On the Wind

Wed, 03/06/2013 - 3:57pm

February is slipping away, by week’s end it will be another chapter in the weather almanac. The month has rushed by, and as much as I am not sorry to see it gone I hate that the surface of the list of things to get done this winter has barely been scratched.

It rained last night. I remember only when I look out at a yard still wet. There are no spatters on the window glass but there are gray clouds of mist rolling across the back lot, precipitation only partly condensed, land bound clouds unable to cohere into drops heavy enough to fall. It’s the however-did-my-hair-get-so-wet humidity of the morning summer beach cubed.

Yesterday, the rice burned beyond redemption little more than half-way through the cooking time printed on the little chart on the back of the bag. The smell was in my imagination, I told myself, and ignored it because it was not yet time and for that mistaken certainty I have a pot full of a lovely-to-look-at melody of blacks and browns and tans — great for tweed, lousy for dinner.

It needs to be thrown out in the field, far, far from the house, out where the bones of lost deer lie bleaching in the sun.

That the heat was a tad too high might have been a factor, but the fate of the rice was truly sealed by the wind, blowing straight out of the east. It is when pots have to be watched, my mother taught me; my father, the Islander, scoffed at her. He needed more than blackened carrots, he needed an explanation of why. It was especially vexing to him because that blow has heft, and carries on it the pervading damp of the ocean. It did not make sense to him, it does not make sense to me and more, it makes me wonder if a struggle for faith of things unseen is hardwired, inherited from the parent who died when I was still in school.

My mother was not from Block Island, she first came here as a young school teacher. She had started far north, in Aroostook County, Maine, where the poverty was grinding in any year the potato harvest was not grand. It was a time and place where young educators were counseled if they were to play cards they should pull down the shades.

Somehow an ad for a job opening on Block Island caught her eye. It was more than an arm of land reached by bridging a manmade canal, it was a real island, if not the brutal north, but it had a rural landscape. Even Providence, closer to her hometown than Boston, was never a destination. All of Rhode Island, so close, was an alien land. It must have seemed a great adventure.

She took from her early teaching interviews snippets. The school committee chair in Maine met her wearing a plaid shirt back when people got dressed up just to travel to the next town. The one from Block Island asked if she minded the wind; years later she told that story with a deeper understanding of the wisdom of such a question; none other mattered if the answer to the first was “yes.”

The wind does not just do mischief around boiling pots. It touches all of our senses: we feel its raw slap in February and its gentle relief in August; we hear it madly howling in winter or gently carrying laughter from the summer shore; we see evidence of it in the swaying trees and cresting waves and land bound clouds, on certain days we taste the ocean on the breeze.

The wind carries the sweet scent of beach roses and the sharp bite of salt air and during one terrible winter week in 1996 on it was borne the ominous odor of diesel fuel. It was the cargo from a barge run aground off the south shore of Rhode Island — after the tug pulling it had been disabled by a fire in its engine room. The image on the television screen was of the projected path of an animated purple blob slipping away from the mainland beaches, a fortunate combination of wind and currents the newscaster said as we watched it move toward Block Island

That was the year I learned oil released, even in winter’s cold, evaporates and that we cannot really rely on anyone else to protect our harbors. The mainland learned their early optimism was unfounded as it shores were covered with dead creatures and, worse, the killing black stuff found its way into fisheries.

It was a paltry 828,000 gallons of heating oil, nothing compared to the 11 million gallons of crude that had bled from the hull of the Exxon Valdez into Prince William Sound almost seven years earlier. Still, it was significant, not just for the region’s flora and fauna but as the first major spill following the change of laws prompted by the earlier disaster. Damage assessment and restoration would be featured in a 2005 paper produced by U.S. Fish & Wildlife. A total of 1.24 million lobsters were restocked by the “responsible party” (read: insurance company) and $8 million was paid to the consortium of trustees, agents of NOAA, the RIDEM and USFWS, to assist managing the recovery.

And we were lucky, the worst of the harm by far was on the mainland and — once the company that ran its boat across the defensive boom that stretched over the mouth of the New Harbor was sent home — things settled down. There was damage, here; that amount of oil cannot be thrown into the sea, no matter how quickly it evaporates, without some impact. It could have been, we told each other, so much worse.

First, though, we smelled it on the wind, an invisible black cloud moving through the night.