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Nantucket's forever shifting sands

Mary Bergman

Birdsong, five in the morning. A sign that my neighborhood — a relatively new affordable housing subdivision — has matured. My neighbors’ trees provide plenty of places for songbirds to perch. My own trees are less inspired, their thinning leaves looking instead like they are permanently on the cusp of an invisible autumn. The rosemary I planted six years ago towers over the deck, thriving on a steady diet of sandy soil and benign neglect.

Under the sand, a tangle of roots holds the island together. Some, like the grasses along eroding dunes and bluffs, quiet literally. Trees and shrubs roll off the boat daily — leland cypress trucked out to populate denuded new construction sites or shield an otherwise inappropriate swimming pool “in perpetuity.” Hydrangeas are starting to bloom, one bud at a time, all over the island. So are daisies. Every year, they surprise me. Are these blossoms earlier, or is it my memories that are late?

Nantucket is cleaned up, polished to a high sheen, and ready for her closeup. If you were wondering at all how Beach 21 fared since the devastating winter storms we saw earlier this year, you’ll be glad to know she’s still here. Not the hale and hearty beach of years past, but Beach 21 hangs on. The 70 feet of sand lost this winter isn’t really all that lost, but just inshore, creating a series of sandbars that are sure to delight body surfers and boogie boarders come July.

I walked out to the beach with a friend the other night, the heady scent of the sea wafting down Surfside Road. The wind was blowing south-southwest; soon there came another smell. Nantucket’s sewer beds are just about a mile from here, and usually they do not start to ripen until August, around the same time as the blackberries. The houses nearby must only go on the market in the dead of winter.

It’s easy to be disdainful about the smell of the sewer beds. But it is our stink — the smell of an island — wafting on the sea breeze. The sewer beds, perched precariously on the same eroding dunes as Beach 21, remind me that we are really here at the mercy of the sand.

This friend of mine wonders how much longer she will try to live on Nantucket. When will it make sense to leave and move someplace where she can build a future on more stable ground? She worries we will not visit her in New Hampshire or Vermont. Her dreams are not lavish — she hopes to have a house big enough to have a dog. The beach would still be here, but it would be further away, a few hour’s drive.

At the end of Nonantum Road, daises clamor for attention amongst the skeletal bayberry shrubs, which have not quite grown in yet. We stand there a while, the sharp, clean scent of the sea powerful enough to eclipse everything else. People on shore are all facing the ocean, gazing out on the little rollers making quick work of the new sandbars. My eyes rest on the Christmas tree carcasses some hopeful neighbors have deposited along the dune, hoping to coax the sand to stay a little longer.