A Sandy, Shifting Place
I tend to think of Nantucket as this place that is constantly shifting, and in many ways it is. People come and go, drift with the seasons and the tides. Our population ebbs and flows from some 17,000 in the off season to close to 50,000 in the summer. This time of year, school break arrives and the island clears out except for the few of us left behind to make sure the lights stay on and the dogs get walked. A hearty handful of businesses stay open, but the rest shutter their doors and take a much needed break. After all, the high season is already on the horizon.
It’s not just the people that move around, but the very sand under our feet. It’s easy to think of the island as a rootless pile of sand, eroding in some places, growing larger in others. Even Melville famously wrote of Nantucket: “A mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a backbone.” Nantucket translates roughly to “the faraway island.” Another translation, lesser referenced, is that Nantucket means “sandy soil, tempting no one.” Little wonder that’s not what ended up getting printed on postcards.
But there was more than sand to this island landscape.
A geological survey in 1889 noted Nantucket had been more thoroughly stripped of its boulders than any other district known to the surveyor. By the end of the 19th century, most boulders found in Nantucket’s earth had been gathered and used for masonry, cellars, wharves, and retaining walls. It’s estimated some hundreds of thousands of boulders are built into the foundations of the island’s structures. How different it must have been to walk around the island then, the ground still pitted in places where stones had been recently removed.
Nantucket’s roads were sand or dirt until the 1830s, when the first cobblestones were laid on Main Street. One traveler described Nantucket’s main drag as being one bootheel deep of sand. Wagons, heavy-laden with casks of whale oil, often got stuck in the sand, or depending on weather, the mud. Cobblestones, some brought from the North Shore of Massachusetts, some perhaps dug from Tuckernuck, the island that trails Nantucket to the west, have been part of life on Nantucket for more than 180 years.
I’ve grown so used to the cobblestones--to the sound of cars as they clatter over the stones, to the care one takes while driving over them, to the rare intrepid cyclist who decides to take them on. They force you to slow down--like so many things on this island--and take your time.
One of the ironies about a material that can withstand so many decades is that, with each passing year, there are fewer and fewer people who know how to work with it. At this point, Nantucket’s cobblestones have outlived generations of craftsmen who have cared for them. Still, the cobblestones endure, a reminder of something permanent in a sandy, shifting place.