Sirens in the Sea

Fri, 05/05/2017 - 9:45am

Monday was reminiscent of one of those Easters when we have to take on faith that there is a sun rising from the ocean out behind the clouds, easy enough when our imagining is buoyed by ambient light growing as we let slip our hope for a ray of gold to gild the sky and show us that morning truly has broken. 

Monday was another day, when the boat, moving through the waters on the far side of the hill and pond and pasture behind my house, marks its presence and passing by the sound of its horn, echoing in the heavy fog that catches and magnifies the booming voice. 

So, on Monday we gathered on the wide lawn of the National Landmark Southeast Lighthouse, a part of the island where fog lands and, snagged by the craggy bluffs, stays while it is sunny and clear on the Neck and even in town, both of which were shrouded that morning, offering little promise of clearing.

We were there, in the fog, for a “Grid Connection Press Conference.” It was, one presumes, the sort of event that marks such milestones elsewhere but here we are accustomed to less formally named ribbon-cuttings and celebrations, even when camera crews and newspeople from elsewhere arrive with their trucks and microphones and rehearsed questions.

Drama would have clear air, untried turbines suddenly coming to life, the undersea cable flowing with energy, and the island powered from the wind all within a few seconds, but this is not a movie. The blades have been turning, the connections tested and re-tested, the cable depth measured and corrected, and electricity flowed, briefly, to the island on a Wednesday a few weeks ago, all readying for this day when the changeover would be permanent.

Hours before the appointed “conference” time, a big switch was flipped at the Power Plant on Ocean Avenue and the diesel generators, some generation of which have provided an ever-growing customer base electricity for almost ninety years, went silent, this time by design, not accident. A little clip of that moment provided by the company ended with the birdsong that has been there, behind the noise, through the decades, and is, at last, audible in the early morning.

This touted gird connection was, as everyone knows, a by-product of the construction of five turbines, the first off-shore wind farm in the United States. They were out there in the fog, big birds, elegant white towers with slender, sweeping wings, but there was no brightening sky of Easter morning, no rumble of engine and sound of horn of a boat passing — or flutter of turning blades — no tangible factor to assure us of their existence. Wherever the electrons produced might have been traveling was an irrelevancy as they are invisible even on the sunniest of days. 

We did hear the fog signal, a part of the lighthouse since its construction in the 1870’s, blasting at its heavy-fog interval, a background heartbeat on a live feed of the proceedings posted on this paper’s Facebook page.

I had followed the progress of the project from afar, then, as real construction began, like so many others, had been intrigued by the drama on the seascape we were witnessing day-to-day. There were ever-larger lift boats — whoever knew such things existed — arriving then anchored and... lifted, a fact of life over the summer. The cable laying barge appeared, its tower incongruously modern as it loomed east of my house on the far side of wall-bounded pastures. At night it was brightly lighted off the beach, creeping along the path from the mainland to the wind farm.

There were trenches along the highways and huge white lights illuminating the night skies as work centered around the rise and fall of the tides at town beach. Throughout last summer people asked about the project, the comments largely positive, those that were not almost to a person aligned with the politics of their hometown, and some undefined but feared impact of a similar project which might or might not happen near them.

Monday, in the fog on the bluff, I did listen as the invited guests spoke, and thought of this long journey, the years of negotiation and study, then construction, and also of the brick lighthouse behind us, an engineering feat in its own time, brushed with softening land bound clouds of white.

The fog horn may sound a heartbeat but the soul of a lighthouse is the signal it sends across the water. This one, high above the sea below Mohegan Bluffs, was lighted February 1, 1875, when fire was put to a wick fed by lard oil which had been, and would be for decades following, lugged up flights of spiraled stairs ever narrowing. Lastly, it was carried up a ladder to a lantern, set in a  room walled with glass, capped with copper.

The flame was refracted through tiers of prism, created to the design of Augustin-Jean Fresnel, fabricated by Barbier & Fenestre in Paris. It was a first order Fresnel, as was the octagonal bullseye that followed it and the beehive crystal palace currently in place, the last identical to the original but for a panel on its landward side.

Those, and the other Fresnel lenses installed in lighthouses in the United States, were shipped across the Atlantic from France, as more recently were the nacelles, the sections of the wind turbines that rest atop the tall spires and hold the blades that turn on the wind they harvest. They are made of different materials and arrived on very different vessels, but they all came here, to Block Island.

Now, they look at each other, the lighthouse lantern and the turbine nacelles, improbable travelers from the same distant land. At night, the light that was originally fixed and white, is green and flashing, a bit of a relic, but a grand one, looking out at the future. It has constant companions, now, five turbines in an embracing arc, all blinking back, red sirens in the sea.