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The spaces away from the beach

Mary Bergman

They say Windswept Cranberry Bog is retired, as if all the little insects, ferns, frogs, and grasses have simply moved south. Now, the bog is on its way to becoming a wetland after a century of cranberry production. On Nantucket, cranberries provided such an influx of cash into the strapped post-whaling economy that these little bouncing berries were known as “red gold.”

The other day, on a walk around Windswept and neighboring Stump Pond — two man-made features that have been there so long, they feel like part of the wild world — I got to thinking about autumn. I never go out into the woods on Nantucket except in the fall or winter, when it is too windy to walk along the beach. I only witness these spaces when everything is dying and overripe. The grasses were bottle-blonde white, nearly translucent. I could have watched the wind ripple across the field for hours, a strange inland echo of the ocean.

Walking around the pond, which is really a reservoir, a relic left over from the bog-gone days, I kept imagining what it would have been like to be out here a hundred years ago, or two hundred, or a thousand. Very different a thousand years ago, and not just the distant sound of cars on the Polpis Road. Here was a landscape that felt wild, in contrast to the still-crowded downtown, but was not entirely. But the animals living there, the geese overhead, the frogs in vernal pools, they were not somehow less wild. The wintergreen, the cinnamon fern, the shadbush, and the holly trees grew how they pleased.

The sun was getting lower in the sky, not that there had been much sun to begin with. I have not yet calibrated myself for fall walks, for making sure I am home before dark. A few canoes were nestled against one another, waiting for their owners, or perhaps a group of young people with borrowed paddles and rattling backpacks, to return.

Everything was decaying — the grapes as they fell heavy on the forest floor, the leaves of the tupelo trees — but it was beautiful. I wondered, why do we allow the natural world to change, to decay, to be born anew, yet chide ourselves when our own bodies do the very same?

Earlier in the day, I’d gone to a wedding at the Sconset Chapel. The reverend told the couple, who were young and beautiful, that they would not stay that way forever. He promised them they could grow more beautiful inwardly as time went on. It’s not entirely a fair trade, but in all my island wanderings, I have yet to find any fountain of youth. Only kettle holes and reservoirs, and cranberry bogs, now gone to seed.