On Big Dog Paws

Fri, 03/03/2017 - 9:30am

The first day of March comes in like a lamb, the morning filled with birdsong and fog. I look out to the south, to my measure of visibility, and see, as I can in all but the heaviest snows and thickest mist, the shape of the farm buildings on the far side of the one-time pasture. They stand, from my perspective, against the sky, every roof a simple plane uncluttered by dormers or decoration. 

That height is a bit of an illusion; the land beyond them runs down to the sea. There is a photograph in an unlabeled box in one of the few closets in my old house, a snapshot of that summer-grass hillside taken after Carol, the worst of a cycle of hurricanes in the early 1950s.  

Even in that photograph, more varying shades of gray than pure sharp black and white, it is clear that bits of lumber cast up by the ocean rest on the grass. Over the years sand has built up against the land to the south of the entrance to Mansion Beach but then that little stretch of low dunes below the farm, running north to Jerry's Point, was an orphan. 

Those dunes have built upon themselves over the decades, ravaged by winter storms, sliced by Super Storm Sandy. A plain behind them stretches back to the Mansion Pond, another of those features of the land that becomes visible when the leaves fall, and disappears with spring's growth. The area could be taken from a handbook on shore vegetation, bayberry, wild roses, and scattered stunted pine trees, dark even in winter.

On clear days I can see the tops of the dunes from my kitchen, and the glow of beach fires orange in the night, even the dance of flames, probably more disconcerting from this distance with the knowledge they are leaping high in the air than up close where there is no such perspective.

Block Island fog is rarely like Sandburg's, it does not come “on little cat feet” to sit on silent haunches, looking over the bay and town before moving on. Here fog comes, at least in March, on big golden retriever paws, I think when I look at the track Autumn leaves on a runner of cardboard. It was a big box I broke down to take to the dump as she ambled in one day, damp and dirty. It stayed on the floor, her own long welcome mat, recording her multiple passages.

We live in the country, my dog and I, where there need not be rain for either of us to come inside with feet that are neither dry nor clean. Today, in the fog, even the cement of the walk and the entry floor is slick with moisture, the grass is damp and while there is no mud the bare earth of the barnyard stands always ready to adhere to a sole, be it of a dog paw or a shoe.

A few weeks ago I had the rare treat of flying to and from the mainland, and was struck — as I always am — by the seas of asphalt in which houses even in the little town of Westerly are set, big places, surrounded by trees, a patch of lawn and a great expanse of black. There is a practicality to it, I am sure, allowing none of the layers of dust tracked in year round, and blown in during the part of the year when the windows stay open to the air. 

I remember a Sewer Plant Superintendent, one of the several who moved in and out over several years, returning from some meeting at which a development plan including an unusual amount of pavement was presented, asking “but where will the rain fall?” He was not looking for an engineer's drainage plan and a chart of formulas for application to a particular site, rather posing a broad philosophical question. 

Every day I have to admit I love new pavement as much as the next person. There is something seductive about that stretch of Corn Neck that is newest and smoothest and the most quiet, the bit of road that is just long enough that the thump of a return to the older, duller, noisier comes as a jolt. Then I think, again, of that long ago question about the rainfall.

There is rain forecast, and wind, but in the gray shrouded dawn there was little more than a raw breeze, making chill for the lack of sunshine otherwise mild temperatures. Water hung in droplets from tree branches and I thought of a few days past, in late February, when we went from a beautiful sunlit morning to an afternoon of fog so thick it gathered on the branches until they wept great sloppy tears, splattering passers-by.

The fog can be mystical, softening landscapes, turning every-day passenger carrier boats to ghost ships emerging from whatever fairyland exists out beyond the wall that holds us in more certainly than the dark of night. There will be no lights penetrating it, no indication of life beyond our immediate surroundings. 

It is heavy, the sort of fog one walks through and feels against the skin, tiny bits of cool moisture, and I think of finding my hair sopping wet after a walk on the summer morning beach. It is the damp that holds the sunless morning chill through the day and toward a sunset that — like those cloud-covered Easter sunrises — we have to take on faith is out there, somewhere, bright and beautiful and laced with color.

It is March and fog covers the land. It has not been a difficult season, there is no lingering snow, no frost to be drawn from the depths of the ground, no miring mud. The month may well show itself to be a lion but after so mild a winter even a resounding roar will be difficult to translate to ground shaking thunder.