I was driving through the rain the other evening on Cliff Road, searching for turnoff to Hinkley Lane, straining to see through my sandblasted windshield and the fog. For a minute I imagined Nantucket as a lost city, nestled there at the bottom of the sea. I was a SCUBA diver, exploring the ruins. When this island is gone, will we all be lost at sea?
You might think this sounds extreme. But these days, it doesn’t take long before my thoughts turn to the rising water. I have a friend who often walks the beach with me. We try to chart the changes we see year to year, we try to imagine what the coastline will look like in fifty years, in a hundred years, in two hundred years. We wonder which houses we will be gone, wonder if there’ll be canals where there are now cobblestones. We wonder who will be here to see it all.
These thoughts come easier in the daylight, when you can see the exposed bluff faces, the gradations of sand, and the armies of newly planted beach grasses, marching two by two, row after row. When we walk the beach at night, we tend to look skyward, towards the stars, or out at the sound, the lights of the ferries and the last few fishing boats bouncing off the water.
Tonight, the sand glows almost pure white in the moonlight, the kind that is so bright you cast a shadow as you scamper down the hollow onto the beach. We have gotten used to walking at night, to recognizing the shape of a dead seal, half buried in the sand already. Usually, the only lights are from the moon or the headlights of cars seeing how far they can get along the north shore before being stopped by a sea wall.
It’s bitter cold, wind blowing hard, and a few construction workers are out late, working as quickly as they can under super-bright lights. We walk up to the construction site, just two lots over from where a house teeters on the bank. Are people looking to buy another decade, another couple summers? Maybe one day, my mid-island home will be waterfront property.
We watch the moonlight dapple across the water, illuminating something in the shallows. Only it isn’t moonlight, but instead bioluminescent dinoflagellates DINA-FLAJ-I-LITES that have washed ashore. They’re commonly called sea sparkle. When disturbed, by the waves, the wind, or our feet, they glow in response. We have left a trail of glowing lights in the sand where our feet had just passed moments before. From Steps Beach to the jetty, the whole north shoreline is speckled with these fallen stars.
It is hard not to feel like this is some sort of sign. But of what? The bioluminescent creatures usually don’t come until August, some of the last of our summer visitors. Already something so beautiful seems to be an indicator that all is not well.
We wonder where they washed ashore from. We are connected to so many different places by the sea. The moon is so bright now that none of the stars in the sky are visible, only the stars glowing in the sand.
I realize, more than anything, I want to know what this all means.
“Maybe,” my friend says, “it’s a gift. How many times have we walked this beach, blasted by the sand, freezing our faces off? Maybe this is a reminder that there is still beauty here in winter.”
And maybe she’s right. Maybe this is the universe revealing something to us, a reward for spending all winter on the island while everybody else decamps to someplace warmer. Maybe this is one pure moment of inexplicable beauty, the sort of thing you’re afraid to tell anybody about for fear that they won’t believe you. Something you’re not quite sure you have the words to describe, but try anyway.
So I shelve my fears of the rising sea, the warming water, and instead marvel at the twinkling lights nestled in the sand. The next day, all the sea sparkle are gone, washed out with the tide.