I think we need a fifth season on Nantucket: winter, spring, summer, fall, and wind. Ever since the ferries rounded Brant Point with the last of the summer folks, the wind has been relentless. Nearly each week we’ve encountered at least one day where the boats don’t run, when we are woken up at three in the morning by the howling wind. Trees bend to the point of snapping, and hair tangles on even the shortest walk.
Most of my time outdoors is spent on the islands’ coasts. Along the shoreline, you can see the island’s future. But on days when a wind gust could just about pick you up under the armpits, I retreat to the center of the island.
In the Middle Moors, you can glimpse the island’s past. Glacial erratics jut out of the coastal heathland. This time of year, the huckleberry and low bush blueberry are skeletal shrubs, the goldenrods and wildflowers have gone to seed. The colors of the winter moors are a familiar palette: purples, greens, and browns, dotted with red berries and burnt orange tips of grass blades.
An area that has never been developed, it is easy to imagine the first inhabitants of this place following their own trails through the middle of the island. Later, European settlers grazed sheep here. Tall trees never stood a chance. A few twisted cedars sprout up every now and again. But the hazelnut trees still bear fruit, even this late in the year. The squirrels and deer and woodpeckers can crack them on their own, but I will have to use plyers.
This landscape is not entirely undisturbed, as miles and miles of jeep trails weave throughout the thousands of acres of moors. Shotgun season has just started for the hunters, and while the landscape is muted, the few walkers can’t afford to be.
Neon-capped hikers are another winter animal on Nantucket, one that will shed its bright plumage after primitive arms season ends. These sandy roads snake through the open space. Yet even the sand came from somewhere else. All this came from somewhere else, a glacial gift. In the winter, even in the middle of the island, I’m reminded of all that is disappearing.
Silver SUVs and dark green pick up trucks ride along the jeep roads, a Sunday ritual. People drive around (or in this case, through) the island, even though gas is nearly $4 a gallon. That does not deter us as we cruise by beaches to check on storm damage, or drive aimlessly from one end of the island to the other. When you are confined to one space thirty miles out to sea, you make it your business to memorize every part of this place.
Another man-made element dominates the landscape, a needlely navigational aid pokes out into the silver sky. The planes rely on this beacon as they make their final approach to the airport. Today, only planes two buzz us, flying low. They disappear into the low clouds.
One of the island’s highest points is in the moors. Altar Rock is just 100 feet above sea level. These so-called highest points seem laughably small, but when you stand atop them and see all there is to see from this vantage point, it is sort of incredible. Storm clouds are in the distance, and the eastern edges of the island are already streaked with rain.
Looking out to Polpis Harbor, I’m reminded that it’s just these slim tendrils of sand, the curlicues that make up Nantucket’s crescent shape, that protect us. Great Point light flashes far off in the distance. Suddenly, there is an almost electric sound above us--not the buzzing of a cessna, but the wings of dozens of tree swallows.
The wind has stopped, and in the stillness, other creatures are beginning to stretch their legs, or wings as the case may be. The steamship whistles as it enters the harbor, and we are connected to the world once again.