Winter Beach in Extreme

Sat, 02/22/2014 - 3:00pm

The date on the paper in which these words will be printed will be Feb. 22, Washington’s Birthday, when the back of winter is broken, or so promised by my cousin, the late John Robinson Lewis. We were on the beach in mid-February, me with a dog, one of my golden Shads, and Rob surely wearing one of those rigs for which he was known, the sight of which made us want to blurt out “Aren’t you COLD?!”

We resisted, knowing he would just shrug and smile, thinking, clearly, of how soon he could go barefoot.

Monday when there was light in the western sky at 6 it felt that the back of winter was finally breaking. Every day the afternoons are longer and already I am dreading – and questioning the necessity of – the early March springing ahead of the clocks that will rob the morning and push the painfully gained sunrise back after 7.

My little book of northern magic, picked up in the days before the internet, further encourages me with the reminder we are past Disting, the holiday it places in mid-February, one that heralds the beginning of the return of the vital forces turned inward in mid-October. Other references have a different, earlier, date and such hopeful observations as . . . mud, although I think today I am most taken with another pagan name for the time, Plough Charming, a sure sign of hope that the land will awaken from sleep and rush to bounty.

Plough Monday, I am surprised to read, traditionally fell much earlier, following Epiphany in old, agrarian England, which seems a certain denial of the onset of real winter. It is a bit of what I have other years thought of as the post-Epiphany madness that comes after all the light of the Yule has waned, before the days have lengthened appreciably.

Climbing up from the dark I think every year of the ancestors who came from Scotland and Sweden, to the lower latitudes but harsher weather of southeastern New England. They gained two hours of daylight in the depth of winter, but they were workers in the textile and jewelry factories where more winter sun likely went unseen.

It is the light. One day it was 13 degrees when I ventured to the beach with my dog, Autumn, but it was sunny and calm, and while it was cold it was not that terrible lashing of the damp wind. Ice, real ice, not the milky stuff we usually see at the water’s edge, lay in chunks at the tide line. There were strips of snow still on the sand, stubbornly refusing to be banished by salt or sun, winter beach in extreme.

Other years I have walked north, over the rocks, to see the seals, but I have become cautious and decide against it, especially as it is afternoon and the shore beyond Jerry’s Point is on the edge of shadow, a half a day away from being bathed by morning sun. The sand, I am pleased to note, is slowly returning, although the damage wrought by Sandy is still staggering. Another day I stand in the upper lot of Mansion Beach, where so many of the surfers park, and look out at the dunes, and try to remember what I could not see two years ago, what view of the sea had been blocked by dunes no longer in place.

The sheer faces of the dunes have fallen, the façades that were perpendicular to the shore have softened, but the chunks of the earthen bank that were devoured by the sea will never rebuild. There was long only one house on the long stretch of beach between the farm set on a hill and the few buildings out near the great breakwater beneath the Surf Hotel. My earliest memory of that lone cottage is a single mind’s-eye snapshot that may or may not be real, a corner badly undercut after Hurricane Carol in 1954. It was moved back then and has been at least one more time.

Today it snowed a bit before turning over to rain, depressing March rain in mid-February. The solid cover, unusual in that it lasted a whole day, then several, leaving whole fields gleaming white in the sun as well as the more ethereal moon, has been broken. There are great puddles in my yard, places where the ground, still hard under the surface sog, is unable to absorb the water. The sun that came out as day wound down did little to dry the land, all brown and edged with truly depressing old snow.

This has been a winter almost impossible to quantify; we have had more lasting snow than is usual but there has still not been a day I have been unable to navigate easily the turn onto the Mansion Road, through the old gateway that drifts in the least of storms. Even as I think of everything that really has not been as bad as we seem to think, there remains a voice in the back of my head insisting it is yet mid-February; all of March lies before us, March, the month I hated even when winter did not much bother me, when tromping up the Mansion Road in hip-deep snow was some kind of crazy challenge to be met.

It has, so far, been a winter punctuated more by the threat of storm than the reality on Block Island, although that may come in part from listening to forecasts centering on the not so-far-away mainland.

Autumn, my golden retriever on the surface with Bernese mountain dog blood in her veins, loves the cold and the snow. She wants to go out and stay out playing in it, and I watch her running around the yard entertaining herself with a piece of fallen branch. She has disappeared when I go out but comes when I call, bounding from the north lot – I do not want to think of whatever attraction lies out there – my beautiful girl looking all grown-up,, the one who disappeared faster than it rained upon snow.