Now that the last of the kids has graduated, we’re going to spend a few days at another island. It’s a habit we’ve nurtured for almost 25 years, but we suspended the practice for the last two or three because all that education the kids were benefitting from was murdering the family treasury. The immense pleasures of a spring stay elsewhere abided in memory, but now we’re reclaiming them.
The house we visit was built in the 1760s. Plain, gray, and foursquare, it sits at the eastern end of the tawny, swooping, baked, and bending meadow that runs along the edge of the sea. This meadow has been used as a landing field for a flying member of the proprietor’s family, but that was mainly unsuccessful. It was put into hay and corn at times, and used as pasture, but every attempt to press it into service for any purpose beyond the mere expression of wild, lonely beauty has failed. The watching house cannot command the field.
Rebuilt in 1935, with its mammoth chimney stack and keeping room hearth with oven behind, the old building is generously proportioned but austere. Many families, gone now, have lived and visited here.
One of the delights is to paddle a kayak from the house along the length of the northern shore of the island, along the great field until it gives way to brambles, then through the Narrows and between Goat Neck and the East and West Buck islands, which are now known as Veckatimist and Monohansett. I pull up before the racing step of flooding water rushing out west of Sherman Island into Lackey’s Bay and then Vineyard Sound. In the distance, across the torn and tumbling sound, Makonikey and Lambert’s Cove stand up dimly in the haze.
Settled in the kayak beneath a stooped oak tree which overhangs the waterway, I anchor myself without significant risk of capsize. It is noisy there, with 20 knots of southwest wind dead ahead and the leaves clattering above. It’s near where the great white shark that visited a few years ago toyed with the environmental folks trying to persuade it to resume its cruise in Vineyard Sound.
The water itself is noisiest. It flows, as fast as eight or 10 knots, beneath the wooden bridge, its surface wrinkled. Hurrying to squeeze through the 12-foot passage between the bridge abutments, every wet molecule in the accelerating torrent drew itself upward as narrowly as it could, shouldering a place for itself. The frantic flood, carrying with it kelp and baitfish, leaves and sticks, even small bass, bulged together and pressed up at the air, forming a fall of about 10 inches or so where the passage was narrowest. It is no place for a kayaker of my modest skills.
That is the conclusion of the two-mile upwind leg of my trip. A rest is in order.
On the way back, little paddling is required, except to dodge the wakes of occasional stinkpots, or to steer myself among and around the lurking boulders. I slip along near the shore, and the route alternates between shallow, rocky outcrops just emerging at mid-tide, and extensive glowing sandbars without a pebble, let alone a boulder, visible. Shearwaters, cormorants, and peeping fish hawks know at a glance that I have no competitive business to do in their territory.
Along this shore, a few years after the old house was built, the British tried to plunder the rebellious settlers who tried to scratch a living from the thin soil or the surrounding sea. Or, in the alternative, they tried to defend themselves from the plucky Yanks who slipped their small craft alongside the mother country’s crack warships in the night, dispatched their crews, and claimed the vessels as prizes.
On April 2, 1779, according to a contemporary account given by a man named Freeman to the council in Falmouth, “a party of them (the British) in their boats attempted to land at Woods Hole, but about 30 of our men posted there gave them a warm fire, which soon drove them off, and the boat went to Nonamesset, an island near Woods Hole, where they landed and killed a few sheep, cows, and hogs the enemy had before left, and threatened to kill the family that lived there, because they said the damned rebels had been killing them.
“…We apprehended the designs of the enemy were to strip the islands of stock and destroy the salt works along the shore as we have undoubted accounts they have accomplished.”
I’ve searched but there is nothing left of the salt works, another notably unsuccessful and short-lived enterprise.
This paddling trip does not pretend to be an anthropological expedition, however informal. It has no purpose. I was simply messing about, and I came across the wild interplay of an untamed landscape and the restless sea. I was just changing the scenery, but it happened that just these few miles from home and just a few feet from the shore, an old, small land that had outlasted so many settlers continued its historic contest with the sea.
I am reminded of something Jonathan Raban wrote in Coasting (Simon and Schuster, 1987):
“For however thoroughly you may brick up the land, there’s nothing much that you can do to the sea except humbly chart it. You can fiddle about on its edge building groins and floodwalls and breakwaters, but the sea will not be civilized. Even the most household corridor of sea is a very wild place indeed.”
Still, fiddling about is always something worthwhile to get back to.
This column is adapted from one published in this space in June of 2000.