I've never thought anything but that going for the dramatic. I do not remember many, but I know Athena was the first, seared in my mind forever by the sheer annoyance of the stunt. I sputtered and fumed, and wrote a whole column about the sheer folly of it, this playing with Mother Nature, and in the process somehow demeaning hurricanes.

The beach came back after Sandy, the roads were fixed and the little berm, beaten by another storm, it seemed as soon as the last of the construction crews had set sail, but shored up by more seaward rip-rap, abetted by planted grasses and protected by walkover and roping, seems to be holding its own. Even now, while fall is blanching the beach grass and browning various other plants, while east winds push sand onto and across the road, it remains.

The goldenrod is scraggly, now, past its season, wind-tossed, salt-bitten. I stopped on one of these interchangeable October days when the ocean was white and the wind, coming from some variation of east, spattered on my windows. There is dusty miller there in the gritty sand, and Queen Anne's Lace, and beach roses starting to take root. There have been the scruffy little wildflowers that most of the guidebooks describe as growing in waste areas, and roadsides, tough and resilient.

Hopefully, they will all be there again next year with the planted beach grasses, all weathering more storms, proving Nature has a funny way of destroying one day to replenish the next.

That Southern California should fare as well.