Winter rollercoaster

Thu, 01/26/2012 - 2:37pm
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The wind is whooshing and rattling, the sky is gray and the sea high. The rain is filled with salt mist. When the sun comes out — and it will, if not tomorrow then some day — there will be no windows washed clean.

Earlier, the sea was flying over the east wall of the harbor, great masses of white surf, so much there was foam remaining for hours after the tide went down. The breakwater is disappearing under sand carried by the ocean, borne in the wind.

The boat has been cancelled, leading me to wonder, as I do on such days, if the weather keeps the boat more in port on winter Mondays and Thursdays or, akin to things seeming to go so wrong when we are running late, do we just notice more?

Yesterday when there was talk of no boat today it felt pure foolishness, a suggestion that should be unspoken least it turn true. The day was so beautiful, almost warm, and so clear the buildings on the mainland were visible, little Monopoly houses, all in white, perched along the shore. The view from the artificial hill at the transfer station was amazing.

Last week I wrote of the banks of earth that have been deposited along the Neck Road, waiting for a blast from the east to unsettle them, not expecting that blast to arrive so soon.

The road has been unnerving for a while. The beach shows three hundred feet wide on the plat map in an old volume in the Town Hall, drawn in the early 1950s when the town was condemning land for highway and recreational purposes under authority granted by an act of the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island, a portion of said land to be transferred to the state for the bathing beach.

There was land, once, on the seaward side of the road. A jail, a simple box of a building, sat there, on the sand. In the photos I remember it looks closed, boarded up even when people are standing in front of it. On one postcard it looks abandoned but for the dory stashed behind it, the get-away boat for this structure meant for confinement but built on sand, all the better to burrow through, or so the story went. The powers that were at the time must not have been paying attention in Sunday School and missed that part about firm foundations.

Or paid too much attention and determined the story not to have any practical application.

The map is there, showing the whole stretch of the Neck Road north to Scotch Beach, with outlines of buildings near it and names of property owners at the time, more reminders of times and people slipped into inactive memory. It is folded upon itself, over and over — it is a long, narrow plat attached to a page in one of the tomes that held the records of the Town Council, back when they were written by hand. They are different today, those volumes on the shelves in the vault in the Town Hall, all filled with pages of shrunken text.

The survey, a half century after the time of the jail, shows land where there is now nothing but earth piled atop rip-rap and a wide, wide beach where now there is only the narrowest of shores. It is not a flight-of-fancy hand-drawn map, it bears a professional’s stamp.

The land has been eroding slowly for decades, and was slammed a few years ago by a spring storm that raged through three high tides and sliced hard wherever the beach rose into land, banks or dunes, from the Surf to Jerry’s Point. Now it seems permanently precarious, fragile, ready to fall at a hard perigee tide.

The breakwater has been swallowed by sand, the beach is stripped of it.

One of the channel dredging projects, not all that long ago, floated huge conduits on pontoons and shot the soggy sand over, onto a beach where it made a dramatic difference before disappearing.

We are on a winter rollercoaster. Sunday was cold but stunningly beautiful, one of the those winter mornings when the layer of vapor that rides on the surface of the sea is hit by the morning sun and rises in tendrils, white smoke on blue water.

It isn’t any better — or worse — a few days later after more wild temperature swings, as winter keeps pushing but cannot quite take hold. One morning it was fifteen degrees when the sun rose, but there were no clouds near the horizon, and the new light spread over the water and climbed up onto the land. There was little wind and the air was dry, and the difference between sunshine and shadow was marked. By nine it was twenty and by the end of the day the frozen air was gone, the solid puddles thawing in forty degree darkness.

The next morning felt like March, the rare better part of March, when the land softens but has not turned to a mire of mud, when the mild air is the edge of spring, not a fluke. The sun was hidden but the night’s forty held and the breeze was no more than a breeze. Overhead, though, there was a roar, as though there was a mighty wind passing by, a reminder that it is January. It is cold again, with some talk of a bit of snow.

Winter has come late other years, it just came so early last year that we, with our short memories, have already forgotten. It is here, I know by the door between my living room and front hall, an old door that swells in summer and even a month ago was not closing well.

It is shut tonight, in spite of the relative mild, in spite of my refusing to turn my thermostat up high — why do we have winter clothes if not to wear them? — the heat has finally been on enough to dry the wood back to closing easily.