From the Lighthouse

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 10:15am

It has been too long since I have been to the lighthouse, the grand gothic structure sitting on the bluff high above the ocean. It is never far removed from my life; it is visible from my house, a silhouette on the crest of the land in day, a faint green blink at night.

The structure, all two thousand tons of it, was lifted up and moved back, out of the path of encroaching erosion, over twenty years ago, but even now it is a surprise driving up Spring Street, suddenly seeing the lantern room and its great lens sitting squarely ahead, huge, framed by the high shoulders of the road. It is an optical illusion, like the full moon rising between buildings, or the big white ferry looming beyond the east end of Chapel Street.

The lighthouse is on my Family Tree Tour, taken on those rare occasions when scattered family members from my father's side come to visit. A several-times-great grandfather, depending upon the generation, was a driving force behind having the lighthouse built. He was one of a few forty-niners from Block Island, the one who returned home with dreams in his head and enough money in his pocket to buy land around the humble east landing, then a place of a very few buildings, cottages and fishing shacks, and a spur of a rubble breakwall.

Not so long ago someone asked me how it was he accomplished what he did and I was at a loss, with no answer other than “persistence.” He was determined, my great-great grandfather, and he wrote letters of persuasion. One of the embellishments on his monument of a gravestone is an open book with a pen lying across it, waiting to fill the blank pages. He went to sea when he was nine but valued the formal schooling he had received; he understood the worth of carefully chosen words properly scribed.

Nicholas Ball was an elected official, a representative of Block Island in the State House — Block Island had its own representation  — but his accomplishments were greater than that office. He presented to Chambers of Commerce of seaboard cities, and provided our United States Senator the words to convince Congress to add to River and Harbor Appropriation bills monies for the lighthouses and breakwaters. His efforts pushed Block Island into the nascent network of Life Saving Stations.  His granddaughter wrote that he had a “perseverance that beggars description.”

He built on that land he had purchased, the crown jewel of his little empire, the long hotel on the hill overlooking the harbor where he entertained guests, including politicians from Washington. When he died his hotel was still booming, steamers arriving on summer days, his establishments joined by others around the growing landing.

So, I think of Nicholas — Old Nick, we called him — when I go to the Southeast Lighthouse today. As much as I delight in taking people into the building I never go up in the tower by myself and see no reason to alter that practice, but once there I have a tactile need to touch the fabric of it, so I walk up the ramp, to the porch behind the tower, then down to the lawn.

The Solstice is approaching and the sun is far to the south; this is the time of year when the sunset makes the face of the bluffs glow. I pause at the boulder where the tower was before it was moved back to safety, then walk the few steps to the broad board fence and look out over the ocean and see the five turbines rising from the water, elegant and white, catching the low winter sun.

They would be twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, we were warned. “Really?” I thought, recalling our only family vacation, to New York City. We lived in a largely black and white print world; I knew the statue was made of copper but did not expect it to be green. More, I was surprised by its size; I was only nine and had greater expectations.

My teacher talked of Lady Liberty welcoming him home when he sailed into New York Harbor, returning from war. I think I had imagined something akin to the peaks of the city skyline in height.

So, on the lighthouse lawn I look out and think the same, that the turbines are not that large, hardly blocking the line of the horizon in the distance. Even the presence of the supply boat, providing true scale, does not alter my perception. I remember one day last summer seeing the blades from the lawn of the Coast Guard Station, white arms rising up in the southeast sky, and the surprise of how close they appeared from other locales around the island.

Yesterday, they — or some or one of them — went live; a solitary turbine is in motion on this chilly December afternoon. There is a long way to go yet before all the connections are made and this project, from a local perspective, is complete, but producing and transporting power to the mainland is a very big step.

I do understand perspective, I know I am looking at them from a distance and from a height that makes them look the smallest from the closest viewing point. Still, I cannot help but think my great-great grandfather would surely have stood on the lawn of “his” lighthouse and asked “why only five?” He would have been promoting carriage rides from his hotel to the bluff, offering tours of this marvel of the day.

I turn from the modern sculptures in the sea to the landmark brick lighthouse, witness to so much history, and suddenly think of the concern that components of the turbines were made in Europe. And also was the irreplaceable Fresnel lens that makes bright to the horizon the small light it embraces.